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Knicks’ Shooting Spree

5 minute read
Joel Stein

When you get in trouble in your hometown, you move to New York City, where having a tough reputation can be a real asset. Hey, Hillary Clinton is shopping for New York real estate right now.

So it makes sense that just a year after his unsuccessful (and not for lack of effort) attempt to unscrew his coach’s head, Latrell Sprewell showed up for his first day as a New York Knick to applause far louder than team and union leader Patrick Ewing got. And now Sprewell, who is leading his bottom-seeded team in an unprecedented run toward the NBA finals, symbolizes the entire league. After a shortened season filled with the sloppiest play since the ABA, the Knicks are thriving on the wildness that has been this season’s leitmotiv.

This week they face the Indiana Pacers, renewing a play-off series that has become as entertaining as anything on Broadway, including The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Pacers, a deep, veteran-led team, have a pair of genuine New Yorkers in Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin. They also have Reggie Miller, who runs his mouth like one. He has a habit of draining one unmakable jumper after the next at the Garden while engaging in a trash-talking marathon with Knick fan Spike Lee, who has replaced his Ewing jersey with a Sprewell one. The Knicks, who were moments away from self-destruction heading into the play-offs, are now firing on every dysfunctional cylinder.

This series also asks the question, Did that lockout really matter? Not to Sprewell, whom it actually helped. He was supposed to serve a 68-game suspension. Instead, he showed up to the same first game as unfresh as everyone else and, at least to New York fans, began to represent, as he claims in his shoe commercial, some sort of American Dream. “I think the fans have taken to him because he plays so hard,” says Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. “He’s handled himself very well. He’s been trying to do a lot of things this year. He’s trying to rehabilitate his image and learn how the team works.” Sprewell’s got a tattoo of a bail bondsman’s number on his calf. Of course New York is going to accept him.

And New York, like the rest of basketball fans, forgave and forgot the lockout. In return, throughout the play-offs their team has exploited the general disorganization in the league. It’s the Knicks’ Sprewell-led bench (and Spree, who will never be nominated for Mr. Congeniality, has made it clear that he should start) that fooled the Heat and Hawks with their transition game and spastic, slashing offense.

They’ve even thrived on their own disunity, which has been building steadily. When it looked as if the team were going to miss play-offs, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts demoted longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who had brought in Sprewell as well as the league’s largest payroll. This was partly to appease Van Gundy, who was feuding with Grunfeld. Then Checketts met with ex-Bull coach Phil Jackson about taking Van Gundy’s job next year. At last week’s clinching game against Atlanta, fans chanted Van Gundy’s name in a defiant gesture of support. He needs it. The guy looks like the most bitter and broken-down thirtysomething not to have worked for the Clinton Administration.

The Pacers, however, who came within one game of beating Michael Jordan’s Bulls in last year’s play-offs, have been increasingly intense. “When you’re so close to the [championship] ring and so close to understanding the faults that went wrong, it kind of makes you hungry, and it kind of makes you go over the edge,” says Miller. “The window of opportunity is closing on this aging team, and everyone wants to give their one big final push.”

During the lockout, when official practices were illegal, the Pacers were the only team that left homes and families to have practices in a court in some rich guy’s house. They taped their own ankles and made irrational demands of one another during drills, just as coach Larry Bird would. Nineteen-year-old rookie Al Harrington lived in teammate Antonio Davis’ house, where he had a curfew and chores. This is the Little Team on the Prairie.

So even though there is a championship series afterward (the San Antonio Spurs meet the Portland Trailblazers in Western Conference finals), this could be the best matchup of the play-offs. Though the Pacers are favored, many sportswriters are now wondering if the Knicks’ slapdash style is the Taoist answer to a messy season. After all, if the fans didn’t care about the lockout, why should the Pacers be rewarded for trying to act as if it didn’t happen?

–Reported by Julie Grace with the Pacers and David E. Thigpen with the Knicks

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