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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 2)

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.)


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