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To Fix The Knicks

Can Ernie Grunfeld Bring an NBA Championship back to New York?

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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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