I've always been a big fan of those sports movies where the overwhelming longshot defies enormous odds to find glory. From "Major League" to "Rudy," it's one formula that wins people over, the tried and true Hollywood tale that depicts the improbable rise of the underdog.
Real-life examples of the underdog credo have risen to the forefront in several sports. College hoops has its unlikely heroes--the Gonzagas and Valparaisos. Pro football had the Indianapolis Colts back in 1994, and the NHL is currently experiencing the spoiler antics of Dominik Hasek and Buffalo.
But at the same time, a sports fan could count on the NBA for a solid dose of predictability. In recent years the playoffs subscribed to a tried and true recipe:
Undisputed best team in Western Conference advances to finals.
So do the Bulls.
And this season, the West followed that same predictable path. San Antonio, the top seed, beat Portland, the second seed, to advance to the NBA Finals.
But then the Knicks went on their playoff run, and threw a Metropolis-sized wrench into the best-laid plans of the NBA's elite teams.
New York's story reads like a script earmarked for Hollywood. A rag-tag group of players suffers through early trials and tribulations before finally coming together as a team and finding glory in the playoffs.
But a new millennium is on the horizon and a good underdog story in 1999 must have an edge.
It has to have characters who can inspire adoration and loathing simultaneously. And upon examining the Knicks, it's safe to say their story isn't exactly Disney material.
Let's look at some of the key players in the Knicks' bizarre rise to glory.
The Maligned Coach: Jeff Van Gundy definitely fills that role. It says a lot about New York's season that even though the Knicks have knocked off three higher-ranked opponents, even though his team is in the finals, even though Van Gundy has outcoached Pat Riley, Lenny Wilkens and Larry Bird in these playoffs alone... he still might not have a job next year.
The Unlikely Hero: Enter Larry Johnson. Best known before this season for dressing like a grandmother in sneaker commercials, LJ has stepped it up for New York. At the same time, Johnson has provided those moments us media types love, like a bizarre four-point play in the final seconds of Game 3 against Indiana to give the Knicks the victory, and a 2-1 edge in the series.
The Black Sheep: Let's see, who on New York's team can play this part? Hmmm...who could it be? Latrell Sprewell, maybe? Sprewell's year in the Big Apple has shown the topsy-turvy quality that seems to embody many of New York's fair-weather fans. First, Sprewell lit it up in the preseason, and everybody loved him. He broke his foot in the second game of the year, the Knicks started 0-2 and the fans quickly turned.
When Sprewell's agent said his client would demand a trade if he didn't start next year, the media jumped on him. But as the Knicks have advanced, and more New York players have gotten injured, Sprewell has reached greater acclaim. The most disturbing thing about Sprewell's reemergence, though, is that apparently all he needed to redeem himself was to play well in big games, and people would conveniently forget about his attack on former coach P.J. Carlesimo.
The Wily Veteran: Surprisingly, Patrick Ewing has had a rather small role in his team's success, at least on the court. But while Ewing struggled with an Achilles injury that eventually ended his season, he's proven to be a master of motivation. Whatever he's been doing seems to have worked. Still, if the Knicks pull off the miracle and win it all, it would be quite ironic that Ewing's long-awaited title would come while he sits on the bench in street clothes.
With all that said, can New York's Cinderella story end in a perfect fit? Can the Knicks pull off another stunner, and become the first eight seed to win the NBA title?
I seriously doubt it.
New York was the shortest team in the playoffs before Ewing got hurt, and with Johnson's knee still questionable, that leaves the Knicks with Chris Dudley, Marcus Camby and the little-used Herb Williams to combat the Spurs' Twin Towers, Tim Duncan and David Robinson. The Knicks also lack a proven starting point guard.
Still, even if New York doesn't walk away with the trophy this year, its underdog story is solidified in the lore of playoff history.