Semi-Review on “Winning Time – Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks”


Last night, ESPN premiered it’s most recent installation in their “30 on 30” documentary series (inspired & led by Bill Simmons, it’s a look at 30 lesser-known stories from these past 30 years that ESPN has been in existence).  Even for a Knick fan, the Reggie Miller-centric documentary was funny, nostalgic, informative, and moving.  There’s something intriguing and different about a doc that looks back at something you lived through as opposed to introducing you to a new world you knew nothing about (although obviously for many people the doc will fall into the latter category).

First, at the time, New Yorkers (and probably most NBA fans in general) thought of Reggie Miller as the ultimate villain.  Michael Jordan was the guy who you wanted to defeat, but Reggie was the guy who you wanted to see get in an “unfortunate” car accident.  It wasn’t about what he did to the Knicks, it was about who he was and how he played.  He talked smack non-stop, played dirty, and would fake & flop to try to get non-existent calls.  And by dirty, I don’t mean physical, ‘cuz you were allowed to play darn physical at the time.  By dirty, I mean doing things when the refs weren’t looking.  Swingin’ them pointy elbows for sneak attacks whenever possible (by the way, there is no truth to the rumor that he rubbed his elbows with sandpaper to get them particularly sharp).  Read what his own sister, Cheryl, says about him in the doc:

“He’s maddening. He is a maddening human being.”

“I would kill him. I loved killing Reggie. And dad would come out ‘Don’t hit your brother’ and all that kind of stuff. But he was … just … that … annoying.”

What’s amazing though is that when you watch the film, you realize time has caused our feelings towards him to mellow.  Even Patrick Ewing laughs in the documentary about how much he USED to hate Reggie.  Back in the day we appreciated Miller’s basketball abilities, but now, with distance, we can even appreciate his subsidiary antics.  The dude was funny, and he was pretty smart in the way he got under other people’s skin.  As we see in the beginning of the doc, he played the Knicks’ John Starks like a Stradivarius, making Starks look like Bubba Gump’s stupider brother.  Now we can’t help but laugh when we re-watch his needling reduce Starks to the point that he head-butts Reg (which of course gets Starks ejected).  Miller, incredulous Starks retaliated THAT openly, recalls:

“Looking at Oakley, I was like ‘Your boy is really, really dumb. I mean he is really, really dumb. Are you serious?’”

Yes, the doc helps enable us to laugh by also pointing out Miller’s over-the-top, hammed up act of staggering backwards, arms-akimbo as though the head-tap was delivered by Hulk Hogan.  His teammate Antonio Davis jokes:

“I’m surprised he didn’t have, like, a pack of ketchup and just put it up to his head, and you look and you think he’s bleeding.”

The film is very well done, but separately it also says just as much about us as human beings that we are able to move on and truly respect someone who we once considered our enemy.  When I think about other players that I’ve “hated,” I now greatly respect many of them, like Karl Malone, Tim Duncan, and, from the Knicks’ other great 90s rivalry, the Miami Heat: Alonzo Mourning and PJ Brown.  Sure, you can say, well c’mon, it’s just sports, that’s not real hate, but watch the fans in the doc.  Particularly there’s a scene where Spike Lee goes to Indiana for a playoff game.  He makes a joke about how he’d never been to a Klan gathering, but this felt similar.   And watching it, that’s the impression I got too.  There’s an insane passion that us hard-core fans have for our team.  It may be meaningless in the larger scheme of things, but that doesn’t make the feelings any less real.  Wanna see how intense the anger and hate can be?  Go to a Laker fan site, post that LeBron makes Kobe look like Mark Madsen, then quickly throw on a raincoat before the venomous storm of response come pouring down.

Wait, wait, my point wasn’t supposed to be that sports bring out the hate within us!  It’s that this documentary showed me people have a huge capacity to let our anger go, to forgive, to see the best side in others.  We’ve all been in fights with those we love, having moments of pure antipathy for them, only to have it subside and return to loving this person as much as ever.  However, to have someone who we’ve ONLY hated (or disliked), and to then be able to leave all that behind…  Ahh, I’m just babbling and saying the same thing over and over and over and over and-

Anyway, so the film uses the humor of Miller’s antics to allow both his fans and enemies an entryway into the story.  To further humanize Reggie, it then goes into his intriguing childhood growing up with Cheryl (who many consider perhaps the best women’s player ever).  As stated above, even she says that he was a brat, but there’s also something sympathetic about him having had to live under her shadow.  Add in the fact that Indiana wanted hometown hero, Steve Alford, drafted instead of Reggie, and ya almost kinda, sorta, maybe, slightly feel for him.  Or at least appreciate how hard he had to work to overcome these two huge strikes.

When we get to the specific playoff games between the Knicks and Indy in 1994 and 1995 is when the film truly starts to grab you on an emotional level.  Sure, as one reader of this blog rightly pointed out, in the end this is a film about a small market team (the Pacers) that finally overcomes their arch-nemesis (the Knicks) to… well, actually to lose yet again in the Eastern Conference Finals, albeit to a different team (although that isn’t mentioned).  Yet for these teams, and for those of us watching, these games mattered as if our lives were at stake.  In the end, knowing we never won a championship in subsequent years, the film strikes a genuine moment of sadness and regret when Knick player Charles Smith talks about Ewing’s missed last-second attempt:

“That shot put the lid on the basket for all of our careers moving forward.”

The documentary has its flaws.  Like this indie film is definitely an Indy film.   To give it structure, the story is painted as the Knicks versus the Hicks, which is kinda false.  As they say, the Pacers turned around primarily due to three people besides Miller: general manager Donnie Walsh (ironically NY’s current GM), coach Larry Brown, and point guard Mark Jackson.  All three are New Yorkers.  It wasn’t sweet Heartlanders versus evil City Slickers.  As one person states in the film, if someone had behaved as obnoxiously towards Indiana the way that Reggie did towards the Knicks, they would’ve hated him.  And Reggie ain’t exactly country — the boy’s from Los Angeles.  On the other side of the equation, New York’s slick coach, Pat Riley, grew up in the glamor of Schenectady and went to college in Kentucky.  While the two cities of New York and Indiana may be urban versus country, as shown in the doc, the two teams were far more alike than different.  Maybe that’s why we hated each other so much.