There was a time when it felt that the only thing standing in the way of the New York Knicks winning an NBA title was Michael Jordan. Throughout the 1990s, the Knicks would charge into the playoffs looking for the team's first championship since 1973, only to be sent home unceremoniously by Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
In this season of diminished expectations, snagging the eighth playoff spot in a conference in which only two teams matter would be considered a moral victory, but the Knicks may be in a hole too deep to make that happen. Naturally, the team most likely to take that final playoff spot - the Charlotte Bobcats - is owned by Jordan.
It seems as if a lifetime's worth of highlights against one team simply is not enough for the man with six championship rings. Adding insult to injury, Jordan is doing it with the help of Patrick Ewing, the former Knicks star, who is now the Bobcats' associate head coach.
The rivalry between the Bulls and the Knicks of the 1980s and 1990s extends to when Jordan and Ewing were in college. In the 1982 NCAA championship, Jordan, playing for North Carolina, sank a jumper with 17 seconds left to defeat Ewing and Georgetown. It would prove to be a sign of how things would play out for the players for nearly 20 years.
Over the course of their professional careers, Jordan's team sent Ewing's team home from the playoffs five times. The only season in which a Ewing-led team made it past the Bulls was 1994, when Jordan was roaming the outfield for the Class AA Birmingham Barons. With Jordan on the court, the Bulls were 19-8 against Ewing-led teams in the playoffs, with Jordan averaging 33.1 points a game. In Game 4 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, he had one of his best playoff games, scoring 54 points. The win tied the series at 2-2 after the Knicks had gotten off to a 2-0 start. The Bulls went on to win the series in six games.
The Knicks under coach Pat Riley tried to combat the elegance of Jordan with a brutality rarely seen in the game. The strategy turned the Knicks into one of the NBA's best teams, but some felt their physical style made games nearly unwatchable. The players involved have never denied or apologized for that reputation.
"They were in our way, and we wanted to get past them and win a championship," Ewing told Bulls.com in 2005, referring to the rivalry. "They had had enough success already, in our minds. People might not have liked it, but we were willing to do anything to get there."
This season the Bobcats and the Knicks are both somewhat unwatchable, but not because of any specific strategy. Having joined forces with Jordan, Ewing is trying to help guide the Bobcats into the playoffs behind a stellar season by Al Jefferson and little else. The Knicks similarly have rested their hopes on the shoulders of Carmelo Anthony, who is having a spectacular season - including a 62-point game against Charlotte - but has not been able to will the team into any sort of relevance. Both teams are playoff contenders only because most of the conference has decided to take the season off, with only three teams managing to average more points a game than they allow.
Even in that environment, it is not only the Bobcats the Knicks will have to overcome to make the playoffs. The race for the eighth seed is among four teams - Charlotte, Detroit, Cleveland and the Knicks - but with Atlanta in free fall, having lost eight consecutive games through Friday, it could be a five-team dogfight for two spots.
If history suggests anything, it is that when it comes to Jordan and the Knicks, the smart money is on Jordan. The Knicks' best hope might be that Jordan the owner does not have the same power over them as Jordan the player.
New York Times