As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Today, Kelly Dwyer revels in Michael Jordan doing terrible things to John Starks, then Charles Oakley, and then Patrick Ewing during Game 3 of the first round of the 1991 Eastern Conference playoffs.
The New York Knicks weren’t the enemy yet.
The Detroit Pistons? They were the enemy. The Cleveland Cavaliers remained a hated foe, and out West, it seemed as if the Portland Trail Blazers would become the enemy. In the end, it turned out that the Los Angeles Lakers would be the enemy, as well.
The Knicks? There had been some fearsome regular-season back-and-forths in the five years prior, and there was always going to be intrigue present after Chicago dealt an admittedly better and younger player (power forward Charles Oakley) to New York for a player they badly needed (center Bill Cartwright) in 1988. A deal that resulted in this 8-year-old throwing a pillow at a lamp in his parents’ den, knocking it over and breaking it.
The 39-win, pre-Pat Riley Knicks, though, were not the Bulls' enemy in 1991. They were a fitful team still struggling to find an identity in the post-Rick Pitino era, perpetually featuring a starting point guard battle and doing all the Knicksian stuff that you’ve come to know and that New Yorkers have come to fear over the years, like dealing a first-round pick to Portland for Kiki Vandeweghe’s last legs.
No, the Knicks weren’t the frightening outfit that would win 51 games and take the Bulls to seven games in 1992 under Riley, or post more regular-season wins than Chicago the year after. They weren’t the same team that downed the Jordan-less Bulls in 1994, or gave Chicago perhaps its toughest consistent postseason challenge in the 72-win season of 1996. They were coached by an interim lifer named John MacLeod, they had lost the first two games of a best-of-five first-round series by a combined 51 points, and all signs pointed to Game 3 of the first-round pairing as a bit of a mercy killing on the Knicks’ home floor. One last poor showing before Riley came aboard and ended clowntime.
Before that happened, though, Michael Jordan clowned all over Patrick Ewing’s face:
The complete and utter fooling of Oakley and John Starks — two of the more intelligent and active defenders of the era — is enough. To then rise over the conference’s best big man after expending quite a bit of energy in putting Oakley and Starks in the blender is almost unfair. Jordan likely knew Ewing was around, but Ewing had every right to believe that he’d be able to wipe Jordan’s shot out at the rim after watching him feint and twirl and cross over some 17 feet from the basket.
It should have been his. Nothing, for Ewing and for the Knicks, ever was.
That isn’t to say that the Knicks didn’t go on to scare the ever-lovin’ wits out of Bulls fans like me. By the time Chicago moved past the Knicks in 1992 and 1993, or even in 1996 as Chicago went on to play an ill-prepared Orlando Magic squad after slugging it out with the Knicks, the ensuing opponents felt like pushovers by comparison. My father noted as much at the time, pointing out that it felt like the Bulls were up at the plate swinging freely after spending a series against the Knicks in the on-deck circle, warming up for an at-bat with three bats loaded with heavy bat doughnuts. Baseball analogies abounded in the Dwyer household, and we said the word “bat” a lot. It was a real home run.
Jordan scored 33 points with seven assists and six steals in this Game 3, as Chicago went on to win the game by nine, the series in a sweep, and eventually the franchise’s first title. The Knicks went on to get their act together, and promise themselves that this would never happen again.
Even in defeat, it didn’t. Nothing came easy in New York after this.
More from BDL's Dunk History series:
• John Starks, the Chicago Bulls and 'The Dunk'
• Tom Chambers rising like a Phoenix and taking orbit as a Sun
• Taj Gibson starts the break, then breaks Dwyane Wade
• Joakim Noah makes Paul Pierce a memory
• Baron Davis unloads on Andrei Kirilenko, moves beyond belief
• The joy of hearing Scottie Pippen posterize Patrick Ewing
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