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.
I heard my favorite dunk in basketball history hours before I ever saw it.
It may seem a crazy notion in this age of pirated live streams, sanctioned apps and instantly distributed GIFs, but there was a time when there were actual barriers to watching NBA playoff action as it unfolded.
Laptops were a rarity. Tablets and smartphones were more than a decade away. Heck, even simply being in a suburban Chicago home with a television set didn't guarantee you a chance to see the dynasty-era Chicago Bulls play each and every game.
Back in 1994, roughly 37 percent of American households didn't own a cable subscription. Among them were my neighbors, who had two boys who needed a sitter (e.g., me) from time to time. It was a good gig in that I loved playing goalie in their endless games of driveway hockey and getting paid a few dollars an hour for it.
It was not a good gig in that it provided no way to watch Game 6 of that spring's legendary Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bulls and New York Knicks.
And so, with Scottie Pippen and the Bulls facing elimination after the "Hue Hollins game" at the Garden, the three of us settled in front of the stereo and tuned in Neil Funk and Tom Boerwinkle's call on 670.
There have been plenty of odes written to the pleasures of baseball on the radio. Listening to football in the car is acknowledged as an acceptable substitute if you're on your way home from church or running out to pick up food. Listening to a basketball game, however, remains an underrated joy.
Without the static starting points of baseball and football plays, the exercise forces you to use your imagination a lot more for basketball's free-flowing action. And unlike the chaos of hockey, the sport's playbooks provide just enough definition that you don't have to do all the heavy lifting. Listening to a basketball game on the radio remains a decent way to quicken a long drive or provide company while cleaning a garage.
On that day, though, we did nothing but sit and listen. We didn't have to create any tension or sense of drama on our own as Funk began to call the action with his clipped cadence.
"Scottie ... ahead to Horace... kicks out to Toni ... Kaboom!"
"Starks ... into Ewing .. Six-footer ... And the Bulls lead is down to four."
The noise from condemned Chicago Stadium — which needed two Bulls victories to delay the old building's shuttering — was constant through our speakers, though you could sense a certain reserve for much of the first half. The Bulls and Knicks had faced off the previous three springs, with Michael Jordan and Co. prevailing in each alley fight. Now it was Chicago being put to the test, its streak of three straight titles hanging in the balance.
While it wasn't the same team with Jordan shagging flies in Birmingham, the enthusiasm around Chicago remained high, and the thought of elimination at the hands of New York caused just as much dread. Pippen had stepped out of Jordan's shadow to lead the Bulls to 55 wins and a first-round sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers with an MVP-caliber performance. (He'd finish third in Most Valuable Player voting, behind winner Hakeem Olajuwon and runner-up David Robinson.)
Number 33 in red and black remained the center of attention in the Knicks series, for better or for worse. His 1.8 seconds of pouting at the end of Game 3 marred his reputation (even with Toni Kukoc nailing the game-winner in his absence) and he rebounded with a 25-point, eight-rebound, six-assist effort in a Game 4 win that tied the series.
Pippen was then involved in one of the most debatable fouls in NBA history, as Hollins blew a late whistle on the Bulls forward, sending Hubert Davis to the line for two free throws that put the Knicks on the brink of advancing to the conference finals. There was no way the Bulls were going to close the old Stadium with a loss, though.
We sat and listened as they took an early 6-4 lead in Game 6, and then built on it as the free-throw advantage turned the Bulls' way on their home court. Chicago built an 11-point halftime lead, but their inability to close out the games at Madison Square Garden still left a nagging feeling the Bulls might blow it.
Until it happened.
I wish a simple Internet search would call up a replay of Funk's call of the action — you can hear the TV call with Johnny "Red" Kerr in the clip above — but if a version exists online, I've yet to find it.
That's OK, though. I can still remember the roar that came through that speakers, a rush of noise that painted a clear picture.
Pippen had just come off a fast break to dunk over Patrick Ewing in the lane, and the 18,676 fans lucky enough to be at Chicago Stadium threatened to send it into orbit, where it'd definitely avoid the wrecking ball. The Bulls lead had reached 17, the series was going seven games, and it was already clear we'd be talking about this dunk for the rest of our lives.
*Indeed, there were several articles written when the 20th anniversary of Pippen's dunk rolled around on May 20.
It'd take until the evening news for me to see a clip of the dunk, but those of you with the ability to watch from home knew what immediately followed. Pippen came down over Ewing, forcefully pushing him to the ground with a shove that drew a technical. He then marched over to Spike Lee, had his say with the roadtripping Knicks fan and proudly strode the other way.
Meanwhile, the cathartic roar continued through those speakers. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before, and maybe since. At some point, I realized that all three of us were standing. The boys hopped up and down. I felt the need to call someone. I didn't, because there was no way I could stop listening to that stereo.
In years to come, replays of the dunk and pictures would familiarize me with every little detail. From the quick passes of B.J. Armstrong and Pete Myers to reading Scottie's lips in his exchange with Lee ("Sit your a** down!") to appreciating the just-before-it-happened looks of the other players in the frame of Nathaniel Butler's poster-worthy photo.
Seriously, does it get any better than this?
I've taken the time to consider whether what Pippen did constituted bad sportsmanship before quickly concluding my heart still contains no room for anything resembling sympathy for those Knicks.
I prefer to think Pippen's preening was a simple byproduct of that crowd's response. If a 14-year-old listening to the radio couldn't think straight in that din, how could the man responsible for causing it?
Now, if that dunk were to happen today, we'd immediately take to Twitter to add our own empty exclamation, watch the GIF a minute later, upload an illegal highlight to YouTube (joining the 537 others already on the site) and then try to weigh its historical significance with a listicle of history's great dunks posted before game's end. Confirmation via community presents its own immediate reward, of course, but there's something to be said for experiencing a dunk in its rawest form possible — and then letting the moment sink in without an instant search for outside validation.
Though the Bulls would win that game by 14, Ewing and the Knicks would have the last laugh by winning Game 7 two days later in New York, ending the series and the Stadium's reign as one of the league's best atmospheres. A classic seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers and then a loss to the Houston Rockets in the "O.J." Finals would follow for the Knicks.
Pippen has said that the series loss to the Knicks no longer stings him. Another set of three Larry O'Brien trophies and a spot in the Hall of Fame has a way of smoothing things over. (Also, that whole Game 7 collapse to the Lakers in Portland in 2000 probably sticks with Pippen a bit more.)
Still, it's easy to view that Knicks series in '94 as the most representative series of Pippen's career, a time when a complicated superstar overcame both league-wide doubts all season and self-inflicted injury at the end of Game 3 to show exactly what he was capable of in one dunk.
Twenty years later, I wish I could listen to it all over again.
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
• Michael Jordan embarrasses, like, all of the Knicks
More NBA coverage:
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- Sports & Recreation
- Scottie Pippen
- Patrick Ewing
- Chicago Bulls