To watch Winning Time, the new documentary about Reggie Miller's jousts with the Knicks in the 1990s, is to be reminded of a few basketball truths. First, just how entertaining it was to watch Miller at the height of his powers. Here was this frail, lantern-eared stick figure of a small forward who seemed capable of performing voodoo upon a basketball, not to mention his opponents. The best parts of the 68-minute film, directed by Dan Klores (who also brought us 2008's Black Magic, an acclaimed documentary about basketball at historically black colleges) and premiering on March 14 on ESPN, involve the relentless verbal warfare between Miller and John Starks, his combustible foil for New York. Miller talks about how easy it was to clamber inside Starks's head during games, saying things like, "John, look at your stat line! Are you kidding me? You're supposed to be a starting shooting guard in this league? This is embarrassing." And Starks, more earnest and likable than we remember him, talks about knowing exactly what Miller was trying to do yet being powerless to resist. Of Miller's surreal eight points in the final 18.7 seconds of Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern semifinals, Starks remembers thinking, "Man, did this dude just did this?"
Second, one recalls, a little wistfully, a time when New York basketball was at its self-important, culturally relevant best. The interviews with movie director and self-styled No. 1 Knicks fan Spike Lee, columnist Peter Vecsey and New York center Patrick Ewing—surprisingly forthcoming now that he's left the court—remind one how energizing it was to have the Knicks as a provincial obsession and national villain. There's Anthony Mason elbowing someone in the mouth! There's Ewing saying, "If we knocked somebody down, there was a fine for picking [him] back up." It was a golden age for all parties involved, including New York coach Pat Riley and his UFC approach to basketball (since neutered by the league).
More broadly, though, in dealing with the teams' postseason rivalry in the mid-1990s, the film refutes the notion that the league endured a barren period during the post-Michael (and inter-Michael) years. Sure, Jordan appealed to a wide audience, but for true fans, series like Knicks-Pacers, and later Kings-Lakers, were just as appealing. These were teams playing teams, cities pitted against cities. And nowhere was this better embodied than in the feud between Lee and Miller. Lee really did believe he represented New York as he yapped on the sideline in his BROOKLYN jersey like some human terrier. And Miller, his Southern California roots notwithstanding, really did believe he represented the Hoosier ideal—the backyard hoopers and backdoor cutters, the IU fans and "hicks" who saw the game as religion. But more important, we, the fans, understood the symbolism too.
If there is a dramatic heart to the film, it is the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, when Lee's courtside jawing inspired Miller to score 25 points while leading an improbable Indiana comeback (capped off, of course, by Miller's choke sign, which was directed at Lee and accompanied by a second, less-civil gesture). Watching it now, it remains wonderful theater, but clearly no act. Seriously, if Spike Lee hadn't attended that game, who's to say that the Pacers would have won?
In what other major sport is there such a connection between the players and the spectators? When Larry David gets courtside seats for a Lakers game and ends up tripping Shaquille O'Neal during an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's funny not because it's far-fetched but because it's plausible. Indeed, more than any other sports arena, an NBA court is a stage. There are the stars (the players) and supporting actors (the fans); Jack Nicholson is as much a part of Lakers home games as the team's 12th man. This dynamic helps explain why home court advantage is so much more powerful in basketball than in any other sport. Of course, it's also why Ron Artest got suspended for a year for going Marvin Hagler on a fan, but with live theater you take the ugly with the sublime.
Thus to relive the halcyon days of the Knicks--Pacers rivalry is to be reminded that even if the Garden is a den of morosity these days and the Pacers lottery-bound, the stage merely has shifted to other arenas. Which is to say that more than any other pro league, the NBA does not merely belong to its players; it's ours too.
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Spike Lee really did believe he represented New York as he YAPPED ON THE SIDELINE, and Miller represented the "hicks" who saw the game as religion.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW