Chris Herring, author of “Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks,” is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight who previously covered the Knicks. This is an excerpt from his book, which is available today.
The one play that perfectly crystallizes the 1990s Knicks isn’t the famous dunk by John Starks. It’s not the miraculous four-point play by Larry Johnson in 1999. It’s not the picture-perfect baseline jumper from Patrick Ewing, which was responsible for more points than any other shot in those years. As you might guess, offense has nothing to do with it.
The sequence that best sums up those Knicks took place the night of December 30, 1992, in Indianapolis. Pacers center Rik Smits had the ball at the top of the key and passed to a cutting Reggie Miller, who was sprinting into the paint to make the catch. But before Miller could get there, Charles Oakley — who might as well have been made out of tungsten — had planted his feet and lowered a left shoulder that sent the beanpole of a guard flying.
“Whoa!” announcer Marv Albert said in response to the collision as the crowd groaned.
The hit was so jarring that it stunned the officials, who were apparently too dumbfounded to call the obvious foul. They also gave the ball back to the Pacers somehow, despite it clearly ricocheting off Miller’s hands before going out of bounds.
“That play was so physical, the refs had no idea what to do,” Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh says. “Right then, I told myself, ‘This summer, I’m getting two guys just like [Oakley].’ Because players like that would immediately change the makeup of our team.”
Despite referees not whistling the play, league officials called foul the following day, issuing Oakley a $10,000 fine for leveling Miller. “Oakley [stepped] in the way and popped him the way a defensive back pops a receiver after the ball’s already passed,” league disciplinarian Rod Thorn said.
The Knicks were incensed, so much so that team president Dave Checketts reached out to NBA commissioner David Stern directly and threatened to bar Thorn from the Garden after his ruling, saying the league had shown a pattern of bias against New York.
The threat led to a meeting in early January between the Knicks and top league executives to hash things out. Stern and a handful of high-ranking NBA officials lined one side of a conference table at the league’s headquarters, while Checketts, general manager Ernie Grunfeld and Ken Munoz, the team’s general counsel, sat on the other.
Munoz felt uneasy joining them for the session when Grunfeld explained why his presence was needed: The Knicks were going to construct a Hail Mary argument in which they expressed legal concerns with the league’s integrity.
“I said, ‘Look guys: we can’t push this,’” Munoz recalls. “But Ernie wanted to push it. He said we had to get this message across.”
The sitdown went nowhere fast. Almost immediately, the Knicks raised the issue of integrity, which sent expletives flying — first from Stern, then from the Knicks’ side of the table.
“This meeting is over!” Stern, a lawyer by trade, yelled minutes later.
The approach was an abrasive way to try to deal with the league. But on some level, abrasive was all the Knicks knew.
The Knicks were a bit rough around the edges, to put it mildly.
Oakley, a player whose high school coach demanded he play football to develop more physicality on the court, was perhaps the NBA’s roughest player in one of its roughest eras. During that 1992-93 season, he finished with an NBA-high nine flagrant fouls — more than twice as many as the next-closest player, and more than fifteen teams finished with that year.
New York, owners of the NBA’s highest technical-foul total that season with 97, also finished with the most flagrants that year.
To be sure, Pat Riley specifically coached them to have that physical edge. He was someone who had his players watch videos of car crashes and Bighorn sheep violently headbutt each other as a way to motivate them before taking the floor. Just one season earlier, he’d instructed his players to knock Michael Jordan to the floor during a playoff series before ever allowing him an open lane to the basket. And multiple players said Riley threatened to fine any Knick who offered to help up a fallen opponent.
Yet even if New York stepped all the way over the line at times, the Knicks felt the NBA — whose headquarters sat mere blocks from the Garden — scrutinized them more than any other club. They got the impression that everything they did was under a microscope. “The NBA was our biggest season-ticket holder, by far,” Checketts says. “They were in the stands for our games every night, but you knew that wasn’t true for anyone else.”
New York had grown fed up with having its wrist slapped over trivial things, like the league warning the club for starting-lineup introductions running long by 15 to 20 seconds. NBA officials also made a point to chide the Knicks behind the scenes — and threaten fines — for repeatedly showing certain instant-replay sequences on the Jumbotron.
Seeking to spare its officials unnecessary ridicule, the league had limitations on how many times clubs were allowed to loop foul-call sequences on the big screens. But because the Knicks were already annoyed by what they saw as nightly overpolicing, they ignored the rule altogether when they felt an egregious call had taken place.
“There was this red phone we kept courtside in case Ernie or Dave needed to reach the game-ops folks,” says Bobby Goldwater, an executive who oversaw events held at the Garden for almost 25 years. “And if the red phone rang after a controversial call, you knew it was gonna be Ernie saying, ‘Show [the play] again!’ You’d tell him we were gonna get fined, or get in trouble. He didn’t care.”
On the surface, it sounds outlandish to suggest that the NBA would be out to get its biggest market. Yet Checketts felt the league — which came under scrutiny after the controversial 1985 draft lottery allowed New York to land Ewing — often bent over backward to illustrate it wasn’t showing favoritism toward the Knicks.
Regardless of how Stern saw New York, referees certainly had established thoughts about the club, which constantly kept officials on edge due to their physicality.
“Anytime you had the Knicks on your schedule, you’d huddle with your crewmates and say, ‘Oh boy; we’re gonna have to watch this matchup between these two guys to make sure nothing flares up. Oh, and this matchup. And this one, too,’” recalls former official Steve Javie. “Before you know it, there’s a number of guys you have to worry about keeping an eye on.”
But what happens when a ref is so sidetracked that he loses sight of a ticking time bomb?
The basketball alone should have been enough of a storyline on March 23, 1993.
That day, the Knicks, who owned the East’s best record, were visiting the Phoenix Suns, the only NBA club that owned a better mark. But just in case the game itself wasn’t juicy enough, the Phoenix media contingent, doing its best impression of the New York tabloids, added an extra layer.
The Suns had gone 0-4 combined against the Knicks, Bulls and Cavaliers, the teams with the best records in the East. Based on that, a question had emerged: Sure, the club owned the best mark in basketball. But were the high-scoring Suns — led by Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle — tough enough to beat tough clubs?
“Teams hear about how we’re gonna come in and beat [them] up, and then that puts them in a spot where they feel like they have to match that toughness and physicality, and that they have to strike back at us,” Knicks guard Doc Rivers said.
On the last play of the first half, Johnson inexplicably leveled Rivers on the wing, jolting through his upper body and knocking the New York point guard to the ground as the buzzer sounded.
“If I’d seen that — with Johnson initiating the whole thing — the whole thing probably never happens,” says official Ed T. Rush, who was working that game and was widely considered one of the best refs from that era. “That’s what I said to the league office, too, on my game report, which took me seven hours to finish: that this thing was probably my fault.”
After the dirty hit, which went uncalled, Johnson took off for the locker room, as if nothing happened. Rivers popped to his feet and went after Johnson, looking for immediate payback.
Benches cleared, with no fewer than 20 bodies entering the fray. Yet for as ugly as things had gotten, and how much the fans at America West Arena were loving the spectacle, the incident simmered down after about 25 seconds, when Riley began escorting Rivers to the visiting locker room.
But then, Knicks guard Greg Anthony — in street clothes due to a bum ankle — decided it wasn’t over. Walking up from behind Johnson, the lefty uncorked a sucker punch, igniting the biggest fight the NBA had seen in years just moments after the flame had almost been extinguished.
Having seen the punch, Riley raced in, desperately trying to pull his player away from the scene. But before he could, a slew of Suns players joined the melee from behind, colliding into Riley’s back and inadvertently ripping his Armani pants from the right pocket down to his knee.
Anthony, meanwhile, had on a bizarre pajama-pattern button-down shirt that raised the same question that could be applied to this whole matter: What the hell was he thinking?
The ordeal — with one ugly shirt, two separate fights, and no fewer than fifty people involved as both instigators and peacemakers — played out over a 90-second span. When it was all said and done, officials had ejected six players and handed out 12 technicals. The league fined 21 players and docked them almost $300,000 collectively — unprecedented totals. Anthony got a five-game suspension for his actions.
Far more important, the fight embarrassed NBA officials, who moved to strengthen rules regarding future fights.
As that took place, the Knicks became even more feared, both on the court — they finished with 60 wins that year — and as the NBA’s biggest bully. “We’d say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna win something tonight. We’re either gonna win the game, or win the fight,’” Anthony said.
But that fighter’s mentality might have ultimately caused the Knicks to lose the war.
Fast forward to 1997, and plenty had shifted.
The Knicks had suffered heartbreak by this point, losing the Charles Smith Game in 1993 and a haunting Game 7 in the 1994 Finals to the Rockets, in which John Starks shot 2-for-18. Riley had exited stage left — and resigned by sending the Knicks a letter via fax machine — to join the Miami Heat. And New York, now coached by Jeff Van Gundy, had seen a slight roster overhaul, with Larry Johnson and Allan Houston on the club.
The league’s rules had shifted to allow far less contact. Hand-checking, once a Derek Harper specialty, wasn’t legal anymore. Too many flagrant fouls would lead to suspensions, ridding Oakley of his most impressive superpower.
“They were anti-Knick rules,” Rivers says. “It was obviously aimed at us, because we did those things so much more and so much harder than everybody else.” (Russ Granik, then the NBA deputy commissioner, said: “The changes certainly weren’t directed at them. But I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that the rules changes impacted the Knicks more.”)
Perhaps most relevant to the Knicks: Players would now be suspended if they left the bench area during a fight. This came into effect after yet another brawl involving New York, when Harper suplexed Chicago’s Jo Jo English during the 1994 playoffs and the fight essentially spilled into the crowd. The ever image-conscious Stern, sitting in the third row at halfcourt with his wife, was caught on camera looking mortified as it all happened.
By 1997, the Knicks had a better mix of offense and defense. They’d won 57 games and split their four contests with Jordan and the Bulls. “We were really peaking at the right time,” Grunfeld said. “Everything leading up to that point, it just really felt like that year was going to be our best shot to win.”
Then things turned upside down, literally and figuratively. With two minutes left in Game 5, and New York leading Riley’s Heat club three games to one in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Miami big man P.J. Brown flipped over much smaller Knicks guard Charlie Ward, who’d clashed into him while aggressively boxing out on a free throw.
With the incident happening on New York’s side of the floor, Knicks players — including Starks, Houston and Johnson — came pouring off the bench to stifle the altercation and have Ward’s back, while Miami’s remained in place. The ordeal lasted all of 35 seconds in a blowout Heat victory, and no punches were thrown by anyone. But there would be enormous ramifications.
When the dust settled, the league would announce six suspensions, with five of them being doled out to New York’s side. Ward, Starks, Johnson and Houston would all be forced to sit, but it was the fifth player — Ewing — whose punishment left the club in shock. The franchise player had barely left the bench compared to his teammates who’d broken things up.
“In Patrick’s case, he almost meandered onto the court, just to see what was going on,” New York Post columnist George Willis recalls. “He clearly had no intention of instigating anything, or even to pull anyone apart. He just kind of wandered.”
New York’s punishments, the most severe penalty handed down in postseason history at the time, were so drastic that the suspensions would need to be split alphabetically — with three being served in Game 6, and two in Game 7 — just so New York would have enough available players.
The Knicks had their attorneys collaborate with lawyers from the National Basketball Players Association in hopes of getting the suspensions delayed the following morning. The lawyer who argued on the Knicks’ behalf, union chief attorney Jeffrey Kessler, was a Knicks fan. The man overseeing the case, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, was also a Knicks fan.
But in the end, Ewing and the Knicks had clearly left the bench — something the union itself acknowledged — and the NBA’s rulebook on that issue was clear. “It wasn’t the ruling I wanted to make, but it was also pretty clear,” said Rakoff, whose Knicks-supporting family was angry with him about the decision.
Badly undermanned, New York dropped both Game 6 and Game 7, watching perhaps their last decent opportunity for a title in that era slip away in the process.
“The commissioner took away a golden opportunity from me and my teammates,” a dejected Ewing said after scoring 37 and grabbing 17 rebounds in the Game 7 loss.
Chicago, Indiana and Miami were among the Knicks’ chief rivals during those years. But the team’s feuds with the league in the 1990s bubbled over just as much, if not more.
From BLOOD IN THE GARDEN by Chris Herring. Copyright © 2022 by Chris Herring. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.