The regulars at the La Paris barbershop on Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn didn't know what to think. Most of them are New York Knick fans, but they also have a special fondness for the Houston Rockets' starting point guard, Kenny Smith, a transplanted New Yorker whose parents, William and Ann, own the store next door, Candles and Flowers. You can imagine the conflicting emotions that filled the La Paris during the NBA Finals, especially after Smith was instrumental in the Rockets' winning the sixth game 86-84 and tying the best-of-seven series 3-3 at the close of business Sunday night. Smith, who had been having a nightmarish series until Game 6, hit a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter, and afterward he could imagine the Monday-morning conversation at the barbershop. "Some of them will be saying, isn't that great about Smitty's son?' " he said. "The others will be saying, 'That damn Kenny Smith.' "
They weren't the only ones who couldn't decide just how they felt about this series, which was headed for a seventh and deciding game on Wednesday. The Finals were at once ragged and thrilling, the kind of series that causes viewers to cover their eyes with one hand while biting their nails on the other. But many observers seemed so concerned with grading the quality of play that they barely noticed that there hasn't been a Finals in recent memory that featured as many edge-of-the-seat conclusions. "The games might not get high marks for artistic impression, but you can't complain about the intensity of the competition," New York coach Pat Riley said. "Every game has been a two-or three-point game late in the fourth quarter."
And just when you thought you had separated the heroes from the goats, they would switch roles. One minute Knick guard Derek Harper was closing in on the Finals' MVP award with sterling performances—21 points in New York's 93-89 Game 3 loss and 21 and 14 in its victories in Games 4 (91-82) and 5 (91-84), respectively—the next he was shooting 2 for 10 in the sixth game. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon was unstoppable with his turnaround fallaway jumpers during some stretches but appeared tentative and reluctant to shoot during others. Olajuwon's opposite number, Patrick Ewing, missed 40 of 57 shots in Games 3 and 4 but came through with 25 points, 12 rebounds and a Finals-record-tying eight blocks in Game 5.
For some reason Mujibur and Sirajul, the Broadway souvenir-store salesmen from Bangladesh whom David Letterman has made into minor celebrities, were in attendance at Game 6 in Houston and visited the Rocket locker room after the game. Mujibur's (or was it Sirajul's?) summation of what he had seen—"Back and forth, back and forth"—was as good a description of these Finals as any.
Smith, of course, was more back than forth. His struggles against the Knick backcourt in general and Harper in particular were becoming almost painful to watch. He averaged 4.2 points and 3.8 assists during the first five games and seemed completely flustered, even dribbling the ball out of bounds against only token pressure in Game 5. Things had gotten so bad that Smith's teammates gave up trying to put a positive spin on his performance. "Kenny's been too nice," said guard Vernon Maxwell, who didn't exactly set the world on fire by averaging 12.1 points on 34% shooting over the first six games. "He's a nice guy, but I want to see him play mean and nasty, just once, for me."
It was all particularly galling for Smith, who was born in Queens and played at Archbishop Molloy High School in that New York City borough, because most of his problems were witnessed firsthand at Madison Square Garden by his friends and family. "The seats the Knicks gave them weren't exactly the best ones in the house," he said. Maybe that was a good thing, because his play in New York was best viewed from a distance.
That's why Rocket rookie Sam Cassell was at point guard for the lion's share of the minutes during the series' fourth quarters—until Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich played a hunch and turned to Smith in Game 6. But even Tomjanovich's reasoning indicated how poorly Smith had been performing: "Sam was tired, and I felt confident going with Kenny because tonight he wasn't playing, you know, the way he had been playing the last few games."
Smith rewarded Tomjanovich's confidence by drilling a three-pointer that gave the Rockets an 84-77 lead with 3:18 left in the game. The shot slowed the Knicks but didn't bury them. New York on a fourth-quarter comeback is like one of those lumbering horror-movie monsters: No matter how many times you hit it, it just keeps coming. The Rockets didn't stop the Knicks for good until just before the buzzer, when Olajuwon blocked guard John Starks's three-point attempt, which would have given New York the game, the series and the NBA championship. Afterward the Knicks lamented another missed opportunity, which had come when they were trailing 78-77: an overthrown length-of-the-court pass by forward Charles Oakley to an open Starks.
As for Smith, his statistics for the night—seven points, one assist—didn't look as if they belonged to a hero, but he clearly felt like one. When he was brought into the area reserved for postgame interviews of the key players of each game, he looked around and said, "I didn't know this room existed."
There were several omens suggesting that Smith and the Rockets were doomed in Game 6. The Knicks had good karma emanating from the full-page newspaper photo, taped to Harper's locker room stall, of New York Ranger captain Mark Messier holding the newly won Stanley Cup. And if the Houston players weren't tight, the Rocket mascot, Turbo, certainly was. During timeouts he missed three trampoline-aided dunks that he usually makes in his sleep.