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Houston, We Have a Walk-Off

The NBA season opened Tuesday, so you had to figure at some point this week that I was going to chime in with a basketball walk-off story.

The problem I had in trying to come up with one is that my team, the Knicks, hasn't had a lot of significant walk-off wins in the time that I've been following them. Yes, there was a Trent Tucker 3-pointer off an inbounds pass with 0.1 seconds remaining that never should have counted in the first place, and I recall Patrick Ewing hitting a buzzer-beater to beat the Bulls sometime about two decades ago. But unless you count some shots of recent vintage by those imposters presently wearing the Knicks jerseys (the Jamal Crawford's of the world), I can't think of too many others.

So I'm going to expand the definition of a "walk-off shot" slightly to relate the story of one of my favorite Knicks games, and it's particularly timely given the recent retirement of a well-known Knick.

One of the knocks on the NBA is that people say you only need to watch the fourth quarter of a game and that the rest can be glossed over. In my case, for Game 5 of the 1999 Eastern Conference quarterfinals on May 16, between the Knicks and Miami Heat, I only needed to watch 58.5 seconds because that was all I had a chance to see.

That weekend, I accepted a Trenton Times assignment to cover my alma mater (The College of New Jersey) in the NCAA Division III Women's Lacrosse championships in Baltimore. Overnight trips were rare, but I got one as part of this gig, since the semifinals were early Saturday and this figured to be a lock to be a two-night stay, since my alma mater is a women's lacrosse dynasty (of the 100+ game winning streak kind). Friday night I watched the Knicks gag away a fourth-quarter lead, frittering away a chance to win the series. That meant, almost certainly, that I'd miss Game 5, since I'd likely be covering TCNJ in the championship.

Then, something quite odd happened on Saturday. TCNJ, which never lost before the championship game, fell to Amherst in the semifinals. That meant a change of plans. I was now assigned to cover a college softball game (TCNJ vs Montclair State) in Glassboro, NJ.
I don't usually like to see the alma mater get drubbed, but once Montclair put a bunch on the scoreboard early, a blowout was a perfectly acceptable result (objectively speaking as a journalist). It meant I would get back to the newspaper with the chance to see the end of the game.

The second half was just starting as I got in the car and it was a low-scoring struggle. I wasn't quite as attached to this Knicks team as I was in 1993 and 1994 when I had half a season ticket and attended all the home playoff games, but Game 5 against the hated Heat was a big, big deal.

There was talk head coach Jeff Van Gundy would be fired if the Knicks lost, and that didn't sit well with me. Van Gundy, like me, was a Division III guy (Nazareth) who related very well to the everyday fan because he seemed like an everyday kind of guy (he drove an old car, ate McDonalds and watched nightime soaps like Melrose Place). Of all the coaches on all the teams I've followed, Van Gundy is my favorite.

The game turned into a race against the clock, both for the Knicks and myself. I never go more than a hair above the speed limit when I'm on the highway, but on this day, I allowed myself two hairs, in an effort to get back just a little bit quicker. Gus Johnson had radio play-by-play duties that day and, no offense to Gus, it wasn't a satisfying listen. The Rowan campus is about an hour and 15 minutes from the Trenton Times offices. I'd estimate I made the drive in about an hour and 12 (so much for speeding).I got upstairs to the sports department after Terry Porter had drained two clutch free throws to give the Heat a 77-74 lead. Fortunately from a purely selfish perspective, only one other person was in the office, so I could watch (and even pump my fist slightly) to my heart's content. I had made it in time. And as it turned out, so would the Knicks.

Out of a timeout, the Knicks got a little lucky. Latrell Sprewell missed on a driving eight footer, partly altered by Alonzo Mourning, who jumped out to challenge. That left Patrick Ewing alone for the rebound and Mourning, out of position, hammered Ewing, his mentor, before he could get a shot off. It was Mourning's fifth foul and Ewing made both free throws to make it a one-point deficit with just under 40 ticks left.On Miami's next possession, Porter brought the ball upcourt, and found Tim Hardaway, who shook free around a pick to get by Knicks point guard Charlie Ward. Latrell Sprewell raced over, and as Hardaway drove, Sprewell knocked the ball away. Off a scramble, the Knicks and Larry Johnson had the ball with 25 seconds left. The Knicks called timeout to draw up a play.

The Knicks finished barely above .500 at 27-23 during the labor-dispute shortened regular season and were the No. 8 seed. On the penultimate play of the game, they looked like such a team. Sprewell went around a Ewing screen on the right wing, but the play broke down right there. Sprewell and Ewing (playing on a bad achilles) exchanged passes as if the ball was a hot potato. Sprewell juggled the ball along the sideline, and it went out of bounds, but the officials signaled the ball went off Porter, and belonged to the Knicks (slow-motion replay on my part, totally inconclusive) with 4.5 seconds left.

Over the previous 13 or so seasons, the Knicks had a play they would run in such a situation. My name for it was "Give the ball to Patrick Ewing and stand around and watch." Most of the time that didn't work out too well. In the final seconds of games Ewing made a few big shots, but he missed many more.

Allan Houston's wife was eight months pregnant at the time, so it's somewhat understandable that his mind was not fully in Miami. Houston had a lousy season sharing the basketball with Sprewell and a lousy Game 5 for the first 47:55.5. No one would have blamed him if he had stood 25 feet from the hoop and watched Ewing miss.

But Houston didn't. Instead he came to the top of the circle and took the inbounds pass from Ward. Guarded by Dan Majerle, Houston sliced past both him and Tim Hardaway. Sprewell sealed off Terry Porter in the lane and the 6-foot-10 Mourning got caught in that logjam too. Ewing, a few feet to Houston's left, called for the basketball, but by that time it was too late. Houston committed to make his move.

Houston's shot was a terrible one, par for the course for what was a 4-for-12 afternon to that point. He elevated at the right hand edge of the lane, leaned forward and floated the ball off his fingertips. The only good thing was that he had a clear look at the hoop, even though Majerle tried to swat at the back of his head.

Statisticians will tell you that shooting percentages in the final few seconds of basketball games are far, far lower than at any other point. That's because, more often than not, you take ridiculous shots like this one. They're not supposed to go in. And they don't.

Except that this one did. It hit the inside of the front rim, and instead of caroming straight off, had enough backspin to carry off the backboard (just above the square above the hoop) and through the net with 0.8 seconds remaining. The Heat got one last chance, but couldn't score. Go figure, the Knicks had won.

The championship dreams of the Knicks flickered through a four-game sweep of the Hawks and a stunning six-game upset of the Pacers before fanning out for good in the finals, as New York was totally overmatched against the David Robinson/Tim Duncan-led Spurs. They did not go quietly into the night though, losing the decisve Game 5 at home despite a terrific effort.

The Knicks of the 90s were battlers who never gave an inch of space on defense and fought and scrapped, and played hard as a team for the full 48 minutes. That has since devolved over the last five years into the group we've seen the last few seasons, one that has often been inept and lazy defensively. I'm trying to convince myself that this season could be different because of the hiring of Larry Brown as head coach, but I'm not sure the team will ever be successful with the ownership and management that is currently running the club.

Houston retired a few weeks ago, his knees having given out. We'll miss him and the way basketball used to be at The Mecca and long for the memories we now view on videotape.

True Metkerbockers know...Two playoff wins by the 1999 Knicks coincided with the dates of Mets walk-off wins. On May 23, the Knicks beat the Hawks in Game 3 of their second-round meeting, and John Olerud finished a five-run ninth-inning rally with a two-run single to beat Curt Schilling and the Phillies, 5-4. On June 9, while the Knicks won a thriller in Indiana in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Rey Ordonez got the winning hit in a 4-3, 14-inning triumph over the Blue Jays.


Anonymous said…
My favorite part of that Game 5 finale, and one of my favorite Van Gundy moments, was that the Knicks had no timeouts available before Houston's shot but that Van Gundy was on the floor before the inbounds pass and informally huddling with his players to tell them the play. Such chutzpah.

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