Do you remember where you were when you heard that Biggie had been killed? Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with my story, because a) I’m not that type of cranky old head (close, but not quite), but mostly because b) I don’t actually remember myself. I could piece it together and make something up: I was living in Astoria, crashing on a friend’s futon. He didn’t have a TV and I got almost all of my information from listening to Hot 97 (and they say getting your news only from social media is unhealthy). So I’m sure I woke up on Sunday, after a wild night of drinking forties in the kitchen and listening to Hot 97, and turned on the radio—Hot 97, natch—and learned that Big had died the night before. Not a very exciting reminiscence, especially for a manufactured one.
Here’s one thing I can truthfully say I remember from that day though: This amazing, under-handed, left-handed, bowling toss outlet pass Dennis Rodman threw to Scottie Pippen in the Bulls-Knicks game played that evening:
It’s such a Rodman moment: goofy, smart, maybe also not-so-smart, totally unique. It’s not a bad pass per se; he actually hits Pippen in the hands, on the numbers, in stride. It was the fastest way for Rodman to start a fast break. It’s just that, well, it’s an under-handed, left-handed, bowling toss outlet pass, and basketball players, even great ones like Scottie Pippen, don’t have a whole lot of prior experience catching that type of pass:
I remember that pass so clearly because it was the moment that (while smoking blunts in a friend’s dorm room at FIT) I realized this Knicks-Bulls game was gonna be FUCKING AWESOME, like almost all the Knicks-Bulls games of the ‘90s (those were probably my exact thoughts; forties and blunts and lots of Hot 97 can do a number on your short-term vocabulary). It’s hard to overstate how great the Bulls-Knicks rivalry of the mid-’90s was, and ‘97 was a great year for it, maybe as good as any other.
The Bulls and Knicks played four games that year. The Bulls won two (once at home, once in New York); the Knicks won two (once at home, once in Chicago). The total combined score in 192 minutes of basketball? Knicks 390-Bulls 387. A year removed from their 72-10 '96 season, the Bulls went 69-13 in '97; the Knicks won 57 games, tied with their '94 Finals team for the second most Ws in the Ewing-Oakley era.
Yes the Knicks, like the Pistons before them, dragged Michael Jordan and the Bulls down to their level. But what made Bulls-Knicks ‘97 different than, say, Spurs-Nets ‘03 and other modern defensive drudge matches, was that the Bulls were actually better at that wily-old-man-elbows-and-moving-picks-at-the-YMCA game the Knicks tried to play than the Knicks were. The Knicks had Oakley and Mason; the Bulls had Jordan (alum of the Carolina school of basketball tricks) and Rodman, a player with a massively underrated basketball IQ.
NBC knew what they had in the ‘90s, too. Check the start time of the March 9 game: 5:30, leading right into 3rd Rock From the Sun at 8:00 (word to French Stewart). That’s a football time slot. And the game didn’t disappoint either. Here’s MJ beginning the game 4-4 from the field, looking like he’s ready to go into full Jordan shrug mode:
Here's a vintage Rodman drive, dish, and dive:
Here's a John Starks technical and sad face, literally two seconds after he entered the game:
And that's just the first quarter.
Here's the final play of the first half:
The Knicks led by 10 at the half, by 17 in the third quarter, and 93-80 late in the fourth. The game followed a familiar pattern for many Bulls-Knicks games, and even series: the Bulls rope-a-doped the Knicks, falling behind, pulling back, and falling behind again before mounting a furious comeback. Down 13 with 3:55 remaining, Chicago blitzed the Knicks 13-2, pulling to 95-93 on Jordan's 35th and 36th points. But then Ewing banked in an oblique (read: lucky) jumper over Robert Parrish, and the Knicks held on 97-93.
What does all this have to do with Biggie, other than the mere coincidence of the date? Not much, I guess. I remember watching the game, and waiting for someone—the announcers, Bob Costas, somebody—to say something about B.I.G. Of course in hindsight that’s ridiculous. It was a different time. Rappers didn’t sit courtside (NBC’s celeb faces in the crowd for 3/9/97: Woody and Soon Yi, Matthew Modine, Tom Brokaw, Peter Boyle (?!), Gene Siskel, and Spike, although they missed Hulk Hogan in an NWO tee behind the Knicks bench). Rappers didn’t serve as props in the Dunk Contest. There was still a gulf between hip-hop and mainstream pop culture. No way Bob Costas or Matt Goukas knew who Biggie was (although Marv Albert might have).
But like Biggie’s death, that Bulls-Knicks game was the end of an era, or at least toward the end of one. The teams played two more games that season, both classics in their own right. On April 10, Jordan and Pippen combined for 77 points (34 and 33, respectively) and Chicago beat New York 105-103 at Madison Square Garden; nine days later, Starks scored 20 off the bench and the Knicks prevailed in Chicago, 103-101. The two squads seemed destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals yet again, but three weeks later, P.J. Brown flipped Charlie Ward; Ewing, Starks, Allan Houston, and Larry Johnson strayed off the bench, and the Heat supplanted the Bulls as the Knicks’ primary rival.
Chicago and New York played a couple of tight games the next season, but Ewing had suffered his near-career-ending wrist injury earlier in the season, and the rivalry didn't have the same buzz. Then, the end: Jordan retired, Latrell Sprewell of all people (only way Knicks-Bulls of the ‘90s could’ve been better? add Spre) led the mostly Ewing-less Knicks to the Finals in ‘99, and the first decade of the 21st century was very, very unkind to both teams. You could argue the Knicks and Bulls haven’t played a meaningful game in the 17 years since (certainly not last week).
Maybe there's one more connection though. Aside from the Rodman pass, all of these memories are manufactured; I had to look up the other stuff. That's not to say those other things didn't happen, but they're figments of nostalgia. Kinda like t-shirts and biopics and murals and memorial hashtags. But Christopher Wallace was a real person, one who left very real memories for the dozens of people who knew him. Nostalgia is a gift for the living (one that comes with a goodie bag full of regrets, of course). The Bulls and Knicks of the '90s are frozen in time, as happens in sports—careers and dynasties and rivalries come and go. But people shouldn't be frozen in time, not at age 24 at least. Seventeen years is a long time, to make music and be a father, and that loss is very real.
On that note: Peace to Brooklyn, peace to Astoria. Peace to the Garment District and the area around FIT and MSG, one of the few neighborhoods in Manhattan that still looks even remotely similar to how it did 17 years ago. Peace to Don DeLillo. Peace to Kat Lloyd and Dart La. Peace to Kim, Cease, D-Roc, and Puffy. Peace to Voletta, T’yanna, and C.J. Most of all: Peace.