Let me begin by stating that I have been a Knicks fan going back to the 1960s. The great teams led by Willis Reed, Walt Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley and company will always be the benchmark for success, a model that has been impossible to replicate. After a few down years, the drafting of Patrick Ewing created hope that was almost realized in the 1990s. Since that time there is only one way to describe this franchise; dysfunction, incompetence, and an inability to draft properly despite the presence of the supposed genius of Phil Jackson. Today it seems the team may have ended the thirty year point guard drought by signing Jalen Brunson to go along with its young core, but who can tell whether this is the first step back aside from the Julius Randle mirage and false hope of two years ago. When one thinks of the plight of the Knicks fan there is nostalgia for the past and prayers for the future. Since this is the case if one wants to feel better one can return to the last time the New York Knicks were relevant and Madison Square Garden was rocking. To meet that need I must thank Chris Herring, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated whose new book, BLOOD IN THE GARDEN: THE FLAGRANT HISTORY OF THE 1990S NEW YORK KNICKS fills that void.
Herring’s deeply researched account highlights a number of combative personalities. Coach Pat Riley and his Armani suits instilled a fighting spirit in players like Charles Oakley, John Starks, Anthony Mason and others which after two years of “intimidating” basketball led the National Basketball Association to alter certain rules. The 1990s team had an amazing work ethic highlighted by its “wars” with its perennial enemy Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, and later with the Riley led Miami Heat. Their playoff games were classics, though in the end the Bulls were more talented, and they presented a roadblock that the Knicks could never overcome, and the Heat would succumb to the Knicks more often than not. Herring dives deep into the player relationships, player attitudes and talents, and a number of fascinating personalities as he describes the highs and lows of the decade, but also the staunch support from New York basketball fans who grew to love the team.
Herring begins his narrative at the New York Knicks’ first practice under Pat Riley in 1991 with a fight between Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason during a rebounding drill. This would set the tone as to the type of team the Knicks were on the way to becoming. Under Riley they would emulate the physicality of the then recent two time world champion Detroit Pistons, a strategy that would dominate the team for a decade.
Herring reviews Riley’s physicality drills, one called “suicide ally” in detail and how players reacted and adapted. In Riley’s world there was no such thing as working too hard and Herring takes a deep dive into Riley’s methods and psychological approach to coaching. He was a master at manipulating his players, presenting speeches that captivated his team and provided a motivation that few coaches could replicate as he turned the team into a winner. In their first playoff series in 1991 they even out bullied the Detroit Pistons, replacing them as the leagues’ “bad boys.”
The epitome of the type of player Riley favored was Charles Oakley whose 1992 playoff hit on Indiana Pacers Reggie Miller shocked officials into not calling a foul, but later he would draw a $10,000 fine and would lead the league in flagrant fouls. The question for the media was whether the Knicks were dirty or overly aggressive as they pushed the envelope with their type of play. Herring provides numerous examples of hard fouls, fights, and other types of melees involving players and coaches.
The aberration to the Knicks type of play was Charles Smith obtained in a trade in 1992 from the Los Angeles Clippers. Smith’s personality and on the court makeup was the opposite from most of his teammates. Herring’s discussion of Smith is just one example of how he analyzed players for their temperament, approach to the game, relationships with coaches and teammates. He explores the likes of rambunctious and at times dangerous players like Anthony Mason and John Starks, players with short fuses who played with a sharp edge. Patrick Ewing, the key to the team, is ever present in Herring’s analysis as he describes Ewing’s triumphs and disappointments. Ewing was the rock that the Knicks leaned on throughout the decade and it is a shame that he never earned that championship ring no matter how much heart he left on the court. Herring also focuses on players outside the core including Latrell Sprewell whose controversial arrival to the team turned out well as did the drafting of Larry Johnson.
Herring introduces coaches aside from Pat Riley in an interesting fashion. Riley’s replacement Don Nelson was the anti-Riley. Riley was a bit paranoid and a control freak who rarely exhibited empathy. Nelson came across as a mad scientist who created an “inverted, semi-position less system” that has evolved into a dominant coaching strategy two decades later. The most important coach apart from Riley during the decade was Jeff Van Gundy, a workaholic in the Riley mode but exhibited greater sensitivity toward his players. Always looking behind his shoulder because of the arrival of the new owner James Dolan he drove the Knicks to the 1999 NBA finals and was an exceptional teacher of basketball.
After reliving the 1990s with Mr. Herring I am still trying to determine which loss was the most heartbreaking – 1994 to Houston, 1996 to Miami, Reggie Miller’s 9 points in 12 seconds, a brawl that knocked out their five best players from a playoff game, and 1993 to the Bulls which still hurts as I still have memories of Charles Smith’s inability to put back a rebound.
The sports media cauldron of New York is always front and center. The arrival of James Dolan and the decline of the Knicks over the last two decades does not receive the coverage it should and perhaps a longer epilogue would have enhanced this component of the story. However, overall, Herring has delivered an exceptional sports book dissecting a team that was adored in New York and as he states that the reason he accepted the challenge of authoring the book was to fill the void for Knick fans – I will point out he has accomplished his mission.