I was leaving work last Friday, on a day sunnier and warmer than I had ever before seen in the middle of March, when I spotted a round object near the curb of the parking lot. I knew from the size of it what it was, but the elements had dome a number on it, all the same. It was a penny that someone had dropped on the ground, and if I had to guess I would say that it was plowed to the curb in one of the two snowfalls we had this winter. I hesitate to say “last” winter just yet, because there’s always one last surprise snowfall waiting in the wings.
I rubbed at the penny a bit, trying to uncover what the year on it was. I have sometimes taken the year on a penny and used it for a starting point for a story or tale of some kind. Through all of the scratches on the coin’s face, I was able to make out the year “1993.” And a moment from that year came to me right away.
I write about the Cubs quite a lot here, but in 1993–as with most of the 1990s–the team was fairly rotten. But that didn’t matter too much, because the Chicago Bulls had the NBA by the tail. The Michael Jordan Era was in full swing, and the first two titles had already been secured by 1993. But the main hurdle seemed to be not which team came out of the NBA’s Western Conference, but the New York Knicks of Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing, and the much-despised John Starks. And when I say “much-despised” I’m probably going easy on him.
So in 1993, the Bulls began their by-then customary title run, but the Knicks announced their presence by winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls had not been in a 2-0 hole before, and there was more than a bit of concern at this development. Patrick Ewing had never before won a title, and was certainly starting to feel like it was his turn. Pat Riley had trademarked the term “Three-peat” and didn’t want the Bulls joining his Lakers teams in that realm. It wasn’t looking good for the Bulls at that moment.
Watching the games in a bar with a group of work colleagues was a certified event in those days. There was discussion at work over which place was the best one to be at, who had the best set-up as far as TVs went, and so on. But underpinning all of it was the expectation that the Bulls were going to win. Nobody doubted the Bulls at that point, but the trends weren’t encouraging. And the Knicks had home-court advantage, in case the series went to seven games.
The Bulls came back to Chicago and won the next two games of the series. Now it was game five and, for some reason, NBC played the omenous opening bars of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” before the pre-game show. This clearly was the moment of truth for the Bulls and the Knicks.
The Knicks had the ball and a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, when the series shown above began. Ewing wanted to put up the winning shot, I’m sure, but he got in trouble and dumped the ball off to Charles Smith in the lane. Victory was literally a couple of feet away.
But then he was stopped under the basket. Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant knew exactly what was at stake, and so they put on a clinic about how to defend the basket without committing a foul. Smith’s moment of triumph had quickly morphed into flailing nightmare. And, after a possible fifth attempt went off Smith’s hands and right to Horace Grant, and after Stacy King delivered a hard elbow to clear Smith off of the ball, the Bulls cleared the ball and iced the victory.
Smith was the one who watched the ball go through the hoop as the buzzer sounded. And Smith then slammed the ball down on the court with every ounce of frustration he ever felt in his life. I imagine that it got very quiet in Madison Square Garden.
But back in Chicago, everyone let out a collective sigh of relief. There was no way, with the series coming back to Chicago, that the Knicks could recover. And they didn’t, as the Bulls finished off the series on their way to the third straight title. And it was the sweetest victory yet, perhaps the sweetest one of the six that the Bulls eventually won.
I’ve wondered sometimes if Smith thinks about that sequence much. It has come to define his playing career, and not in the way that he hoped it would. He had the dagger in his hand, with a chance to plunge it into the heart of the Bulls’ dynasty. But the Bulls denied him, again and again, and Smith has had to carry that around with him for nearly two decades now. I’m sure it can’t be easy for him.
The Bulls are on the rise again now, and perhaps they can get past the Miami Heat this year and make it to the NBA finals for the first time post-Jordan. But as far as I’m concerned, the Jordan Era won’t ever be equaled in the future. But I’m willing to let this newest incarnation of the team try.