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Earlier that night of May 10, 1973, Bill Bradley had given George Kalinsky a heads-up, just before the Knicks took the floor at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif., for Game 5 of the NBA Finals.
“If we win tonight,” Bradley said, “keep your lens on me.”
Sure enough, the Knicks won that night, and handily, 102-93, and they wrapped up their second (and, for whatever reason, lesser-celebrated) championship in four years. Bradley had a fine night — 20 points, seven rebounds, five assists — and as the final seconds melted off the clock Kalinsky, the Garden’s longtime photographer, understood why he’d been given notice: Bradley jumped into Willis Reed’s arms.
“But only for like half a second,” Kalinsky remembered years later. “It’s a good thing I knew it was coming.”
The yield was one of the two or three most iconic pictures in team history: Bradley, smiling ear-to-ear, playing the part of Yogi Berra and Reed, back to the camera, playing Don Larsen. A gaggle of Knicks, prominently Jerry Lucas and Henry Bibby, are looking up at the scoreboard from their bench. In the midst of an unhappy sea of Lakers fans waves a solitary Knicks pennant.
It was, without question, the last time the Knicks and the Lakers played a basketball game of genuine mutual significance in Los Angeles.
Forty-eight years and one day later, they will again. That will be Tuesday night. Both teams are 38-30. Both teams are fighting and clawing for their own pieces of the playoff pie: The Knicks still harbor hope of finishing fourth in the East; the Lakers desperately want to avoid staying in seventh position in the West — where they sit now — which would mean a date in the play-in tournament.
“Our goal, big picture, we all know, is to go all the way,” Lakers center Marc Gasol said Monday afternoon.
The Knicks goals are probably a bit smaller than that, although none of them would ever say so on the record.
So it is that Tuesday night at Staples Center the Knicks and Lakers will renew a rivalry that, for a four-year blip on the NBA screen, was as colorful and as beautiful as any. It had stars — Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain on one side, Bradley, Reed and the rest on the other. It had New York and LA. It had two classic uniforms colliding three times in four years in the Finals. It had everything.
Everything but sustainability, anyway.
The Lakers’ blood rivals will always be the Celtics. The Knicks have had a rotating cast of foils these past 48 years, the Bulls for a time, then the Pacers, then the Heat … and then their own slapstick for the better part of 20 years. The Lakers and Knicks have rarely been good at the same time since 1973.
But here they are, both 38-30, both fighting for control of their postseason destinies. LeBron James engaged in a full practice Monday, although Lakers coach Frank Vogel wouldn’t say for sure if the King will grace this game with his presence.
“We did some drill work, some contrived scrimmages and a short full scrimmage and he did all of it,” Vogel reported. “One day at a time.”
Still, even if LeBron sits — or, more likely, if he plays and only goes 15-20 minutes — the Lakers still have Anthony Davis. They still come in off one of their more inspired efforts of the season, a 123-110 humbling of a high-flying Suns team that was coming off a crushing of the Knicks two nights earlier. And while Davis hinted that he’s actually excited at the prospect of participating in a play-in, that seems a lonely Lakers voice. They need wins.
So do the Knicks. Two of them — or one and a Celtics loss — will keep them clear of a play-in. But they also need to keep winning to stay in the 4/5 series in which they are now projected, and which they would genuinely prefer to have home court. And this is exactly the kind of game their coach, Tom Thibodeau, has described so eloquently for weeks.
“Everybody is playing for something,” he has preached.
And so it is. And so it will be, in downtown LA, the Knicks and the Lakers, an ancient rivalry given new life for 48 minutes after 48 years, everything on the table for one throwback of a night, anyway. And maybe a preview of something to come, too, somewhere down the line, a year or two from now.
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