The saving grace of that season was the one team that I was supposed to hate. You see in my youth, I rode with the Indiana Pacers. Of course, that meant I was not a fan of those dastardly New York Knickerbockers. I hated them to no end.
What we didn't realize was that the 1998-99 Knicks would be the last time the Knicks would be worth a damn, provide a creation of The Theory, the passing of a torch, and a Cinderella run that has yet to be matched by any team before or after.
During the glory days of the Knicks in the mid-90's, the only player I really loved on the Knicks was John Starks, so when I heard that they traded Starks in a package to the Golden State Warriors for Latrell Sprewell (Golden State voided Spree's contract after choking out P. J. Carlesimo during the previous season) I was happy twofold. Glad to get Starks off the Knicks, but I was also a fan of Sprewell and getting him out of Siberia seemed like a great move. Plus, the Knicks had decided to part ways with Charles Oakley in a trade for Marcus Camby. Along with some crafty drafting and free agent acquisitions from previous years, this team looked very different. There was one constant though, the man who held down the middle in New York since '85, one Patrick Aloysius Ewing Sr.
People forget that back in 1998 Ewing was the President of the Players Association, and had to deal with a splintering players' union (led by Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon) in the face of the lockout. Along with being 36 years of age, Ewing looked like someone who had been in the board room instead of the weight room for months. Ewing put up career lows of 17 and 9, plus only shot 43% from the floor. The Knicks limped to a 27-23 record and squeezed into the #8 seed in the playoffs. From a basketball fan standpoint, it was the best thing that ever happened. It brought us the #1-seed Miami vs. New York.
Just the year prior, we saw the two teams engage in fisticuffs of epic proportions. Well, none of those fists from Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning actually connected, but seeing Jeff Van Gundy go for the ankle lock on Mourning was nonetheless hilarious at the time. The 1999 series picked up where 1998 had left off. A couple of Knicks blowout victories and a couple of tight Heat wins gave us a defensive slug fest in Game 5. Of course, we all remember how that game ended. Cue the egregiously aggressive Allan Houston fist pump.
With the Knicks finishing the Heat off, the playoffs now had their feel-good story. That story would come with a new interesting subplot, as the leader of the Knicks would succumb to an injury. Patrick Ewing's Achilles tendon injury was thought to be the end of the Knicks run, instead we became witnesses to one of the most fascinating theories that has seemed to hold up since its inception in 1999.
The Ewing Theory.
Some of you all know about the Ewing Theory after reading the billions of words that ESPN's Bill Simmons has laid before our feet over the last decade-plus years. In short here is the Ewing Theory in two parts:
1) A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
2) That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) -- and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
Examples of the Ewing Theory: The 1998 Tennessee Volunteers (post-Peyton Manning going to the NFL) winning the National Title, The 2001 New England Patriots (post-Drew Bledsoe's shoulder exploding) winning the Super Bowl, The 2000 Seattle Mariners (post-Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez) winning an MLB-record 115 games in a season.
Ewing was done for the playoffs and the Knicks had no one who could handle "The Flying Dutchman" Rik Smits. The series seemed over. What transpired over the course of that series was the leadership of the exiled son of the Golden State Warriors was brought to the forefront of The Association, the man who defiantly wore haphazardly designed braids, and the man who was the nastiest finisher at the rim that I've yet to see duplicated.
That man was Latrell Fontaine Sprewell.
Latrell was already beloved from his time in Golden State, but when he got to New York the public got to really see how live Spree was. Dude could finish with his left or right hand, was insanely streaky from three, an awesome defender, and again...dude could finish at the rim like nobody's business. It was like Sprewell was trying to release his demons with every dunk, and as an impressionable 15-year old boy I would try and dunk on my neighbors' lowered 9-foot rim with the same tenacity.
Sprewell and the new school Knicks, led by Marcus Camby and Allan Houston gave my Pacers the work in the Eastern Conference Finals, beating Reggie Miller and the Pacers in 6 games. The Larry Johnson 4-point play still sticks in my craw to this day. Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward, Chris Childs, and even Chris Dudley came in and did yeoman's work. There were no remnants of the Pat Riley-led Knicks. No Ewing, no Oakley, no Starks, nobody was left. It was strange and refreshing simultaneously.
Unfortunately the biggest piece that was missing from that Knicks team, Ewing, was also the one they probably needed most. The Knicks got drug by the Spurs in the Finals, which finally got David Robinson his ring and Tim Duncan became the new torch bearer for big men in the Association. Even in defeat, I can still remember Sprewell trying to dunk on everybody for five games. I can still remember Jeff Van Gundy growing on us as a head coach. I can remember Marcus Camby flourishing into the big man we all wanted him to be. (until he got injured again) I can remember Allan Houston's sweet jumper being the equivalent of Ray Allen's jumper as the prettiest in the NBA.
That lockout produced that team. If the season goes as planned, Ewing isn't stuck in a boardroom and is in better shape for that season. Sprewell and Camby might not become members of the Knicks. Its the only thing I ever want to think about with that sorry ass season, but those memories were some damned good ones.