Wednesday, May 16, 2007


When the Knicks last ran New York City, the world wasn't sure what to think. It was the early nineties when the Yankees were trying to shed those Bronx Zoo days and the Mets were far from contenders. The Giants were pushing for another Super Bowl title one year and clawing away from the cellar the next while their roommates, the Jets, already set up their TVs there for some playoff watching. The Rangers broke the Curse of 54 years, but as the rest of the NHL, were losing their goodwill because of the lockout in 1995, they became a high-priced mess. There were no Arena Football, WNBA or MLS teams to ignore and Derek Jeter hadn't become entombed into the shortstop dirt in the Bronx.

1994 was as New York as New York could get when it came to sports. Sure, the city loves a winner, no matter the sport. Yet, the Knicks style of play was as emblematic of the Five Boroughs as anyone could care to admit. It was defensive. It was gritty. It was knock-you-on-your... It was just plain ugly. And it was beautiful. Streetball at its finest. 'Gimme lane' was the cry of the playground dynamo as everyone would clear to one side. That braggadocious fellow was met by a hard foul in the paint. As the city was during those days, there was little flash and even less love for anyone who showed that flair. The Knicks were the proverbial hard foul to the sporting public.

And the country hated it. They hated (and still hate) the Knicks because they represented the city truer than any other team, movie or TV show ever could. They hated the hole Michael Jordan left as he was the deft high-flyer and offensive force that tried to outsmart and outmanuever bigger and stronger opponents that played with the rules as those Knicks did. It was the same style of play that the Bad Boys played in Detroit and that the Celtics ruled with when needed during their last title reigns. Yet, the Knicks were blamed for the apparent demise of the NBA. In other words, they were the last true on-court antagonists the league ever had.

As the furor grows over the suspensions of Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw for leaving the bench after Robert Horry's forecheck of Steve Nash, debates rage over if the NBA has done right by its players and its true fans who desire competitive games over tailor-made outcomes. While it was an indefensible foul by Horry, it speaks to the intensity of the playoffs and the 'anything to win' mentality of these men in these spring months. The fouling that has taken place during the playoffs are a result of something greater within the game than fear of a fight. The playoffs are another world as every strength and weakness of not only teams and individual players is magnified, but a style of play and a league. While another post is needed for the true history of the bench rule, which extends to the aftermath of the Kermit Washington-Rudy Tomjanovich incident back in 1977, the glaring weakness that some fans and media are starting to see because of this incident is the loss of defense in the game. The campaign to increase the offense in the game has finally set in at the cost of competition.

The reasoning behind limiting the defense was to give the fans a show. Thinking that combined scores in the 250-point range every night would bring a cavalcade of fans to the arenas, the league felt that they needed to open up the court for the offense with clear path fouls, insitituting zone defense, allowing the pro-hop (you know that's travelling) and calling defensive three-seconds violations. Earlier this year, the league began to call more technicals as they believed it was to limit the whining of players about certain calls, but it was a clever way to add an extra point or two in a game. In addition to the 'Shaq zone' in the paint and handchecking fouls that were in place in the late-nineties, the NBA was an offensive game in the making. The rules have encouraged players to attack the basket at will or contort themselves to draw fouls as defenders are basically handcuffed. The rules in turn have also increased flopping on both sides. On offense, the current king of the flail, Manu Ginobili, makes Reggie Miller seem hard. For defense, it is the only way that they can force turnovers without the referees questioning the use of their hands on the open floor or their bodies in the post. The rules have taken away the balance between scoring and defending.

Other than baseball, team sports have handcuffed defensive specialists while enhancing what Walt Frazier would call 'swiss cheese' or 'matador D'. The NHL wanted to move away from the sluggish traps of the Jacques Lemaire-led Devils. So when the opportunity came after the season-long lockout in 2004-05, league officials tweaked the rules and the ice lines themselves to open up the game and there are still thoughts to have a bigger net behind a goalie with much more streamlined equipment. Older American fans found another reason to scoff at soccer as the overacting and blatant flops from the '06 World Cup marred the experience in their eyes (countered by the toughness of the overmatched US contingent). The NFL has been criticized for their defense against defense: roughing the quarterback, pass interference and the enforcement of the age-old five yard rule against cornerbacks.

Anyone who has played basketball at least once in their lives know how physical of a game it is. Anyone who has ever played against a talented offensive player knows that you have to make him or her earn points. Anyone who ever followed a team for a stretch of games has screamed "STOP HIM!" at least once during a game when teams answer point for point. Essentially, we love sports because there are two conflicting sides on a field or court or ice. One side reacts to the other as opposed to an elaborate shootaround. Defense reacts to offense. The antagonist reacts to the protagonist. The greatest moments in sports occur when one side succeeds in the back-and-forth conflict. How much greater is the feeling after winning when you know that both sides put their work in? After a while, no matter how fun it is to score at will, you still have to stop somebody. How much better is the passion play when fans can't stand the other team for playing their guys so well? For players and fans alike, defense not only wins championships, it defines sports. It's time to bring it back.

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