Once upon a time, the competitive landscape of the NBA was considerably more fierce than what we are used to today. Not on a talent level, but strictly in terms of raw competition. Before the advent of social media helped to bring NBA players closer together, and before the league cracked down on the physicality of the game, and before star players joined forces with one another for the sake of chasing championships, teams tended to really not like one another.
What we try and pass off as rivalries these days would look like a Sunday brunch during the heyday of the Bulls, Knicks and Pistons. While there are a plethora of reasons why the league has lost so much of its edge (which is not to say that today's NBA is inferior on the whole), today we're jumping back to 1993 -- the twilight of the brutal Rivalry Era that dominated the 80's and early 90's.
The 1992/93 Phoenix Suns season was one for the ages. No longer content with 50-win seasons that resulted in brief playoff appearances, the Suns swung for the fences and traded for mercurial Sixers star Charles Barkley. With incumbent stars Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers, talented rookies Oliver Miller and Richard Dumas, super role players Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Cedric Ceballos, and former Suns star Paul Westphal leading from the sidelines, the Suns hit the ground running and were aiming for the top.
They also had a brand spankin' new arena downtown and a rabid fanbase that had bought up every ticket before the season even tipped off.
Barkley was everything the Suns had hoped for. Aside from his stellar numbers (25.6 PPG, 12.2 RPG on the season), he provided something that had been sorely missing in previous years -- he made the Suns dangerous.
The Suns had been the epitome of Western Conference basketball in the years prior. A lot of points, fun to watch, but soft and not ready to throw down with the big boys. Barkley changed all that. The Suns still scored a lot of points (1st overall), but they were also ready to throw an elbow if need be.
The Knicks were the antithesis of Western Conference basketball. They played slow (23rd out of 27 in pace), they played defense (1st overall), and they played physical. Really physical. The paint was enforced by Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Charles Smith and Anthony Mason. They featured a backcourt full of pesky guards with harassing styles of play, like John Starks, Greg Anthony and Doc Rivers. Pat Riley oversaw the carnage from the sidelines.
Check out this vid of the Knicks' previous playoff series against the Bulls to get an idea of how these knuckleheads played ball. Seriously, this was brutality in motion.
On March 23, 1993 the Suns stood at 48-15, having cooled a bit since the All-Star break (by their standards). The Knicks stood at 45-18 and had reeled off nine straight wins heading into the anticipated showdown in the desert. It was the best of the West versus the beasts from the East. The top-ranked offense versus the top-ranked defense. Obviously there were no shortage of storylines, especially with the Suns looking to avenge a January 18 loss at Madison Square Garden.
The teams traded blows throughout an intense first half, with the Suns finally managing a six-point lead as halftime approached.
That was about when all hell broke lose.
Majerle scored on a putback with 26 seconds left in the half, putting the Suns up six. On the inbound, KJ swatted the ball away from Doc Rivers and out of bounds. The two appeared to exchange a few words. As the Knicks attempted to inbound the ball again, Doc attempted to push the pesky Johnson away. KJ embellished the contact, and Doc was whistled for an offensive foul. Doc threw a brief tantrum at the referee, and suddenly KJ was all up in his grill, going chest to chest with Rivers.
KJ was quickly restrained by a referee as both benches cleared out, baseball style. Danny Ainge, the obnoxious ass that he was, tried desperately to enter the fray, but didn't do much aside from tugging on a couple dudes' arms before finally being swatted away by John Starks.
Pat Riley, ever the authoritarian, admonished Starks as referee Steve Javie babysat the skirmish. It wasn't long before both sides cooled off and decided to finish out the half, but they were only just getting started.
The Suns inbounded to KJ, again matched up with Rivers. KJ was a bit overzealous in trying to score on his nemesis, and a wild drive resulted in Rivers drawing the charge. As Doc popped to his feet, he again seemed to bark a few words in KJ's direction. KJ headed back on defense with a wide grin on his face.
Then KJ decided to light the fuse. Rivers hurried the ball upcourt, this time defended by Ainge, and handed it off to Starks for a last-second three-point attempt. As Rivers set a half-assed pick on KJ (Starks' man), KJ delivered a blow with his shoulder and Doc was down.
As Starks' shot caromed off and the half expired, Rivers made a beeline in KJ's direction, obviously intending to throw a few punches. As soon as the two players squared off, the benches had cleared again and it was time for round 2.
Again it wasn't much more than some harmless shoving and exchanging of dirty words. Riley and Javie again scolded the naughty children and things were seeming to cool off as Rivers headed to the locker room. That was when Greg Anthony happened.
Greg Anthony Goes Overboard (and he's "not that good a player, either")
As both sides were beginning to cool off, KJ was restrained by a Knicks' bench player (Bo Kimble, I believe). Greg Anthony, sidelined for the game with a bum ankle and clad in early-90's era street clothes, decided that he wasn't satisfied with the lack of violence and took matters into his own hands. He approached KJ -- still restrained -- and the two exchanged words. That was when Anthony decked the unsuspecting KJ in the face.
Now we had a brawl.
An incensed KJ hurtled himself towards the patterned-shirt wearing Anthony and both players -- plus Pat Riley -- tumbled to the floor. A dogpile ensued as Jerrod Mustaf, eager for some court time, started violently shoving anyone in a Knicks uniform.
The two teams were once again peeled away from each other. KJ had a swollen face. Pat Riley had ripped his pants. Here is the video of everything I just described, although the Anthony punch unfortunately is not caught on camera.
Starks, Rivers and Mason were ejected from the game for the Knicks, as well as Greg Anthony, which is hilarious because he wasn't even in uniform. KJ and Ainge were ejected for the Suns. The second half was played out without incident as the Suns rolled to a 121-92 win.
A few choice soundbites from the aftermath:
I've never seen anything like that in all my 27 years in the league. It looked like it was going out of control. It got a little scary there for a minute. There was a point where it seemed like the officials had things calmed down, but when Anthony came off the bench, then it really broke loose. He's the guy, more than anyone else, who should get suspended for sure. That's my opinion.
Referee Ed Rush:
Even though Doc Rivers was clearly the aggressor, we have no choice but to throw Kevin Johnson out as well. It's not a gray matter. The rules make it clear to us. We have no choice. I want to compliment both coaches for the way they handled the situation. They certainly did not fuel to the fire. In fact, they helped control a violatile situation.
[Greg Anthony] should be suspended for the rest of the year. How can some scrub come off the bench in street clothes and take a cheap shot. I set a good pick on Doc Rivers. He got flattened, I didn't try to hurt him. He chased me. You can live with all that. But I really want to know what the league office is going to do with this Greg Anthony guy.
Editor's note: I hope someone pointed out to KJ that picks are set by the offense, not the defense. Also, I love how he referred to Anthony as "this Greg Anthony guy".
Charles Barkley, when someone pointed out that Greg Anthony moved quite well for a guy with a sprained ankle:
Yeah, but he's a bleeder though.
Editor's note: I do not know what this means, but it sounds interesting.
And my personal favorite, from Danny Ainge (emphasis mine):
Like I said, I love the way Starks, Mason and Rivers play. But Greg Anthony goes overboard. He’s not that good a player, either.
As for the impact on the rest of the 1992/93 season, KJ and Rivers were both suspended two games apiece, and Greg Anthony was suspended for the final part of the season. Michael Jordan and the Bulls spoiled a Finals rematch between the Suns and Knicks, and altogether spoiled the Suns' dream season in which they achieved a franchise-best 62 wins.
Unfortunately, the brawl's effect on NBA policies was much more far-reaching, and ended up hitting way too close to home for Suns fans.
The brawl, and the involvement of the inactive Greg Anthony, led to David Stern's infamous "leaving the bench" rule, in which any player who leaves the bench during an on-court altercation shall be suspended a minimum of one game. It was a textbook example of Stern's reactionary style of legislation, and as we all know the Suns suffered its wrath during the 2007 semifinals against the Spurs.
To summarize, Greg Anthony and his patterned-shirt vigilante actions may well have cost the Suns a Finals appearance 14 years later.
On this Throwback Thursday, we salute you Greg Anthony. For while John Paxson may bear the infamy of destroying the Barkley Suns in the Finals, little did we know that you, the little punk-ass in the snazzy shirt, would eventually cause the heartbreak of an entire future generation of Suns fans. You know that proverb about a butterfly flapping its wings and it causes a tsunami halfway across the globe? Well sometimes it isn't a butterfly. Sometimes it's a little punk-ass in a snazzy shirt.
By the way, while Ainge was right about you being "not that good a player", you also are quite mundane as an announcer and studio analyst, and your "insight" leaves much to be desired.
So suck on that, Greg-O.
Happy Thursday, everyone.