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To Fix The Knicks

Can Ernie Grunfeld Bring an NBA Championship back to New York?
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

In Ernie Grunfeld's corner office opposite Madison Square Garden, two things are immediately noticeable. Near the door hangs an enormous photograph of Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' proudest warrior. In the photo, Ewing's arms are raised above his head, spread like antennas in a "V," celebrating a seventh-game victory over the Indiana Pacers in the conference finals in 1994. The second item of note is the aroma of smoke.

The smoke emanates from a Macanudo Baron de Rothschild. "Just one a day," Grunfeld says, almost sheepishly. Other people say Grunfeld's office is too full of smoke, too often, for "just one a day." "He's always relighting after lunch," says Josh Rosenfeld, the Knicks' director of public relations. "Though it could be one cigar, one very big one."

Grunfeld, president and general manager of the New York Knicks, was introduced to cigars on a golf course several years ago by Mike Gminski, Charlotte Hornets color commentator and 14-year NBA pro. He's been hooked ever since. He even has a humidor with a lid fashioned from a piece of the old 1973 Garden floor, played on by the last Knicks championship team.

It is a late spring afternoon and Grunfeld, 40, has time to relax and draw on a Mac or any number of favorites. He'll try Upmanns, Dunhills, Davidoffs, most anything that his smoking buddies--Gminski, broadcaster Ahmad Rashad and Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak among them--light up. He's open to new experiences; a good trait for one who must bring together the right pieces for a championship game.

Grunfeld has a friendly, inviting mien, though when talking about his plans for the Knicks he is like a card player holding them close to the vest.

His plate has been full--overflowing--since the start of the 1995-1996 season. First, the entire National Basketball Association had to await the outcome of the union decertification issue, which threatened to wipe out the NBA season. In February, he had to unload two ordinary but high-priced players, Charles Smith and Doug Christie, to make room under the salary cap to deal for free agents this summer. Then he fired coach Don Nelson and replaced him with a more fiery Jeff Van Gundy, whom he hoped would bring back the Knicks' "identity of defense and rebounding" and their "work ethic." In May, the Knicks made a two-year commitment to Van Gundy, 34, a longtime Knicks assistant coach and protégé of Pat Riley.

Grunfeld's best player, Patrick Ewing, has not been dominant enough to deliver a championship. If basketball were likened to a college course, then Ewing's grade is "incomplete." After 11 years and millions in paychecks, the Knicks have not won with Ewing. In his defense, it could be said that whenever he's been double-teamed since 1985, he's had to kick the ball out to Trent Tucker or Darryl Walker, Mark Jackson or Gerald Wilkins, Johnny Newman or Doc Rivers, John Starks or Derek Harper--and untold, nondescript others--who couldn't bury an 18-footer on a consistent basis. Not since Walt Frazier, one of the stars of the Knicks' championship teams of the early Seventies, has the franchise had a guard who could hit jump shots regularly while playing big minutes.

Of 29 teams in the NBA, 27 finish the season earlier than they'd like to. Then one more, the one losing in the finals, must ask what went wrong and what it can do to get over the hump. The Knicks are two good players away--perhaps three--from an NBA championship. The Knicks lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Chicago Bulls in May, four games to one. It was the second consecutive year the Knicks failed to survive the second round in a tournament in which a team must win four rounds for a championship.

For the most part, the New York Knicks have a trench warfare style of play more suitable to the playoffs--the NBA's second and real season that runs from April to June. But the Chicago Bulls, who went on to win their fourth championship in six years, have haunted the dreams of several teams. The Knicks' defeat at the hands of the Bulls marks the fifth time since 1989 that a Jordan-led squad has sent them packing.

Were Chicago to be magically scratched from the league, the Knicks of the Nineties might count themselves a huge success. In the last five years, the Knicks have had a regular-season won-lost record of 270-140, a .659 winning percentage. But in sports, as George C. Scott snarled to Paul Newman in The Hustler, "you don't count yardage." There's only one question worth asking when it's over: Did you win? The Knicks last won an NBA championship in 1973. Being good isn't enough.

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