To Fix The Knicks
Can Ernie Grunfeld Bring an NBA Championship back to New York?
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96
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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?
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