These guys were a scrappy bunch, they barely made the playoffs as the 8-seed in the eastern conference, and they went on to the finals in the only such occurrence for the league to-date.
The ’98-’99 season started four months late, in February ’99, and was shortened – 50 games out of the usual 82 – with several back-to-back-to-backs on the schedule just to fit those 50 into the allotted time. The labor dispute that led to the delay, a player lockout in which our city’s franchise player was the union head, kept said Big Fella busy and distracted in what would have been pre-season. He – already past his prime, running on fumes, and hurting everywhere – was joined that season by his polar opposite, a quick improvisational firecracker coming off a season-long suspension (don’t ask), which made that year’s team an experimental hodgepodge of chemistry and style. What a season.
The new arrival played the same position as the incumbent smooth-as-silk sharpshooter, and was thus relegated to the bench for quite a while. The other notable big name, one Grandmama, played with a sore back and had lost his signature explosiveness for years. The two point guards were maybe one good role player if combined. The tall athletic up-and-coming forward bounced around and swatted balls like flies around the court, and sometimes even scored. There was a slow and grinding starting unit and a fast uptempo second; it was such a mess.
The coach who kept it all together had sort of made his mark the year before, latching on to the opponent center’s ankle and the hardwood floor in what was at the time the traditional annual skirmish with the conference rival.
So anyway, this was the freakish team that barely made the playoffs in that freakish season, coming off a winning final stretch in which somehow there came to be chemistry, like a miracle, and the 8-seed beat the 1 and 4 and 2, in that order, to get to the championship round.
By that point though, the Big Fella was out for the count, Grandmama could barely walk, and the rest of them could only do so much against what was the start of a major franchise on its long historic run, only recently ended.
No matter. The moment was an inspiration for all involved.
After the game the crowd spilled out into the New York City streets, chanting and energized, glorious, inspired, the grown-ups and the kids, everybody and in all directions from the Garden. Because these guys who we all saw coming together in those few months of concentrated action, were more than entertainers, more than athletes, as a whole. These guys really meant it.
It was a nice gift in our isolation for the MSG Network to rerun these highlights yesterday.
Here’s to the street musicians, everywhere.