Wednesday night, June 23, ’94. One of my worst nights as a Knicks fan. That night, the dream of a NBA title for my favorite team died, and it died hard. Losing 90-84 to Hakeem Olajuwon and my uncles’ Houston Rockets, I was depressed for more than a week afterwards. It was a horrible series to watch from an offensive basketball perspective. Too many missed shots, blocked shots, 24-second shot-clock violations, airballs and other misadventures on both sides and for both teams. I had no voice by the time it was all over, having dedicated the previous six weeks to every possession and every game. Watching Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks and the rest of the gang of free-agent veterans and rookies take the Knicks to a partially-blocked three-point shot away from a championship. Such bittersweet times!
Technically, the Knicks have won two championships in my lifetime, one in ’70 and the other in ’73. I vaguely remember the second one, as it happened when I was three and a half years old. The first one, I was still learning how to crawl when Willis Reed limped onto the court at Madison Square Garden in May of ’70 against the Lakers of West and Chamberlain. They barely count in my mind. For the Knicks I truly remember are the ones of declining talent in the ’70s, followed by moments of hope with Micheal Ray Richardson and Bernard King in the ’80s, and then of Ewing and Marc Jackson in the late-80s. Knicks that varied from God-awful to pretty good.
They just weren’t good enough to be tragic, at least not until the Pat Riley years. Losing a close series against the Bulls in the second round in ’92, after giving MJ and Pippen all they could handle for six and a half games. Taking their feet off the necks of the Bulls in ’93, after being up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals. Especially with fellow Pitt Alum Charles Smith blowing a game-winning layup in the closing seconds of Game 5. It might as well have been me out there against Horace Grant and company.
Then came Games 6 and 7 in Houston in ’94. It was horrible and heartbreaking. With Olajuwon draped all over Ewing and with mediocre guard play from Derek Harper and Hubert Davis, John Starks became the go-to-guy for Ewing. Starks really did have a great Game 6. He shot 5-for-8 from three before his dreaded last-second shot, was the leading Knicks scorer with 27 points (including 16 in the fourth quarter), and really was the only reason the Knicks had a chance to win. The problem was, he didn’t necessarily need to launch a three to win that game. A two or a pass inside to Oakley or Ewing would likely have tied the game and sent it into overtime, especially with Olajuwon playing Starks straight up. On the other hand, thinking about it as a shooter, as streaky as Starks was back then, the shot probably would’ve gone in if Hakeem hadn’t partially blocked it.
But instead of following it up with a good performance in Game 7, Starks had one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, going 2-for-18, including 0-for-11 in three-point attempts. That included at least three airballs by my own count. It was like the team had eaten some form of poison before the game, that’s how awful they played. Starks, though, played worse than anyone, taking ill-advised shots and ignoring Riley’s frowns and screams.
It wasn’t so much that he didn’t perform well under pressure. It was more the fact that Starks refused to pass out of double-teams or throw the ball inside or across court to a teammate with a wide-open shot at the hoop. Starks needed help, and refused to seek it or to anticipate it. He tried to take over a sloppy offensive series singlehandedly. As a result, Ewing faced more pressure, and the game — even as close as it was at 90-84 — was a constant uphill battle for my Knicks.
I was pissed to the point of tears when that game ended fifteen years ago. I’ve long since forgiven Starks for his performance. Those kinds of things can happen to the best of us. Still, there’s an important lesson to learn about teamwork and help from Games 6 and 7 of the ’94 NBA Finals. Sometimes it’s up to you to knock down a shot, and sometimes, you give it up to a wide-open teammate so that we can all win, in basketball and in life.