The last time spring really had some spring, as in hops, was 1994, when New York sports was jumping. Lots of great players, well-coiffed coaches, rugged teams, epic moments, and the tabloids couldn't write the snappy headlines fast enough. Fun times, actually, and at one point, this was the only place that didn't get whiplash from a low-speed chase of a white Ford Bronco.
That's right. While O.J. sat in the backseat and mulled his future, and a nation witnessed the greatest sports-celebrity fall, pre-Tiger Woods, you know what New York did? Yawned and kept watching the Knicks and Rockets, Game 5, NBA Finals. Well, at least those New Yorkers who weren't still in a stupor from the historic Stanley Cup celebration three nights earlier at the Garden.
Sixteen springs ago, the Knicks, Nets, Rangers, Devils and Islanders were all in the playoffs. The Knicks and Rangers played for championships. Pat Riley, Chuck Daly and Mike Keenan were coaching. Patrick Ewing and Mark Messier were leading. Charles Oakley and John Starks were elbowing. Over in Jersey, Derrick Coleman heard cheers -- Derrick Coleman! All here. All in the spring.
Dave Checketts, the former boss of Madison Square Garden, said at the time: "We may never see anything like this for a while."
How about never?
That's how it seems right now, anyway.
If it's April, it must be awfully quiet in the streets. Again. Folks are turning their attention to baseball and opening week, less out of loyalty, more out of desperation. Because once football ends, the gap in the calendar stretches wider than Eddy Curry. Spring in New York can be frigid for the local sports fan, no longer compelled to make an emotional investment in college basketball, or the Stanley Cup finals, or the NBA Finals, or anything like that. Those events are for other cities to enjoy. Even Cleveland -- Cleveland! -- is laughing and poking fun.
What happened? Here's what happened. Glen Sather happened. Scott Layden, then Isiah Thomas happened. Wasteful spending happened. Apathy happened with regard to hockey. James Dolan really, really happened. A college basketball revival at St. John's didn't happen. If 1994 was the summit for spring sports in these parts, 2010 represents the pits, a time for dying in a season famously known for giving life.
The Knicks are wrapping up a lost decade, with only one playoff appearance since 2001, when Danilo Gallinari was 12 years old. The year after the Knicks lost to the Rockets, Reggie Miller scored eight points in eight seconds, Ewing missed a finger roll, Riley faxed his resignation and the Knicks hired Don Nelson. The apocalyptic beginning of the end, essentially. Aside from a brief stretch when they mud-wrestled the Heat, the Knicks haven't quickened anyone's pulse in years. do you really think LeBron is going to take their money this summer?
The Rangers have made the playoffs (doesn't everyone in the NHL?) but haven't reached the Cup finals since 1994 after adopting George Steinbrenner's methods (spending on big-name players) without Steinbrenner results. The Devils did win a few Cups, yet only the Left Side of the Hudson broke out the bubbly. Hockey has mostly gone underground anyway, failing to tap into the casual market or command attention from the newspapers or radio talk shows (which probably can't name the Islanders' coach).
Also back in 1994 Felipe Lopez, the national high school player of the year, copped the MVP at the McDonald's basketball showcase and pledged his allegiance to St. John's. Lopez never met the hype halfway. But big deal. St. John's basketball had some juice and made the NCAA tourney.
That lasted only a short while. College basketball fever soon turned to vapor. The school has ripped through five coaches since. Steve Lavin was hired the other day with the fear that the next time you'll hear from St. John's is when Lavin is fired. Ron Artest, born in Queensbridge, schooled at St. John's, had this head-scratching question about the new coach: "Is he any good?"
The owners of the Jets and Giants did college basketball no favors by dropping more than $1 billion on a shared stadium but suddenly turning cheap at the thought of a retractable roof. No Final Four for you, New York/New Jersey.
So here we are. It might be unrealistic to think of duplicating 1994, but at this point, close enough will do. It's really up to the Knicks, the only springtime team with enough clout to generate a serious buzz. They need a big free-agent signing in July, this one or next, and smarter decision-making all around. Or perhaps the playoffs will return to the city once the Nets -- the Nets! -- move to Brooklyn. Either way, we're talking about a process that could take years. As if the suffering hasn't been long enough.
Until then, until the NBA season stretches into May and June, and Lavin can recruit in the boroughs, and hockey figures a way to whip up some hysteria, this will remain an unfulfilled time of year. Playoffs? No, when it comes to spring in the big city, the only P-word is pollen.
Shaun Powell is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.