Mr. Potato Head on a Stick
We’re gonna win something tonight. We gonna win the game or the fight.
—Greg Anthony, New York Knicks
“It was biblical,” remembers Cheryl Miller, “You had Indiana, the Holy City, and New York, Sodom and Gomorrah.” It’s true, at times the contention between the Pacers and the Knicks sometimes seemed a matter of life and death, or at least a clash of cosmic forces. That said, Miller ‘s take on the contest is understandably biased, as her brother Reggie was then the star shooting guard for that Holy City, on occasion called on to carry his team over to victory. And that said, Reggie was well aware of the ironies he brought to that role, not least being that he was a prodigious trash-talker, one of the most effective ever to grace an NBA floor.
This history is recalled in Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks. Screening 23 February as part of Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center, followed by a Q&A with director Dan Klores, the film will premiere as well on 14 March in ESPN’s stellar documentary series, 30 for 30. Wholly entertaining and wonderfully smart, the movie traces the Knicks-Pacers rivalry. If this contest didn’t figure quite the east-west split of the Celtics and the Lakers, it did suggest a distinction between a righteously ruralish midwest (not quite Indianapolis, more a dream-state featuring lots of golden plains and ruddy-cheeked farmers) and a less polite metropolis (traffic, Times Square, the ESB). Such identities can never hold for long, but they grant the fans and especially the press a way to see oppositions. “It was the country grassroots game versus the city game,” says Pacers broadcaster Mark Boyle.
It helped the story that Pacers coach Larry Brown (born in Brooklyn, but who’s counting?) preached a back-to-fundamentals game, and that the Knicks’ Pat Riley (erstwhile of the multi-ringed Lakers and not yet in Miami) encouraged his players to “play hard, to be the toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the NBA.” It helped that Reggie was an unlikely choice for the Pacers when he was drafted in 1985 (Hoosiers star Steve Alford was the fan’ preferred choice, and Miller’s lanky look inspired Boyle to lament they’d picked “Mr. Potato Head on a Stick”). And it helps Klores’ documentary that it features not only self-aware guys like Riley, but also that most insightful of NBA commentator, Jeff Van Gundy, at the time Riley’s assistant coach. “At heart,” Van Gundy says of his former boss, “He’s a scrapper, a fighter. He’s angry, passionate. He’s Schenectady.”
Such are the delights of Winning Time, which adheres for the most part to a sports doc structure—little guys challenge big guys, fans opine, action slows at crucial moments, and music soars—while also tweaking that formula. Consider the cunning music collision: the strings don’t just soar and the piano doesn’t descend into darkest minor keys, mimicking opera. No. The music here is actually opera, Verdi’s “Una Vela” (from Otello) as Reggie introduces the rivalry as “great theater,” and Mussorgsky’s “Slava! Slava! Slava!” (Boris Godunov) as he smiles wryly while wondering what Knick John Starks could have been talking about when he complained about Miller’s elbows. With such selections—familiar yet rousing, cartoonish and dramatic—the soundtrack is in cahoots with the rest of the film, shrewd and funny and quite mindful, thank you, of how cumbrous conventions can be.
Just so, the film notes Miller’s own reputation as “one of the great trash-talkers in the history of the game,” a rep enhanced by his surprise that anyone could think such a thing. “He was like Satchmo doing a great performance, or Pearl Bailey singing ‘Bring in the Clowns,” remembers Pacers executive Mel Daniels. When they were children, and Cheryl was the star, the “unbelievable” baller in the family, she observed her brother’s development of particular, not to say compensatory, skills. “He was the proverbial bad itch down your spine that you can’t get to,” she remembers, “He is a maddening human being.”
Patrick Ewing seconds that emotion, recollecting another angle on Reggie as the Pacers’ ace performer. “He was a great con man, always crying to the ref,” says Ewing. “Knock you down, smack you, and acting like he was the one getting smacked. You know,” he adds, “I hated Reggie.” Indeed. While Miller was a remarkable and remarkably consistent three-point shooter and five-time all-star during his 18-year career, his mouth made him notorious, especially among Knicks and Knicks fans. Given that neither team had (or has) won the NBA Championship since 1973, both have been eager to put that record right. During the 1993 First Round playoffs, 1994 Eastern Conference finals, and then again in the ‘95 semifinals, he got into it with the Knicks—players like John Starks and Patrick Ewing, and that most famous fan, Spike Lee.
The jawing between Miller and Lee made for sensational entertainment, even amid the excitement of the playoffs. Miller made use of his team’s relatively unflashy, underdog status (“Why do we have to be the hicks?”), goading his opponents into making mistakes (the John Starks head-butt in 1993 looms large in the teams’ shared history). In 1994, his exchanges with Spike became part of the show. The jawing worked all ways, igniting fans and players alike. If, as Ahmad Rashad says, “Spike Lee didn’t inspire the Knicks, he inspired Reggie,” Miller also infuriated New Yorkers. Marv Albert remembers that during Game Five of the 1994 Eastern Conference finals—the one where Reggie infamously grabbed his throat and then his crotch to taunt Spike—Miller “had two games going, one with Spike and one with the Knicks.” That Pacers win made everyone mad at Spike, who remembers that by the time they played next in Indianapolis, “I’m praying to God, because I know if we lose this game, it’s gonna be hard for me to live in New York City.”
The Knicks did win, and then lost to the Rockets. The following year, Indianapolis had its revenge (aided by former Knick Mark Jackson, prodding Miller, “This is Madison Square Garden, the lights are on and it’s time to dance!”). This triumph, of course, was also fleeting. Van Gundy sighs, “I think everyone knew it was the end of that era, it was never gonna be the same.” But on film, it can be, for a minute. Those last moments of Pacers triumph in the ‘95 “Knick Killer” can last forever—Patrick Ewing’s freeze-framed missed shots, Reggie’s slow-motioned free throws. Celebrating the drama and making fun of it too, Winning Time has it all ways.