I just watched the 30 for 30 special on ESPN tonight: Reggie Miller vs the Knicks: Winning Time. What a phenomenally well done special. Really brought back some memories of being a young kid watching the Knicks vs Pacers grudge matches. Boy did I hate Reggie Miller and “Miller Time.” Gave me nightmares for years. This rivalry defined pro basketball in the mid 90s. It was big city vs small town hicks. The bright lights of New York vs the corn fields of Indiana. City basketball vs old-fashioned fundamental basketball (just in thought, not in the actual play that occurred on the court)
This matchup really captured the entire country’s attention. Basketball in the 80s was defined by Bird vs Magic. The early 90s and the years of 96 to 98 were the Jordan years. But 93 to 95, belonged to the Knicks and Pacers, even though neither squad even won an actual title. This rivalry had everything. Two very contrasting cities with two very differing cultures. Teams with big time coaches in the slick haired Pat Riley and the old school Larry Brown. Hall of Fame caliber players in Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing. Amazing sidekicks to the superstars in Rik Smits and John Starks. The body guards to the stars in the Davis brothers and the combination of Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley. And then finally, the most well-known NBA fan of them all. Spike Lee..
Now I am not going to go deep into the actual details of the results of these epic matchups. The Knicks won the series in both 93 and 94, while the Pacers got over the hump with a game 7 win in Madison Square Garden in 95. But this television special and entire storyline really made me realize why the NBA is lacking at this time. After this rivalry ended following Ewing’s missed finger role in game 7, things have never really been the same for the NBA. It was the end of a short-lived era. The team from the Windy City took over the League again for a few years. And then all the sudden power shifted to the West and has stayed there.
So as I mentioned before, the League had the rivalry in the 80s of Magic and Larry. They had Jordan as a superstar. But it has been atypical to have rivalries between 2 squads of so much differing heritage that just duke it out in phenomenal series year after year. In today’s NBA, we have the superstars. You got the Kobe’s and Lebron’s. The League is still entertaining. But the playoffs are not like the ones of the mid 90s. There are no consistent rivalries that draw the entire country’s attention year in and year out. There are no slug fest brawls that take place over a 3 year period. There are no real media wars. There is just basketball and the occasional trash talking incident.
The League needs another playoff slugfest to develop and quick. I mean the Celtics/Bulls first round series with 4 overtime games was awesome last season. But is this a rivalry in the making? And these rivalries generally take years to develop, so maybe one is in the making now and we do not even realize it. It is very interesting though how close the Knicks/Pacers rivalry came to not even being anything.
In the 1985 draft, the first year of the NBA lottery, the right to the number 1 pick came down to the Knicks and Pacers. Both lowly franchises in the League at the time. Each team planned to draft Patrick Ewing, it was just a matter of who got the number 1 pick. What if Ewing had been a Pacer? In 1987, fans were clamoring for the Pacers to take hometown hero Steve Alford with the number 1 pick. Donnie Walsh, went against the entire state’s wishes and took Reggie Miller. What if he had caved to the pressure and taken the former Indiana state champion, and Indiana Hoosier National Champion with that pick and Reggie had gone elsewhere?
There are so many what ifs but this was the perfect rivalry. It is what the NBA needs now to take its popularity to new heights. I also believe the League needs a team like the Knicks to become relevant again. Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball and now has turned into the visiting team’s playground. The Knicks need to turn the Mecca back into their own playground. Ever since the departure of super center Patrick Ewing, things have never been the same.
Maybe this summer the Knicks will all the sudden be back in the thick of things.
Another big time rivalry needs to develop and fast to bring back real “Winning Time” to the NBA.
Stay tuned for the next edition of Sportskraze.