It was a question not of parity but of pariah. The New York Knicks didn't want to become one. As much as European basketball has improved, no one in Barcelona was seriously suggesting that the top European club teams were on a par with the top clubs from the NBA. But on a given night, particularly if that night coincided with their first exhibition game of the 1990-91 season, couldn't Los Knicks de Nueva York embarrass the NBA, brand themselves as McChokers, and get chucked off commissioner David Stern's Christmas card list forever by losing to a team—or is it a dish—called Scavolini Pesaro? Si, si, it could have happened. Only a face-saving three-point prayer by Gerald Wilkins (career three-point field goal percentage: .309) in the closing seconds last Thursday saved the day for the Knicks and kept the NBA's perfect record in the McDonald's Open and its world bragging rights intact.
True, the Knicks kicked themselves into gear in last Saturday night's final in the newly opened Palau San Jordi, and restored the NBA's pride. Before a crowd of 15,167—the largest assemblage to see a basketball game in Spain—Patrick Ewing and the Knicks displayed depth and a spirited defense to overwhelm Pop 84 Split of Yugoslavia, the European champion, in a convincing 117-101 win. But the lesson of Thursday night has not been lost. NBA teams can no longer expect to win these games against the Europeans on reputation. "The level of play was better than I thought it would be," said Knick coach Stu Jackson after the title game. "The importance of the game grew in the players' minds in the last two days."
The McDonald's Open, which is played under a combination of NBA and international rules (for example, the three-point distance used by the tournament was 22 feet, not the NBA's 23'9"), began in 1987. The first year it was played in Milwaukee and won by the Bucks. Then the Celtics won it in Madrid, and last year the Denver Nuggets took the title in Rome. In four years, the Open has become one of the biggest basketball events in Europe, where the sport is booming and the NBA is regarded with awe. Some 526 media folk from 21 countries attended this year's tournament, which, in addition to the Knicks, featured EC. Barcelona (the Spanish League champion), Scavolini Pesaro (the Italian champion) and Pop 84 Split (the soda fountain champion?). The tournament was televised in more than 40 countries, including the U.S. And bigger things, it appears, lie ahead. The NBA has agreed in principle to a change in format in 1993 to make the tournament a world championship for club—as opposed to national—teams from South America, Australia, the Soviet Union, Asia, Europe and the NBA.
At some point an NBA team will get whipped, but no one expected this to be the year. Still, the league courted trouble by agreeing to the scheduling of the event a week earlier than it had in the past, so the Knicks became the first team to defend the title without having played a single exhibition game. The other three teams arrived in Barcelona with at least two weeks of regular-season games behind them. After being treated like royalty their first two days on Spanish soil—dinner with the U.S. Counsel General, a reception with the mayor—the Knicks were served up like peasant fare to Scavolini Pesaro, a hardscrabble team led by two former marginal NBA-ers, Darren Daye and Darwin Cook, who combined for 64 points.
Early in the game, it looked like the Knicks in a cakewalk. New York led by as many as 14 points in the first half before Scavolini's zone defense, which is legal under the tournament's rules, began to neutralize Ewing.
After three quarters, it was 80-80. The only thing that kept the Knicks from being blown out was that the Italian team was shooting just as poorly as the New Yorkers (42% from the floor and 71 % from the line for Scavolini, 44% and 63% for the Knicks) and turning it over nearly as often (15 times to the Knicks' 17). Still, the upset seemed assured when, with 30 seconds left, Scavolini had the ball and a three-point lead, 107-104.
But the Italians botched the inbounds pass, giving the Knicks new life. The New Yorkers hustled upcourt, worked the ball around, then watched in dread as Wilkins launched the tying three-pointer with eight seconds left. The Knicks were still mentally high fiving each other two minutes into overtime, when they noticed they had fallen behind by six points. Ewing took over (34 points, six in OT; 17 rebounds; eight blocked shots) as the Knicks finished with a 12-2 run that gave them an unsightly 119-115 win.
Asked if it was fair to send an NBA team to play under such pressure without even one exhibition game behind them, Stern replied, "I think it's fair to say we won't do it again."
In Thursday's second game, Toni Kukoc (pronounced KU-coach) led Pop 84 Split (Pop 84 is a clothing company) past EC. Barcelona 102-97 with a dazzling 23-point, 17-assist game that had NBA folks buzzing over the prospect of pairing such a talent with Michael Jordan. The 22-year-old Kukoc was Chicago's second-round pick in last June's draft. Kukoc, a gangly, 6'10", 192-pounder, is called "the best Yugoslavian player ever" by the Yugos' national team coach, Dusan Ivkovic. He can dribble, drive to the basket, shoot threes, block shots and pass with such flair and imagination that he has been described as the Magic Johnson of Europe. Says former L.A. Laker coach Pat Riley—now an analyst for NBC—"He's a lot like Earvin. He's the perfect unorthodox player, 6'10", can handle the ball and run the offense. He would add so much to the Bulls, it's incredible."
Not cheaply, he wouldn't. Kukoc, who is in his last year of a Pop 84 contract that pays him 2,000 German marks (about $1,318.40) a month, is talking about a five-year, $20 million deal that he claims Chicago has offered him. The Bulls say they have done no such thing. Money aside, Kukoc is fearful of being relegated to the bench, a fate that befell his friend Zarko Paspalj in San Antonio last season.
Clearly, Kukoc was the second-best player in Barcelona, behind the formidable Ewing. Just as clearly, the Knicks were the best team, as they repeatedly pounded the ball inside on the Yugos on Saturday for easy buckets, and ran Pop 84's pencil-thin bench into exhaustion. The tandem of Wilkins and Trent Tucker displayed playoff-like intensity in holding Kukoc to 18 points and 12 assists. And after a 23-4 Knick run in the second quarter that turned a 32-27 deficit into a 50-36 lead, the game was never in doubt. In one glorious fourth-quarter confrontation, Ewing won the battle for top enchilada by rejecting Kukoc's dunk attempt after the young man had driven past Wilkins to the hoop. "He dunked one on my main man Alonzo Mourning earlier this summer at the Goodwill Games," said a pleased—and relieved—Ewing. "I couldn't let him set both of us."