As a boy growing up in the blighted south Dallas neighborhood of
Dixon Circle, Larry Johnson launched hundreds of jump shots each
day on a blacktop court. Long after the sun had slipped beneath
the horizon, and fellow players had slipped off for home,
Johnson would still be shooting in solitude, simulating
game-winning shots, "sometimes till two or three in the
morning," he says. "In my mind, I'd say, Clock's winding down!
Johnson needs to make it! If it didn't go in, I'd say, Johnson
gets fouled! And I'd shoot free throws."
In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals last Saturday night,
the Knicks forward reenacted both scenarios in one truly epic,
implausible play. With his team trailing the Pacers 91-88 with
11.9 seconds remaining, Johnson grabbed a deflected inbounds
pass intended for teammate Allan Houston. Standing behind the
three-point arc, he made a slight head fake that got his
defender, Antonio Davis, into the air. As Johnson took one
dribble-step to his left, Davis, trying to recover, put both
hands on Johnson and committed an inexplicable foul; Johnson
took advantage of a generous continuation call and let fly a
26-footer that traced a rainbow arc and fell through the hoop. A
"straight-flush swish," is how Knicks guard Chris Childs later
As the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden went into a
frenzy, Childs interrupted Johnson's celebration and reminded
him that he still had a free throw to shoot. Johnson instantly
grasped Childs's point and took a moment to decompress. He then
calmly stepped to the line, straight flush swished the free
throw and completed a four-point play to give New York a 92-91
lead with 5.7 seconds to play. When Indiana failed to score in
its final possession, the Knicks had pulled off a flagrant act
of grand larceny. "You think the worst thing you can do when you
have a three-point lead is tie," said Pacers guard Reggie
Miller, shaking his head. "I was wrong."
Johnson's miracle near 34th Street seemed to be incontrovertible
proof of a thesis posited by a rapidly growing number of New
Yorkers: The Knicks are a team of destiny this season. How else
to explain New York, the last team to make the playoffs,
knocking off top-seeded Miami in dramatic fashion, sweeping
Atlanta and trading victories with heavily favored Indiana,
which won Monday night's game 90-78 to even the series at two
games apiece as the teams headed back to Indianapolis. "You can
call it destiny or whatever you want," says Childs. "The point
is, we believe."
Their faith has been bolstered by Johnson's play during this
late-season run. Even before his Game 3 heroics, the 6'7",
235-pound Johnson was giving the Pacers fits. Despite averaging
only 10.7 points a game against Indiana during the regular
season, Johnson was scoring nearly double that in the conference
finals. He was particularly effective in Game 2, scoring 17
first-half points from all over the floor and finishing with a
game-high 22 on 9-of-12 shooting.
Johnson's play has been all the more vital given the loss of
center Patrick Ewing, who had hobbled valiantly through the
playoffs but whose season was ended after Game 2 by a torn
Achilles tendon. For Ewing loyalists, his injury represented the
sword of Damocles finally falling on any title aspirations New
York had been nurturing. Another faction quietly wondered
whether the aging center's injury was a disguised blessing.
Without the creaky "big fella" slogging downcourt, the Knicks
could unleash their fresh, young legs against the Pacers, a team
that toils at about the same speed as most post office workers.
"We're going to miss Patrick," Childs said before Game 3, "but
now we're going to put on our track shoes."
After learning that his season was over, Ewing gave his
teammates a motivational, if slightly solipsistic, directive:
"Get me my ring." His Win One for the Gimper speech was, rather
cheesily, rebroadcast on the overhead monitor at Madison Square
Garden during the tip-off of Game 3. Through the first 45
minutes, however, the Knicks' offense often appeared no better
lubricated than Ewing's joints. Guard Latrell Sprewell abandoned
his effective slashing in favor of awkward post-up moves and was
6 of 19 from the floor, while Houston made 6 of 17.
After leading 89-81 with 3:12 remaining, the Pacers' defense
became as lax as the security at Market Square Arena, where the
Knicks had been showered with beer, coins and one-fingered
salutes during Games 1 and 2. Indiana coach Larry Bird was
especially galled by an offensive rebound by New York forward
Marcus Camby late in the game. "One rebound that will win the
game," Bird said afterward, his voice riven with disbelief, "and
three of our guys are just standing there." Camby, the best
player on the floor that night in Bird's estimation, also made
two foul shots with 13.8 seconds left that set the stage for
In retrospect, it was wholly apposite that Johnson played the
hero's role to perfection. Throughout this chaotic season for the
Knicks, amid all the well-chronicled distractions and internal
squabbling, Johnson has been a beacon of stability and a cohesive
influence in the locker room. He scored when called upon, but he
also deferred to Ewing's seniority, which meant that he often
went entire quarters without taking a shot. "A lot of guys say
it's about we, not me," says Knicks forward Kurt Thomas. "With
Larry you know he means it, because it shows in his actions."
As a small patch of gray attests, Johnson is getting older (he
turned 30 in March), and his game reflects as much. The once
explosive leaping ability of the erstwhile dunking Grandmama was
irretrievably lost after he hurt his back in 1994. Johnson
needed time to adjust to the limitations of his body--as if in a
flashback to his lonely days on those blacktop courts in Dallas,
he diligently practiced a new set of low-post moves predicated
on wile and guile. Now he may have the best up-and-under move
since Celtics post-up specialist Kevin McHale. He also improved
his outside shooting to the point where he's a bona fide
three-point threat. (Never mind that his three trifectas in Game
3 came on a 35-foot heave at the end of the first quarter, a
shot off the glass and the miraculous four-pointer. Again, think
Once a brash precursor to the Generation X stars of today who
ruffle so many feathers, Johnson converted to Islam in the
off-season and has mellowed and matured. Just consider his
preternatural calm after hitting a shot for the memory banks. As
soon as he pried himself from a Spike Lee embrace after the
game, Johnson made a point of seeking out his exuberant
teammates. With the leadership baton now firmly in his hand,
Johnson sternly warned them that the series remained far from
over. "It might have been a great win and a great shot," he told
them. "But no one will remember it if we don't win two more
games and close it out."
The way things have been going for his team lately, you've got
to wonder if it's fate accompli.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN The Camby Man Can Pacers guard Jalen Rose is stripped from the blind side by Knicks forward Marcus Camby during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals (page 50). [Leading Off]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Four play Antonio Davis can only watch as Johnson takes full advantage of a continuation call in the waning seconds of Game 3.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Reggie-cide Constant defensive pressure and a paucity of shots made Knicks killer Miller a nonfactor in the first four games.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Thin man Buried on the Knicks' bench early in the season, Camby may have been the best player on the floor in Games 2 and 3.
"You think the worst you can do when you have a three-point lead
is tie," said Miller, after Game 3. "I was wrong."