Over the past few weeks I have watched several episodes of a series on MSG Network called “The Garden’s Defining Moments” which focuses on the back story to some of the most iconic events in the history of Madison Square Garden in New York City. The series has featured the visit of Pope John Paul II, now Saint John Paul The Great from the perspective of both the attendees and the event organizers as well as Garden employees.
The series has also included classic sports moments such as Larry Johnson’s unforgettable four point play for the New York Knicks, the incredible hockey playoff series between the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, and the unbelievable college basketball game between Syracuse and the University of Connecticut which needed six overtime periods to be decided.
I viewed this series as a trip down “memory lane” in my own life, though I was too young to remember the visit by the Pope back in 1979, I found that episode in the series particularly poignant and inspiring. This episode took on increasing significance when you consider that last week we remembered Saint John Paul II because it has been 10 years since he passed away. This holy man was beloved throughout the world but particularly in America, which was demonstrated by the reception he received in the Garden in an event geared toward the youth, which essentially served as the precursor to what would become World Youth Day in the Roman Catholic Church.
Another episode in this series on Madison Square Garden’s history focused on the improbable and stunning four-point play converted by New York Knicks forward, Larry Johnson, during a playoff game in the 1999 push by the team to the Eastern Conference Championship. This episode coupled with the before-mentioned Devils vs. Rangers playoff series were the two episodes that evoked the strongest memories for me.
It was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals with the Knicks and the Indiana Pacers in a series tied 1-1 setting the stage for a pivotal third game at the Garden. The Knicks would be without Patrick Ewing who sustained an injury at the end of the previous game, so the team needed Johnson to have a big game to replace the scoring they were going to lose with Ewing on the bench.
I watched that game, as I did so many other big Knicks games, with my mother. My mother enjoyed watching the games with me, especially basketball, and like all other things she did, she made it feel like a special event. She made sure to prepare dinner early so that everything was wrapped up and the kitchen was cleaned up by the time the game began. The playoff games helped because they generally started a little later in the evening.
I remember that series well, and being a Knicks fan, I was always preparing for the worst possible scenario. I recall thinking that the Knicks were in trouble without Ewing, the Pacers were a tough team, but I remember my Mom being optimistic that they would win because, as she explained: “it was at the Garden”. My mother made a bunch of different “game day” type snacks, and of course she had a nice dessert made too.
The game was dramatic, close, and the Garden crowd was raucous throughout the action. The Knicks and Pacers were like two heavyweight boxers exchanging blows, going toe-to-toe in the center of the ring, each team matching the other: basket for basket, dunk for dunk, and rebound for rebound. The Knicks kept the score close with Indiana largely due to the ability of each player utilizing their strengths and through a standout offensive performance by Larry Johnson.
In the closing moments of the game, the Knicks trailed by three points and the prospects of victory seemed bleak. Larry Johnson attempted a three point shot which he made successfully and a foul was called on the shot attempt giving him a trip to the foul line for one shot. The three point field goal tied the game at 91 and Johnson stepped to the foul line and time seemed to stop too. Johnson knocked down the free throw to give the Knicks an improbable 92-91 lead which would end up being the final score.
The roar of the crowd after that four point play was palpable even while watching it at home on television. My mother and I were elated that the Knicks were able to come from behind and win a pivotal playoff game without their best player and in front of their devoted fans. Of course, my mother also had to basically say “I told you so” and joked that I should have known also that the Knicks would get the much needed win.
The Road Ahead
New York would go on to win the series with Indiana in six games to advance to the NBA Finals to play the San Antonio Spurs, the top seeded team in the Western Conference. The Knicks would lose the series to San Antonio in five games, including losing twice on their home court and by one point in the deciding game 78-77. The Spurs have gone on to win multiple NBA titles since that series, while the Knicks have largely struggled for the better part of the past fifteen seasons.
It was a “defining moment” for MSG, the Larry Johnson four point play, but it also was a defining moment in my own journey. A month after that Game 3 victory in June 1999, my mother would be diagnosed with cancer. The four long years of fighting the disease took us to Philadelphia, where she received treatments. That was during the Allen Iverson days of the 76ers in Philly when they made their own run to the NBA Finals. My Mom and I would watch those games together when we were staying in Philly, and we would debate whether the Knicks teams from the mid-90s could have beaten that Sixers team.
My mother would pass away four years after her diagnosis. Now, when I watch Carmelo Anthony drop 45 points on an opponent I will say to my wife, “Mom would have liked that game” to which my wife will reply, “She did, she saw it with you”. The seasons move on and life moves on, but the memories remain.
The MSG series “Defining Moments” was really enjoyable and well produced. It took me on a trip back through time, into some defining moments in my own life, not only regarding sports, but in bringing me back to some events in my life that I had forgotten about in the busy nature of recent years.
I am grateful for that introspection, for eliciting the memories of nights watching playoff basketball with my Mom, and of times we shared together when life was different than it is today. The NBA regular season ended last night, and while the Knicks failed to make the playoffs, I will be watching the playoff games, and as my wife will remind me, my Mom will be right there watching them with me.