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The Most Knicks Moment Ever* tournament: The Final Four

SB Nation logo SB Nation 5/15/2020 MMiranda
Kenny Walker, Patrick Ewing, Maurice Cheeks, Mark Jackson posing for the camera © Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Four. A divine number. The four elements = earth, water, fire and wind. Buddhism has four noble truths. The Hebrew Tetragrammaton, יהוה, is the name of God. The Hindu god Brahma has four faces. I think I dated them in 2004. Divinity contains all things, both sacred and mundane, providential and profane. Knick legend and Hall of Famer Carl Braun wore the number four. So did Arron Afflalo.

So here we are: the final four in our Most Knicks Moment Ever* tournament. It feels perfectly Knicksy that in a tournament that began with two brackets devoted to joy and one to dunks, we still end up with three of the four finalists being painful moments. But if this world is a mirror of the world above, there could be no sweets without the bitters. And as hell holds no power without the dream of heaven to haunt the damned, what would it mean to be a Knicks fan without flashes of hope? It’d mean we were Timberwolves fans. No thank you.

Here are your final four.

P.J. Brown brawl vs. Patrick Ewing’s 1999 torn Achilles

Basketball-reference.com has a cool feature where you can enter any player’s name and see their entire career’s won-loss record with any teammate or against any opponent. You could probably guess the two teammates Patrick Ewing won the most games with were Charles Oakley and John Starks. Can you guess who’s third? I got it wrong. Think of your answer, then click on the link and give it a go. You might be surprised.

Bill Russell had a winning record against the 223 players he faced off against the most. The first opponent he was sub-.500 against? Earl Monroe. If you jump a bit farther into modernity, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came out on top of his first 95 opponents. The first to have a winning record against the G.O.A.T.? Walt Frazier. If you search P.J. Brown, you find he had a losing mark against the guy he played the most regular-season games against. That’d be Allan Wade Houston. Was that turn from Russell to Kareem to P.J. jarring? It’s meant to be.

The Knicks other ‘90s rivalries were defined by the struggle to overcome all-time great players, namely Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller. Alonzo Mourning didn’t live in that stratosphere; he was closer to Rik Smits and Dikembe Mutombo than Ewing or Hakeem Olajuwon. Tim Hardaway was still a stone-cold sniper, especially from deep, but during the Knicks/Heat rivalry he was on a slow but steady descent. That’s not to say he wasn’t scary. Just that he wasn’t putting up 54 or 25 in a quarter or eight in 8.9 seconds.

P.J. Brown occupying such a significant place in Knicks history is like Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, igniting World War I. It’s JFK overcoming the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, only to be felled by Lee Harvey Oswald (for the purposes of this article, suspend whatever disbelief just rose in your throat). It’s Gary Hart being the frontrunner for the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 1988 until the public learned about Jessica Hahn. It’s the 1991 Buffalo Bills winning their two AFC playoff games 95-37, then losing the Super Bowl to Jeff Hostetler. For some of y’all, these references are old and obscure. I hope one day P.J. Brown is, too. But as this tournament makes clear, we’re nowhere near that day yet.

Replay Video

On a recent Locked On Knicks podcast I was lucky enough to talk about Ewing’s Achilles injury and how history may have changed if he’d been healthy enough to finish that postseason. You can hear it here. You really should. You’re quarantined; you got time. Here’s the main takeaway: not only would Ewing’s presence have made the Finals a different proposition altogether, if he finishes 1999 healthy I believe the Glen Rice trade never happens and the franchise’s timeline may have moved in an entirely different direction.

Patrick Ewing’s 1995 missed finger-roll vs. Linsanity

The Ewing finger-roll fought off a surprisingly feisty Andrea Bargnani ill-timed three vs. Milwaukee to get here. It is a painfully perfect metaphor for one reading of the Pat Riley Knicks: trapped in the amber of history, forever so close and forever falling short. Another reason the finger-roll hurt so much, one I was able to discuss with Chris Herring on Mark Schindler’s Indy Cornrows pod the other day, was that it put an end to the history of the Knicks dominating the Pacers.

From 1992-1995, New York won 13 of 16 regular-season matchups with Indiana. They eliminated the Pacers in 1993 and 1994, and despite falling behind 3-1 in ‘95 took Games 5 and 6 to force a seventh game. They fought back from down 15 in the third quarter, just like they’d fought back from a 12-point deficit in 1994’s Game 7. If Knick fans always felt like Chicago besting New York was a matter of when and not if, with Indiana it was the opposite. Until it wasn’t.

Replay Video

Linsanity has been the iconoclast in the punch bowl, besting Larry Johnson’s four-point play and John Starks’ “The Dunk” in an elite eight matchup that rivaled Duke/Kentucky 1992 for unending drama. The final vote was 277-273, with both sides enjoying late pushes that seemed to mark them the winner. People got very much in their feelings about which was the “correct” choice. Regarding that...

On Monday I had a piece drop at Jacobin. The piece is about The Last Dance series on ESPN, and storytelling flaws I find in a still-enjoyable television program. FYI: I am a Twitter nobody. When I write for P&T or FanSided, I usually get fewer than 20 notifications for a piece; if I get an actual response from, like, five people, I feel good. The Jacobin piece got over 1000 likes. That’s awesome, right?! Most of the feedback was positive, though impersonal. Less awesome were the dozens and dozens of hate-filled tweets and emails I received. They got personal and they got ugly. But as Stan Marsh would say, I learned something.

On Monday the hate was pouring in from from leftists. By Wednesday I was hearing it from right-wing Trump supporters. Sometimes they’d complain about the same thing, but for different reasons. It was a reminder that people come to experiences with entirely different backgrounds and leanings. It didn’t matter what I said about Michael Jordan: to some folks, MJ equals X, to others Y, to some Z. They brought that lens to what they read and it colored whatever they thought they were seeing.

When it looked like Linsanity vs. Starks would end at a 270-270 dead heat, I reached out to some Knick fans I know to break the tie. It didn’t come down to that, but I’m including below the words of Damien Costanza. Costanza was my high-school journalism teacher. He’s also a lawyer and once had a radio call-in show where people sought advice from “Dr. Damien.” He’s one of the smartest, funniest dudes I’ve known in life. You may think it’s sacrilege that anyone would choose a three-week run in 2012 over a playoff highlight from 1993. I get that. The Dunk means so much to so many people, myself included. But if you listen to what Costanza has to say, I think it speaks to why Linsanity was never just a three-week run:

“‘The Dunk’ defined the career of Starks as a Knick and to some extent the Knicks spirit for that entire era, but Linsanity went beyond the Knicks and defined the entire character of what it meant to be a New Yorker...an undrafted nobody becomes the focus of the entire sports world by playing with spirit, grit, determination, relentlessness and an unceasing desire to make those around him better...rewatching these games it is astounding to me how Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak and Landry Fields were playing some of their best ball of the season while Lin was running the floor. As a fan from the late 1960s to the present, it was this kind of pass-first, floor spacing, driving the lane that defined the best Knicks teams from 1970 to 2012 and embodied the qualities in a point guard that Knicks fans had been begging for since the consistently disappointing Charlie Ward era...Lin allowed hardcore Knicks fans to say ‘This is why we have been begging the team to focus on building around that type of PG instead of flashy, me-first, defensive liability scoring machines.’”

The choice is yours. The memories are ours.

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