An Evening at The Garden

by September 15, 2008

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.)