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Monday, September 15th, 2008 at 10:00 am  |  40 responses

An Evening at The Garden

MJ, the Knicks, and My Dad

by Marcel Mutoni

When I was 9 years old, my mother took a job with the United Nations, and my family moved to New York City. It was the biggest, loudest, most intimidating place that I had ever been in. And I loved everything about it. Taking the subway to and from school each day, the lights, the sounds, sights and smells, and the ceaseless energy of the city and its people.

What I was enamored with most, though, was the basketball. New York, as you have surely heard a million times by now, is the Mecca of basketball. This is true in every sense. In the 90′s, when the Knicks weren’t the source of unspeakable shame that they are today, New York was a hoops town through and through. From the playgrounds, to the indoor gyms, and of course inside the World’s Most Famous Arena. It remains a basketball-mad metropolis today, but nothing like when Riley and his men were princes of the city.

The year was 1993, the Chicago Bulls, coming off two consecutive NBA titles, were the best team on the planet, and Michael Jordan was arguably the most recognizable human being in the solar system. He was also my idol. Understand this: I loved basketball and the NBA, but I adored Michael Jordan. Worshiped him. My affinity for this bald-headed man that I’d never met in my entire life (and likely wouldn’t in the future) bordered on the psychotic.

(When the news broke that his father had been murdered that July, I mistakenly thought that it was MJ himself who’d shuffled off this mortal coil, and I locked myself in the bathroom, sobbing inconsolably. My mother, furious at the memory that nary a tear had escaped my eyes when my own grandfather passed away the previous year, almost took a broom stick to my head.)

My father, who was living in England at the time, had gotten me a crisp, blood red number 23 Bulls jersey for my 10th birthday, and I abused the thing. Wore it everywhere.

I felt an obligation to rep Mike 23 all day, everyday. Underneath my school uniform – for reasons I have yet to fully grasp, my mother insisted that my brothers and I attend a private French school in Manhattan, where we had to wear button-up shirts, ties, and slacks daily – to the park (our school was conveniently located just a few blocks from The Cage, New York’s iconic streetball court); I even wore it underneath my outfit when I attended mass on Sundays. I was a crazy kid.

But I also don’t think that I was alone in my madness. It was practically impossible not to get swept up in MJ Mania.

In those days, Mike wasn’t really a basketball player; he was the closest thing we had to a real-life superhero. The man was playing an entirely different sport from everyone else, his team was winning at an unbelievable clip, you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about his latest exploits, and the Nike machine made sure that his image was on television during virtually each and every commercial break.

There was just one tiny problem. In New York City, Mike and his Bulls were public enemy number one. Despite the fact that he was born in Brooklyn, most New Yorkers had warmer feelings towards the Son of Sam than they did for the League’s brightest star.

The Bulls stood between the Knicks and championship glory. For the first time in two decades, New York had a team with a realistic shot at winning the whole thing, but one man proved to be an immovable obstacle, time and again.

In the ’91 Playoffs, Chicago knocked New York out in the first round. Not only was it a humiliating sweep, but also this happened. The following year, the underdog Knicks fouled, clipped, elbowed, and improbably clawed their way to a decisive Game 7 in Chicago Stadium, only to once again be expunged by MJ and his defending champion Bulls.

When the teams met in the postseason for the third consecutive time, this time in the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals, the Knicks and their fans were sure that they would prevail against the hated Bulls at last.

My father left England and moved in with us that summer, and to my poor mother’s chagrin, he and I spent every night in our Manhattan apartment immersed in Bulls vs. Knicks talk. It was the topic of conversation for seemingly everyone in the city, and one that often led to fist fighting on the playgrounds.

It’s impossible for me to know how much my dad was really into the rivalry, or if he simply played along because it brought the two of us that much closer. I don’t really care either way; I had MJ and I had my dad. I was the happiest kid in the world.

“Hey, I’ll be home in 15 minutes. Get yourself ready to leave,” my father said over the telephone, sounding short of breath.

“But, dad, Game Five is about to start in an hour! I can’t miss tha – ”

My dad cut me off. “Just trust me. Grab the Jordan shirt and put your shoes on. And hurry up!”

“I swear, if you make me miss this game, I’ll never forgive you.”

“Just be ready when I get there.”

Forty-five minutes and a subway ride later, my father and I were being ushered inside Madison Square Garden. I couldn’t believe it. When handed my ticket, my jaw nearly hit the floor. It was my first time stepping foot inside an NBA arena, an absolutely overwhelming experience. This wasn’t some dream; it was actually, truly happening.

The series was dead-locked at two games apiece, and I was about to watch my favorite player go up against his fiercest rivals, in the most electric atmosphere imaginable. It was positively surreal.

Knicks fans are a knowledgeable, passionate, and loud bunch. As previously mentioned, they also hated the Bulls with every fiber of their being in the ’90s. You can just imagine the reception my MJ jersey received in the stands. I was petrified. My father, hardened by years of attending violent soccer matches in Britain, where the hostility for enemy fans is legendary, couldn’t help but laugh at the insults being hurled at us by crazed Knicks supporters. I was sure that we were going to get our asses kicked, but even that wouldn’t have stopped me from enjoying this moment.

Michael Jordan had torched the Knicks for 54 points in Game Four, a dazzling performance, whose significance was magnified by his struggles earlier in the series, and in part fueled by the New York media getting under his skin by gleefully inferring that a late-night gambling trip to Atlantic City prior to Game Two had affected his play. I was sure he’d explode on the Knicks again, and frankly, so did they. It turns out that we were both wrong.

In one of the defining games of his career, MJ expertly carved up the vaunted Knick defense, content to find his teammates with sharp, at times spectacular passes for three and half quarters. When the dust had finally settled, Jordan had 14 assists, to go along with 10 rebounds.

It wasn’t until the late stages of the fourth quarter, with the series hanging in the balance, that Jordan finally donned his Superman cape.

The Bulls abandoned the Triangle Offense, and put the ball in MJ’s hands and let him go to work. At one point, he scored 14 consecutive points for them, using a dizzying array of step back jumpers, fast break layups, and tip-ins that left John Starks with a look MSG patrons had come to know all too well whenever Mike came to town – that of a broken, defeated man.

Michael Jordan finished the game with a triple double, one of the greatest Playoff performances the NBA had ever seen.

(After finding a wide-open BJ Armstrong for a baseline three with just over a minute remaining, a shot that would turn out to be the game-winner, MJ, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant teamed up for one of the most infamous sequences in New York sports history. And Charles Smith instantly became synonymous with failure.)

Today, all anyone recalls from that historic play is Smith getting blocked and stripped four straight times underneath the basket, but what is never talked about is the fact it should have never come to that. Before a falling Patrick Ewing found Smith in the lane with a shovel pass, Starks committed a massive traveling violation after faking out MJ, one that the refs – perhaps, wisely fearing for their lives – conveniently ignored. You can see it here for yourselves. Look for it at about the 0:12 mark.

“Ewing for Smith … Smith … stripped … Smith. Stopped. Smith, stopped A-GAIN by Pippen!”

That was Marv Albert’s famous call as the Bulls stunningly denied Charles Smith a chance to put New York ahead as time ran out. Inside the arena, however, the sound was entirely different.

The ear-splitting chaos and madness that had served as the contest’s soundtrack since well before tipoff were suddenly replaced by a harrowing silence. Even the MSG organist stopped playing his familiar tune when Smith began his clumsy, ill-fated layup attempts. It was a heart wrenching moment for 20,000 people.

As soon as the final buzzer sounded, MJ and his teammates raced off the floor, looking as though they’d just gotten away with something. What they had done, in fact, was completely rip out the Knicks’ hearts and extinguish any resolve they might have had left.

Knicks fans in our section of the arena were beside themselves, they couldn’t believe what had just taken place. Though it would take one more perfunctory game back in Chicago to conclude matters between these two bitter rivals, New York’s team, its fans, the city, and the rest of the hoops-watching universe knew the series was effectively over following the Charles Smith calamity. Nobody recovers from that.

My father figured this was a good time for us to quickly exit Madison Square Garden. A splendid idea.

Eighteen days later, the Bulls would be crowned as NBA champions for the third straight year. And in October, at the height of his powers, Mike shockingly announced to the world that he was retiring from the game. I was devastated.

After getting through Jordan’s press conference, yet still not quite believing what had just taken place, I gave my father a long hug. No words were expressed; there was no need.

(Visit my man Nate’s blog, Jones on the NBA, where he’s gathered several writers from the hoops blogosphere to share memories of their favorite NBA arenas. And as always, feel free to share your own in the comments.)

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  • Peat

    great story !

  • slamfan4life

    amazing story man, truly great

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Thanks Marcel. Great story.

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com Hursty

    Great story Mutoni. Really quality stuff. Sidenote: My mom also works for the United Nations.

  • http://www.myspace.com/2536545 Bryan

    Wow. I hate the story of the game but a well written story by a very lucky man. The only knick games I got to see were against the heat and hornets.

  • http://www.myspace.com/2536545 Bryan

    I was like every other new yorker and hated MJ until much later in life when I learned to appriciate his game and not worry about who he played for.

  • B. Long

    Eboy more than likely will rub one out while reading this. Great read.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Shia: Same with me being a Pistons fan. I absolutely despised MJ growing up. I think Detroit was the only place Mike was hated on more than NY.

  • zak

    MJ is my ideol he had one of the best Dunks in the game i love game and the i look up to the players aw yea great story

  • http://www.slamonline.com Holly MacKenzie

    Ahhh Marcel! Thank you so much for sharing this. I think I love your dad! So fantastic. What an amazing experience for your first ever NBA game.

  • akimana

    Great great story Mutoni. Were you still in NYC for the Rockets series, or did you not even care. After that game I dont blame you though.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    Thank you Marcel. The story brought back VERY happy memories. Never stepped foot in an Nba arena, much less a 90′s era MSG Bulls-Knicks matchup (frankly i might have fainted), but you are a blessed man. Was that the same series where mike fake spun along the baseline to posterize Patrick? Or even better, the one where he took it at Ewing AND Oakley, got hacked and screamed all kinds of abuse at them while screaming.. gawd, i’m getting goosebumps. Wow. Thanks for sharing Mutoni.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    @B.long: your 10:26 comment = D.A.M.N!

  • Randy Brown

    great article

  • B. Long

    ^Is that the Randy Brown that played for the Bulls?

  • http://nba.com GermanMavsFan

    Great Read!!

  • KA

    ah. I was in my teens. had the Jordan 7s and the shin pads and the arm bands. good times. up til 99 I hated the knicks and for good reason. starks, oaks, xman and mase were tough guys and scared the sh*t outta me, those guys were the antithesis of the smooth flowing game that pip n jk (and later with harp) epitomized. good read. also, marcels soccer dad is gangsta, you can’t front on dem English football hooligans.

  • KA

    darksaber, no, those highlights were from seasons back, including that flush over Ewing by pip with a return feed from bj. the bulls were getting done in that series with only game 7 opening up in the last minutes of the 4th, so it was a pretty tight series, none of that highlight reel stuff. mj really had to go to his mid range game, pip was locked down by mcdaniels. shooters like bj and hodges were a boon to the bulls who struggled in the paint.

  • knick

    I was 19 back then, and it was and will remain the greatest basketball event of my life. I remember everything, it was just a surreal battle of extinction. I had Jordan life size on the wall, yet I was and will forever remain a loyal Knicks fan, thx to Starks, Oak, Ewing. That team was just hardcore. Thx for bringing the memories back, gotta go look for those VCR tapes.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    Thanks KA. just started rewatching my old bulls tapes (gimme 5, for example) and noticed my mixup. Good times though. The best.

  • KA

    after the lackluster ECF the year prior, that knicks series was great, plus the prospect of 2 buddies meeting up in the finals where chuck had stolen the MVP that year: great drama. game 7 had remarkable play where mike scored thru a double team, stole the ensuing inbound, got ripped, but came back to knock away xaviers breakaway layup. then the next trip bj buries a clock winding down pullup and momentum shifted. effing intense stuff.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    Yeah, that’s the one i also thought about… “who’s game is it? It’s Micheal Jordan’s game”.

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    Great story, Marcel. And to add, after MJ’s 1st comeback, he was more beloved in NY than he was hated as he was before, on a whole. The addition of age, respect and the idea that he was at his near-end was probably the driving force behind it. The fact they really weren’t playoff rivals at the point didn’t hurt either.

  • akimana

    And also knicks fan realized that in ’94 and ’95 it wasnt his fault they couldnt get a title.

  • B. Long

    2^Told yall.

  • KA

    yeah, after that it was all about pacers-bulls. quality matchups but just not the same thing with knicks-bulls. also, i mentioned mase, who I think came out after mike retired, but overall riles knicks crew was a formidable bunch you loved to hate. which was the opposite of van gundys gimpy but overachieving crew that you love to root as underdogs.

  • Lz – Cphfinest3

    Gooooooood job Marcel.

  • RIGGS

    B. disturbed me with his mind being into eboy “rubbing one out”, just messed up the whole mood of the article.

  • Bruno

    that was great man… you made my day!
    really… just remembering all those moments, really made my day.
    of course you are not alone, but imagine a guy just like you, but not living in new york, but instead, in Brasil in a no-internet era and in Brasil, still no cable!… with no one to talk about, no one to follow nba with. all about soccer, but me.
    i stll have those games taped in VHS! game 6 with that alley oop tip by jordan… great memories.
    your 1st game is one of the most amazing games in playoff history, mine was 2005, raptors x memphis…
    lol
    can you compare?

  • http://www.joelkimmel.com Joel Kimmel

    I’ve been to a couple great Jordan games, but I am feeling pretty envious right now. That’s amazing that you got to go to that game.

  • Coty

    Probably the best article I’ve read on this site in awhile. I wish I would have been old enough at the time to appreciate the impact Jordan was having on the game.

  • tealish

    Sigh, you don’t get those classics up in Canada.

  • tealish

    Coty: same, when I started watching I didn’t even know MJ had retired once before.

  • Biz

    amazing..those were the days

  • http://hoops4life.com overtime

    Brilliant story…i think we all felt that way about the G.O.A.T

  • chintao

    Well-written, but horrendously biased. The grainy YouTube does not clearly show Starks moving his left foot, so I’ll say that’s inconclusive. Regardless, Jordan traveled every fourth time he handled the ball, but almost never got the whistle. Anyway, if Jordan and the Bulls raced off the court looking as if they had stolen something, it was because the officiating had been generally and hilariously lopsided in their favor(as it always was, whenever the Bulls were involved). Further, if Starks looked broken, it was because he had to play against both Jordan and the refs. Anyway, this whole story also manages to suppress Jordan getting his cape handed to him by Starks in the play that will always be known simply as “The Dunk”. The Bulls were a Donaghy-esque success fabricated at the behest of the Sternbot.

  • chintao

    Yeah, I’m still bitter! So what?

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    Chintao, tell em how yer hurting, son.

  • chintao

    I couldn’t hide it if I tried, Darksaber.

  • Hussman25

    Well well written story! Man those were the days!

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