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Saturday, March 29, 2008

In Search of Lost Playoff Moments

Posted by AR

written by Tariq al Hayder

This has been the most exciting regular season since the presidency of Calvin Coolidge (although even this season's hyper-competitiveness and intriguing subplots can't compare to the 1930-31 season, which culminated in a triumph for the Brooklyn Visitations over the Fort Wayne Hoosiers, but I digress). As the season progresses, we all begin to look to the playoffs with increasing interest, and all the while clips of glorious playoff moments from the past ignite our imaginations. We remember Money pushing off Byron Russell to sink The Shot. Or a young Deke on his back, clutching the ball after his lowly Nuggets produced that deafening upset against the Sonics. How about the image of Jax brushing off Baron Davis's shoulders during last year's smackdown of Dallas? But for every memorable moment like these, there are dozens of forgotten ones: flashes of stillborn triumph that have faded into oblivion. Let's revisit those frozen points in time that could have gone so differently:

  • The Audacity of Hope:

Ever since MJ pushed past the Pistons, he seemed to defeat his opponents with too much ease. True, there was that loss to Orlando, but that was Air 45. The counterfeit Jordan. Money never even came close to faltering. There was that one seven-game series against the Knicks in '92, but for the most part, adversaries humbly submitted to His Airness. The lasting memory I have of the '91 finals is of Magic on some NBA program drooling over that impossible MJ lay-up where he switched hands mid-flight. Clyde and the Blazers just made him shrug. Even the Team of Destiny, Bubba Chuck's Suns, never really threatened. In fact, sometimes Jordan was a gracious monarch; even though the Bulls went up 3-0 against the Sonics, he was merciful. He spared them the indignity of a sweep, and the eventual 4-2 loss actually flattered Seattle.

There was, however, one moment that could have been. In 1998, the Bulls waltzed their way to the Eastern Conference Finals with customary nonchalance. There, a young, insolent Reggie Miller almost slew the first King. Do you remember Game 4? How Reggie pushed Jordan out of the way and sunk a three in his face? Did you forget that Indy was leading in the fourth quarter of Game 7? But the revolution never came. MJ wore his sixth crown, and Reg had to settle for winning over Tony Gervino and finally gracing the cover of SLAM. Then he went on to become arguably the most annoying broadcaster in the history of Western Civilization. And I use the word "arguably" loosely. Alas.

  • Standing on the Shoulders of Giants:

You'll notice that in my previous discussion of the Bulls' dominance, I was guilty of saying "Jordan did this…" and "Jordan won that…" I would imagine that those types of statements are uttered often, and probably do not evoke delight in the soul of one Scottie Maurice Pippen. Don't forget that the '94 Bulls won 55 games without the Man. Pip, with his (tragic?) Dickensian name, will always be a great player enveloped in the myth of an even greater player. Would he trade his six titles for one he could have won alone? Probably not, but it still would have been nice for him to get a seventh, Jordan-less ring.

And he almost did. Two images are burned in my memory: One of Pippen donning sunglasses during that post-game interview, almost shrieking at reporters in an exasperated tone of voice that "Phil Jackson is not my coach!" The other is of Scottie in the tunnel after Game 4 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, kicking and cursing. His Blazers had gone down 3-1 to the Lakers, and they would now surely whimper off into oblivion. I remember thinking "Damn! The Zen Master has really gotten into Pippen's head!" And I knew that the series was done.

I was wrong. Portland came storming back. They tied up the series and were ahead late in Game 7. By FIFTEEN points. But then they faded. And when Kobe threw that alley to Shaq, it was over. Alas. Shaq and Kobe went on to win three titles, with Shaq winning a fourth before consuming the cap space of the Phoenix Suns like Unicron or Galactus. Portland, in turn, mutated into the Jailblazers, a humorous diversion where players smoked weed and amused everyone except their own fans. More recently, Portland fans have suffered both injury and insult: Greg Oden was lost for the year, and then he got that horrific Mohawk.

  • The Ironman Dichotomy:

And so it came to pass that in 1994 Michael Jordan was running around diamonds, while every other elite player rushed to fill the void. And it became evident that Hakeem Olajuwon was the second-best player of the nineties. But before the legend of Clutch City was established, there was another legacy that vanished before it ever materialized.

It may be cruelly ironic now, and I was only a teenager for most of the nineties, so my memory may be deceiving me, but I seem to remember that Knicks fans used to occasionally opine that "the Knicks suck." Of course, that was because they ultimately failed to win a championship in the Ewing years. Nowadays, the Knicks have set the bar so low that any outing that doesn't end with Jerome James defecating on the scorer's table is considered a moral victory. But back to the '94 Finals: New York were up 3-2. John Starks was having a great game, going for 27 points—16 in the fourth. He had the rock in his hands for the last shot, the three that would bring a third title to Madison Square. But Starks didn't even get the chance to miss; The Dream came out of nowhere and shattered Starks's moment with his fourth block of the game. And like that, it was gone…

Since his days as a Hoya, Ewing was always going to be forever linked to Olajuwon. In that moment, his legacy became (unfairly) this:

"[Ewing] was just not as good as Hakeem Olajuwon, never has been."

—NY Times; June 23, 1994.

And as for Starks, let's just say that linguists pinpoint the twenty-second of June in the year nineteen-hundred-and-ninety-four as the exact moment that the phrase "sugar to sh*t" entered the lexicon. The fact that John Starks had a 2-for-18 shooting night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals on that date is entirely coincidental.

  • The Half-Life:

In 2001, I thought I saw the future. I was finally coming to terms with living without the Jay-Z of basketball, the hero I loved to root against. And I witnessed what I thought was only the first in a long series of playoff duels: Iverson vs. Carter. The Raptors stole the first game in Philly. AI responded by dropping 54 in Game 2. But Vince was still vicious back then; he snarled and threw back 50. In Game 5, Allen scored 52 as he and his cast of misfits annihilated the Dinos. But Half-Man, Half-Amazing (with the help of countless double- and triple- teams on Iverson) came out on top in the penultimate game before he jetted off to collect his diploma.

The stage was set for Game 7. I remember that the satellite channel that was supposed to show the game went blank. Just static. I feverishly scanned obscure European channels in search of someone, ANYONE, that would be broadcasting the showdown. Sadly, my flipping could only produce a Czech variety show, a stand-up comedy special in Hungarian, An episode of MASH dubbed in German, and some weird Dutch porn/taxidermy channel that was apparently sponsored by NesQuik. No Vince-Iverson. And it was almost dawn, so I couldn't watch it anywhere else. Alas.

But then the screen flickered. Then it beamed those images to me. And I saw. I watched as Iverson passed. And then passed some more. Iverson don't pass? He had sixteen dimes. And I was happy. But then Vince had the ball in his had for that last shot. One point down. I gasped. The shot wasn't short… it was long. And that was Vince's moment. It wasn't when he jammed his elbow into the rim a year earlier. That was it. And it passed.