remember when?

The ’90s Rivalry Between the Knicks and the Heat From the Guys Who Were There

New York Knicks John Starks and Larry Johnson in a playoff game versus the Heat in 1998. Photo: Getty Images

“Even then it was like temporary insanity,” said former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, of his memorable dive in Madison Square Garden.

It was game four of the first round of the 1998 NBA playoffs, and the New York Knicks and Miami Heat were at it again, bruising each other in a rivalry that was equal parts thrilling hoop and blood feud. The clock was running out for a home-team win when Knicks forward Larry Johnson and Heat center Alonzo Mourning dropped the pretense of basketball and  squared up, throwing atomic haymakers.

Luckily, neither of the enforcers connected directly; the punches were complete whiffs. But as the teams rushed the court, Van Gundy caught what he called a “glancing blow” from Johnson and wound up on the floor as the giants around him tried to stop the fight.

“He grabbed ahold of what he could,” recalled Knicks guard John Starks. That happened to be the left calf of a rather confused Alonzo Mourning, who tried to shake off Van Gundy, whose torso was about the same size as the six-foot-ten center’s Nike Air Alonzos.

“Only my pride was hurting the next day, my body was not,” said Van Gundy, who’s still a little embarrassed by the act. But Mourning allowed them to move past it at the 2000 All-Star game coached by Van Gundy. “I’d never spoken to him and as we were heading out to do the media, he came up from behind and grabbed me,” said Van Gundy. “It broke the ice.”

As the Knicks and the Heat face off again in the postseason today, the
Van Gundy dive and other memorable lowlights from the ‘’90s rivalry are on the minds of NBA fans — or at least the ones old enough to remember what happened in the grainy footage. With Jimmy Butler willing the Heat forward against a young and deep Knicks squad, the competition to head to the Eastern Conference Finals will be intense. But it won’t be like the hard fouls of the old days. “No one’s doing that anymore,” said Van Gundy. Rule changes have banned the level of violence seen back then. “Thankfully, by the way,” he added.

The factors that built the Knicks-Heat rivalry of the ’90s came together so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine that level of intensity ever coming together again. Take the Mourning-Johnson angle. Years before the brawl, the pair fought to be the top dog on a Charlotte Hornets squad; the owner ultimately picked Johnson as its leader, leading to a chip on Mourning’s shoulder and his trade to the Heat. Or the coaching angle: After a devastating loss in the 1995 playoffs, a disgruntled Pat Riley resigned by fax from the Knicks to take full control of the Miami Heat as president and head coach, where he was given the freedom to build his own team. He didn’t stray far, sticking to the Knicks’ big-and-tough formula. “You basically could drop Miami right in New York and us right in Miami and you couldn’t tell the difference,” said Starks.

Then there’s the brother angle. When Riley left New York, he wanted his assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy to come with him. But with Van Gundy on pace to lead the Knicks, he stuck around at the Garden and Riley poached Jeff’s older brother Stan from a college coaching job. ”I wanted at least one Van Gundy with me,” Riley said at the time.

The brothers were close that first year in the league together. “We would talk four or five days a week,” said Stan Van Gundy. “We still do.” That changed the first time the teams faced off in the 1997 playoffs. In the last minutes of game five of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Miami, Knicks guard Charlie Ward either boxed out or tried to go after the knees of Heat forward P.J. Brown — who borrowed from WWE and straight-up suplexed Ward.

At the time, John Starks was going to the bench to wait out garbage time. “As I was coming out, I flipped the bird to the crowd because they were getting on me,” he explained. “As soon as I sit down all I see is Charlie’s feet coming off the ground. I just took off. That was an unnatural act. I’ve seen a hard bump, but to see your teammate get flipped over…”

After that mess, the coaches Van Gundy made a rule for the playoffs. “That was obviously pretty emotional so we just decided that we wouldn’t talk during the series,” said Stan Van Gundy. As the schedule would have it, the Knicks and Heat wound up playing four years in a row, throwing elbows and hand-checking their way through some electric moments of playoff basketball. “It went from disdain for the opponent to great, great respect on both sides,” said Jeff Van Gundy.

It’s a rich history to pull from, with current coaches Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau serving as assistants on the teams during their thrilling but ultimately unsuccessful playoff runs in the ’90s. But it’s also unlikely to impact the players — whose understanding of the also-rans of the Jordan era is more likely to be colored by The Last Dance and NBA Jam than from staying up late watching the games. “Most of our guys weren’t even born yet,” Knicks guard Josh Hart said in a press conference on Friday. “For us, those are the war stories of the past.”

But it might not be all resolved in the Van Gundy households. “To be honest, we’ve never really talked about those series in the 20-plus years since,” Stan Van Gundy said.

The Knicks Vs. Heat Rivalry From the Guys Who Were There