Today in Sports History: January 21st

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1/21/1997 - The Con Game

Of the many things that Michael Jordan was known for, one of them was getting himself hyped up for a game. Often times, Jordan would create something to give him motivation when the game itself wasn't all that important. For a January game against the New York Knicks, Jordan didn't need to search for motivation. Just a few weeks before the Bulls' game against New York, Knicks' coach Jeff Van Gundy had called Jordan a con man. When Jordan complained about Van Gundy's comments, Van Gundy added fuel to the fire.

"I admire him for it," Van Gundy said the day before their game. "He uses everything he has to his advantage, whether psychological or physical. He cons them by inviting them to his movies. He cons them with the commercials. He pretends to enjoy guys, like them and befriend them and all he wants to do is win. The brighter players in this league and all the coaches realize what he does. I don't think what I'm saying is so outlandish. Everyone knows that it's true. I don't have a problem saying it."

When the two teams met up, the Bulls were in a vulnerable position. Dennis Rodman was suspended, Ron Harper was injured, and Scottie Pippen was in the middle of a shooting slump. But it didn't matter. Against the No. 1 defense in the NBA, Jordan scored 51 points on 18-30 shooting. And he took every opportunity to glare and shout obscenities at Van Gundy, who simply looked on with a bleak expression on his face. New York made a late run to make it look closer than it was. The Bulls prevailed, 88-87.

"It was probably a tactical mistake by the coach of the Knicks to attack Michael in the press," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson, not mentioning Van Gundy by name. "I thought he went out and played with a vendetta, a score to settle."

1/21/1999 - Sprewell heads to the Big Apple

After six chaotic seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Latrell Sprewell is traded to the New York Knicks for John Starks, Chris Mills, and Terry Cummings. Sprewell had been in exile since he choked Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo, and hadn't played in over 14 months. The Warriors didn't get much in return for the three-time All-Star, except the ability to move on from one the worst incidents of violence involving a player and a coach. For the Knicks, it was a desperate attempt to get somewhere in the Eastern Conference -- even with Jordan's Bulls at last going their separate ways, they still weren't as good as the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.

Where most troubled athletes would have struggled under the New York spotlight, Sprewell flourished. As his playing time increased, he gradually returned to his All-Star status and was even the Knicks' leading scorer in the postseason. With Sprewell at the helm, the Knicks made it all the way to NBA Finals in 1999, defeating the Heat, Pacers, and Atlanta Hawks despite entering the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Though they fell to the San Antonio Spurs in five games, Latrell had endeared himself to the New York fans, who loved his on-court intensity and enthusiasm.

Though Sprewell was a welcome addition, it wasn't enough to put the Knicks over the top. In 2000, the Knicks finished second in the East to the Indiana Pacers, and in 2001, with Patrick Ewing having been traded to Seattle, they lost in the first round to the Toronto Raptors. The Knicks then degenerated into one of the most unstable franchises in sports and did not enjoy another winning season the rest of the decade. In 2003, the Knicks traded Sprewell to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a deal that sent Keith Van Horn to New York.

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