SAN ANTONIO -- In this, the first NBA Finals played in the post-Michael Jordan era, what's being offered for public consumption is a series of contrast. Big city vs. small town. Dominant big men vs. explosive backcourt. A charter NBA member vs. a former American Basketball Association team.
And the dominant theme being tossed by journalists here on the eve of the 1999 NBA Finals matching the San Antonio Spurs and the New York Knicks: good vs. evil.
And the "good" under that theme isn't the team pictured on the back page of the postseason media guide huddled together in prayer. No, the New York Knicks -- whose roster includes a recovering alcoholic and a one-time coach choker now being billed as "the American Dream" -- are the reluctant bad guys entering tonight's Game 1 of the best-of-seven championship series at the Alamodome.
"I don't know, is it?" was the reply of New York guard Chris Childs, the recovering alcoholic, when the good-vs.-evil theme was presented to him for his opinion. "We have some good guys on our roster also. I guess it's up to you guys to start a rivalry, a hate thing."
Yes, the Knicks are an easy team to hate. Childs had his problems, Latrell Sprewell is a little more than a year removed from choking his former coach, and Marcus Camby experienced his shares of misadventures as a collegian with illegal contact with an agent. But there are many who are, though reluctantly, learning to respect a New York team that is making history as the first No. 8 seed to advance to the Finals.
"You've got to respect them because they've come through the East and they beat all the teams they needed to beat," said San Antonio center David Robinson, a Naval Academy man, a dedicated Bible reader and a strong Christian. "They're playing great basketball right now."
Indeed, the Knicks are playing great, upsetting in order during the playoffs the top seed Miami Heat, fourth seed Atlanta Hawks and second seed Indiana Pacers. The Knicks have compiled an 11-4 record in the playoffs by jumping on teams early, winning the first game in each of their three playoff series.
The Spurs have dominated the tough Western Conference in the postseason, losing just once in an opening-round series to Minnesota. Since then the Spurs swept both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers. Should the Spurs sweep the Knicks, they would establish the all-time best single-season winning percentage in the NBA playoffs (on the way to the title, the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers had a 12-1 playoff record, a .923 winning percentage).
"Everyone is saying that we've got the best team, and they're saying that whoever wins the Western championship is going to win the NBA title," said San Antonio reserve forward Jerome Kersey. "The thing for us is to not get complacent with our game at all, just go out there and work hard every game. You don't win on paper."
Considering that the teams did not meet during the regular season, Spurs guard Mario Elie made some strong comments to the contrary that are sure to raise some eyebrows among the Knicks. "No disrespect to the Knicks, but they're probably the weakest team we're going to play in the playoffs," Elie said.
When that comment was relayed to Childs, his immediate response was: "Who said that? Mario said that? Well, come see me [today]. Maybe then I'll have something to say."
By game time tonight, Childs and his teammates will know whether power forward Larry Johnson will be available for the opening game of the series. The Knicks are already without Patrick Ewing, who suffered a torn left Achilles' in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana. The injury to Johnson's right knee occurred in the deciding Game 6 of that series. His status is listed as a game-time decision.
"Shoot-around [today] will be the first time I've been tested in terms of running, jogging, shooting," said Johnson, New York's second-leading scorer in the postseason. "It feels better than [Monday]. I'm hoping it's the same improvement by [today].
Without Johnson, the Knicks will be minus another key front-line player, which could be crucial against a San Antonio team that's dominated on the front line by Tim Duncan and Robinson. Even if Johnson and Ewing were healthy, the Knicks would still face an uphill battle against a former NBA Most Valuable Player (Robinson) and the player that some say should have been this year's MVP (Duncan).
"We've heard it all before -- we were going to have trouble with [Miami Heat center] Alonzo Mourning, [Atlanta Hawks center] Dikembe Mutombo and the Davis boys [Antonio and Dale, of the Indiana Pacers]," said Knicks guard Allan Houston. "We're not going to say those guys are so good that we're going to change our plan. We're going to play the way we've been playing the whole time."
That means attack-style basketball. Attacking on the fast break, which -- who could have imagined anyone saying this a year ago? -- the Knicks are at their best. And attacking the basket in the half-court offense, in hopes of drawing fouls on Duncan and Robinson.
Whether Johnson plays or not, the Knicks have an extremely difficult task ahead of them in their attempt to emerge with one of the worst regular-season records and win an NBA title (the 1978 Washington Bullets are the worst, with a .537 regular-season winning percentage; the Knicks' winning percentage this year was .540).
"No one has given us a shot," Camby said. "We like being the underdog. We look forward to the challenge."
San Antonio vs. New York (Best of seven)
Tonight: at San Antonio, 9
Friday: at San Antonio, 9
Monday: at New York, 9
June 23: at New York, 9
June 25: at New York, 9*
June 27: at San Ant., 7: 30*
June 29: at San Antonio, 9*
TV: Chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 6/16/99