Dan Klores, a Manhattan public relations impresario-turned-filmmaker, mined cinematic gold recently with his 30 for 30 documentary about the Knicks-Pacers NBA rivalry of the mid-1990s. Winning Time is technically about basketball; Netflix has it categorized under "sports."
But, of course, both the games and the documentary itself are about so much more. True, the basketball was electrifying. And so were the protagonists and the antagonists. There was Reggie Miller, the Pacers' cold-blooded shooting guard who offset his silo-shaped physique with outsized cojones, spleen and mouth. There was the Knicks' misbegotten star, Patrick Ewing, flanked by Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley, security detail masquerading as NBA forwards. That the two teams were trying desperately to make their mark while Michael Jordan was on temporary leave from basketball, off in Birmingham trying to learn how to hit a changeup, added another overlay of dramatic tension.
Yet the Pacers-Knicks rivalry was also a culture war. With Pat Riley and his copiously gelled hair on the sidelines -- not far from progressive, outspoken uberfan Spike Lee -- coaching a team long on aggression and short on finesse, the Knicks, at least in the eyes of Hoosiers, typified Big City swagger, excesses and bullying arrogance. As Reggie's sister, Cheryl, once a fine player in her own right, put it, "You had Indiana, the Holy [Land] and you had New York, Sodom and Gomorrah."
For Knicks fans, the Pacers were all about ... well, nothing really. This was a team that represented the nondescript flyover country, a place to dismiss, much as one would a piece of lint on the lapel of an Armani jacket. The Pacers, the thinking here went, were mediocre, whiny ankle-biters, typical of the Middle Americans who reflexively hate all things New York -- and make this proclamation while eating at the finest restaurant in town: Applebee's. As the New York Post's back page memorably framed the clash, it was "Knicks versus Hicks."
Beyond that, Pacers-Knicks was a sort of proxy for another question: Whose basketball was better? Both New York and Indiana can stake a credible claim as the ultimate hub of hoops. The sport may have been born in Springfield, Mass., home to Dr. James Naismith, the game's inventor. But it came of age in Indiana. Or New York. And you could argue the point -- pick your metaphor, depending on where you're from -- until the cows come home or until last call.
Mirroring the local culture, Indiana basketball is methodical and measured, composed and conservative. There's a right way to play and a wrong way. As you might expect from a state filled with small towns, themes of unity and sharing are stressed. You win, the thinking goes, by mastering the fundamentals, starting with shooting. Playing basketball was something to do while the fields lay fallow, so it's an indoor game, played on a wooden floor inside a hot gym.
Not so in New York, where, again, the basketball takes on the characteristics of the region. It's fast-paced, slick, exciting, filled with flourishes. There's nothing wrong with trying to stand out and express creativity. Risk-taking is encouraged. It's unapologetically competitive and combative. You break your man down. You take him to the hole. You school him. New York ball is played outdoors, on blacktop courts framed by chain-link fences. Fans don't sit on bleachers. In the manner of subway riders at rush hour, they stand four deep and jostle for position.
So whose hoops, finally, is better? Having spent the first half of my life in Indiana and most of the second half in Manhattan, I'll take a stab at the answer. It seems to me that in terms of historical contributions, a slight edge goes to Indiana. Before administrators mucked it up, the state's all-comers tournament, immortalized in the classic movie Hoosiers, was, quite literally, legendary, drawing a crowd exceeding 40,000 fans for the final game one year. In college hoops, the Indiana Hoosiers have won five NCAA titles; Indianapolis has hosted the Final Four a half-dozen times, including last year. The one and only team from the New York City area to win the NCAA tournament? CCNY, in 1950.
Which region has produced more players? New York, no question. (Then again, the metro area is three times more populous than the entire state of Indiana.) Who's produced better players? That's close -- assuming we don't really count Brooklyn-born Michael Jordan. I'll see your Larry Bird (Ind.) and raise you a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (N.Y.) I'll see your Bernard King (N.Y.) and raise you an Oscar Robertson (Ind.). Even in today's NBA, for every Zach Randolph, Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Eric Gordon (Ind.), there's a Joakim Noah, Lamar Odom and Carmelo Anthony (N.Y.). Even the coaching is comparable. Indiana gave us Bob Knight and John Wooden; New York has provided an army of bench bosses, from Frank McGuire to Larry Brown.
The strongest point in New York's favor: Its basketball has proved to be the enduring style. Backcourt fundamentals and a velvety touch are all well and good; but if you can't create your own shot or take your man off the dribble, you're cooked. Likewise, a big man ought to learn how to box out his man; but what he really needs are some deft low-post moves. I was at an Indiana high school game recently and thought, sadly, that methodical basketball is the equivalent of dial-up Internet access, a horse-and-buggy on the interstate. The games at, say, the West 4th Street courts near my apartment in Manhattan? That's the NBA writ small. That's basketball.
Unfortunately, those Knicks-Pacers games, fun as they were, didn't do much to resolve the debate over basketball superiority. Hard as the teams battled, fierce as the rivalry was, both teams ultimately came up short. One year, the Knicks beat the Pacers. Another time, the Pacers beat the Knicks. They both came up short in the NBA Finals. Fact remains, neither team has won a basketball title since 1973. Another bit of symmetry: That was the year the Knicks won the NBA crown and the Pacers ruled the ABA.
Adding to the biblical ring of the New York versus Indiana narrative, both regions have been in basketball decline since the era of Winning Time. In Reggie Miller's final season, the Pacers were a good bet to challenge for the NBA title. Then the team was engaged in an ugly brawl during a game one Friday night in Detroit. Players were suspended, fines were dispensed and, six years later, the Pacers' franchise has yet to recover. The instigator that fateful, destructive night? Ron Artest, then a Pacers forward, who -- recalling a sort of tattooed Trojan Horse perhaps -- just so happened to have been born and raised in Queens and schooled at St. John's. Not that the Knicks have fared much better. There wasn't a seminal event but rather a seemingly unending string of bad roster moves, bad contracts and bad basketball. The central figure? Isiah Thomas, who just so happened to have played his college ball at Indiana and whose previous NBA job had been as coach of the Pacers.
Last season, the Pacers and Knicks finished next to each other near the basement of the Eastern Conference, both teams missing the playoffs yet again. This season is a little better. If the playoffs started today, the Knicks would make it as the sixth seed and the Pacers would just barely qualify as the eighth seed. They are playing each other twice this week but ... we're a long way from, say, 1994. Kobe is in L.A. LeBron is in Miami. Even Oklahoma friggin' City has more basketball buzz these days. So maybe Hoosiers and New Yorkers can find some common ground here: It's about time the soul of basketball returned to its rightful owner. We're both for another era of Winning Time.