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Saturday, December 11, 2021

Tantalizing hope for renewed Knicks-Bulls rivalry

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Sure, it’s too early to start projecting what this would look like, feel like, be like fast-forwarded to the spring. Yes: as silly as it is to be making playoff plans for the 3-1 Knicks after four games, it’s even nuttier to do likewise for the 4-0 Bulls, who had played a Charmin-soft schedule leading into Thursday night.

But since when are we required to be rational?

For fans of a certain age, just the appearance of five men wearing Knicks uniforms and five men wearing Bulls uniforms is enough to conjure memories so strong, feelings so intense, that you can feel your palms sweat and your stomach start to growl. The Knicks-Bulls rivalry of the ’90s was an admittedly one-sided affair — the Bulls won in 1991, ’92, ’93 and ’96, and lost in 1994 when they were missing one of their key players (his name escapes me).

But it was the events of these games that mattered every bit as much, if not more, than the games themselves. It was the theater of big games in big cities. It was stars, and stakes, and the kind of electricity you can’t simply invent. The Knicks had fleeting rivalries with the Celtics and Lakers before that. They had some hard-feeling battles with the Pacers and Heat after it.

Nothing compared with Knicks-Bulls.

Nothing.

Julius Randle and Zach LaVine
Julius Randle and Zach LaVine
Getty Images (2)

“They’re both two great basketball cities, so there’s great appreciation for the subtleties of the game: hustle plays, the extra pass, the effort plays, the togetherness, the teamwork, the discipline,” said Tom Thibodeau, who is as well-versed as anyone on both sides of this pairing and Thursday night led his Knicks into United Center to take on the new-look Bulls for the first time in 2021-22.

“I just remember how fierce the games were. Back then, there were a number of great rivalries: the Chicago-New York one, the Miami-New York one, New York-Indiana. That was a great time in the NBA. Every night was a big game, so hopefully we can get back to that.”

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As much as Knicks vs. Bulls, what would really be an excellent thing would be a ramping up of New York vs. Chicago. When you consider those are two-thirds of the largest media markets in the country, and that parochial sporting passions run fervently and feverishly in both cities, it’s remarkable how mostly detached Fun City has been from the Windy City through the years — certainly nothing to compare to New York vs. Boston.

The Yankees and White Sox played a fun game in Iowa this summer, but they’ve managed to spend 118 seasons together in the American League without once, seemingly, exchanging an angry word. The Mets and the Cubs had 1969, and they had 2015, but those flames were extinguished as quickly as they were lit. There are three distinct New York hockey fan bases; good luck finding anyone in any of them that hates the Blackhawks.

Bears-Giants was a thing once upon a time, but the last time they played a game with any real consequence was the 1963 NFL Championship game at Wrigley Field. There have been a couple of playoff match-ups since, but with the exception of Sean Landeta’s famous whiffed punt in January 1986, good luck remembering any of them.

But from 1991 through ’96, Knicks-Bulls was an event that brought two great cities — two great sporting cities — together, and the emotions were at their peak in both places. Chicago experienced the high of six championships, and the first four of them all went through the Knicks. But ask a Knicks fan if he or she would erase the Bulls from their sporting scrapbook — or the pit of the stomachs — and the bet is not one of them would.

So yes: that’s why Thursday became an appropriately premature event, a genuine happening. Because we know what we had. And, man, it would be something to get that back again. Wouldn’t it?

“I think you’ve got two teams that have a proud tradition, and I think it’s great for the league any time you get teams that really go after it — I think we all know what we love to see,” Thibodeau said. “When you have teams that really compete and go after each other, that’s great. It’s great entertainment. It’s great for the players. It’s great for the fans. It’s what we all love. I think the Bulls have a terrific team. They’ve done a great job. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

He has lots of company. In both cities.

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