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The 2002 Knicks-Kings NBA Finals, According to ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’

The Knicks and Kings may not have actually met in the 2002 NBA Finals, but that won’t stop us from reliving Latrell Sprewell’s heroics, inexplicable lineups, and a rom-com that also functions as a love letter to basketball

Getty Images/Paramount Pictures/Ringer illustration

It’s been a bad few decades for the Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks. At 13 years, Sacramento has the longest active postseason drought in the NBA; New York isn’t far behind at seven years. The Kings haven’t won a championship nor made the Finals since moving to Sacramento in 1985; the Knicks have won only one postseason series since 2000 and haven’t won a championship since 1973. In the past few decades, the two franchises have had just one bright spot: their epic showdown in the 2002 NBA Finals, as depicted in the classic rom-com How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

In the 2003 film, the NBA Finals serve as a backdrop for the budding romance between adventurous advice columnist Andie Anderson (Kate Hudson) and cocky ad exec Benjamin Barry (Matthew McConaughey). Both characters are die-hard Knicks fans—McConaughey’s character is supposedly from Staten Island, although he sounds suspiciously like someone from Texas—but they miss critical parts of the Finals so they can focus on their sham relationship. (McConaughey is trying to prove to his bosses that he can get a woman to fall in love with him in 10 days, and Hudson is the woman; Hudson is writing a column called “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” and McConaughey is the guy.) But from what we’re able to piece together, the Knicks-Kings Finals was a thrilling seven-game war filled with nightly buzzer-beaters, epic comebacks, and legendary individual performances. It may be one of the greatest championship series in league history.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Rodger, the Knicks and Kings did not play in the 2002 NBA Finals. The Lakers swept the Nets that year. The Knicks missed the playoffs, and the Kings lost to the Lakers the Western Conference finals. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is a movie, and the events portrayed within are entirely fictional. It’s pretty obvious that the film’s creators simply chopped up footage from one Knicks-Kings game and sprinkled it in throughout the movie to make it look like the teams played seven games against each other.”

And I’ve gotta admit, those are some fair points. But look: There is no basketball on right now, and I’m probably going to die before my Knicks ever win an actual championship. This is all I have! So instead of thinking about the real Knicks, I’d like to tell you about the How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days Finals, one of the finest postseason performances in recent Knicks history:

Game 1: Latrell Sprewell’s Transformation

Andie scores primo seats to Game 1 of the Finals—as she calls it, “the most exhilarating and artistic display of athletic competition known to mankind”—from an editor at Sports Illustrated who is trying (unsuccessfully) to woo her. She gives one to Ben, the guy she must win, then lose, in 10 days, for the purposes of her how-to column. You’ve gotta feel for that poor SI staffer—I can’t imagine how many strings he had to pull to get these tickets, and Andie gives them to a guy she’s joke-dating for an article.

Anyway, Andie and Ben go on their first date to the Finals, and when we join them in the fourth quarter, things couldn’t be going better. They seem to be having a great time yelling at refs and trying to distract Scot Pollard while he shoots free throws. Suddenly, with under two minutes to go, Andie and Ben appear on the kiss cam.

This seems like a critical error by the Madison Square Garden game ops team. You’re supposed to get the kiss cam out of the way in like the second quarter—not in the fourth quarter of a one-score Finals game! You need the crowd to be pumped! Put on a hype video of players yelling “MAKE SOME NOIIIIIISE” while “Crazy Train” plays! But in this instance, the kiss cam works: The MSG crowd is transfixed by the magnetic will-they-won’t-they energy between McConaughey and Hudson, and when they finally kiss, the building goes nuts. I guess it’s OK to show a kiss cam in a critical moment, but only if you’re reasonably certain the two people you’re putting on the Jumbotron are characters in a rom-com. Thanks to McConaughey and Hudson, 20,000 fans roar to their feet. Then the sound guy blasts the ultimate pump-up jam to keep the crowd hype with two minutes to go in a tight Finals game—“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer.

Outside of the kiss-cam action, the Jumbotron also tells us a lot about the game. When we see it, the Knicks are up 93-91, and the most notable stat comes from the Knicks’ side: Latrell Sprewell has 42 points, a career playoff high, surpassing his 35-point performance in Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals. But it’s what’s missing from the Kings side that really stands out: With less than two minutes in the game, Sacramento is running a bizarre lineup with backup center Scot Pollard and deep bench reserve Lawrence Funderburke. Funderburke had six points total in the actual 2002 NBA playoffs, but on this night, he apparently has seven. Meanwhile, some of the Kings’ most important players—Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, and Vlade Divac—are out of the lineup with the game on the line. Plus, if we add up the point totals of the five Sacramento players on the floor, we get 83—meaning everybody not in the game, including those four starters, combined for just eight points. That’s a disaster—in the real-life 2002 NBA playoffs, Webber scored at least 18 points in every game. Tonight, Webber and three other starters combined for less than half of that. (The Kings’ lineup choices may have to do with the fact that in real life, Webber was injured for the Kings’ lone visit to MSG in 2002, and that game was used for all basketball clips in this movie.)

Seconds later, we see Mike Bibby hit a 3 to give Sacramento a one-point lead—and then comes one of the most incredible plays in Finals history: a Sprewell game-winner to give the Knicks the 1-0 series lead. You’ve gotta wonder—how did Sprewell, sitting on 42 points in a Finals game, get loose enough to take a shot? But as you can see in this clip, Sprewell doesn’t actually get open.

What happens instead is that the Knicks get the ball to Clarence Weatherspoon at the top of the key, and with the clock running down, the Kings barely even cover him. Why would you? He’s the last player any Knicks fan would want to shoot. (Well, any Knicks fan except Andie, who furiously screams “SHOOT IT! SHOOT!” as the clock runs down. She knows something’s up.) Weatherspoon rises for a shot over Divac—the Kings must have subbed Pollard out during the kiss-cam break—and as he gets ready to fire, he morphs into Sprewell, who drills the game-winner.

Obviously, teams can’t sub in new players during live gameplay, but I’ve scanned the NBA rulebook, and there’s no rule against players transforming into their teammates during live action. And as basketball and movie fans learned from Air Bud, anything not specifically outlawed by the rulebook is apparently legal. The Knicks must have swapped out Sprewell’s Gatorade with Polyjuice Potion in the last timeout. It was a bold call by Knicks interim coach Don Chaney to run the Transfiguration play with the game on the line, especially considering the risk that Sprewell didn’t transform back in time, or became permanently trapped in Weatherspoon’s body.

As thrilling and physically impossible as this was for the Knicks, it must have been equally heartbreaking for the Kings—and some of the blame has to go towards Rick Adelman. I get riding with your hot hand, especially when Bibby has 36 and Funderburke has seven. But you’ve gotta wonder: Were the Kings’ stars held to eight combined points because they all simultaneously had horribly timed off nights? Or were they limited to eight points because of Adelman’s bizarre lineup choices? The coach must have faced some tough questions in his postgame press conference.

Game 2: Stop the Ball!

We don’t get as much of the story of Game 2. Ben invites Andie over to his place to watch the game, but she pretends to be horrified by the lamb dinner he cooked for her and demands to eat at a vegetarian restaurant. So we miss most everything between tipoff and the final minute of the game while they’re fighting/in transit. But despite the persona she’s putting on for the article, Andie does want to see the game, so she pulls another faux-freak-out so she can sneak away and watch the final minute with the restaurant’s kitchen staff. Ben sadly attempts to ask the waitress for the score of the game, but she’s an extremely stereotypical vegetarian restaurant waitress and has no clue.

Between a helpful summary from a cook (and a highlight reel shown later), we get the gist of what happened in the game: The Knicks trailed by as many as 10 points, but they tied it up with under 30 seconds to go. Despite Sprewell’s incredible Game 1, the Knicks look to Allan Houston for the game-winner, and he misses. Scot Pollard—once again inexplicably playing over Divac and Webber in crunch time—wrangles a rebound, and then comes the play that Kings fans simply refer to as “The Drive.” (Or, at least they would, if this was a real series.)

Sacramento now has the ball in a tied game with fewer than 10 seconds left in the franchise’s first championship series appearance since the Rochester Royals played in the 1951 NBA Finals. What do the Kings do in their franchise’s biggest moment since the invention of color TV? Of course, they put the ball in the hands of their eighth-best player: backup point guard Bobby Jackson.

The 6-foot-1 185-pounder puts his head down and drives like he’s never driven before. He ditches Knicks guard Charlie Ward with a vicious spin move, looks up, and sees his chance for glory. He gets to the tin nearly uncontested and lays it in as the clock expires. The Kings have tied up the NBA Finals.

Jackson deserves credit for his heroism, but it feels necessary to call out the Knicks for a display of transition defense that would infuriate every high school basketball coach in the country. Ward, typically a hard-nosed defender, goes for a steal instead of keeping his body between Jackson and the hoop, and gets brutalized by Jackson’s spin. The Knicks’ big men, Clarence Weatherspoon and Othella Harrington, need to step up in that situation—but instead they watch as Jackson streams by them to win the game. You have to ask why shot-blocking specialist Marcus Camby isn’t on the floor at this critical juncture—maybe the Kings opted not to call timeout to keep him on the bench.

Considering the situation, the Knicks’ lack of urgency is stunning. Weatherspoon even scoops up the ball and attempts to inbound it after the basket, even though the game is supposedly over. From the way the Knicks played defense and reacted to Jackson’s game-winner, you could almost be led to believe that this critical play in the closing moments of a Finals game was actually taken from the second quarter of a midseason game between two non-conference opponents.

The missed Houston shot becomes the subject of some Hudson-McConaughey dialogue later. When Andie and Ben go back to Ben’s house, Ben flips on the TV so he can watch highlights, and reacts to them as if they’re happening in real time. (I can’t tell whether this is psychopathic behavior or just how people experienced sports they didn’t catch live in 2002.) Andie makes a comment about Houston’s critical miss before it’s shown on TV, which confuses Ben, who doesn’t know that Andie was watching the game when she snuck off earlier. When called out about the strange comment, Andie says she was just guessing, because Houston “always misses that shot from the top of the key,” but Ben is on to her: “Houston never misses from the top of the key!” Sensing that her cover is about to be blown, Andie starts taking off Ben’s clothes. She decides to further her efforts to lose McConaughey in 10 days by completely ruining the sexual experience, but I feel like she could’ve actually lost him by continuing to insist that Allan Houston’s jumper sucked—McConaughey seemed pretty upset by it.

The Grand Finale

We skip through games 3 to 6 as Andie and Ben fall in love with each other. For the sake of completeness, I’m just going to imagine what happened in those contests, based off what we saw in games 1 and 2:

Game 3: Knicks take a 2-1 lead on a game-winning midrange jumper by Mark Jackson.

Game 4: Kings tie it up after a dominant 11-point, four-rebound performance from Funderburke.

Game 5: The Knicks use their dark magic to foil a potential game-winning Kings shot by transforming Stojakovic into a bewildered Gerald Wallace as he squares up for a deep 3.

Game 6: Jackson and Bibby combine for 91 points as the Kings force Game 7, most of the team’s starters still nowhere to be found.

Ben buys tickets for Game 7—he says they’re not as good as the tickets bought by the usurped Sports Illustrated editor, who is presumably enjoying the Finals alone in his massively expensive seats. But because of your typical rom-com stuff, Andie and Ben have a falling out. Ben briefly jokes about attending the game with the Chinese crested dog Andie bought him, while Andie watches at home with one of her coworkers. We hear Marv Albert talk about how the series has been a “classic” as Kurt Thomas wins the opening tip against Divac.

And then we … don’t get to see the end of the game. The movie flashes forward a few days, Andie and Ben reconcile, and the film never actually reveals who won the Finals. Did the Knicks pull off any more magic tricks, or learn how to defend in transition? Did the Kings locate Webber, or fix their confusing rotation issues? The movie leaves those questions unanswered.

I only know one thing for sure: Given the complete dearth of other successes for either franchise, both New York and Sacramento fans should look back upon this series fondly. For Kings fans, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days canonically flips the painful result of the controversial 2002 Western Conference finals. And if they made a movie about the actual Knicks, it would be called How to Lose Every Talented Guy You Draft in Four Years or How to Lose 57 Times in 82 Games. So I’m gonna go ahead and celebrate my beloved 2002 NBA Finals Participant Knicks.