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The Decade That Defined the Knicks

The good ol’ days. Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Other than two weeks of magnificent Linsanity in 2011 and last year’s surprising playoff run, Knicks fans have had little to celebrate the past couple of decades. The MSG crowd has been so desperate for something to cheer about recently that the throwaway use of an insider catchphrase on a 60-second Instagram show became, however briefly, a riotous rallying cry. Yet throughout years of seemingly never-ending mediocrity, the fan base has never lost its passion. The kind of loyalty the Knicks inspire is by no means inherent to New York sports teams; even on the rare occasions that the Jets or the Mets are good, their supporters don’t quite lose their minds the way Knicks fans do.

Where does this devotion come from? In his new book, Blood in the Garden, Sports Illustrated writer (and former Knicks beat reporter for The Wall Street Journal) Chris Herring argues that it is a relatively recent phenomenon. He proposes that the teams of the 1990s, the ones coached by Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, and featuring Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and all sorts of guys who would happily body-check you in front of a subway train if it meant grabbing a rebound, are the true inspiration for modern Knicks fandom — and avatars of the city’s sports-fan identity.

The Knicks teams of that era, which came within one win of a championship in 1994 but never quite got over the top (the team last won a title in 1973), were as entertaining and dysfunctional as they were brutal, and Herring, through hundreds of interviews with the particulars, tells their story with verve and hilarious detail. (You’ll never look at Xavier McDaniel the same again after hearing what he once did with a towel during an interview.) It’s a meditation on a time that, given how much the NBA has changed over the past 20-plus years, feels both urgent and encased in amber. The league is nothing like it was back then, for better and for worse. But the Garden? The Garden is the same. And its denizens just want to live like that again.

I spoke with Herring about the ’90s Knicks and whether the team can ever return to those days — or whether anyone should want it to.

The book describes a game that is so physical that it is barely recognizable today; if Charles Oakley fouled Reggie Miller now like he did back then, he’d be suspended for a year. Are the players you talked to about this legitimately nostalgic for the game being played this way? Do they wish it was played that way now?
Most of the players and coaches from those teams told me they fully recognize that the game needed to change and evolve. But I do think you’d find Oakley to be wistful about the old days, when he could finish a season with more flagrant fouls than 15 other teams, and more than twice as many as any other player. (Still the wildest stat I remember finding while researching the book.)

When I asked the high-ranking league officials from those days about that era, they said they opted to change the rules because, generally speaking, they wanted to ensure that physicality didn’t become more important than having skill. And with how much skill there is in today’s NBA, we almost owe those 1990s Knicks a thank-you for moving the sport forward faster than it would have.

Could a team possibly succeed like that now? Would the league even let them? Would players?
I believe their starters and main guys would have been fine or adapted offensively. But no team would be allowed to defend the way they did during those years. The league, through its multitude of rules changes, essentially made sure of that before the 1990s had even concluded. I also can’t imagine players being okay with that style of play. In the book, I compared those Knicks to hard-hat–wearing dinosaurs, because I don’t think we’ll ever see a team like that again.

Do you personally like this style of basketball more than today’s? Do you think fans would?
The basketball itself? No. It’s wild to watch all five guys on offense playing inside the three-point line the majority of the time. When I was writing a section about John Starks’s struggles with making entry passes to Patrick Ewing, I thought about that: Maybe he wouldn’t have struggled so much if he had more than three inches of space to make the pass.

If I’m being totally honest, I wish you could combine the skill, spacing, and athleticism of today’s game with a little of yesteryear’s physicality. I like that guys were a bit more hot under the collar back then, which stemmed at least partly from fouls being a bit harder. I wouldn’t mind having true rivalries again either.

Do you think there is something inherently dramatic and dysfunctional about being a New York sports team? Can they never just be normal?
I honestly hadn’t thought about it like that. The Yankees had the dynastic run in the late 1990s, but they also had the ability to spend in a way that most teams couldn’t. When things are on a relatively level playing field, it probably is tougher to maintain normalcy for a New York franchise because of the pressure-cooker atmosphere you deal with media-wise — even when the teams are pretty solid.

After he left, Pat Riley essentially said that he saw Red Holzman’s banner in the rafters and wondered if he ever could have coached there long enough to get one himself. And I don’t know that he could have. The intensity he coached with was just so insane all the time. Maybe winning, on some level, makes things dysfunctional too. Obviously the Bulls from those years could attest to some of that.

The book opens with the words There was a time. That sense of wonder that the Garden used to be the true basketball mecca, as opposed to a historic building with incredible fans who haven’t had any good basketball to watch in 20 years, permeates the book. As someone who has covered the Dolan-era Knicks as well, do you think a run like this is even possible with the current ownership group?
Maybe? I guess it would likely need to start with a superstar, which gives you a margin of error. Strong management and a strong coach — ones that Dolan would just let do their thing—would allow for the possibility. But I struggle to picture it without a superstar. Without one, it would be too hard to sustain for an entire era.

John Starks at one point tells a beat reporter, “I’m gonna cut Reggie Miller’s dick off and make him eat it.” Have you ever gotten a quote like that? Would you even want one?
Never! Unless I was writing a story about how deeply players dislike each other or something, I wouldn’t even know what to do with that. Or, in the midst of an interview, how to respond to that. What are you supposed to ask as a follow-up?!

I think all the time about how cool it would have been to have covered an era like that. I hate that I didn’t get to. But at least through the book I got a taste of what it must have been like to talk with these guys regularly. And damn, the experience seems like it must have been fun.

The Decade That Defined the Knicks