Tonight is Game 1 of the NBA finals, and in commemoration of that fact, I'd like to look back on a remarkable box score line from a previous Game 1.
Given that my favorite athlete of all time is Allen Iverson, one might assume that my favorite box score line was (for some reason) Iverson's 48 points on 18-of-41 shooting (FORTY-ONE FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS! FORTY-ONE!) in 52 out of 53 minutes played. Or maybe Dikembe Mutombo's 16 rebounds would remind me of the superb defense he played on Shaq, even after picking up his fifth foul.
This is one of those box score lines that tells the whole story. Geiger came into the game, caught fire and scored a bunch of points, but found himself completely unable to defend Shaq and just wound up fouling him every time he touched the ball. In my mind, I remember him making five shots and committing six fouls (five of them on Shaq) in the span of about four minutes in the second quarter, but it took him longer than that to foul out in reality.
I first heard about Matt Geiger when I was about nine or ten. I didn't have cable at home growing up, so whenever my family went on vacation and stayed in a hotel, I consumed SportsCenter voraciously. One such morning, I caught highlights of a Hornets game on SportsCenter, and saw a thunderous alley-oop from an intimidating-looking white dude whose bigness was matched, in my head, only by his baldness. He looked like a beast, like an athlete, a far cry from the Montrosses and Bradleys I'd grown accustomed to.
So when, a summer or two later, the Sixers signed Geiger as a free agent, I was pumped. This was the down-low beast they needed, I thought with my middle-school mind, to free up Iverson on the perimeter, the banger who wouldn't back down from Shaq and Malone and David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning and all the other bigs who I remembered just tormenting the Sixers.
I was a really fucking stupid kid.
Geiger put on those quintessentially 90s black road uniforms and suddenly got smaller. Far from the Stone Cold Steve Austin I remembered, he was suddenly less imposing. He didn't rebound like a seven-footer, didn't bang bodies down low...I mean, y'all know this already. But even in spite of his enormous contract, the Sixers started phasing Geiger out of the rotation, instead favoring the fast-improving Theo Ratliff at center and the stupendously hideous Tyrone Hill at power forward. By the time they traded for Mutombo, Geiger (who played only 35 regular-season games in 2001) had been all but forgotten.
So it was all the more amusing that when the Sixers got to the NBA finals, after a run through the postseason that, for absurdity and entertainment value, has only been matched once by a team I root for (South Carolina Gamecocks, 2011 College World Series), it was Geiger who came off the bench to try to slow down Shaq.
Now there's bigness. Around the turn of the century, watching Shaq play basketball made me visibly angry. The basketball of Iverson (which was the only basketball I knew) was a game of speed, agility and creativity. You play the game aggressively and at a breakneck pace, and you get the snot beat out of you going to the rim against bigger guys. And when that happens, you go to the line.
But Shaq just stood by the basket, caught a pass, bowled over his defender and dunked. Again and again and again. He couldn't dribble, he couldn't shoot and he scored 40 points whenever he wanted to because he got to knock over whoever guarded him. I remember Mutombo doing defensive wonders that night and Shaq still went for 44 and 20. It wasn't fun, it wasn't pretty and it didn't seem fair.
Which, even after watching A.I. trade 50-point games with Vince Carter in the conference semis and even after going through that bizarre series against a Milwaukee Bucks team that ranks among the ugliest in NBA history, made Game 1 of the NBA Finals the ultimate test. The Lakers were so obviously the badguys, the arrogant, entrenched, indomitable establishment, every moment the overmatched Sixers ran with them was a joy.
But it occurred to me that the Sixers might win that game not when Iverson so famously stepped over Tyronn Lue (I could write volumes comparing his performance that night to Ricky Manning's in the 2004 NFC Championship Game), but when Geiger came off the bench.
It didn't take long for Geiger to go from "Oh yeah, we've still got that guy!" to "He's playing out of his mind!" to "He really has no chance defending Shaq."
But those ten points, more in 14 minutes than Aaron McKie had in 51, were critical for a team that needed every break to kill the giant. It was absurd, unexpected and awesome. Which makes it the perfect microcosm for the 2001 Sixers, and my favorite box score line ever.