I don't remember exactly when or how I first learned of the trade, but the image that will always stand out in my mind is the one on the back page of the New York Daily News once the news became official.
There was Latrell Sprewell, in a Warriors uniform, protecting the ball while being guarded by John Starks. Starks was in his classic defensive stance, low to the ground, tight up against Spree's midsection, in a way that has long since been litigated from the game thanks very much to the team Starks was leaving and Sprewell was coming to.
The picture was symbolic (and the headline - "Knicks Go For Throat" - a classic). Fans loved Starks because of how much he did with how little he was given, but that gift was also his curse. He was always smaller, lesser, below that which the Knicks needed to win it all.
Sprewell, on the other hand, towered over Starks in every way, both in stature (6'5" to Starks' generously listed 6'3") and in stats (Sprewell was a 20 point per game scorer who had made an All-NBA First Team and was a three-time All-Star; Starks had averaged around 13 points for years, and was five seasons removed from his lone All-Star appearance).
For many fans, the trade - made official on January 21, 1999, the day after the NBA lockout officially ended and just two weeks before the shortened season was set to begin - was a sad day. For them, Starks was New York. He was proof that hard work and determination beat talent nine times out of ten.
I was different. I could never get over that tenth time, which always seemed to come at the most inopportune moments. For me, Starks was a representation of what we couldn't have: the second star that every other 90's great had been granted by that point in their career. MJ had Pippen. Malone had Stockton. Barkley had KJ. Olajuwon had Drexler. Kemp had Payton. Shaq had Penny. And as of the previous summer, Robinson had Duncan (we didn't yet fully realize how much it would wind up being the other way around).
The Knicks brought in Allan Houston a few years prior, but it was clear that there was a limit to the heights he could reach. He was a bigger Starks - someone ill-suited for the role he was brought here to serve.
Sprewell was different. He was mean, a nasty S.O.B. on the court and someone who hadn't played basketball in more than a calendar year because of his issues off of it. Sure, the choking incident with P.J. Carlisimo was the only reason Sprewell was available, but I couldn't care less. I still remember thinking as a sophomore in high school that "Finally, after so much bad luck, we took advantage of someone else's misfortune." That it came as the result of a vicious assault mattered as much to my 15-year-old self as it likely did to the front office that acquired him, which is to say it didn't.
Charles Smith. 2-for-18. The finger roll. The Miami suspensions. I was convinced that Sprewell was a market correction sent to wipe it all away.
It didn't quite work out that way, of course. By that point, Pat was too old, too far removed from the version of himself that helped carry the Knicks to the brink of a title five years earlier.
If he'd won that ring, Derek Harper would have deserved the Finals MVP. Before Spree, Harper was the closest thing to the player we needed but never had, rising to the challenge in the biggest moments instead of shrinking when the spotlight was brightest. Harper averaged eight points a game after he came to the Knicks in the middle of the 1994 season - almost five years to the day before the Sprewell trade, oddly enough. In the Finals, he averaged 16, including 23 in Game 7.
16 points was also what Spree averaged in his first season as a Knick, in which all but four games came off the bench. When it mattered most though? Different story. From Game 5 of the Eastern Finals, when the Knicks were tied 2-2 with the Pacers, to their Game 5 defeat at the hands of the Spurs, Spree averaged 25 points and six board a game while playing 44 minutes a night.
I was lucky enough to be in the Garden for a few games that postseason, including the first two in the East Semis against a frisky Atlanta team. Sprewell came out in Game 1 and dropped 31. Knicks win. In Game 2, Allan Houston followed up a 34-point outing with a 1-for-8, two-point no show. As a result, the Knicks were only up by two entering the fourth.
No matter. Spree scored 10 in the final frame to finish with 31 yet again. Game over, series essentially over (New York would sweep).
But that was nothing compared to Game 5 vs San Antonio. No team had ever come back from down 3-1 in the Finals, and the most optimistic fan alive didn't think the Knicks would be the first, not with Ewing in a suit since a Game 2 loss in Indianapolis.
Sprewell didn't care. He came out and played like his life depended on it, scoring more points (35) than the other four starters combined (34). He missed the last shot, a wild attempt that would have sent the series back to San Antonio, but no one in the building cared. I stood on my chair after the final buzzer sounded and cheered what I knew would probably be the greatest single effort I'd ever witness in person purely as a fan.
Those days are long gone, of course - both for the Knicks and for me. Even if rooting was allowed in the press box, there hasn't been anything to root for in a while. Melo came after Spree and gave us all a brief reprieve, but like Ewing's finger roll, his time in New York will be remembered more for a shot that didn't go down than any of the thousands that did. Roy Hibbert made sure of that.
Ewing, Melo, Starks, Houston, Porzingis, Stat - all had moments that granted them a special place in Knicks' lore, but all have something else in common: they are all known as much for what they didn't or couldn't do (or in KP's case, never had the chance to do) than what they did.
Sprewell was the lone exception. Yes, the circumstances of his departure were messy, as was his most recent appearance in the news, when former teammate Chris Childs said how disappointed he was that Spree sided with James Dolan following the Charles Oakley fiasco.
It's all meaningless to those who remember his run in New York. Nor does it matter that he could never deliver the biggest prize. He is the favorite Knick of virtually no fans; those above a certain age have Ewing; those below, Melo.
But he is the only Knick in my lifetime who I will remember for rising to every big occasion. I'm not old enough to remember Bernard King, but I'm told he had some of that quality as well. Like King, Spree's time here wasn't long. But boy, did he make it worthwhile.
During a time when we all have a little bit too much time to look back and reflect, that's as good a thing to remember as any.