A review of ESPN's Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks, from a woman who once took a photo with John Starks and keeps it at her desk, and now co-workers think they're married.
"I was like, man," twangs John Starks in Winning Time, ESPN's latest 30 For 30 documentary, describing what went through his mind immediately after Reggie Miller drained two three-pointers (and the blood from thousands of faces) to erase a 6-point Knick lead in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. "Did this dude just did this?"
That, indeed, that dude had just done. I was forever scarred.
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I regarded the release of Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks with a mixture of disdain and despair. Disdain because I could only imagine the evil glee of Bill Simmons in his producer's chair, drafting Knicks-specific Levels of Losing rubrics; and despair because please: do I need to explain?
"No desire to see it," I announced to a friend as I turned down his offer to attend a preview screening. "I already lived through."
There I was, an insufferable war veteran grandpa shaking my cane at the poster for Saving Private Ryan. But the cumulative toll of being a tender-aged Knicks fan in the heat of the '90s — the maniacal postseason upsweep, the why-dost-thou-punish-me anguish — made for its own epic strain of PTSD. And that was before Isiah was even a thing.
I couldn't not watch Winning Time, though, if only out of the sentimental masochism that compels people to dial in to Delilah late at night to request Bonnie Raitt. "My daddy used to play me this on his gee-tar," they sigh, "before he killed my pet rabbit and never came back." John Starks: my own personal Selena.
Directed by PR guy-turned-filmmaker Dan Klores, Winning Time focuses exclusively on the three Knicks-Pacers postseason series from 1993-5, that feverish era of OJ Simpson, RIP Kurt Cobain, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and "Jeff Van Gundy, assistant coach." Rich with 15-year old footage and scored — in a good way! — with opera music, the movie gives a visceral jolt: to see Patrick Ewing's flat top jostling alongside Rik Smits's prepubescent 'stache is to time-travel back into my Umbros and onto the couch. Clearly I wasn't the only one looking to escape the present: Newsday's Neil Best reported that Winning Time drew higher ratings than the average Knicks game.
Roundball Rock always makes for a pleasing be-bop down memory lane, and this one is filled with old faces: Al Trautwig, tanned and youthful; a punny and Grecian Formula'd Keith Olbermann; and Dan Patrick, who has aged zero years. (ESPN seems almost subversive, so you know this shit's old.)
Reggie Miller, the nominal star of the film, is presented as both tagalong trash talker and perceptive performance artist, needling and elbowing like the loudmouth little brother that he just so happened to be. A draft day scene shows the whole Miller family at home on the couch, and it's Cheryl, big and strong, who dominates the room. Reggie, gangly and Spencer Pratt-chinned and sunk deeply into the sofa, seems almost an afterthought.
And he kind of was: "Well, we know what you have to do to be successful," condescends a broadcaster to Miller just after he's drafted. "Play like your sister!" (That could get gender-bending: "Cheryl Miller plays the game like no other woman has ever played it," intones one news anchor over highlight footage. "Like a MAN.")
Regardless the provenance, Miller's pestering schtick, to the infinite sadness of 11-year old me, did get its results: Ewing glares, Starks goes bonkers, even Spike Lee shuts up.
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Every December, my high school ice hockey team (work with me here) took a bus up to Taft for a holiday tournament. We always placed last out of eight teams, although I do vaguely recall that one year we got seventh.
We were creepily housed in the actual dorm rooms of Taft students who'd gone home for Christmas, and we snooped through their belongings with critical delight. In my room we found laxatives, and a small hand-lettered sign:
If you won't make me skinny,
at least make my friends fat.
So defiant! So bitter! And so perfect a mantra for the mutually assured "if I can't have her, no one will" destruction that was Pacers-Knicks, which is how I got to thinking about bitchy girls in the first place.
* * *
It's striking how ferocious the NBA was. A montage of brawls shows, variously, Starks fighting what appears to be the entire Phoenix Suns franchise — holler, Dan Majerle! — and a Knicks-Bulls melee in which Derek Harper bodyslams Jo Jo English. (I can hear Walt Clyde Frazier now: "Derek's slamming and jamming on the left hand side!") During one clip I noticed a rogue hand appear in the lower corner of my screen and wrench an official away by the side of the face.
Charles Oakley — criminally underfeatured in the film, by the way, apparently due to a mixup between Klores and ESPN? — wasn't the only player who threw his body around. We watch Starks headbutt Miller, we see Miller wring his neck in the direction of Spike Lee before lowering hand to dong, and hey, there's Scottie Pippen, straddling the face of a fallen Pat Ewing and swinging his own balls suggestively fro.
Winning Time doesn't need to add to the viciousness of the rivalry, but Klores tries, wrangling in a Middle America versus Big City Slicker storyline that goes so far as to accompany shots of schlubby Larry Brown with plucky ragtime piano. It's all pretty forced. "We were called "Indianap-no-place," whines an Indy sportswriter, and I've never felt less empathy in my life.
Klores has much more success when he plays to the quirks of the times. The Beavis-style heh-heh of one crazed Indianapolis fan — "I … shaved my head … and … painted it," he stammers, no doubt after too many whippits — is a nice little glimpse at a whacked day and age. Back in New York the camera snipes Jerry Seinfeld in the MSG stands, flanked by his 17-year old girlfriend Shoshanna. Alec Baldwin is there too: these were the Kim Basinger years.
Lee, in tortoise shell glasses, recalls making a bet with Miller before one game in Indianapolis: if the Knicks won, Miller would have to go visit Mike Tyson in prison — he was holed up nearby — and if not, Lee would have to give Miller's "then-wife" a role in a film. Man, throw in a poisoned meal at a Jack in the Box served up by Gennifer Flowers and you'd have the most '90s wager ever conceived.
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The law of Knicks-Pacers physics went: for every Reggie Miller action, there was an equal and opposite John Starks reaction. So for this big John Starks fangirl, Winning Time hurt to watch.
Much is made in the film of Miller's eightpointsinnineseconds in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals, but it wouldn't have mattered if Starks hadn't choked. I remember it well, how I turned to my dad in horror after Starks missed those pivotal free throws, wondering amnesiacally (the film, mercifully, spares us from 2-for-18) how that could have just happened. Thanks to Klores, now I know.
"My whole brain was … scrambled," elucidates Starks. "My mind was just in a different place."
Oh. It's just such a letdown when your heroes turn out to be dopes, but I should have assumed. Hadn't I watched all those idiotic Minolta commercials on the MSG network, the ones where Starks dicklipped "point THREE is for ME"? Shouldn't I know that the ill-advised gutsiness of a player like him — all headfirst slides and blind heaves — might have developed not alongside a finely tuned intellect, but rather in lieu of one?
Winning Time dredged up many memories I'd worked so hard to repress, chief among them Patrick Ewing's failed Game 7 finger roll in 1995. The movie's climactic scene, this particular failure is played over and over, from just about every angle, in gruesome slow motion: the lumbering gallop of the big man through the paint, the time-stopping float of the ball off his fingers, the in-and-out ricochet off the back of the rim, and that teeth-baring grimace, agonizing and agonized.
"That shot put the lid on the basket for all of our careers going forward," muses Charles Smith, who at least managed to age into a dignified Stringer Bell clone. (Anthony Mason, conversely, emerges from Winning Time as the biggest, um, loser: He's a few meals away from just shaving spare ribs into the side of his head.)
New York and Indiana may have been trying to destroy one another, but at that point the warfare had skewed irretrievably asymmetrical: Pat Riley submitted his resignation the very next day, and by the following year much of the mid-'90s Knicks had been dealt. And while today Patrick Ewing is a sad-sack assistant coach giving Dwight Howard dance lessons, Reggie Miller, to my great irritation, remains on TV: watching, sneering, taunting. "Dear God," I imagine Mase scrawling in crayon somewhere. "If you won't make me skinny, at least make Reggie fat."
* * *
The movie's epilogue jumps ahead four years to Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals. The scene shows Larry Johnson converting a buzzer-beating four point play to lift New York to victory against an awfully familiar opponent.
"We did a Pacer on the Pacers," says Van Gundy of the improbable play.
It's another moment rendered insignificant by hindsight: the Knicks beat the Pacers in six, then were promptly dismantled by the Spurs in the Finals. (The team's decade-long dismantling since has been a slightly more tortuous process.) A year later, they'd return to the Eastern Conference Finals, this time losing in six games. To the Pacers, natch.
And so it went. Still, despite all of my war wounds and emotional scars, the movie was actually satisfying, because deep down, a Knicks fan is just a bitter bitch. I knew we would be winning no trophies, but at least I was sure that the Pacers would be winning none too.