By Ernie Palladino
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The 1996 Yankees had it good.
For a whole year, they got to lord their World Series championship trophy over the rest of the boys, with not a single chance of getting one-upped by Patrick Ewing or Mark Messier or that motley bunch over at old Shea Stadium.
There were none. Joe Torre’s first of four championships, the Yankees’ first after an 18-year wait, was the singular success among all the other teams in New York.
They had the town all to themselves.
Others would attempt to grab a trinket of their own.
The Knicks started a 57-win season, their third-best in franchise history, as the Yanks were closing out their memorable run. But they wound up blowing a 3-1 lead to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals to lose in seven games.
The Rangers also made the playoffs after finishing fourth in the Atlantic Division, and even won two rounds, against the third-place Panthers and first-place Devils. They lost in the Eastern Conference finals in five to the Flyers.
The rest of the New York sports scene presented a fairly desolate picture.
So much for following the leader.
Here’s a rundown of how the rest of the New York sports universe fared amid the Yankees’ euphoria.
Oy. While Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, Jimmy Key, and four kids named Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada marched toward a six-game World Series win over Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves, the Mets trudged toward baseball oblivion.
Mired in the eighth of an 11-year drought between playoff appearances, the Mets not only finished 71-91, good for fourth place in the NL East, but wound up firing manager Dallas Green in the final stretch of the season. Bobby Valentine, who four years later would take them to the 2000 Subway Series against the Yanks, took the last 12 games.
It’s not like Green had a lot to work with. Edgardo Alfonzo, one of the mainstays of the 2000 team, was just 22 and developing at the time. Rey Ordonez was a nifty shortstop who left something to be desired in the hitting department. And Jeff Kent, who would find MVP and All-Star fame elsewhere with the Giants and Astros, would be traded to Cleveland after 89 games with second baseman Jose Vizcaino for an inconsistent Carlos Baerga.
The Mets had released their drug-troubled pitching star Dwight Gooden two years prior. This year was his first of two seasons with the Yanks. Of course, that was also the season where he fashioned his only no-hitter, 2-0 over the Seattle Mariners on May 14.
Meanwhile, the Mets struggled along with a pitching staff that included such luminaries as Paul Wilson (5-12), Jason Isringhausen (6-14), and Pete Harnish (8-12). Mark Clark (14-11) and Bobby Jones (12-8) were the only regular starters who finished with winning records.
At least they had John Franco in the bullpen. He’d have 101 more saves left in him over the next eight years to finish with 424. But his 28 in 1996 did little to improve the Mets’ fortunes.
All in all, an utterly forgettable season.
It was the final year of Dan Reeves’ often-contentious four-year run with the Giants’ front office. It actually started with a 5-11 season the year before, but the 6-10 finish in ’96 was the last straw.
It was the first time since 1982 and ’83 that the Giants finished with consecutive losing records.
Any playoff hopes went out the window in the 13th game. At 5-7 following a 20-6 upset of defending Lombardi Trophy winner Dallas, the Giants’ playoff dreams still alive by a thread, they laid a 24-0 egg against the Eagles that eliminated them.
Big Blue went 1-2 after that, and Reeves was shown the door following the season-ending 23-22 loss to New England.
None of it came as a huge surprise. Reeves never had a decent quarterback after he cut Phil Simms following a playoff appearance in 1993, his first season at the helm. Dave Brown started every game in 1996 and threw just 12 touchdowns against 20 interceptions. Rodney Hampton rushed for 827 yards but only one touchdown, and Chris Calloway was the leading receiver with 53 catches for 739 yards and four touchdowns.
It wasn’t a shock that the Giants finished with the worst offense in the NFL.
The defense was, to put it mildly, frustrated at the lack of support. While the offense failed to generate a single 100-yard rushing performance, the defense held opponents to 10 points or less in six games and at one point kept opposing passing games out of the end zone for 30 consecutive quarters.
Think the Giants had it bad? Take a look at the Jets.
The only positive thing about it was that it led Rich Kotite stepping down after four wins in two years — and consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC East — and the Jets devising a way to get Bill Parcells out of New England. Only then did Gang Green’s fortunes rise.
Neil O’Donnell, fresh off a Super Bowl victory with the Steelers, couldn’t help, as he went 0-6 before a shoulder injury ended his season. Former Buffalo backup Frank Reich beat former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason in Arizona in Game 9, but the rest of the season turned out as barren as the Valley of the Sun.
Gang Green scored 20 or fewer points in 10 games. Their biggest offensive effort came in that 31-21 win at Sun Devil Stadium.
It wasn’t for want of trying, though. Adrian Murrell recorded 1,249 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, and Hofstra product Wayne Chrebet grabbed 84 passes for 909 yards and three touchdowns in his second year in the league.
The defense ranked near the bottom of the league in both points allowed and total yardage, among other things.
Twelve days after the Yanks polished off the Braves in the World Series, Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks embarked on what would become a 57-win journey in the coach’s best season of his seven at the helm. That trip would end in fisticuffs against the Heat in the conference semifinals the following year.
There was no doubting that Van Gundy had things going in the right direction, at least at the start. Guard Allan Houston had taken over John Starks’ starting spot and averaged 14.8 points per game, second only to center Patrick Ewing’s 22.4. And rather than get down about his demotion, Starks responded with a 13.8-point average off the bench to win himself the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.
The front court was awesome with Ewing and rugged Charles Oakley commanding the boards, combining for just over 20 rebounds per game. Larry Johnson added 12.8 points to the effort at his small forward spot.
To cap off their third most successful regular season in franchise history, the Knicks upset the 69-12 defending champion Chicago Bulls in Chicago to ruin their bid for a second consecutive 70-win season and tie the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record ever at 40-1.
Beginning their 11th of 14 consecutive playoff appearances, the Knicks swept the Charlotte Hornets in three games in the first round. But then they ran into the Heat, thus beginning one of the most hotly-contested rivalries in their history.
The turning point came in the Heat’s Game 5 win that cut the Knicks series lead to 3-2. With 1:53 remaining, Miami guard P.J. Brown got into it with substitute Charlie Ward, lifting him off the ground and throwing him into a row of photographers after Ward tried to push him off the end of the court following a free throw. Van Gundy later called Brown’s actions “the most cowardly act” he’d seen in eight years.
The Knicks’ bench emptied as the Heat bench stayed put. Although Ewing simply stood at midcourt and Johnson tried to act as peacemaker, both drew suspensions for Game 6, along with Ward. Houston and Starks were also suspended for leaving the bench, leaving the Knicks down five players.
With Brown drawing the only Heat suspension, the Knicks were at a disadvantage at Madison Square Garden and lost 95-90. Game 7 in Miami turned anticlimactic as the Knicks lost 101-90.
Captain Mark Messier, Brian Leech, Adam Graves, and Mike Richter were three years removed from the 1993-94 Stanley Cup winners but were still producing. And though the great scoring leader Wayne Gretzky would join them, they would not make another final until 2013-14. But they still made it to the playoffs, reaching the Eastern Conference finals. The Flyers beat them in five games despite Gretzky’s team-leading 10 goals and 10 assists in the 15 postseason games.
Gretzky also led the Rangers in scoring during the regular season with 97 points (25 goals, 72 assists), but it was Messier who put in the most goals with 36, followed closely by Graves’ 33. Still, they were a shell of their 52-win Stanley Cup champion, notching only 38 wins to finish fourth behind the Devils, Flyers, and Panthers in the Atlantic Division.
The Blueshirts still managed to beat the Panthers and Devils in five games to get to the conference finals.
The Rangers then lost a couple of heartbreakers. Down 2-1 in the series, the score of Game 4 was tied when Eric Lindros, who had scored a Game 3 hat trick, netted a goal with just seven seconds left in regulation to secure a 3-2 victory.
The Rangers scored twice in 26 seconds of the first period to lead Game 5 2-1, but the Flyers charged back with three unanswered goals to end the Rangers’ season.
Oddly enough, it ended the playoff careers of both Gretzky and Messier, too. Messier went off to Vancouver after the season, stayed for three years, and returned to the Rangers until 2004. Neither team made the playoffs.
Nor did Gretzky’s career come to a happy end. He retired in 1999, his Rangers having missed the playoffs the previous two seasons.
These guys actually played outside the city in Nassau County at the time, but since they now play in Brooklyn we’ll include them. Not that 1996-97 was any banner season for them. A 29-41-12 finish had them mired for the second of a seven-year playoff-less stretch. Those four straight Stanley Cups of the early ’80s were long behind them, as was that coach, Al Arbour.
Instead, Mike Milbury got fired for Rick Bowness after only a season and a half on the bench, raising the butcher’s bill of local coaches to four (Green, Reeves, Kotite, and Milbury).
Ziggy Palffy led the scoring with 90 points (48 goals, 42 assists) followed by Travis Green with 64 points (23 goals, 41 assists).
Clearly, the Yanks had no competition when it came to free dinners and drinks around town.
They ruled New York, basically unopposed.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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