NEW YORK -- It took nearly the end of the fourth game before the eruption that everyone expected occurred between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat. And for the second year in a row, these bitter rivals will likely play a decisive game with key players missing.
The New York Knicks already had the game in hand, an eventual 90-85 win. But with 1.4 seconds left Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning -- once teammates with the Charlotte Hornets -- exchanged punches near the home team's bench that will likely force both to miss Sunday's Game 5 in Miami.
How unexpected was it? Miami coach Pat Riley was headed toward the locker room when the two came to blows. The disgusted look on his face as he slowly walked toward the participants -- where by that time New York coach Jeff Van Gundy clung dearly for life to Morning's right leg -- told of the shock Riley felt on seeing history repeat itself.
"One-point-four seconds to go," was Riley's response when asked what had happened. "I saw the punches being thrown. Jeff, he had a hold of Alonzo's leg and looked like he was trying to shinny up the pole. It is like last year."
Last year's incident occurred during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when New York guard Charlie Ward was tossed into a row of photographers after an aggressive box-out of Miami forward P. J. Brown. The players who left the New York bench at the time of that incident were suspended -- Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and Ward missed Game 6, while Johnson and John Starks missed Game 7.
The brawl almost took away from a solid game from Starks, who, after flying home to be with his mother, who is ill with cancer, scored 17 points and helped spark the win. Johnson also scored 17 for New York.
Coming off a performance here Tuesday during which the starting Miami backcourt of Tim Hardaway and Voshon Lenard combined to score 55 points, the Knicks came out with a bit more toughness last night. And while Hardaway scored 33 points, Lenard finished with just two.
In last night's incident, Johnson boxed out a bit too aggressively with his elbows, connecting to the head of Mourning -- who was playing for the first time without the protective mask that had shielded his fractured left cheek.
Mourning threw the first punch. And the second. Johnson retaliated. Neither landed a punch -- a typical NBA fight.
"The whole game was a lot of cheap shots thrown, the whole game and after a while you gotta take a stand," Mourning said. "LJ crossed the line at the end."
Said Johnson: "It's unfortunate, but I'm a street guy. I guess I should have just been a punk and not done anything."
Had Johnson stayed a "punk" he'd be suiting up for Sunday's decisive game, instead of being holed up in a hotel room for the second year in a row. But the fact that the two former teammates exchanged blows will cost Miami its leading scorer, and New York its third-leading scorer.
"I'm embarrassed for both organizations and the NBA," Van Gundy said. "I'm shocked. It's a joke, it really is. Unfortunately, it detracted from a game that was already decided in our favor and it detracts from the series. I think the NBA has to be embarrassed."
And so is Mourning.
"Based on the history of the league and how they've handled situation like this, I probably will be suspended," Mourning said. "I just want to apologize to the team, the coaches and the organization."
"I've been in situations like this before; I've been able to hold myself back. You got to draw the line somewhere. Hey, my manhood was tested."
Pub Date: 5/01/98