On a night when the New York Knicks denied Michael Jordan the ball and pressured nearly every shot from his Chicago teammates, the award for most spirited defender went to Knick Coach Rick Pitino.
Although he stopped short of individually challenging each man, woman and child in the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, the coach did attempt to send each of them a message through the media. Alas, it cannot be conveyed at full strength in a family newspaper.
One would think Pitino would be happy with the 114-97 victory that evened the Eastern Conference semifinal series at 1-1. And he was, to a point. But his irritation with the fans Thursday night and what he perceived as unjustified criticism of point guard Mark Jackson in the wake of the Knicks’ loss Tuesday night overshadowed his postgame comments.
It even surfaced in the course of the game, during one of those little theatrical asides to which the man occasionally treats reporters stationed near the Knicks’ bench.
Early in the third period, following an unsuccessful three-point attempt that may have reminded a few observers of the futile missile with which Jackson concluded the Knicks’ final possession in regulation two nights earlier, some of the 19,591 customers offered a critique. They booed the shot selection. Pitino, who has an ear for discordant noise, apparently was offended but kept his anger to himself.
Not so late in the quarter. Jackson had been replaced by Rod Strickland with 3:47 left and then rushed back in two minutes and 36 seconds later after the rookie was charged with his third personal foul.
The return of Jackson brought forth another mild shower of displeasure. To Pitino, it must have sounded like a thunderstorm.
The coach spun around to some friendly faces and accused the Garden fans of being second cousins to donkeys for “booing a guy who’s been carrying us all year.” It was the sort of comment anyone listening in might have passed off as an overwrought reaction made in the heat of passion.
But the man wasn’t finished. After a sparkling fourth-period effort by Jackson and all the Knicks, Pitino carried his soapbox into the interview area and continued at great length at the sacrilege.
“I’ve been listening to the talk shows lately,” the coach said. “I’m uncomfortable with the fans booing Mark Jackson.”
“When I put him in for Rod Strickland,” the coach said, “the boos were as loud as could be. I was hurt a little bit.”
Only after a minute or so did he admit that “maybe I’m being a little touchy about it.”
If so, he was not alone. The object of the crowd’s disapproval didn’t flinch when he was reminded of the boos. Instead, his face hardened. “I don’t pay attention to boos,” he said, “because that’s ignorance.”
Perhaps a veteran would have noted that the right to boo comes with the price of a ticket (raised for the playoffs), that sports is a fickle business in which it’s what you’ve done lately that counts, that some of the greatest athletes ever to play in New York were castigated by the fans now and then.
But then Jackson is young, a second-year player, and he grew up in New York. He may have thought he was immune to such a virus.
The truth is Jackson didn’t need to say much of anything in his own defense. His deeds on the court answered any critics. In the fourth period, when the Knicks stretched their lead despite the return of the foul-plagued Jordan to the Chicago lineup, Jackson was brilliant.
He was credited with eight points, five assists and one steal before leaving the court to a roaring ovation with 1:20 remaining and the Knicks cruising 110-91.
He finished the evening with 20 points, six rebounds, two steals and 16 assists, the latter a personal playoff best. But Jackson, like his coach, was stung by the criticism he had heard since Tuesday. “When I took the (game-winning) shot against Philadelphia,” he said, “it was the same situation and everyone went crazy. Now it’s a bad shot. But as I said then, I can take the heat.”
So he said. His responses Thursday night indicated otherwise. “The only thing I’m concerned with,” Jackson said, “is the reaction of my teammates, coaching staff and loved ones. I only care about the people who are going to stay with me when the ship is sinking.”
The fans obviously do not qualify on any of those counts, at least those who led the booing. “Just like rats,” he decided, “they’re the first ones to jump off the ship when it’s sinking.”
Playing in the Big Apple rarely has been equated with a day at the beach. Recall Ed Whitson’s experience in the Bronx playing for the Yankees. Richard Todd once saluted Jets fans with both hands. But they were out-of-towners, imported from distant parts of the country. The fans decided they hadn’t lived up to New York’s expectations.
Jackson is one of them, someone who sat in the same stands and, it must be assumed, occasionally voiced an opinion. He wasn’t booed at St. John’s. His rookie season with the Knicks was a dream realized. He was better than advertised as a pro, and his Rookie of the Year status corresponded with the team’s rise from the doldrums.
Certainly, this has been a successful season for the Knicks but something less than a joyride for Jackson. He injured a knee and was sidelined for longer than he thought necessary. Katha Quinn, the St. John’s sports information director he held in such esteem, died after a protracted illness. Jackson even was criticized by some teammates during the team’s late-season malaise.
Now this. On a night when Charles Oakley asserted himself on the backboards, Patrick Ewing took command inside and Kiki Vandeweghe drew chants of approval, it’s remarkable that the lingering thought in more than one mind was a three-letter word: Boo.