Friday, March 11, 2011

1997-2000: When 'Hating' the Miami Heat Made Sense

Having something to say about the woes of the Miami Heat is as easy as breathing in the blogosphere. This team of Superfriends or the new and rapidly-overdone “Two and a Half Men” has hit some bumps, even being overshadowed by an opponent whose pursuit of excellence eclipsed their significant win that broke a five-game losing streak.

When Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra told the media that at least one player began crying after the loss to the Chicago Bulls, it seemed as if there was a far greater reason to not only ‘hate’ on them, but to bring out the Dr. Drew types of the sports world; pop psychiatrists who want to gain some deeper analysis of the mental states of the players. And of course, many of you have come across this through Twitter, where the jokes have been non-stop (though some are rather funny).

There’s no need to do the rundown of how affixed, agitated and admittedly attracted we’ve become to the Heat. From the media coverage to the social media schadenfreude, we’ve taken such a liking to the suffering of this collection of players that not a day goes by without a new meme circling the Internet that further demeans them. Or just Chris Bosh.

It’s gotten absurd to the point that this longtime Knicks fan wishes for the days when ‘hating’ the Miami Heat actually made sense.

For those who need a history refresher, let’s take it back to where it all started. A fax machine at Madison Square Garden.

Courtesy of

On June 15th, 1995, Pat Riley – the original persona non grata to NYK fans before Larry Brown, Stephon Marbury and Isiah Thomas – faxed an unexpected resignation as head coach to the team brass. Unexpected because no matter what media may say in retrospect (because they always know all along, right?), there was not a fan across the globe that could understand why Riley would leave the team. After missing out on the team’s first NBA crown since 1973 in the 1994 Finals, New York lost a bitter seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinal series to the Indiana Pacers, a team that the Knicks would have unquestionably met again had Riley not left after the infamous Patrick Ewing missed finger roll.

It wasn’t just that he resigned; having been so close to a title after winning championships with the Los Angeles Lakers might have driven him over the edge in a city obsessed with the Orange and Blue at the time. It was that he resigned to obtain more power with a franchise desperate for relevance.

Now, Miami has never been revered as a passionate sports town, adulation for those championship Dolphins teams and the walking first & second rounds of the NFL Draft called the Hurricanes withstanding. It’s probably gotten worse when you consider that in the past fourteen years, the Florida Marlins won two World Series championships, the Florida Panthers made a Stanley Cup Final in 1996 and only thirty people can recall getting title fever for either team.

Contrast that to a city not known for great weather, unbridled optimism, five borough unity and pristine beaches. A championship parade in New York would have been the biggest, loudest and most joyous New York City had ever held.

After being swept in the first round by arguably the best NBA team of all time, the 1998 Chicago Bulls, Riley reimaged his new empire in a similar mold to his former fiefdom up north. The entire playbook was built around a true center (Alonzo Mourning as Patrick Ewing), a heady point guard with hand-checking skills (Tim Hardaway as Derek Harper), an enforcer at power forward (P.J. Brown as Charles Oakley) and a borderline mad man on the perimeter shooting threes (Dan Majerle as John Starks). There were many other interchangeable parts, mostly at small forward (Jamal Mashburn as a less rugged, better shooting version of Anthony Mason) and key bench positions.

In what became the defining rivalry of the 1990s, the Knicks and Heat played some the ugliest, but honestly enthralling basketball you may ever see in your life. Both teams were vilified for what was suddenly termed “Rileyball”; a physically punishing, defensively-driven, “Lane? What lane?” game. Never mind that neither team possessed the offensive talents of Riley’s Laker squads of the 1980s; in fact, few teams in NBA history could roll out three Hall of Famers on the starting lineup (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy). Never mind that defensive bullies ran shop in the league long before Riley taught Majerle how to foul or Starks how to head butt Reggie Miller.

The pieces did change over the years. Don Nelson – who couldn’t trade Ewing and made Mason a point forward in his Nellieball scheme – quickly became Jeff Van Gundy, a famed Riley lieutenant. The Heat rolled out several foils off the bench for New York; Voshon Leonard, Isaac Austin, Anthony Carter (current Knick), Clarence Weatherspoon (eventual former Knick) and Bruce Bowen. These guys annoyed the hell out of Knicks fans because of singular moments from behind the backboard shots to hard fouls that were sparingly called.

The Knicks had guys that still tick off Heat fans to this day: the Save Patrick campaign of the late 1990s introduced Miami to Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas (who gave Mourning hell during practices as a member of the Heat), Chris Childs and Charlie Ward. Yet, no players boiled the blood of Heat fans quite like the triumvirate of Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

Their moments speak for themselves.

There were few times in the NBA annals that two teams could claim an absolute hatred for one another. The Heat-Knicks rivalry was so intense that not this been a regulated professional league, individual contributions on either side could have started riots in senior leagues at Boca Raton and middle schools in Syosset. Save for the Georgetown men of Ewing and Mourning – longtime friends that still had dinner with each other after playoff games – these guys could have held mixed martial arts matches just as well as basketball games to release their rage towards one another.

They shared space in the same Atlantic Division, with Miami winning the division crown four years in a row from 1997-2000. They also met in four straight postseasons during that span of Heat regular season dominance; with each series going the full limit of games. In those Aprils and Mays, New York got the upper hand when it counted; three series wins and 13-11 record in all 24 games). You know the moments, even if you want to erase them from your memory. It wasn’t basketball at its purest or most aesthetically pleasing for those fawning for Michael Jordan’s fade away jumpers. It was like watching the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers playing each other every other day for two weeks; entertainingly violent, hideous and enthralling.

Probably the best words ever spoken on those days come from the outstanding Free Darko book, “The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History”. Joey Litman said of the rivalry:

“This ugly, malevolent basketball nonetheless aroused so much passion because the theater was authentic and the enmity real. Miami’s Tim Hardaway once said of the Knicks, “I hate them with all the hate you can hate with”. Michael Jordan and the other pretty things of the 1990s may have been pretty and esteemed, but they also held themselves beyond reach, sacrosanct like works of art. The Knicks and Heat played different basketball, the sort that for all of its flaws, was terrestrial, tangible, attainable. It invited fans to experience the rivalry in a more personal manner. Knicks-Heat had an emphatic quality: The players didn’t do anything special – they were just like us, only more so. A common fan couldn’t bang with Charles Oakley, but he certainly understood the floor-bound brutishness in a way he couldn’t understand David Robinson’s assault on physical laws. Fans were free to see the Knicks and Heat as human – humans engaging in a conflict filled with raw, recognizable emotion, especially anger.”
And goodness, there was anger.

So, why the walk down memory lane?

When LeBron James signed with the Heat, he took on American sports’ public enemy number one; for better or worse. For many, it would have been easy to ‘hate’ if he signed with the Knicks; all things New York unearth an often irrational resentment from the rest of the country, but the City itself can take that in stride.

If he signed with a team like the Los Angeles Clippers, despite the potentially great young nucleus of Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Gordon, he would have been a part of the NBA’s longest-running punch line. After all, how often do you find yourselves saying “but it’s the Clippers”?

If he signed with Chicago, it would have been ego running rampant. He just had to play in the House Michael Built. He just had to one-up the living legend. He just had to be a global icon where Jordan became an actual global icon.

No matter what reporters have said in retrospect, not a soul outside of James, Riley, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh knew that James would sign with Miami. Remember, the Heat was supposed to lose Wade to Chicago and Bosh was supposed to be a compliment player to anywhere either Wade or James would go to, right? Yet, the Heat, with an apparently apathetic fan base and far too many warm-weather distractions to inspire passions like their northern neighbors, nabbed all three of them for the next six seasons.

‘Hating’ the Heat in 2011 seems too easy, contrived and without roots. It’s the NBA’s version of culture vulturism; something people latch onto in order to get attention or feel part of the inside joke so many seem to be in on. There’s no question that The Decision, Riley’s history and the Miami sports fan base make for an interesting brew while we as fans and media (bloggers count) happily stir the pot.

Yet, not too long ago, there was an actual reason to ‘hate’ the Miami Heat. It had less to do with ill-fated announcements, Trending Topics and arenas not being filled to capacity. It had to do with one slick-haired, Armani suit wearing, brilliantly conniving Hall of Fame head coach that wanted more than another legacy-enhancing championship.

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