In October 2020, Paul Knepper is releasing his first book, The Knicks of the Nineties, a comprehensive look at the characters and stories that made a great era of New York hoops. Paul did exhaustive research of old articles and interviewed scores of the people who were there, to revisit some of the crazy moments from the second best period in Knicks history. Paul also fills in some of the gaps in the story that we didn’t have at the time. Previously, he covered the Knicks for Bleacher Report. He was kind enough to sit down with us at length for a Q&A to explore this further:
HoopsAnalyst: What made you want to write about the 1990s Knicks?
Paul Knepper: It was very much a passion project for me. I was born in 1977 and was 13 when the 90s started and it was the height of my Knicks fandom. I fell in love with those teams. I know so many other people who loved those teams. As so much time has passed and the past two decades have been a disaster for the Knicks, there is now so much nostalgia for those teams. I thought it about the love affair between the City and the team and there were also a number of fascinating characters from Ewing to Oakley, Mason, Starks, Sprewell, and Charlie Ward. There were great rivalries between the Bulls, Heat, and the Pacers.
I also felt that the Knicks had a significant effect on the NBA. The rule implemented to reduce hand checking, to stop physicality in the low point, and to open up the game and increase scoring were all very much a reaction to those Knicks teams. Also, the rule that mandated a player would be automatically suspended if you came off the bench to join a fight on the court was very much a result of a Knicks fight in 1993 when Doc Rivers and Kevin Johnson started an all-out brawl. So, I thought there were good storylines and good characters and I felt the team had a real impact on the NBA. That’s why I thought it would make a good book.
HA: When you went into the story, did you have a particular angle or did you take the facts where they took?
PK: I got an angle early on. Initially, I thought I would talk about how they were a tough physical team like Detroit Pistons Bad Boys 2.0. Early on, I found this great quote from Jeff Van Gundy about how, in his mind, those teams were champions even though they never won a ring. They practiced and competed like champions. That quote resonated with me and became a real theme of the book. I was contrasting it today’s era, where all the stars are joining together to get a title. Patrick Ewing was very much a champion. He could’ve gone to Chicago to play with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and won multiple rings but would that have made him any more of a champion? Is he any less of a champion than, say, Stacey King from those Bulls teams? I was very intrigued by that notion of being champs without a ring.
HA: Patrick Ewing an interesting character. To some, he is sort of a tragic figure who could never win a title and, to others, he was super hard worker who maximized his abilities. Where do you see him?
PK: I think he’s a fascinating figure in a lot of ways. He came in as a huge deal when he came into the league. Many executives were calling him the next Bill Russell. He was, possibly, the biggest prospect in the NBA since Kareem or Bill Walton. He did not, ultimately, quite make it into that category but he was considered a once in a generation talent. That really shaped the image of Ewing for his whole career.
He was interesting also because he was a reluctant superstar. He shied away from the media and didn’t really embrace the fans. In his 15 years in New York, it was not your typical star-fan relationship. There was tension there. He lashed out at fans a couple of times and the fans were critical of him, for a franchise player. It’s hard to stay he’s a disappointment because he had such a spectacular career and he never played with another star when he was in his prime. He never had that Scottie Pippen-type guy.
When Ewing went to the Finals in 1994, Starks was the second best player on the team and that was a problem. Towards the end of his career, when he had Allan Houston, Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and Camby, that was the type of talent that might’ve gotten him a title but Patrick’s body was breaking down by that point. I think Ewing was a great player who is on that list with Malone, Stockton, Barkley, and Elgin Baylor of greats who never won a title. In that sense, it is tragic but it’s hard to say a guy who made all those All-Star games and the Hall of Fame is really a disappointment or feel too sorry for him.
HA: Yeah, I think Ewing turned out okay. What about putting Ewing in context with his rivals? His rivals were Hakeem and David Robinson. In my mind, Ewing was like 90%ish as good as they were. Then Shaq comes in as a rookie and, while Patrick clearly makes him work, Shaq is the stronger player and has an easy goofy personality that fans naturally could embrace. I didn’t feel bad for Ewing but this was part of his story.
PK: The personality thing was big for Ewing. Patrick was shy and guarded. There are reasons for that. He was an immigrant and came to the United States when he was 12 years old. He had a thick Jamaican accent and was very self-conscious about that. He was poor and was very self-conscious about that. He also faced a great deal of racism growing up in Boston and in college when people held up signs comparing him to an ape and stuff like that. A lot of those things made him pull back into a shell and it was also in his nature and personality to be private. It definitely worked against him with the how the media and fans perceived him.
I also think the Knicks and advertisers did him somewhat of a disservice. The perception was he was standoffish and rude. I look at him as the American dream. His mother came over to the United States first and worked multiple jobs to raise money to bring his father and the kids over. Ewing worked hard and made it. He was never a coddled star and was a tremendous success story at a time when foreign players were uncommon in the NBA. I think there was a missed opportunity by the people around him to portray him in a more positive light. He has a very nice smile and a good sense of humor. A lot of that he hid from the public. It’s unfortunate that the advertisers missed that side of him.
HA: Another thing you just touched on was that management did him a disservice by having such bad early teams. Rick Pitino turned around the franchise and then abruptly left. But then the Knicks got Pat Riley and Dave Checketts and that changed everything for Ewing.
PK: Ewing went through six coaches in a five-year period. Checketts told me that when first got to New York, he talked to Patrick it felt like Checketts was talking to an orphan who had already lived in several different foster homes. That was his analogy. Ewing had a great deal of distrust for the organization. In the summer of 1991, he actually wanted to leave the Knicks but Riley stepped in and brought stability to the franchise.
Going back to Ewing’s ranking with the other centers we discussed earlier, when you compare Ewing to Olajuwon, Robinson, and Shaq, Patrick ranks fourth in that crew. I would take Patrick over Mourning. I mean Olajuwon and Shaq are arguably two of the top ten players ever and Robinson is pretty good too. Being fourth in that group isn’t so bad.
HA: I remember when Checketts was coming to New York, Ewing had some sort of clause that would allow him to opt out if his salary wasn’t among the top five in the game. I believe it is illegal now under the CBA rules. The way Checketts handled the issue was in stark contrast to what the franchise has done the last 20 years. If you look at the Knicks when Checketts came in, the Knicks were a .500 team that had just gotten smoked by the Bulls in the 1990-91 playoffs. In 1991-92, the Knicks’ roster was essentially the same except for John Starks (who had impressed a bit the year before) and Anthony Mason, who had been a minor leaguer. All of a sudden, the Knicks had Mason and Starks playing like above-average NBA players that they signed for nothing. Riley just used them perfectly.
PK: Yeah. One other addition was that they traded for Xavier McDaniel for the 1991-92 season. Riley took Starks and Mason out of the trash heap and established a culture. It sounds clichéd but Riley told the players that the Knicks would be the toughest, hardest working, and best defensive team in the NBA. He had the cachet and discipline and focus to hold them to that. For the most part, Riley brought a cultural shift to the Knicks.
HA: One of the forgotten playoff series that I happen to remember well was the first Riley playoff series against the Bad Boy Pistons in 1991-92. The Pistons were in decline but the teams had a knockdown and drag out series.
PK: It was the perfect series. A changing of the guard. The Knicks became the new bad boys of the NBA. Bill Laimbeer was actual very complementary of the Knicks after that series and was one of the very few people who thought that the Knicks could beat the Bulls in the next round.
HA: The Knicks are defined by being the foil for the Bulls of the 1990s. What did you find about that Knicks-Bulls series that you didn’t know before?
PK: I didn’t know how close Patrick and Jordan were. They visited North Carolina their senior year of high school together. Dean Smith arranged it that way in the hope that they would decide to play together. Ewing was the star recruit and said he had no idea who Michael was at the time. They did hit it off and became good friends. It’s an interesting side-note to the rivalry.
Despite the friendship, Michael just tortured Patrick. He teased Ewing mercilessly for years that Patrick couldn’t beat him. Carolina beat Georgetown in 1982 and then Jordan beat him five times in the playoffs. But they had a strong friendship and it continued when they were on the 1984 Olympic Team together as well.
I also discovered how much the Knicks hated the Bulls during those rivalry years. It wasn’t really reciprocal because the Bulls had what the Knicks wanted. The hatred didn’t go both ways.
HA: In 1991-92, the Knicks took the Bulls by surprise and forced a tough seven-game series. In 1992-93, I recall thinking, at the time, that this was the Knicks’ year to win the title. The Bulls had won two in a row and Detroit and the Lakers had won back-to-back before losing on the three-peat seasons. Evidently, it wasn’t the Knicks’ year. What was the sense of the Knicks as to what happened during the 1992-93 series?
PK: I’ll say this…The Knicks weren’t anymore devastated when they lost in Game 7 of the 1993-94 Finals as they were by the loss to the Bulls in 1992-93. I think, to this day, the Knicks players hurt from the Bulls loss. A lot the players, including Van Gundy, talk about Game 3 of the Bulls series.
The Knicks were up 2-0 and heading to Chicago for Game 3. A story came out that Jordan was out in Atlantic City until 2:30 a.m. the night before Game 2, which means he didn’t get home until 4:00 a.m. Anyone who knew Michael, knew this wasn’t strange. NBA players have a crazy lifestyle and Jordan was superhuman. No one around the teams thought anything of it but the media thought it was a big story. Michael was furious that it was big deal and he wouldn’t talk to the media.
In Game 3, Jordan shot 3-18 and the Bulls still won. The Knicks had a big opportunity to put away the series and they came out flat. Jeff Van Gundy talked with me about it a lot. It’s one game that bothered him that they blew that chance to put the nail in the coffin.
Charles Smith [who missed the several layups at the end of Game 5] is an interesting character. I heard stories that teammates were frustrated with his lack of aggressiveness. None of the teammates I talked to mentioned this or blamed him for the Game 5 loss like the Knicks fans have.
In that game, the Knicks shot 20-35 from the free throw line, which is abysmal. If they shot their typical percentage form the line that game [.741% that season], it never would’ve come down to that Charles Smith sequence and they would’ve won the game easily. Nobody really wanted to talk about the sequence. The players didn’t want to dump on their own teammate. Hubert Davis said to me that it was one play in a 48-minute game and that they had a lot of opportunities to win the game.
HA: The play wasn’t actually called for him, it was a broken play. Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, and Michael Jordan made a brilliant defensive stand. There is an argument that Smith got hit in the hand but that would never be called at that point in the game.
PK: There were some players who said Smith probably got fouled. Xavier McDaniel told me that if he had been there he would’ve dunked the ball [laughs].
There was a perception, in general, that Smith was soft. He was a bit of a disappointment and that play symbolized that to some fans. I don’t think there would be the same type of anger if it were Anthony Mason, for example, who got caught in that sequence.
HA: It turned out that Smith’s knees were not good and they were playing him at small forward. You think about a modern team playing a 6’11 guy without much shooting range at small forward it seems like a joke today.
PK: He’d be a center today.
HA: Did you find, in talking to the players and coaches all these years later, that they were more frank about their feelings than they were at the time?
PK: Some were for sure. Memory is a funny thing. We’ve learned that memory is fallible. Certain guys remember things one way and I have quotes from them at the time contradicting how they remember it. That was challenging to juggle those opinions.
HA: As a lawyer and a writer, did you confront the players about the discrepancies or let them talk?
PK: In a couple of cases, you confront them. I confronted Oakley, who is about the worst person to confront about some critical things he said about Riley. He claims he never would’ve said those things. It was in the New York Times. I can’t argue with him. At that point, you let it go.
HA: Let’s turn to Jordan’s retirement. As a Knicks fan, you felt like you lost your chance to beat the master. I don’t know if the Knicks players felt that way.
PK: I know Patrick did to an extent. He was adamant that it was important for him to beat Michael. I asked the players about this from a different perspective if they viewed it as a great opportunity. Without fail, they said they didn’t feel opportunity was opened because the opportunity was already there. They felt they were the better team in 1992-93 and were very confident that they could and would beat the Bulls with Michael in 1993-94. There was a little disappointment that Michael wouldn’t be there.
HA: On that point, I remember arguing with Bulls fans about whether the Knicks could’ve beat the Bulls with Jordan. They would invariably point out that the 1993-94 Bulls took the Knicks seven games without Jordan and that fact was as an indicator that the Knicks definitely couldn’t beat the full Jordan team. It’s a fair point but my response was that if Derek Harper hadn’t been goaded into a fight with Jo Jo English, the Knicks probably would’ve beaten the non-Jordan Bulls in five games.
PK: Very possible. Harper said he regretted it because it hurt the team. English just got under his skin. Oakley said it was the trade of the century for the Bulls.
HA: The Knicks then had a couple of tough series with the Pacers in 1993-94 and 1994-95. Did the Knicks have the same dislike of the Pacers that they did for the Bulls?
PK: They didn’t hate the Pacers except Starks, who despised Reggie Miller. It wasn’t quite the same because the Bulls were the champions. There was always the belief that the Knicks had to beat the Bulls to get to their goals. It wasn’t quite the same with the Pacers. The Starks-Miller thing was real.
HA: Turning to the 1993-94 Finals against the Rockets, my take was that Olajuwon was always a little better than Ewing and Sam Cassell was the x-factor the Knicks couldn’t match. What was your sense of what happened in that Finals?
PK: Some of the players said it was very close and the series could’ve gone either way. Most of them didn’t talk about why they lost. Van Gundy did mention that Cassell’s shot in Game 3 was the shot of the series.
They were mirror teams. I spoke to Vernon Maxwell too. He said “Starks was my twin on the court.” Both teams were overly dependent on streaky shooting guards. They both had big strong power forwards in Oakley and Thorpe. The difference may have been the Rockets’ athletic young guys, Cassell and Robert Horry.
HA: After losing the 1993-94 Finals, did the Knicks think they could win the title the next year or was there a sense that the ship had sailed?
PK: They all thought they could win. They were within a shot of the title and thought they could do it again.
HA: The 1994-95 season ended badly, with the tough series where Reggie Miller scores all those points to steal Game 1 and Ewing missing a finger roll to end Game 7. Really, that whole season was about Riley’s future and how he abruptly left for Miami. Did you get to talk to him about his departure from New York?
PK: I didn’t speak to Riley but I did speak to Checketts. He had a lot to say. Some of it was self-serving. Another guy I talked to who was very helpful was Dick Butera, who was a go-between for Riley and Heat Owner Micky Arison. What happened was, according to Butera, Checketts and Riley had been talking about an extension for a long time. Riley had one more year left on his contract after the 1994-95 season. Checketts had just been elevated from president of the Knicks to president of Madison Square Garden.
Riley very much wanted to replace him as president of the Knicks and get an ownership share. Those were sticking points. I think Riley might’ve stayed if he had just been given the presidency outright. As time went on, the negotiations became more contentious. Speculation from the media was that Riley would leave.
Butera, who is an old friend Riley, had a relationship with Micky Arison, who had just bought the Heat in early 1995. Butera was in discussions to have some ownership in the team and knew Micky. Butera said that Riley called him from the bus right after the loss to the Pacers and asked Butera if he was still in touch with Arison. Riley said “I want you to call [Arison] and make a deal for me, I’m done with the Knicks. I want out of here.”
Butera was great. He gave a lot of details. He wasn’t an agent, he was a real estate guy but he negotiated Riley’s deal with Arison. Riley was still under contract with the Knicks, which led to tampering charges by the Knicks.
HA: It was worth the price it cost Miami for sure. What was the rational reason that Checketts and the Garden didn’t want to keep Riley happy?
PK: In 1994, the Knicks were owned by Paramount. Viacom sold the Knicks to ITT and Cablevision. I spoke to ITT’s CEO, Rand Araskog. He met with Riley and told Riley that ownership couldn’t happen or the board would’ve fired [Araskog]. It was too complicated. Riley really liked dealing with an individual owner like Jerry Buss in L.A., instead of a corporation. He built a relationship with Buss and worked things out. The Knicks were a corporate structure, actually two corporations, with Cablevision and ITT, and it was not possible to give ownership share.
The president title was also complicated. Ernie Grunfeld, who was the GM, threatened to resign if Riley was made president over [Grunfeld]. Checketts told me Riley was more important to the organization than Grunfeld and was willing to give Riley the promotion. That statement is disputed. Pat said when he left, Checketts wouldn’t make [Riley] president.
I spoke with a couple of other people, including Bob Gutkowski, the previous president of the Garden, and Peter Vecsey, the legendary sportswriter, and they felt that Checketts didn’t want to give Riley the promotion. Checketts, though he was president of the Garden, was very attached to the Knicks and he didn’t want Riley running his team or having that kind of power.
HA: Checketts is a fairly thoughtful, circumspect guy but it sounds like he screwed up in losing Riley.
PK: Absolutely. From everyone I talked to, both Riley and Checketts share some of the blame. The relationship fell apart and negotiations got acrimonious. Both their egos came into play. Riley still had a year left on his contract and left when he didn’t get what he wanted.
HA: At the time that he left, Riley threw some breadcrumbs about things that were bothering him about personnel decision that were not made, hinting that they could’ve gotten Mitch Richmond or Clyde Drexler but that management declined. Did you hear anything about this?
PK: No. I did speak with Checketts and Grunfeld and they talked about Riley’s complaint that he did not have full control over personnel. Checketts and Riley argued, after the fact in the press, about this issue. Checketts said that Riley did have full control of personnel. I wanted to get to the bottom of that. I don’t think Riley did have full control. He did have a great relationship with Grunfeld and there was tremendous mutual respect and any moves that were made they made together. Grunfeld wouldn’t get a player because Riley demanded it but Grunfeld would not make a significant move without Riley signing off on it. I’m not aware of a situation where Riley pushed the Knicks to acquire a player and Grunfeld rebuffed him.
HA: Riley’s departure was the end of the first phase of the 1990s Knicks. I felt that one of the reasons they couldn’t beat the Bulls was because they couldn’t handle the Bulls’ pressing defense. The Knicks always had pretty good point guards like Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, and Derek Harper but never could get that really good penetrating point guard.
PK: Before they got Harper, they had Doc and Greg Anthony. There is this great story from Bob Gutkowski from that time. He walked into Riley’s office and he was watching film, as always. He said: “Bob, I need a point guard who can do this…” Riley then zig zagged his hand really fast. [Riley wanted] a guy who could breakdown the defense and create shots. They never really had that kind of point guard. The points they did have were very good, Harper could’ve been the MVP of the 1993-94 Finals if they had won, but the Knicks never had a penetrator.
HA: I always thought that the Knicks should’ve kept Rod Strickland, or tried to bring him back, because he was the type of point that would’ve bothered the Bulls.
PK: They haven’t really had a point guard like him in the 30 years since then. There were some issues with Strickland. He was difficult and was partying way too much but you can’t say trading him for Mo Cheeks was a good deal. Cheeks was over the hill at the time. He did help the Knicks beat the Celtics in the 1989-90 playoffs but that was all he had left.
HA: Let’s flip over to the ugliest of times for the 1990s Knicks, which was the Don Nelson season in 1995-96. I thought Checketts was a smart guy but he was full of crap if he thought Nelson was a good choice to replace Pat Riley.
PK: It’s interesting. Checketts and Grunfeld both danced around that issue. Grunfeld knew Nellie very well and played for him in Milwaukee. Their thinking was that they wanted an experienced coach to go with their veteran team. They thought they could still compete and weren’t going to bring in a developmental coach for that. The first target was Chuck Daly who was working for TNT. Daly turned them down so they brought in Nellie.
Nellie had a phenomenal track record. He was won Coach of the Year three times. I don’t think his personality was suited for New York and his style of play did not fit with that roster.
HA: The Knicks had to blow up the roster if they wanted to hire Nellie. The core Knicks would just not accept the Nellie way to play ball.
PK: Patrick was a big problem too for Nellie. You look now and see a red flag. Nellie never had a great post up center. His system just didn’t fit with that team.
HA: Nellie ran the offense through Mason and they had a more aesthetically pleasing style than the grind it out style they had under Riley. Mason had a great year and when Nelson was fired he said he understood why most of the team hated him but he could not understand why Mason was so angry considering the fact that he gave Mase everything he wanted.
PK: I spoke to a few people that said that Mason was never happy. Period. Nothing anyone could do could make him happy. I blame the Knicks as well. Nellie wanted to change things and they had a veteran group and they didn’t want to change. Patrick was furious about the offensive changes. Nellie did rub the guys the wrong way. He had a problem with Starks. Nelson was a creative coach and they were not creative and they were stubborn. It was just a bad fit from the start.
HA: In reality, 1995-96 was a transition year. They had a ton of cap space coming into the summer. They just had to survive the year and be respectable. They had a chance to rebuild on the fly. The hidden story is that, once they got rid of Nellie, they did a great job of rebuilding the team that summer.
PK: I have a quote in the book from Grunfeld saying, about the summer of 1996, that they hit the jackpot. They got three starters. Allan Houston and Larry Johnson were big additions [and they signed Chris Childs to play the point]. This goes back to what Van Gundy said about why they couldn’t beat the Rockets. They didn’t have a reliable second option on offense. Starks would get hot but Riley called him feast-or-famine. Allan Houston, especially, could fill it up. LJ could score too, even though he wasn’t the player he was before he injured his back.
HA: During the 1995-96 season, there was a lot of talk about signing Kenny Anderson and then they turned around and signed Chris Childs instead. Did the Knicks’ thought process change?
PK: I think the priority was a shooting guard. The first target was Houston, then Reggie Miller, and third was Steve Smith. Those guys were going to eat up most of the cap space to sign Anderson. If all three shooting guards had fallen through, perhaps, they would’ve shifted gears for a point guard. Anderson was out of their price range given the preference for a shooting guard.
HA: 1996-97 was a really fun season. It felt like they had the same vibe that they did in the Riley Years. This was a real title contender.
PK: Starks said that was the best offensive team he played for in New York. Van Gundy said it was the best team that he coached as a head coach (he said the best team he associated with in any capacity was actually the 1992-93 team). The 1996-97 team was really deep. They had Ward and Childs at the point. Houston and Starks were at the two guard. Behind LJ, they had rookie John Wallace, who they were high on, and vet Buck Williams backing up Oak.
A few of the players said they were two-deep at every position and had real scoring options. At times, Van Gundy would play Starks and Houston together at the two and the three, which is common place now but not then.
They played well against the Bulls that season. They split the season series, including beating the Bulls in Chicago on the last game of the season. The Bulls really wanted that game because it would’ve given them 70 wins and would’ve tied the 1985-86 Celtics for the best home record at 40-1. Checketts still believes that if they had met the Bulls in the playoffs that year, the Knicks would’ve beaten them.
HA: I didn’t think they would’ve beaten the Bulls that year but I did feel we were slighted by not getting to see the Bulls/Knicks playoff series one more time.
PK: I don’t think they would’ve beaten the Bulls either but the Knicks did have the same mojo they had during the 1993 and 1994. Unfortunately, that was the last year that Patrick was healthy.
HA: 23 years later, do the players still talk angrily about the P.J. Brown/Charlie Ward incident in the playoffs? David Stern wanted to lay down the law but, realistically, the fact that the incident happened by the Knicks bench was the main reason most of the Knicks left the bench.
PK: Yes. They are still angry about it. Van Gundy is still angry about it and has not forgiven himself for failing to keep his players on the bench. How realistic that was is a good question but he blames himself for that.
Stan Van Gundy said that if the fight had happened on the Miami side, all of the Heat players would’ve left the bench and been suspended.
Rod Thorn [NBA VP who was in charge of player discipline] spoke with me. I asked about Ewing in particular because he didn’t really enter the scrum. He only took a few steps off the bench. Thorn challenged that a little saying that Ewing took more than a few steps. Thorn said there had been other fights that escalated, even where the player enters from the bench to be a peacemaker. I understand where he was coming from with that because of the Rudy Tomjanovich incident when Rudy ran out to break up a fight and Kermit Washington almost killed him.
HA: This Thorn rule originated from the big fight that the Knicks had between Doc Rivers and KJ back in 1992-93 and then, a year later, the Harper-English fight playoff fight happened right in David Stern’s lap. So, two of the major incidents that created the rule involved the Knicks. It’s not the Knicks’ fault, necessarily, but there did seem to be a karmic element to their being the first team to be penalized.
PK: I asked Thorn about that and he said the automatic suspension rule was the direct result of the Rivers/KJ incident and a Portland Trailblazers game [ed. note: it was likely the game that Vernon Maxwell ran into the stands to punch out a heckler in Portland].
HA: One of the ironies of the Heat/Knicks rivalry was that they played in the playoffs four years in a row [1997-2000] and it seemed like, arguably, the better team lost every series.
PK: I probably agree with that. 1998-99 was the one year where the better team might’ve won. The Knicks were the eight seed that year but that was a weird lockout season and the teams were much closer than the records would indicate. But I think I agree the Heat were a little better.
HA: How personal did it get between Jeff Van Gundy and his mentor Riley during that stretch of match ups?
PK: It got pretty personal. There was tension in 1996-97 but in 1997-98 it got really bad. Riley really went after Van Gundy in the press. Riley said Van Gundy was out of control during the LJ-Mourning fight and that Van Gundy instigated the fight. If anything, it was the other way around with Riley psyching up his players.
Van Gundy was very hurt by that. Riley was his friend and they had had a great relationship.
HA: Did Van Gundy ever get over it? Riley probably did because he won all those titles with LeBron and Wade.
PK: Van Gundy did get over it but I don’t know if it was ever quite the same. Van Gundy was so close to Pat that he had given one of his daughter’s the middle name Riley after Pat. So, there was tremendous mutual respect. When Riley went to Miami he tried to take Van Gundy with him. Checketts wouldn’t let Van Gundy interview because he didn’t want to help Riley. Van Gundy, instead, suggested to Riley that the Heat hire Jeff’s brother Stan.
Van Gundy was very hurt by Riley’s criticism of the 1997-98 incident. The next year, the Knicks beat the Heat on Allan Houston’s shot. When the Knicks got to Atlanta for the next round of the playoffs, there was a package waiting for Van Gundy. It was addressed to “Coach Van Gundy” and “Coach” was underlined. It was a letter from Riley. For starters, it was meaningful because Riley never used to call Van Gundy coach before. Riley’s letter said how proud he was of Van Gundy and how great he coached. Van Gundy carried the letter around for a long time. The letter definitely mended whatever fences had been broken. They are on good terms now.
HA: The other key events for the late 1990s Knicks were the trades to get Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby [before the 1998-99 season]. The Camby trade was controversial at the time but, if you look at it objectively, trading a 35-year old unathletic forward in Oakley for a 20-year old 6’11 thoroughbred, it seems like a no-brainer.
PK: It became well-known that Van Gundy opposed the trade. He was tight lipped about it when I spoke to him. Grunfeld consulted Van Gundy before the trade and Jeff signed off on it with some objections. Van Gundy said he didn’t like the “procedural aspect” of the trade. I asked him what that meant specifically and he said he would rather not elaborate.
Assistant coach Brendan Malone said the whole staff was wondering what they were doing with the trade and were against it. From Van Gundy’s standpoint, he felt that he was always coaching for his job and Oak was his captain and was one of his most dependable players that he could trust. Camby was talented but his reputation was bad because of injuries and he had not progressed offensively. They didn’t know if his game could ever translate offensively. There were also questions about Camby’s work habits. They were much more comfortable with Oakley.
HA: At the time, there was a general wariness by coaches of Generation X players who allegedly didn’t work hard. There was an incident when Camby’s back went out during warmup and everyone questioned whether he was malingering or not tough.
PK: There were questions about his character when it came out that at UMass that he took money and prostitutes from agents. We all know that this behavior is pretty common but it did affect his reputation.
HA: Van Gundy wouldn’t play Camby initially and had him in the doghouse. Camby was not in shape and Van Gundy seemed unhappy with him.
PK: Van Gundy expressed regret for judging Camby too harshly early on. He said that it affected his relationship with Camby for a while. Camby got more minutes, in large part, because Patrick was breaking down. It took until almost the playoffs for Camby to start getting meaningful minutes.
HA: As for Sprewell, I thought that was an easy trade to make. Sprewell might’ve been a jerk but they got him for Starks and some flotsam and jetsam.
PK: It was controversial at the time. Van Gundy was all for it from the start. He felt they had nothing to lose because Sprewell would be on his best behavior after being suspended for choking his coach. His career and a lot of money were at stake. It was good buy low opportunity.
Checketts was most reluctant. Checketts spoke to Russ Granik [NBA Deputy Commissioner] and asked for permission to meet Sprewell before acquiring him. Granik okayed it as long as it was done quietly. Grunfeld, Checketts, and Van Gundy flew to Sprewell’s home in Milwaukee and they met with him and spoke a little bit about the incident in Golden State and about life and got to know each other. They walked out very impressed by Sprewell and convinced to go ahead with the deal.
HA: Stealthily, Checketts and Grunfeld had rebuilt the Knicks with Camby and Spree. People forget but the 1999-00 Knicks almost went to the Finals. It was a very good team.
PK: They did a great job. It really wasn’t right that they let Grunfeld go because he had done a great job in 1996 free agency and the trades.
HA: What went down with Grunfeld and Van Gundy? The press was saying that they turned on each other due to the courting of Phil Jackson. In retrospect, however, it seemed liked Cablevision management reared its ugly head and created a problem that made things untenable and presaged future problems.
PK: You could point to Grunfeld’s firing as the first time that James Dolan’s meddling caused problems with the team. There was legitimate beef between Grunfeld and Van Gundy through the press and that infuriated Dolan.
Dolan was very angry about the public feuding and the team’s record, which was .500 with the highest payroll in the league. But the feuding really bothered him. Checketts talked to Dolan about it and said it really didn’t matter. Phil Jackson and Jerry Krause won six titles and they didn’t talk to each other. Checketts did say he appreciated that the feud needed to be kept quiet and said let me talk to them and tell them to knock it off or they’re both fired. Dolan said not good enough and one of them needs to be fired now.
That evening, Checketts got a call from Patrick, who had heard about the meeting with Dolan. Ewing told Checketts that Ewing wanted Van Gundy to stay and that all the players supported Van Gundy. Houston and Larry Johnson had made similar statements too.
That same night, Marc Lustgarten, who ran the Garden properties, called Checketts and said that “Jimmy [Dolan] wants Ernie to go.” At that point, Checketts felt like he had no choice but to let Ernie go.
HA: It would be crazy to fire your coach three weeks before the playoffs anyway. 21 years later, what do Checketts, Van Gundy, and Grunfeld have to say about this situation?
PK: Grunfeld didn’t want to talk about it. He said he was shocked and had no idea his job was in jeopardy. Checketts biggest regret was how he fired Ernie. They were very close friends and their families were close. Checketts invited Grunfeld to dinner and, over dessert, he fired Grunfeld. Grunfeld and the press had a field day with this.
Ian O’Connor wrote that Checketts “had Grunfeld for dessert.” Grunfeld was angry about this. Checketts said that Grunfeld was his friend and that he was just trying to fire him in as gentle a manner as possible. If he had to do it over again, Checketts would’ve fired him the next morning at the office. Checketts had no regrets about the decision to fire him, given the position of Dolan and the players, just how it was done.
Van Gundy wasn’t happy either. He knew he was next and that Dolan wouldn’t have much patience for him either.
HA: Are Checketts, Van Gundy, and Grunfeld friendly today or are they still as emotional about it as they were then?
PK: Van Gundy and Checketts remain friends. Checketts and Grunfeld are on friendly terms but not, I assume, good friends any more. I don’t get the impression they talk much, if at all, but that they would be cordial when or if they run into each other. It’s the same thing with Van Gundy and Grunfeld. Not much of a grudge on either side now. A lot has happened to all of them since then.
HA: In 1999-00, the Knicks remained a good team after going to the Finals in 1998-99. By the end of the 1999-00 season, though, it seemed like some fans were openly groaning when Ewing would dominate the shots with increasingly slower offense moves. It seemed like some of the players were also quietly wondering why they were giving him the ball.
PK: All the Knicks, to a man, claim that they didn’t question Patrick’s role on the team. A couple of the guys said they appreciated what he had done for the franchise and there was a great deal of respect for him. He worked incredibly hard, even when his body was breaking down. So, he was a good teammate. I don’t think there was tremendous resentment by the players.
I think a lot of [the resentment] started with the media and the fans. Inevitably, it crept on the team a little bit. Sprewell talked about this a little, which was one of the few public statements about the issue. The Knicks played much better against the Pacers in 1998-99 when Ewing went down. In 1999-00, Ewing missed four games against the Pacers. Over that two-year period, the Knicks record against the Pacers in the playoffs was dramatically better without Ewing, like 1-5 with him in the lineup.
Some of that was specific to the Pacers. The Knicks athleticism gave them problems. Rik Smits was not the most agile of big men. Camby, who moved very well, gave Smits a lot of trouble. Sprewell acknowledged this fact publicly. I don’t get the sense that the guys resented Patrick.
Ironically, if anything, the resentment was the other way. Patrick resented that Houston and Sprewell had become the primary options and that Ewing’s role had been diminished.
HA: The Ewing situation ended up being the Knicks’ original sin. Ewing wanted a trade and the Knicks accommodated him but they made the worst possible deal. They picked up all these bad contracts [Travis Knight, Luc Longley, and Glen Rice] and got little new talent in trying to place Ewing in a better situation. It was the seminal moment for the new terrible Knicks management.
PK: Couldn’t put it any better. It was the beginning of the end. You could call it the “Curse of Patrick.” The two decades since have been mostly misery for the Knicks. They then bid against themselves to give Allan Houston a ridiculous amount of money. He wasn’t a franchise player and that put the team in another hole.
HA: In the end, it seems like the real sad story is not Ewing never winning a title but the gradual shadow that Dolan cast on a previously well-run franchise.
PK: Checketts made some mistakes in New York but he brought professional and intelligent management to the Knicks. He brought in good people like Riley, Grunfeld, and Van Gundy. By all accounts, all the people I interviewed spoke highly of Checketts. When Checketts left the Garden, there were numerous Garden employees in tears. He made some mistakes but, overall, he did a very good job running the team.
That’s the biggest thing with Dolan. He has made very poor decisions in bringing in people to run the team. In some cases, when he has brought in good people, he would then undermine them. Everyone is now going crazy about whether the Tom Thibodeau hiring is good and I believe it is very secondary to Leon Rose.
Is Rose going to be a good executive and hire the right people to bring in talent? Will Dolan get out of the way to allow Rose to do his job?
HA: I wouldn’t hold my breath.
PK: History seems to be negative. The Isiah Thomas tenure was crazy. Steve Mills has been in-and-out of the franchise for 20 years with nothing to show for it. The Phil Jackson hiring was terrible
HA: Did Checketts bail on the Knicks because of Dolan?
PK: 100%. He flat out said he did not like Jimmy Dolan. One mystery I don’t know the exact answer to is whether Checketts was fired or not. There were article claiming he was fired. He claims he quit. It sounds like it was mutual. From Checketts’ standpoint, he couldn’t stand Dolan any more.
Dolan gave him a lot of other things to handle. Radio City and Clearview Cinema were both given to Checketts to handle. According to Checketts, the last straw was the Yankees television contract. Checketts spent several weeks hammering out a deal with George Steinbrenner to keep the Yankees on the MSG Network for another 25 years. After they reached the deal, Dolan refused to sign off. Checketts said that was the last straw.
HA: It would’ve been the buy of the century. The Yankees started their own network and made billions.
PK: Oh yeah. From Dolan’s standpoint, he wanted Checketts’ job. Dolan wanted the say over all the properties and wanted Checketts out. Dolan just wanted a tighter grip on the organization. He worried about small things like the management of the PR department. Dolan had a paranoia where he wanted to control every littles aspect of the organization and needed Checketts out of the way.
HA: Last guy out of Dodge was Van Gundy, who resigned on a Saturday morning after win a few months after 9/11. Was he forced out or did he decide this just wasn’t working?
PK: He definitely wasn’t forced out. He left on his own accord. Checketts believes that Van Gundy left because Checketts left. Checketts was a shield for him.
Van Gundy denies this. He said he loved Checketts but that wasn’t the reason. He said Dolan was good to him and gets a bad rap. Now, I don’t know how much of this has to do with Van Gundy potentially being rehired by Dolan. As a coach, Van Gundy said all you want from an owner is to be left alone and that the owner spends on winning players. He said that Dolan did both of those things.
HA: Well, maybe one out of two.
PK: As for resigning, Van Gundy said he was just burnt out. He missed his daughter and his focus was missing to work as hard as he had in the past. He was hoping it would come back after a few months but he felt, once it didn’t, he had to leave.
He also noted that the character of the team had changed a lot. He was very close with Patrick and LJ, who retired with the back issue around that time. That changed the team a lot.