Growing up in New Jersey in the early 1990s and being a Knicks fan was something of a mixed bag. As anyone following the Knicks could tell you, it was truly a pleasure to watch amazing players like Charles Oakley, John Starks, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Anthony Mason, and of course Patrick Ewing (who I adored so obsessively that to this day my primary means of scoring on the court is to either cross over or make a post move for a drop step and 7 foot jumper on the left block). However, year after year during the NBA Playoffs, you also got to watch your team driven into a brick wall. A six-foot, six-inch bald brick wall with a mustache and a red and black basketball uniform. There’s no fan or player who ever wore orange and blue who won’t tell you, Michael Jordan, the greatest of all time, was the absolute worst.
The pattern of abuse was so consistent, detectives Benson and Stabler should’ve been called to the scene. It began with the 1990-1991 season. The Knicks were not quite the memorable squad of the 90s yet. At a record of 39-43, it was no surprise they were swept by the Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs. But in 1991-1992, the Knicks had made some dramatic changes. Pat Riley, one of the great coaches of all time was brought in to revitalize the franchise. The Knicks implemented a brutalizing, no mercy defense and relied on Patrick Ewing to play efficient half court offense. The Knicks went 51-31 that season, but only to be defeated by the Bulls in 7 games in the Conference Semifinals. Jordan had one big, quick hand in on the four blocks on Charles Smith that cost us game 5. He then went on to drop 42 on the Knicks in game 7. The Knicks took their loss and came back stronger. in 1992-1993, they improved to 60-22. They advanced to the Conference Finals, and stop me if this sounds familiar, only to lose to the Bulls in 6 games. The Knicks actually jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series, but Michael put the kaibosh on it with a 54 point game and a triple double between trips to Atlantic City.
Then the Tri-State area was treated to a brief respite. MJ took his first break from basketball. In 1993-1994, the Knicks lost the NBA Finals to the Houston Rockets by one shot in an amazing 7 game series. In 1994-1995, the Knicks lost in the Conference Semifinals to an Indiana Team that CHEATED to win.
Then, in 1995-1996, the Knicks were forced once again to deal with Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. Despite a mid-season coaching change (Don Nelson was replaced by defensive guru and all-around awesome guy Jeff Van Gundy), the Knicks rolled into the playoffs. And they rolled right out in the Conference Semifinals, victims once again to Michael Jordan. The Knicks were the only team in the East to win a playoff game against the Bulls. That simply gave Jordan more motivation, and he came out and put 35 on the Knicks in the closeout.
Under Jeff Van Gundy, the Knicks would continue to make the playoffs until the 2000-2001 season, even making it to the NBA Finals in the strike shortened, Jordanless 1998-1999 season to the San Antonio Spurs (which was the championship that kicked off THAT dynasty). And as a fan, I continued to watch, and hope, and cheer. However, there was something missing after 1996. The vicious rivalry I had grown so accustomed to was gone. A spark had been taken out of the franchise and the games they played. I knew exactly why. Jordan was so impressive, so driven, so focused, and so ruthless that he inspired not only his teammates, but also his rivals to great acts. Every time number 23 was on the court, every last Knickerboxer brought the very best they had to offer. Though vanquished again and again, they never lost to the hunger to beat MJ. For me, it was a pleasure to watch the very best play against my favorite squad. It pushed them to their limits, and made them play the best basketball that franchise had seen in 30 years, and the best basketball they played since.
Yup, I remember sitting down and watching the greatest of all time and crying out loud, “Man, that guy is the WORST.”