Thursday, August 10, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Hope and Heartbreak of Riley's New York Knicks

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Pat Riley's New York Knicks broke our hearts, every single yearNot only did they break them, but they ripped them out of our chests, stomped on them, tore them in half, and then tossed the pieces in the river. And we loved them anyway.

I grew up in the shadow of Schenectady. In the shadow of the men born and raised on its city streets, including Riley, and most importantly, my father. These were men who didn't complain about life's heartache and misery, but instead just lived, motivating those around them by their work ethic and their true and unwavering principles. Certainly, Riley's Knicks (1991–1995) were the perfect team for the tough 'n' gritty New York City of that era. Yet they were also bruisers, uncompromising, relentless. They beat you by out-hustling and out-working you. In other words, like their coach, they were Schenectady.

Patrick Ewing was their superstar, yet one who'd never tasted much success. Otherwise the roster was stocked full of NBA journeymen, former minor-leaguers, and grocery store baggers. Yet early on these assorted losers and oddballs gelled under Riley. They went from nobodies to serious title contenders by his second year on the bench. Rejects and has-beens like Anthony Mason, John Starks, Greg Anthony, and Derek Harper played their hearts out for Riley. It also didn't hurt they had grizzled vet Charles Oakley to help set the tone and style Riley was after, one that favored tenacious defense over fluid offense. Riley was smart (duh, he's a Hall of Fame coach)—he knew he didn't have an offensive powerhouse so he played to his team's strengths on defense instead.

Tenacious D: what Riley's Knicks lacked in offensive firepower they made up for with smothering defense.

That Riley inspired these misfits to (almost) greatness was astonishing then and remains a minor miracle today. In his four years they won 51, 60, 57, and 55 games. Three out of four of these years they were knocked out of the playoffs by one of their two hated rivals, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. I can still see the heartbreaking endings of games, series, seasons, as if they were happening in real time today: Charles Smith blowing what felt like a dozen layups against the Bulls in the final seconds; Reggie Miller shocking New York and the world with eight points in nine seconds to steal a win; Ewing's missed gimme of a finger roll at the buzzer against the Pacers, this one the final nail in the coffin, as Riley left for Miami soon after.

One year stands above all others though, in terms of pure Shakespearean tragedy. In '94, the Knicks finally made it past the Bulls (who, it must be stated, were missing Jordan, inexplicably off shagging fly balls in the deep south). The '94 Finals against Hakeem's Houston Rockets was an ugly yet absurdly addictive series, filled with grueling basketball, amounting to more of a war of attrition than anything. The Knicks went back to Houston with a 3-2 lead and a championship within their grasp. Then it all fell apart. The Rockets, rejuvenated at home, squeaked out wins in the final two games, assisted greatly by Hakeem's last-second block of Starks' jumper in game six, and then Starks' horrific 2-18 shooting performance in game seven. It was painful to watch.

Even today, this screen capture breaks my heart.

It wasn't supposed to end that way. The NHL's Rangers and the Knicks had each been marching towards greatness all season, and watching their twin playoff run concurrently still remains quite possibly the most intoxicating sports viewing experiences of my life. All of New York seemed electrified by these two long-suffering franchises that summer, all of us seemingly living and dying with the outcome of every game. The Rangers upheld their end. The Knicks almost did, but almost doesn't count in the end.

Yet, looking back on it now, I think New Yorkers from across the state loved those Knicks, not despite their falling apart at the end of big games, but because of it. In some twisted way, we identified with and even saw ourselves in their imperfections. Ultimately Riley's Knicks overachieved. Their roster wasn't nearly as talented as the Pacers or Bulls, yet they fought tooth and nail against those squads in some of the NBA's hardest-fought playoff series of the era, maybe ever. I still ache for the championship(s) they almost won, but I also continue to be inspired by how much effort they expended trying to scale that mountain, year after year. It was a wild four-year ride, during which time the Knicks ripped out our hearts often, but dammit if we didn't still love them anyway.

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