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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

(continued from page 3)

Grunfeld found himself at a crossroads in 1986. "I had an opportunity to play with some other teams for a year, maybe two years." But the astute on-the-court performer made an astute career move. "The Knicks asked if I'd be interested in broadcasting. I worked on the radio doing color with Jim Karvellas, and then moved to the TV side. I had to learn to be analytical and study all the teams and all the plays and ask people why they do certain things and ask a lot about different players and habits and what they like to do in certain situations. It was very good preparation."

He left broadcasting in 1989 to be an assistant coach under Knicks coach Stu Jackson for a year and a half. "I told them I had aspirations of becoming involved in management. There was an opening for the director of administration, so I came in and took that job for about a year. And then Dave Checketts came in [from the league office] in March 1991. He was interviewing five or six guys for the vice president of player personnel job. He hired me. I became GM a couple of years later [in 1993]."

Grunfeld saw the Knicks' fortunes take a sharp turn for the better when they signed Pat Riley as coach in 1991. The team had won just 39 games the previous season. But Riley, who had coached the "Showtime" Lakers to five NBA titles between 1982 and 1988, gave the Knicks instant stature, with a 51-31 won-loss record in his first season. The team began a roll whose momentum hasn't stopped.

From 1992 through 1995, the Knicks under Riley won 223 games and lost 105, not counting the playoffs, a winning percentage of .680. This little detail seems the most overlooked point in the media rush to castigate Riley after he left the Knicks with one year remaining on his contract. He took the Knicks almost to the mountaintop, but for four years, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Reggie Miller--and the Knicks themselves--kept them from the peak. Yet Russ Salzburg, sports host on WFAN, an all-sports radio station in New York City, called Riley a "cold-hearted snake" who "slithered" out of town. Whether Salzburg and other critics ever bothered to look in a record book is anyone's guess. If they had, they'd find that Riley's .680 mark is better than that of any Knicks coach in history. Not even Red Holzman in the Knicks' glory years of 1969 through 1973 put up that kind of a run. Yes, Riley left rudely, faxing his resignation to the Knicks' offices. But his failure to stand before the press and take hits while explaining a broken contract is a management and media issue, not the substantive one.

The Knicks subsequently dropped "tampering" charges against the Miami Heat, who negotiated with Riley in 1995 while he was still under contract with the Knicks, settling for compensation--$1 million and a first-round draft pick from Miami. Case closed.

But the real question raised by Riley's quitting is this: Is it possible, just possible, that he was right--that these Knicks can't climb higher?

Anyone wishing to draw that conclusion has ample ammunition to support it. The team is old. Patrick Ewing will be 34 when he plays his next game and Charles Oakley will be a month from his 33rd birthday. Between them they have 22 years of pro experience, but not one championship ring. If they couldn't steal a title in 1994, when Jordan was away, or in 1995, when Jordan had just returned from flailing at curve balls, how are they going to do it now?

How, indeed? To listen to Grunfeld after the second postseason game against Chicago was to hear the voice of EveryFan. "We didn't execute down the stretch and that hurt. We're competitive and we have a lot of pride. We need to do a better job down the stretch." In crucial spots the Knicks looked terribly short on offensive options and long on mistakes. "We kept them out of transition," Grunfeld said, explaining the Knicks' irrepressible effort compared to the Orlando Magic's abysmal performance against the Bulls in the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals. "But the difference was rebounding."

In sum, the Knicks traveled and turned the ball over with bad ball handling and passing, didn't protect their defensive boards and couldn't buy a basket in the half-court offense when they needed it most. So in five games that were up for grabs, an equally seasoned but more talented Chicago team stole four.

The series was a bump-and-grind war, not one of those NBA run-and-gun affairs where teams either slam-dunk or set global records for three-pointers attempted. To stop the running of the Bulls, the Knicks and Van Gundy revived their disruptive chest-to-chest style from the 1994 NBA Finals, a seven-game series in which they scratched and clawed with the Houston Rockets for every basket.


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