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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.

The NBA playoffs are a Darwinian battle waged on a 50-by-94-foot court. Easy baskets are few, as are the breakaway layups and three- digit scores that mark the regular season. Defense and rebounding--which show team will as much as team skill--tend to dominate.

Two years ago, the Knicks were a paradigm of smothering defense, allowing their opponents an average of just 91.5 points per game. It was the lowest points-per-game average allowed since 1954, an extraordinary and undersold accomplishment. In this season's playoffs, they battled Chicago proudly in every game, playing ferocious defense and leaving the Bulls seething, battered and bruised.

Whatever success the in-your-face, disruptive Knicks have had is best measured in the kinds of stats that only assistant coaches in suits keep: shots contested, loose balls retrieved, offensive rebounds allowed, passes stolen and deflected. In a word, effort plays.

New York fans demand it that way. The Garden faithful can tolerate a year without a championship banner. But they want a team that mirrors the lives of people in Gotham: a team that fights. The chant of "De- fense, De-fense" began with the Knicks' championship squads from 1970 and 1973--with players like Willis Reed and Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley and Earl Monroe, Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson--and it's been the identity of their better teams since. "Defense has been the trademark," says Grunfeld. He ought to know.

Grunfeld grew up in Forest Hills, New York. On days when he wasn't battling to hold onto some asphalt court in Queens, Grunfeld crossed the East River with his father to watch the Knicks in their white-and-orange uniforms, playing in a spanking new Garden before they had replay scoreboards, Knicks City Dancers or a cocky theme song. "One of the memories I have as a little kid, sitting up in the blue seats--way up high with my dad and watching the Knicks play--was the shot going up and all five players would box out. And then you can just hear the ball bounce and one of the Knicks would pick it up and you'd have the loudest cheer of the night. The fans realized that they were all working as a team and doing something that was very important to winning games. I'm not sure it's emphasized as much nowadays as then."

As time goes on, those Knicks teams from 1969 to 1973--shining brightest during Nixon's presidency, before VCRs, before disco even--will grow larger and larger in his mind's eye. Until the day....

Grunfeld's family arrived from Satu-Mare, Romania, in 1964. "We couldn't speak a word of English," Grunfeld recalls. "My dad was a house painter for two years and he had saved up money to buy a small business. He ran a fabric store in Romania and so he bought a fabric store here in the South Bronx in 1966." The family was fortunate to emigrate, Grunfeld stresses, since Romania had a quota for how many Jews could leave. His father, Alex, his mother, Livia, and Ernie worked at the store 12 hours a day, six days a week.

"I worked there until I became really involved in basketball. Then my father saw me play and said, 'You know what? I'll hire somebody to work at the store. You go play.' He saw how much interest I had. I was in the tenth grade. He was a sports fanatic and a very good athlete in his own right in Europe," Grunfeld says. "He was one of the best goalies as a soccer player. One of the top three or four in the whole country. He was also an excellent Ping-Pong player, world-ranked. And he grasped basketball.

"There was no basketball in Romania. I started playing here in Queens as a young kid, going down to the playground. I couldn't speak English. But everybody was playing basketball. I was just one of the kids. I think New York City players in general learn to compete at a young age. If you don't win, you can't stay out on the court. If you lose, you may have to wait an hour or an hour and a half before you go out on the court again. So the games were pretty serious."

Grunfeld wanted to stay on the court. "The better I got, the more friends I had. At first, I used to drive a lot and go inside a lot more." But then, the 6-foot-6-inch Grunfeld says with a laugh, "For some reason I stopped growing. In high school I could dominate on the inside if I wanted to. But in college, the players were a lot bigger and I had to improve my outside game. In my freshman and sophomore years in college, I took the whole summer and really worked on my outside shot."

He attended the University of Tennessee and played with Bernard King, who would later become the greatest offensive player in Knicks history, once scoring back-to-back 50-point games, winning an NBA scoring title in 1985 and finishing his career with 19,655 points. At Tennessee, the duo would become known as the "Ernie and Bernie Show," with Ernie averaging 22 points per game and Bernie nearly 26. "He was just a great competitor," Grunfeld says of King. "It was interesting because it was a couple of New York City guys going down south--a whole different culture. We were pretty brash."

A 215-pound forward, Grunfeld played nine seasons in the NBA, with stops in Milwaukee, Kansas City and New York. Each NBA stop had its own distinction. Starting in Milwaukee in 1977, Grunfeld was coached by Don Nelson, whom he would hire for the Knicks in 1995. The other two stops were marked by appearances in the conference finals.

The Kansas City Kings of 1980-1981 were one of the great underdog stories of basketball. In the first round of the playoffs, the no-name Kings eked out a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. Then, against a Phoenix Stars team that had proven stars in Walter Davis, Dennis Johnson and Truck Robinson, the Kings pulled off an upset in seven grueling games. People took notice of the overachieving bunch, with Otis Birdsong, Scott Wedman, Phil Ford, Reggie King, Sam Lacy, Joe Meriweather and Grunfeld. But their run ended in the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets and their indomitable center, Moses Malone.

 

Grunfeld's final stop as a pro was with the New York Knicks in 1982. One circle in his life was now complete. The boy from New York now played for New York. He played under Hubie Brown, who had been coach of the year with the Atlanta Hawks in 1978 and had coached the Kentucky Colonels to an American Basketball Association championship in 1975. "Hubie Brown was an excellent basketball coach," Grunfeld says. "He was extremely prepared. He was great with X's and O's, very organized and a very competitive guy. So I enjoyed playing for Hubie and we had a lot of success playing with him."

The 1984 Knicks brought the city back some of the excitement of the old days. "In 1984, we took the Celtics seven games [in the conference finals]; they went on to win the championship. They had a great team--Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson.

"Hubie's philosophy was that he had two units that played different styles. The first unit was more half-court and more offensive-oriented. The first unit went to our big guys down low [read: Bernard King and Bill Cartwright] and then we went to our second unit and Hubie was substituting all five of us within a minute or two. We pressed the whole time and we would just go all out and give 110 percent and change the tempo of the game. Hubie wanted us to leave everything out there on the court, and then he went back to the starting unit in the hopes of wearing the other team down a little bit. It was very successful."

Though Grunfeld was not getting the minutes or points that he had been getting earlier in his career, he was a crucial part of that team that went to a seventh game against a superior opponent.

"Ernie was like a coach on the second unit," recalls Brown, now a basketball analyst for the TNT network. "He had a great aptitude for the game and he and Louis Orr always made sound and thought-out suggestions and were very helpful. I would keep the two of them next to our coaches. They were the best ever at the second phase of the 2-2-1 trap. They played the passing lanes, had great anticipation and made up for a lack of quickness with IQ." Larry Bird said that he knew the team that won the series would win the NBA championship. He was right; the Celtics beat the Lakers in seven games in the finals.

While the Kansas City and New York squads were two highlights of Grunfeld's pro career, the high point of his basketball life occurred in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where he played on the U.S. team that beat Yugoslavia in the finals to win the gold medal. But "we wanted to play Russia," Grunfeld says. (In the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the Soviet Union was given the gold in one of the most controversial finishes in basketball history.)

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.

It worries the NBA that point totals have gone down. In the 1985-1986 season, the average team in the league scored 110.2 points, compared with 99.5 this past season. Commissioner David Stern and other league executives have tried a little aesthetic engineering in recent years, hoping to sustain their ESPN highlight-reel brand of ball, including frequent dunks and primal screams. Run-and-gun basketball gets big TV rating numbers--even when it results in 4-0 sweeps like the 1995 finals between Orlando and Houston.

The changes--new rules against hand-checking to stop shoving and clawing on defense, and a closer three-point line to further increase offensive production--haven't pleased all people. "The average game has become boring," says career basketball man and Indiana Pacers coach Larry Brown. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon doesn't appreciate all the changes, either. "People who really know the game appreciated the style of play in our series with New York," says Olajuwon. "You had to fight for every basket."

Following the New York-Houston finals--whose TV ratings were 20 percent lower than the 1993 finals--the league began to censor the kind of tough defensive play that the Knicks, and the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons before them, had been practicing. Thus, the hand-checking and three-point-line rules were put into place before the 1994-1995 season. Since it takes nine two-point goals to equal six three-pointers, the result was predictable for offenses around the league. Everyone was hoisting threes. (Just ask anyone who has coached Knicks guard John Starks.) In the first season following the new rule change, there were 33,877 three-point-shot attempts, 11,982 more than the previous year. This past season there were 37,255 attempts.

Grunfeld doesn't mind these changes. "The scoring has really dropped in the NBA in the last 10 years. There is more emphasis on defense. A lot of coaches feel that defense is constant, while shooting is there sometimes and sometimes not," he says. "Coaches do a great job of double-teaming, getting it out of the best players' hands. So the three-point line was moved in to increase the scoring and make it a little bit easier shot. If you pack it in in the middle, you have to pay a price with a closer three-pointer. And the intent was to try and open up the middle a little bit more to take advantage of the great ability of these great players in the NBA. I think the three-point shot is really an interesting part of the game. Because with a three-point shot, a team that is behind is never really out of it. For the most part it's worked pretty well."

But since the three-point line was moved in, the average score in the league has dropped from 101.4 to 99.5 points per game. So with more three-pointers being attempted, it seems there's less of a tendency to look for other, perhaps easier, ways to score.

In addition to trying to pump up the offense, the league has attempted to put an end to rim-swinging, chest-bumping, non-stop taunting and the in-your-face-disgrace behavior that had come to typify NBA contests. Such behavior will now get you whistled for a technical foul.

These problems have abated but are a long way from disappearing. If long-term contracts are supposed to result from achievement and winning, how do you control players who receive guaranteed multiyear contracts, sneaker commercials and other endorsements prior to setting foot on an NBA court? If the NBA system of signing players provides all its first-round draft picks with the sun, the moon and the stars, can the players be blamed for coming in with both hands out? Punk behavior naturally results from this attitude of entitlement. Then that behavior is positively reinforced by being shown on the evening news and ESPN highlight shows. Suddenly rudeness abounds.

Consider the following cases. Players on the 1994-1995 New Jersey Nets missed practice so often that coaches had to suit up just so the team would have 10 warm bodies for practice. The most frequent culprits were team "leaders" Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, both of whom have since been dispatched to other teams. "It's just scary," says Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry. "We even have players missing practices and meetings to tape commercials. We have guys challenging coaches every day. That bothers me. Too many guys want to just go their own way."

Some of the media elevate players like Dennis Rodman to the realm of a seer or mystic because he is au courant enough to reject authority, dress in drag and head-butt referees--and disrupt his teams. No one batted an eye when Bulls marketing and broadcasting vice president Steve Schanwald recently described Rodman as a "genius." Why? Because he throws his jersey into the audience after every game.

No wonder Magic Johnson, 37 and trapped in the Generation-X gap, said of this past season, "I've been through more nonsense in this one year than in 12 years with my old squad." Want more of the same sentiment? Ring up a couple of guys named Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

The NBA reached its zenith with the flourishing of team basketball ushered in by Bird and Johnson and modified of late by Jordan. This threesome prized team success first; the trappings of success--money, glory and commercials aplenty--arrived later. What must they think of the new breed, these agent-driven slackers who have the world handed to them before making the All-Star team or playing in a single NBA playoff game?

Grunfeld has more to worry about these days than players' behavior. He righted the Knicks' drifting ship last March by firing coach Don Nelson and hiring Van Gundy. "Nelson was regarded as one of the best coaches in the league for many, many years. Two years ago he coached Dream Team II [the NBA all-star contingent that won the world championship in Toronto], so obviously he was held in very high regard in the basketball industry," Grunfeld says, explaining his original choice of Nelson. "It was unfortunate that it just didn't work out. The players were not responding to him. We were sort of in a downward spiral and I felt a change had to be made in order to give ourselves a chance to be competitive toward the end of the season. We're a proud organization, a proud bunch. We pride ourselves on defense and rebounding. Those are our strengths. We got away from that and lost our identity and our work ethic. A lot of people will say, 'You play like you practice,' and you know different coaches have different philosophies. Unfortunately, what Nellie thought was the right thing for this team wasn't working."

Prior to the playoffs, moves were made to upgrade the Knicks. A major move, in early February, was Grunfeld's prudent trade of Charles Smith, a favorite whipping boy of Garden fans, who believed he was impersonating a shrinking violet trapped in a 6-foot-10-inch body. Most of the time they were right. Sending him to the San Antonio Spurs (with Monty Williams) rid the Knicks of Smith's 39 percent shooting percentage (lowest among the team's regulars last season) and prohibitive salary and brought over forwards J.R. Reid and Brad Lohaus last February. Ten days later, Grunfeld unloaded guard Doug Christie and center Herb Williams to the Toronto Raptors for guard/small forward Willie Anderson and forward/center Victor Alexander. The Knicks subsequently re-signed Williams (he was waived by Toronto) and waived Alexander. The Knicks renounced their rights to Anderson and Reid on July 14.

The moves gave the Knicks nearly $10 million to maneuver with under the cap, money that they were hoping could be used to acquire one or two top-shelf free agents. It wasn't an accident that Grunfeld was named Knicks president on Feb. 23, five days after the second deal. When asked what he thought of Trader Ernie's deals, Garden president Dave Checketts dubbed them "miraculous."

In June the Knicks used their 18th, 19th and 21st draft picks on three forwards. With pick 18 they snatched 6-foot-8 Syracuse forward John Wallace. They also used picks 19 and 21 on forwards, getting 6-10 Walter McCarty of Kentucky and 6-7 Dontae' Jones of Mississippi State. All are athletic, all come from winning college programs and all can score. Few analysts expected that the Knicks would get such talent with late picks.

Grunfeld was also pleased. "We had three picks and we never thought a player like John Wallace would slip to us. All of them are athletic players, good scorers and very versatile players. They can all play more than one position. They all have good size." By themselves, however, they were not the solution to the Knicks' championship quest. And Grunfeld and Checketts knew it.

In an effort to further bolster the team, the Knicks in July signed free-agent guards Allan Houston and Chris Childs and obtained forward Larry Johnson in a trade that sent forward Anthony Mason and Lohaus to the Charlotte Hornets. Houston, 25, addresses the Knicks' perimeter shooting needs and gives them another three-point shooter; last year he averaged 19.7 points per game for the Pistons. Childs, 28, will play point guard for the Knicks after two seasons with the New Jersey Nets. Johnson, 27, is expected to play small forward. In one fell swoop the Knicks likely replaced three-fifths of their old starting lineup.

How will Ewing mesh with these new players? "I think the addition of these players will help the entire team," says Grunfeld. "Everybody can score and opponents won't be able to double-team any one player." Hubie Brown was also impressed. "So far, New York has probably done the best job of revamping themselves with the trade, the free-agent signing and the three drafts picks," says TNT's resident professor of hoops.

Even so, there will still be major question marks. Michael Jordan is 33, and his indefatigable, ultra-competitive self should be around to haunt NBA teams until 2000. Another hill to be climbed is Orlando, a younger team with one of the best players in the league in Anfernee Hardaway.

So Grunfeld and Dave Checketts have their hands full, trying to devise a way to beat the Bulls and the greatest player that ever laced up sneakers.

Still, there's no reason to toss in the towel. Several things are working in the Knicks' favor. Since an overwhelming majority of NBA players voted not to decertify the union last September, there will be no more preposterous long-term rookie signings in the $100 million neighborhood. While the top four 1994-1995 rookies signed contracts averaging $3.3 million per year over the first three years, the top four last season averaged a shade under $2 million. In the collective bargaining agreement ratified last year, the players agreed to hold rookie contracts to three years (they were unlimited before), in return for unrestricted free agency when those deals expire. This is a definite plus for Grunfeld and others around the NBA who had draft picks to sign before the start of the 1996-1997 season.

Also working for the Knicks is the success of Madison Square Garden, which has a healthy bottom line. The Knicks have sold out 172 consecutive regular-season games, with the last non-sellout occurring in February 1993. No surprise here. Attending games at the Garden these days is akin to witnessing a special effects show. Scoreboard videos, courtside celebrities, sexy dancers, Knicks theme songs and pre-game laser shows are all the norm. It is one of the best nights out in New York.

So panic is not the appropriate emotion. Grunfeld can take some time to hit the links and smoke with Gminski or Kupchak. Gminski not only introduced Grunfeld to cigars, but celebrated with him at Smith & Wollensky's steakhouse after Grunfeld's appointment to general manager. "People were sending over magnums of Robert Mondavi Cabernet," Gminski recalls. "We had this great meal, a lot of great wine and we just pulled out the [Macanudo] Prince Philip maduros afterward. It was fun because Ernie was really excited."

In the off-season, Grunfeld has more time to spend with his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Rebecca and Danny, at their Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, home. Nancy owns In the Paint Basketball Gear, a sports clothing line of activewear.

When he's in the office and has time to relax, Grunfeld can always pull out a Macanudo. At that moment, his eyes might drift over to the oversized picture of Ewing or the humidor with the piece of the 1973 Garden floor. Nice artifacts both, but also double-edged swords. The Ewing picture, so full of euphoria, tells a tale without a happy ending.

Should Grunfeld's eyes settle on the humidor behind his desk, he'll recognize a fuller tale. That humidor will remind him of his youth and the 1973 Knicks team that in five games beat the Lakers and a few chaps named Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich--Hall of Famers all--to capture their last championship. While the humidor will remain behind the desk, the picture should one day be replaced.

"We can always do better by winning a championship," Grunfeld says. "We're extremely competitive people and the fans deserve it and the players have given great efforts to win."

Perhaps a new picture will show Ewing with his hands thrust skyward, pointing toward the 1970 and 1973 championship banners and retired uniform numbers of Reed and Frazier in the Garden rafters. But in this photo, Ewing should be celebrating the Knicks winning a new championship banner for those rafters.

Kenneth Shouler, a freelance writer based in White Plains, New York, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

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