The NBA's Phantom Menace
Knicks or Spurs?
By Randy Horick
JUNE 21, 1999: Long, long ago, in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, a basketball league was ruled by a benevolent force named Michael Jordan, whose dominion insured that order would ultimately prevail, the righteous guys would triumph, and fans would remain riveted before their TV sets.
Now, the old Pax Jordanicus has been riven by trade disputes between the players and owners, and, in the first post-Michael playoffs, we can't be sure what to make of the Spurs and Knicks, the two would-be successors to the Bulls.
Maybe the winner will be the chosen one. Or, maybe, the new champion will soon bring the Dark Side into dominance.
You can appreciate why it's difficult for the NBA's powerful Trade Federation--Commissioner David Stern, NBC, and legions of advertisers--to know just who to root for.
The Force is very strong with these two. You can feel it radiating in the Spurs and the Knicks--especially the latter. Yet the two couldn't be more dissimilar.
The Knicks epitomize the NBA of the 1990s: impatient, untrustworthy management; an oddly matched agglomeration of stars competing not just against opponents for Ws but against each other for playing time; and a fan base that gravitates between surliness and howling devotion.
The fans dogged the Knicks for trading away Charles "Darth" Oakley, whose ability to bring a Monday Nite Nitro ambiance to basketball delighted the Madison Square Garden crowds.
They dogged Oakley's replacement, Marcus Camby, as weak and willowy--until Camby took over the Indiana series.
Most of all, they've dogged and hounded the Knicks' sallow-eyed coach, Jeff Van Gundy, a frumpy little figure who resembles Edgar Allan Poe on depressants.
New York's fans, of course, have merely complemented the team's own internally generated turmoil. Latrell Sprewell, who admirably refrained from choking anyone so far this year, has complained ominously about coming off the bench and about perceived slights from his teammates, who occasionally deign to take a shot of their own.
Not to be outdone, the team's chief executive, Dave Checketts, has been as subtle as a sledge in suggesting that Van Gundy update his résumé. Privately, publicly, and shamelessly, he lied about negotiating with Phil Jackson about becoming the new coach. Even if the Knicks eventually capture the title, Van Gundy may lose his job. (That could be a first, even for New York.)
Through pluck and perseverance, though--and through Van Gundy's adeptness at finally homogenizing a very unhomogeneous cast--the Knicks have become the first last-seeded team ever to reach the NBA Finals. During much of the regular season, you could scarcely detect a pulse among the whole torpid bunch. Then they went to Miami and thwacked the Heat and their coolly coifed coach, Pat Riley, who's the closest thing this league can muster to a malevolent Sith lord.
Last week, the Force (along with the zebras) was with the Knicks big-time. They lost their heart, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson--who's looking more and more like his commercial Granmama character these days--slayed Indiana with a laughably improbable four-point play. They lost Johnson, their soul, and they still managed to close out the Pacers, who had been favored by all the Media Geniuses and their dogs to win the whole kielbasa.
Even if you're an inveterate Knick-hater; even if you find their once plodding, thug-life style to be morally and aesthetically repugnant; even if you've never forgiven them for inflicting Oakley and John Starks on the league; even if you wouldn't trade two dips of snuff for the entirety of Manhattan, you have to at least sneakingly admire this New York team.
The Spurs, in contrast, are admirable precisely because they represent the antithesis of the NBA today.
For one thing, they play as a team. By common agreement, they have submerged their individual egos for the overall good. They don't natter and whine about which player gets the most minutes or takes the most shots.
No Spur more embodies that ethic than its one perennial superstar, David Robinson. Early in the season, coach Gregg Popovich made a request that's virtually unheard of today. He asked Robinson to accept a less prominent offensive role in favor of the team's budding young dominator, Tim Duncan.
You can imagine the pouting and indignation among other NBA luminaries--Kobe Bryant, Damon Stoudamire, Penny Hardaway, hello-oo--that would have followed had they been asked to sacrifice some of their scoring average. But Robinson, without hesitation, agreed.
The results have been phenomenal. Since a middling start, the Spurs have set a pace (42-6) even hotter than the greatest of M. J.'s Chicago teams. Their most recent playoff series both involved 4-0 sweeps (not coincidentally, the victims were the egocentric Lakers and the sulky, funk-prone Blazers).
Establishing themselves even more as rebels, the Spurs seem to function well as people off the court, too.
Avery Johnson, a born-again Christian who leads prayers before games, doesn't engage in trash talk with opponents (like Portland's Stoudamire) who woofed that San Antonio would never win a championship with Johnson at point guard.
Duncan, instead of hanging on the rim and screaming every time he lives up to his name, appears as emotionless as a Buddhist monk.
And Robinson, an accomplished pianist, adopted an entire seventh-grade class five years ago. He promised them that, if they stayed in school and graduated, he would give each of them $2,000 toward college or trade school.
A couple of weeks ago, Robinson attended a high school graduation ceremony in San Antonio to watch 50 of those students earn his promised reward.
Now, perhaps, you can grasp the quandary in which the NBA's poobahs find themselves. Sure, the Spurs possess many of the qualities that fans profess to admire. But they aren't just good; they may be too good to be true. What if they slip and let us down?
A few more winners like San Antonio, and the whole perception of the NBA could change. That's why they're a phantom menace.
Imagine all the restructuring that would have to occur if selflessness prevailed around the league. Imagine all the Rolexes and Rollses that agents would have to hock if their clients suddenly began settling for less juicy contracts. Imagine how much less entertaining the league would be if players uniformly refused to complain about insufficient playing time, never berated their coaches publicly, and lightened up on the smack talk. Imagine how the sports media would suffer from a dearth of squabbles and controversies that left them with nothing to report but stories of player/philanthropists who helped kids go to college.
Maybe the Knicks are a wellspring of controversies; maybe their management is slimy and the players disputatious. But they're a commodity we know, and they've shown they can win. Why should we wish for the demise of an old empire that has been so successful for so long?
Once they think about it awhile, the Stern gang will have one common wish for the Spurs: May the Force be against them.
How It Looks From The La-Z-BoySan Antonio over New York (in five games).
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