"The most cowardly act I've seen in my eight years in the NBA," Van Gundy said afterward.
"He's a dirty choirboy," Brown said of Ward.
None of the Miami players, less experienced than the Knicks in these matters, left their bench, which was situated at the opposite end of the court. Starks jumped up and directly entered the fray, earning instant ejection, then displayed idiocy—and brought down a shower of coins, empty cups and trash—when he flipped the crowd an obscene gesture on the way off the floor. No punches were thrown by anyone who came off the Knicks' bench, but there was no excuse for any Knick to have left the bench at all. Ewing, who drifted near but never into the scrum, was implored by Buck Williams to stay put. He didn't. Yet later none of the guilty parties admitted wrongdoing, preferring to complain about the harshness of a penalty that every NBA player knew would come.
"If I had to do it over again," said Starks last Thursday, after being told he was suspended for Game 7, "I'd do it."
Did Brown overreact? Sure. But it was the Knicks' stubborn display of macho posturing that left their opponents shaking their heads in bemusement. "They all want to be bullies," said Bulls forward Scottie Pippen before Game 7. "Somebody has to step up and try to keep that team composed. They all wanted to go out and puff up their egos. That's typical of the Knicks."
Riley even had the audacity to try to distance himself from the Knicks. "I didn't like it when I was there, but that was their nature—to incite," he said last Thursday. "It goes to show you I wasn't responsible for all the things that happened when I was there."
While Riley's attempt to manage his reputation didn't quite wash, others benefited greatly from the Battle off the Bench. There was a rumor this season that NBA commissioner David Stern had it in for Riley, the evidence being the tampering fine ($1 million and the Heat's 1996 first-round draft choice) levied against Miami after it recruited Riley two years ago and last summer's voiding of Miami's signing of free-agent forward Juwan Howard of the Washington Bullets. "They don't want to see Riles be successful," said Mourning during the Magic series. But the stiff penalties meted out to New York killed that theory, as well as the notion that the NBA would do anything to ensure a Bulls-Knicks matchup, which would boost TV ratings.
Mourning, too, profited. His giant effort in Game 6, which included a game-sealing three-pointer and the subsequent curse-laden bellow at a silent New York crowd, and Sunday's solid, 22-point, 12-rebound, four-block performance against Ewing, did much to stunt his growing reputation as an overpaid (seven-year, $105 million contract) underachiever. "It's a great breakthrough for him," said Riley, who came out of the series looking pretty good himself.
Riley said he doesn't take any "special joy" in beating the Knicks. Don't believe it. "I've been two years with this 'Riley sucks' crap," he said after Game 7. "I'm a happy rat right now, O.K.? I'm a happy rat. Not for any reason other than I'm happy to move on. Believe it or not, somewhere along the way you've got to learn to just forget the whole thing."
It's easier for Riley to forget, of course, because his four titles won when he was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers have already secured his place in the game. And Mourning can live with his image as an underachiever because he believes that, with Riley, he'll be able to erase it completely—maybe even before this season ends. Neither man, though, likes what happened to Ewing, what Ewing did to himself. Riley still considers his former center a close friend, and Mourning knows Ewing well because both played (seven years apart) under coach John Thompson at Georgetown, where they have migrated for pickup games in the off-season. "I do feel for Patrick," Mourning said. "I love him like a brother."