Friday, January 6, 2012

'X' Marks His Spot

Xavier McDaniel found mainstream renown in 1992.

Drafted fourth overall by the SuperSonics in 1985, the "X-Man" toiled as a swaggering, hyper-rebounding, Wes Matthews-choking cult hero in Seattle for five seasons in the dark days before the Internet and NBA League Pass fully opened the West Coast to fans.

He was traded to the Phoenix Suns 15 games into the 1990-'91 season and then dealt again to the New York Knicks a month before the next season began.

Amid this career upheaval, McDaniel filmed his scene-stealing cameo in Cameron Crowe's Generation X treatise, “Singles." The film’s release was delayed until September 1992, but the “X-Man” had nailed one of the greatest walk-on parts for an athlete in movie history.

McDaniel also found a propitious fit with the Knicks. Coach Pat Riley was in the first season of bringing his bruising style to the Big Apple, and McDaniel formed a hard-hitting forward rotation with Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason.

McDaniel started every game that season for a team seriously lacking in depth. Looking at a list of bench players for the Knicks that season — Tim McCormick, Carlton McKinney, Brian Quinnett, Kennard Winchester and an over-the-hill Kiki Vandeweghe — the names sound more like a Princeton eating club than ballers ready for Madison Square Garden.

With McDaniel providing the muscle, the hardened Knicks advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals to face the defending champion Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls’ Scottie Pippen had earned legitimacy as an NBA superstar with an NBA title and a berth on the Olympic "Dream Team," but teams still believed the lithe forward could be bullied into passivity.

McDaniel was singularly wired for that kind of duty.

With McDaniel hounding Pippen's every step, the Bulls forward shot just 30 of 84 over the first six games of a brutal series.

Over those games, the Knicks committed five flagrant fouls, including John Starks' infamous clothesline of Pippen in Game 6. So there was quite a bit of bloodlust for Game 7 at Chicago Stadium.

It didn't take long for sparks to fly. After the Bulls took a 15-10 lead, Pippen and McDaniel went face to face after a timeout.

With 3:30 left in the first period, they were invading each other's personal space again after banging in the paint.

Thirty seconds after that, McDaniel was called for an offensive foul while backing down Pippen with his elbow. After the requisite jaw-jacking on the way down court, Michael Jordan settled the issue.

Jordan put his forehead right on McDaniel's, and even a novice lip-reader watching NBC’s telecast could see the Bulls star saying "F--k you, X" repeatedly.

Double technicals were called, meaning McDaniel didn't have much leeway over the remaining three quarters.

Pippen took the ball hard to the basket on the Bulls' next possession, gladly absorbing a hard foul and hitting two free throws. He seemed freed of McDaniel’s malice. Jordan was particularly juiced and had 29 points by halftime.

The Knicks, with only an eight-man rotation, were enervated in the third quarter, scoring just 13 points. The defanged McDaniel wasn't much of a factor after that rough-and-tumble first quarter.

The Bulls won going away, 110-81. Pippen finished with a triple-double (17 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds), easily his best performance of the series.

It was the last time McDaniel would wear a Knicks jersey. He signed with the Boston Celtics in the off-season and played five more NBA seasons.

Temperamental power forwards usually have a short shelf life, but McDaniel lasted longer than most. He's one of the archetypes of that particular breed, with that one punishing season with the Knicks galvanizing his reputation.