I tried. I really did. But I just couldn't do it: I couldn't get into the NBA playoffs.
Not even with the retro appeal of this year's Finals and one of my favorite athletes getting some well-deserved time in the sun. And not even with my adopted city's team - with a former Hog as one of its star players - nearly pulling off an all-time upset of the eventual world champion.
I turned away from the NBA in the early part of the decade, when offense dried up and final scores seemed to regularly be something like 75 to 68. And despite the obvious rejuvenation of the game, I haven't been able to re-engage. I don't really know why: I'll leave that up to our staff psychologist.
Whatever the cause, my current apathy stands in stark contrast to my attitude in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, I was an NBA fanatic. And I was never more absorbed by pro basketball than I was during the epic, seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal showdown between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks in 1994.
This one had it all: two teams that despised each other, fourth-quarter comebacks, a good old-fashioned brawl, last-second heroics, a questionable game-deciding call and the in-game mental meltdown of a star player. Even before all of that happened, the series' storylines were wildly compelling.
The Chicago Bulls were the three-time defending champions, but they were without the player primarily (some would probably say "completely") responsible for their trophy collection: Michael Jordan, who had announced his first retirement a month before the 1994 season began and who was trying in vain to learn how to hit curveballs when the series took place.
Most pundits thought Chicago would be lucky to compile a .500 record, but the Bulls stunned the basketball world by finishing the regular season with a 55-27 record (only two fewer wins than in the preceding year with Jordan), as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and B.J. Armstrong each raised their games in His Airness' absence. The Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks-led Knicks, meanwhile, had seen each of their previous three seasons end in playoff defeats to Chicago, and, with Jordan out of the picture, believed that it was finally time to vanquish their hated rivals and advance to the NBA Finals.
In Game 1 in Madison Square Garden, the Bulls appeared poised to walk away with a surprising victory, leading the Knicks by 15 points late in the third quarter. But New York tightened the defensive screws, almost completely shutting down the Bulls offense in the fourth quarter, to notch a rousing 90-86 win. Game 2 followed a similar script: the Bulls led until the fourth quarter, when the Knicks once again put Chicago's offense in a vise to mount a come-from-behind victory.
The series returned to Chicago Stadium for the wild, wild, wild Game 3. First off, there was the second-quarter, bench-clearing brawl begun by the Knicks' Derek Harper and the Bulls' Jo Jo English. Then, the Bulls, unable yet again to stand prosperity, blew a 22-point, third-quarter lead.
Chicago called timeout with 1.8 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. The game was tied at 102, and the Bulls were set to inbound the ball near their basket. Chicago coach Phil Jackson drew up a play calling for Pippen to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc and for Kukoc to take potential game-winning shot. Pippen, seething over a mistake that Kukoc had made on the team's previous possession and royally pissed that he himself was not being allowed to take the shot, took himself out of the game, forever ruining his reputation in the eyes of many fans. Instead, former UALR Trojan Pete Myers made the inbounds pass to Kukoc, who nailed a turnaround jumper for the victory.
Whatever you think of Phil Jackson (I used to really like the guy; now I find his smugness too much), you have to give him credit here: his handling of the Pippen controversy was masterful. Many fans undoubtedly wanted Jackson to go thermonuclear on Pippen and banish him to Siberia or something. Instead, he reacted with qualities utterly foreign to many head coaches: balance and perspective.
To condemn Pippen's action, Jackson turned to the other Bulls players, allowing them to air their grievances to the star forward's face in an emotional players-only meeting immediately after the game. That done, Jackson set about putting the incident behind the team. In his book "Sacred Hoops," Jackson said that his reaction to Pippen's hissy fit was in part one of compassion: Scottie had a been a good teammate and an unselfish player for years, and one mistake — no matter how egregious — shouldn't wipe all of that away. The Bulls — and Pippen — showed no lingering effects of the brouhaha in Game 4, cruising to a 95-83 victory to even the series up.
Pippen was again at the center of controversy in Game 5 in Madison Square Garden. The Bulls were leading 86-85 when Knick guard Hubert Davis launched a 23-footer in the game's waning seconds. The shot missed badly, but referee Hue Hollins whistled Pippen for a - in the words of the New York Times' Clifton Brown - "highly questionable" foul. From Brown's game article: "Television replays indicated that any contact Pippen made, which was marginal at best, came clearly after Davis had released the ball."
But Davis calmly made his two free throws, and the Knicks walked out of the arena with an 87-86 win. Here's Brown again: "It was a startling way for the Bulls to lose a crucial playoff game."
The Bulls whipped the Knicks 93-79 in Game 6 (with Pippen punctuating the victory with this slightly awesome dunk) to set the stage for Game 7 in New York. The series' final game was a grinding, hard-fought affair, and the Knicks finally defeated their long-time torturers with an 87-77 win. As they had so many times before, New York suffocated the Bulls in the fourth quarter, holding them to only 14 points. The Knicks would go on to defeat Indiana in seven games in the conference championship series, but they would lose another seven-game affair to the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals (this series is perhaps most notable for having its Game 5 broadcast interrupted by coverage of the O.J. Simpson-white Bronco chase).
I pulled pretty hard for the Bulls in that series: I really hated the Knicks' style of play, and I thought the Bulls winning a championship sans Jordan would have been an amazing story. But because this series was so thrilling, I recall both teams fondly now (well, in the case of the Knicks, perhaps I should say that my all-consuming hatred of that 1994 squad has subsided somewhat).
Simply put, NBA basketball has never been better.