Twenty years ago, Larry Johnson caught a pass and scuttled alongside the baseline with Pacers defender Antonio Davis fatefully draped all over him. His shot slid down the glass, and with six seconds left in a pivotal Game 3, Johnson hit the most electrifying shot any Knicks fan this side of the Baby Boomer generation has ever witnessed.
Johnson and the Knicks won that game and eventually made their way to the NBA Finals, where they lost to Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s nascent Spurs dynasty in five games.
The Knicks haven’t been to the Finals since. Fans today — the ones in Mitchell & Ness Knicks gear on Instagram, the ones rationalizing blowout losses on Twitter — are still searching for that four-point rush.
“It was so magical. It feels like a fever dream,” says China Parmalee, a lifelong fan and Knicks blogger for the popular Knicks website Posting and Toasting. Parmalee, 40, is part of the last generation that wasn’t merely alive for the last run of sustained success, but also remembers it vividly.
“Three-point shots were not that common back then. It wasn’t an idea you even had because it was so unlikely,” said Parmalee, comparing the difference between the low-scoring, high contact game that had yet to emphasize three-point shots. “Oh now we just need to hit a three and get fouled? It was as if this entire new way of winning basketball games had just appeared. A super bonus where you could get more points than you’re supposed to.”
When Johnson banked in his momentous three, Parmalee says that she and her three friends watching happened to organically mirror the on-court reactions. First, the bliss of the improbable bucket leading to an “explosion of screams and excitement” in her living room, just as there was on the court. Then, as she recalls, “we had that exact same realization that Chris Childs had, which was — wait-wait-wait, there’s still all this time left in this game! We can’t get too excited yet.”
Many of the fans that pack the Garden today are too young to remember the play. CJ Quartlbaum, a friend and lifelong New Yorker, is squarely in the Millennial age bracket, and says he has stitched together his memories with replays and YouTube.
“I was 11 and I hadn’t fully awoken to my basketball consciousness yet,” says Quartlbaum. But, he remembers being in his grandmother’s house while his uncles in the other room started hollering. “‘Larry Johnson just hit it from three! They just beat Reggie Miller! And I’m like, ‘OK.’”
But, catching the highlights and feeding off his uncles’ excitement catalyzed his Knicks fandom. “The following year, in junior high, was when I really awoke. Where I was like, ‘I’m a Knicks fan, this is my team.’”
Has any moment since grazed the glory of the four-point play? Quartlbaum cracked up, “As a Knicks fan? The closest, I’d say, is that 54 win team in 2013. Did we make it out the first round?”
They did, advancing past the Paul Pierce-led Boston Celtics in six. That he asked the question in earnest tells you all you need to know.
Parmalee took moment, but landed on Jeremy Lin’s 2012 buzzer beater against the Toronto Raptors. “That was a similar [because Lin’s shot felt like] your heart exploded out of your stomach.” Even still, she’s quick to qualify Linsanity’s crest because it wasn’t a playoff moment. “And I’m freakin’ Chinese.”
If there is any hope for an indisputably four-point-play-caliber experience, the Knicks will need to begin winning basketball games. To their credit, they have accumulated valuable draft picks and flawed-but-promising young players like Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier and Kevin Knox.
Then there are the rumors that Kevin Durant, arguably the best player in basketball, will leave the Golden State Warriors to join the Knicks. If he does, other stars like Kyrie Irving may join him in the Garden. Anthony Davis’ representatives have already leaked the Knicks as an enviable trade destination. Some combination of true top-10 star talent could bring deep playoff runs that create the chance for high-stakes shots.
Still, Parmalee says that contention alone won’t bring Knicks fans the same level of excitement. If Knicks general manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale successfully recruit a band of mercenary superstars, and one of them hits a shot like Johnson’s, Parmalee thinks “no one would even blink twice,” because the on-court results wouldn’t match the joy of watching Johnson’s eighth-seeded, underdog squad. No one could microwave the deep connection to the arena that came with years (and in Patrick Ewing’s case, decades) of Garden battles.
“By the time he hit that shot, Larry Johnson was a New Yorker,” said Parmalee. “He was a Knick.” Of course, any player that dons the uniform is a Knick, but she believes Johnson, no longer the “Grandmama” superstar of his athletic prime, “was perfectly willing to subsume himself to the greater team.”
But still, with twenty years of failures, with season after season filled with more embarrassment than exuberance, fans like Parmalee can’t wait for the most aesthetically pleasing version of a Knicks dynasty.