I remember the basement well.
We moved into the house in the summer of 1998. It was right after the Knicks ended what was probably the most memorable 6-year playoff run any NBA team ever had without winning it all.
1993 had the Dunk, and Charles Smith.
1994 had everything.
1995 had the finger roll.
In 1996, we took a game (a game!) off the 72-win Bulls.
In 1997, PJ Brown flipped, and the league flopped.
Then, in ’98, Jeff Van Gundy became a rag doll.
By the end of that summer, I felt a lot like Van Gundy probably did at the bottom of that pile. My mom and step dad, who’d help raise me from birth, were getting a divorce. It sucked in its own right, but worse was that we had to move into a house on a hill where I couldn’t ride my bike, which didn’t really matter anyway because I didn’t know any of the kids that lived there.
I think my mom felt bad for me, so she gave me the basement in our new house to call my own I envisioned it as a “cool kids hangout spot,” assuming I could eventually make friends…or became cool.
It had a drop ceiling that would probably have been an inconvenience had I not been so short, and a bar built into the wall that I totally would have thought about utilizing for a party if I wasn’t a high school sophomore who’d never had a sip of beer.
Again: how cool I was at this particular time cannot be emphasized enough.
I covered the walls in a gaudy silver paint, which was what I thought a cool kids’ hangout spot would have on the walls, and inherited my mom’s classic 80’s purple L-shaped sofa set that would have been rejected from the Goodfellas set because it was too stereotypically Italian.
Most importantly to me, I had a giant television all to myself that I could watch Knicks games on. It was completely outdated, even then, but I couldn’t care less. This was one of those giant box TV’s, probably five feet tall and three by three in depth, but the screen was huge, and during games, it felt like I was right there in the Garden with them. And watch them I did…anything to distract me from the realities of life, even if what transpired on the court that season wasn’t much better.
The whole year was ugly – ugly scores, ugly rumors, ugly play – but there was something about the team that kept me interested as their first round series with Miami got underway.
It probably had to do with the fact that Miami wasn’t a team the Knicks feared, their No. 1 seed notwithstanding. They never beat us, at least not without help from the league. As has been written many times over the years, when the Knicks played the Heat, they were playing a Bizarro World version of themselves. It was Us two decades ahead of its time.
So this was the backdrop of the series, one that wasn’t particularly memorable through the first four games. I know that it wasn’t memorable, one, because I don’t remember any of the games, and two, because looking back at the scores, the average margin of victory was 17.5 points, with none of the contests decided by single digits.
This all led to Game 5. I distinctly remember feeling like if they won that game, special things could be ahead. The Hawks were primed to advance, and I knew that if we could get to that matchup, Atlanta would be easy to get past (this was proven correct; New York swept the Hawks by an average of 10 points per game, although I don’t remember any of them being that close). After Atlanta would be either Indiana or Philly. Neither felt like a serious threat.
Game 5, predictably, was a slugfest. It was tied after one, and tied again after three. 109 points were scored after the first quarter…by both teams…combined. The ESPN box score says that neither team had a single fast break point the entire game, which seems unfathomable to think of now, but looking back actually makes sense. No one was getting easy baskets on this day.
The key figures ended up with the kind of minute totals you’d expect in a winner-take-all affair. Mourning and Hardaway each played 41. For the Knicks, LJ, Allan Houston and Spree all sat for less than 10 minutes of game time. Thunder Dan Majerle played 37, P.J. Brown 36, and Terry Porter – who I completely forgot was involved in this series until I looked at the box score – was on the court for 30. Most astonishingly of all, 36-year-old Patrick Ewing played 40. The Washington Post had this note about the Captain after the game:
Hobbled by a sore left Achilles’ tendon, Ewing also pulled rib muscles on his right side in the third quarter. His ribs hurt so bad that when he coughed after the game, he doubled over in pain.
Warrior. F’ing warrior.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the Knicks possessed the closest thing to momentum one could have in a rock fight, having gone on an 11-4 run with Ewing – running on fumes – on the bench to close out the third.
The final frame was like an art project your pre-school daughter made; it was ugly, but the kind of ugly you love, and are damn proud of.
It was also a different sport from what we’ve now become accustomed to. Early on, Majerle hit a three with the shot clock running down to give the Heat a four-point lead and the announcers acted as if a comet had hit the arena. Defenders played up on guards well past the arc, not because they were afraid a shot would go up, but just because that’s what was done. And there were so many fouls. We tend to over-romanticize the 90’s Knicks at times, but my God, did these teams fight. There truly were no easy baskets.
After Miami shot out with a 9-2 run, the Knicks answered with a 7-0 spurt of their own to tie it at 69, the final basket of which came from Houston, who had been having a dreadful shooting night to that point.
In the last five minutes, every basket that put a team ahead felt like a kill shot. New York took its first lead of the second half on a Chris Childs three with just under four minutes to go. 72-71 Knicks. Two free throws by Monster Mash gave the lead back to Miami, and then after consecutive Knick turnovers, an LJ post up put New York back up by one. After a Heat timeout, Mourning hit a jump hook over Ewing. 75-74. After a missed Childs triple, Mourning tried to go back to the well again, but this time Ewing stonewalled him.
The bigger issue was that Pat had gone cold on the other end, and after carrying the team most of the night, he couldn’t convert on a turnaround J. After a foul fighting for the loose ball, Terry Porter knocked down two free throws. Heat up 3 with under a minute to go.
It felt like the game was over.
After Van Gundy called timeout, Spree missed a shot but Ewing grabbed the offensive board, was fouled, and hit both free throws.
That’s when the Heat could have put the game away, but Timmy – oh, Timmy, Timmy, Timmy – in the midst of a brutal game to close out a brutal series for him, lost control of the ball while trying to drive the lane.
Knicks ball, New York timeout, 20 seconds remaining.
The inbound went to Spree, and boy oh boy was this one clusterf— of a play. He and Ewing fumbled around the arc for 15 seconds before Latrell lost the ball out of bounds, thankfully not before hitting a member of the Heat. 4.5 second remaining.
The ball came in to Houston. Thanks to a nifty play design which had Allen curling around a Ewing screen on the left side of the paint, Majerle not only wasn’t able to prevent a clean catch, but he had no way to prevent the wide open lane to the hoop that was now open. Houston catches, turns, takes one dribble, and goes up with one of the uglier looking shots you’ll ever see him take.
When the shot went in, my arms flew up as I leapt in the air, high enough that I dislodged one of the tiles in the drop ceiling, which then nearly fell on my head.
As Allan Houston ran the full length of the court, he gathered more and more energy every step of the way, and then released it all in the most violent, visceral fist pump any of us had ever witnessed. The look on his face was one I’d never seen before and would never see again – that of a bad, bad man who always knew he was capable of a moment like this, and for this one brief second, dispensed with the tie and glassed of his mild mannered alter ego and let the world see who he really was.
Miami did have one more chance in the form of a desperation heave by Porter that actually hit rim. Still, if you’d have put a gun to my head I wouldn’t have remembered that without looking it up. The game was over when Houston’s shot dropped. We all knew it, and so did the Heat.
Now, the shot lives on, both as maybe the greatest single basket in the history of the franchise and maybe not even the best shot of that postseason. LJ’s 4-point play gets replayed a lot more than the Houston shot because of that iconic video of the New York crowd collectively putting their fists through the rafters of Garden as it dropped.
(In fairness, it’s a great clip)
Here’s the thing though: if LJ misses, the Knicks go down 2-1 in the series and lose home court advantage, but they still have a lot of life left. They’d also started to figure out how to beat that Indiana team, deploying Marcus Camby to wreak havoc from the center position in a way that would become a lot more fashionable two decades later. The stakes weren’t nearly as high as they were in those waning seconds vs Miami where, if Houston misses, they not only lose, but the franchise likely enters a state of upheaval as a result.
Instead, Jeff Van Gundy was retained as coach, and the Knicks kept the band together and beat the Heat again the following year to make the Eastern Conference Finals, this time losing to Indiana in 6. It was a good year that likely would have never happened had Houston’s shot not gone in.
It turned out to simply delay the inevitable.
The team traded Patrick Ewing for Glen Rice that September, and entered what would wind up being Van Gundy’s last full season as head coach with an uneven roster in which the three best guys all played the same position before that became fashionable two decades later. It didn’t work out quite as well though, as New York lost to the Raptors in the first round. They’d go on to miss the playoffs eight of the next nine years.
The summer after that Toronto loss, Allan Houston signed a contract extension for six years and $100 million. It often seems that when his shot against Miami comes up, some fans equate those lucky bounces as what earned him that massive deal. For one, this sullies something that should forever remain untainted.
It’s also bullshit.
Houston had never been named to an All Star team at the time his shot went down, but made it onto the squad the following two years. He entered his free agent summer having just turned 30 but showing no signs of slowing down. Should the Knicks have let a two-times-and-counting All Star walk for nothing? Perhaps…although for what it’s worth, while the Knicks stunk from that point forward, during the first two years of his new contract Houston wasn’t the one to blame. He appeared in 159 of a possible 164 games and averaged a career high in points each year. And then the wheels fell off.
Now, Houston is still with the team, and had an up close and personal view of their lottery drawing this past Tuesday. Assuming they keep the pick, all signs point to the Knicks taking RJ Barrett, who would instantly become New York’s most ballyhooed shooting guard since, well…Allan Houston.
Houston remains fourth on the Knicks all-time scoring list, behind only Ewing, Frazier and Reed. He scored more points in a Knick uniform than Carmelo Anthony – think about that for a second – but none were bigger than the two he got that Sunday afternoon. It gave me and millions of other fans a memory that not only will we never forget, but for which our place in the world at that exact moment will forever be etched in our brains.
50 years from now, I probably won’t remember the address of that house, or what borough it was in, or my name for that matter.
But I will always remember the team that gave me something to be happy about at a time when I needed it the most.
I will always remember that moment. That basement. That TV. That ceiling.
And I will always remember…