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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 1)

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."

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