The Knicks are shambling towards the end of what may wind up being the worst season in franchise history, but 20 years ago this week a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers turned into one for the history books, thanks to a late-game dustup between Chris Dudley and Shaquille O’Neal.
Before we get to the monumental moment between Dudley and Shaq, let’s set the stage for what was going on in the NBA, and for the Knicks, heading into the March 28 contest against the Lakers. The NBA was in the midst of a lockout-shortened season, so the team’s records are going to look weird.
Setting things up
The Knicks, sitting at 16-13, were coming off a 94-87 victory over Jason Kidd, Clifford Robinson and the Phoenix Suns. This was prior to the downfall of the Knickerbockers as a franchise, meaning the team still had good players on it. More specifically, the Knicks were led by the likes of Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and an aging Patrick Ewing. The team was coached by Jeff Van Gundy. Ah, the good old days.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were 19-11. Although Shaq and Kobe Bryant were both on the squad — not to mention Glen Rice, Dennis Rodman, Derek Harper, Rick Fox, Robert Horry and Derek Fisher — the team had yet to begin its dynasty. In fact, the Lakers’ first championship with Shaq and Kobe would not come until the next season. The Lakers were coached by Kurt Rambis, who you might remember as the guy who recently coached the Knicks, and wasn’t that great at the job.
The Knicks would wind up eking their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Lakers, on the other hand, finished the season tied for fourth in the Western Conference. The San Antonio Spurs ended up sweeping the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals, while the Knicks miraculously made it out of the East before losing in five games to the Spurs. Therefore, even though the Lakers beat the Knicks in this particular game, there’s an argument to be made that the Knicks were actually the better team, since they at least won a single game against the Spurs in the playoffs.
Now that the table is set, let’s look at what led up to Shaq deciding Dudley deserved to be hurled onto the hardwood.
From the jump, the Lakers and Knicks went at each other like Mitchell Robinson goes after an opponent’s shot attempt: with vicious fury and a little bit of hatred. A lot of the bad blood between the two teams can be attributed to the play of Rodman, who was “often in the middle of things,” according to the CBS News recap of the game. Strangely, although there were five technical fouls called and a couple of ejections, Rodman was not among those who were kicked out.
”It always amazes me that he’s always the one involved, but it’s always the other people who get penalized,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a dirty player. I mean, he’s a great player, but he plays dirty.”
The Knicks led 27-21 after the first quarter, but by halftime the Lakers were up 50-42. Heading into the final period, the Lakers led 72-65, but a Knicks rally that included Sprewell going off for 13 points brought the Knicks within three with just a few minutes remaining. Sprewell finished with 25 points off the bench. Houston, meanwhile, had 15 points, and Ewing posted 20 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Ultimately, it was Harper, the former Knick, who put the game away for the Lakers, hitting two late three pointers to put them up 89-79 with three minutes to go, a lead the team would not relinquish. The final score was 99-91 Lakers, with Shaq pouring in 21 points and grabbing 9 rebounds while Kobe tallied 29 points, 5 rebounds and 5 steals. The final score, however, is not the most important part of this game.
As has been noted, the entire game was filled with tension, and late in the third quarter is when things started to really erupt. About a minute and a half after Kurt Thomas and Rodman received double technicals, the two players once again got into a scuffle, which resulted in Thomas being called for a level-two flagrant and being booted from the game.
”I didn’t think I should get a foul for being kicked, but I was,” Thomas said. “That’s something he’s done over a number of years. He’s always kicking. So I have to defend myself.”
Tensions remained high as the fourth quarter began, and midway through the period is when the moment finally happened. With the Knicks down three, the Lakers got the ball to Shaq in the post. He backed down Dudley with three dribbles, then turned and exploded upwards for a monster slam dunk. After Shaq completed the slam and landed, he shoved Dudley to the floor with both hands, treating the 6’11” center like he was a rag doll. The dunk put the Lakers up 80-75, but Dudley was not content to simply get up and try to come down and score on the other end.
Instead, he stood up, picked up the basketball Shaq had just hammered home, and fired the ball in O’Neal’s direction as hard as he could. Dudley was ejected and Shaq was hit with a technical foul. Dudley’s poise in the moment was impressive. First of all, he could have just let Shaq dunk but refused to go quietly into the night and actually did a fine job trying to contest the shot. Unfortunately, there’s no stopping Shaq when he’s that close to the hoop. Secondly, Dudley not only threw the ball at Shaq but stared him down and walked in his direction as if to say ‘I’m not scared of you.’ Again, it’s impressive when you pretend that Shaq didn’t just make Dudley look like he was a little boy out there.
After the game, Shaq feigned innocence.
“He just grabbed me, he was under me, I had to get him off me,” O’Neal said. “No, I wasn’t angry at all.”
As for Dudley, cooler heads prevailed once he had some time to stop and think.
“Both things were wrong,” he said. “I didn’t think I should be ejected. Someone pushes you down, I just responded in kind.”
His decision to respond in kind led to one of the greatest videos on the entire internet, and the play enshired Dudley forever as a Knickerbocker for life, despite the meager stats he put up during his time with the team (in 144 games with the Knicks, Dudley averaged 13.9 minutes per game, scored 2.3 points on 40 percent from the field and 43 percent from the free throw line, and grabbed 4.2 rebounds).
Stats aside, Dudley’s legacy as a Knick remains forever intact because of the time he got abused by Shaq but refused to back down and threw a basketball at the Big Diesel.