Knicks’ Legend Patrick Ewing’s outstreched arms embrace the cavernous space at Madison Squared Garden in a pose resembling that of a man on a cross. The pose would become emblematic of the cross Ewing and his 90s era teammates have had to bear as they attempted to fulfill the Knicks fan’s immense championship expectations.
If the Figure of Patrick Ewing looms over the Knicks’ Franchise as an image of better days and a reminder to Knicks’ fandom that no trade of a superstar goes unpunished, Ewing’s era with the Knicks also unfolds as a classic Western Tragedy. A story with a message to management and would be star free agents or franchise players on the eve of the Summer of 2010. The message unveiled by the classic authored by Ewing, Riley, Van Gundy and the myriad of unforgettable players of the 1990’s Knicks is a call for balance, prudence and patience based on substance over style. Ultimately that message leads to the conclusion that to exit cap space hell does not make entering a flashier version of cap space purgatory any wiser a move. Like all great tragedies that signal a message of redemption in the forewarning of the heroes storied plight, it is for the individual reader to decide to avoid the fates of those heroes bound to the bittersweet pages of the epics prose so as to carve out a more hopeful path towards the future.
The Garden of Eden- The New York Knicks Golden Era Teams of the 1970s and a Paradise Lost
In a way the story of the New York Knicks reveals itself as a roundball remake of John Milton’s classic Paradise Lost as a brief stint in the franchise’s history points to a time of a heavenly Garden on Earth, the exile from that Garden and a fall from grace from which the Knicks have since journeyed forth in search of redemption. The Knicks Garden of Eden, Which culminated in two NBA Championships and three NBA Finals appearance was a journey of the coming of age of a balanced star studded lineup complimented by a hall of fame coach’s adherence to selfless and balanced team basketball. The journey began and continued as a result of the solid drafting and trade maneuvering by the franchise’s front office. From a chaotic period from 1960 through 1966 which found the franchise at the bottom of their respective conference, a slow yet magnificent turnaround unfurled in New York as the Knicks’ drafted championship centerpieces Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier during the 1964, 1965 and 1967 seasons respectively. The franchise would bolster their talented roster during the 1971-72 season with trades resulting in the acquisitions of Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas. That mixture of emerging and acquired home grown talent was brewed into a championship contender by the efforts of coach Red Holzman who molded the franchise’s roster into NBA World Champions in the 1969 – 70 and 1972-73 seasons. In this part of the Knicks epic the franchise’s myriad talent came of age together and found that the spirit of selfless team play and defensive and offensive balance demanded from their coach complimented and enhanced the greater team collective both on and off the court. The Knicks Garden of Eden would end after the 1973-74 season when Knicks Legends Reed, Bradley, and Debusschere announced their retirements. Shortly thereafter the Franchise would witness a steady decline from the stage of the NBA playoffs.
From 1974-75 through the 1984-85 seasons the Knicks disappeared from their former place as NBA championship contenders. During that time period the Knicks would appear on the playoff stage five times (74-75 Red Holzman, 78-79 Willis Reed, 80-81 Holzman, 82-83 and 83-84 Hubie Brown) often being swept out of the playoff stage in the conference quarter or semifinals. Only during the 1983-84 season with the acquisition of Bernard King from the Golden State Warriors would the Knicks take a conference finals series the distance of seven games, as they bowed out against the Boston Celtics. But King’s torn right anterior cruciate ligament, during the second half of the 1984-85 season would result in his trade to the Washington Bullets, which would return the Knicks near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Fortunately the Knicks’ fall was softened as they won the right to draft Georgetown Center, Patrick Ewing, in the 1995 NBA lottery, which the Knicks did during the draft that same year.
The Boulder of Sisyphus and the Tower of Babel obstructing the resurrection of a champ
The acquisition of Patrick Ewing brought to the Garden a franchise calibur transformative talent. But Ewing’s arrival would not signal an immediate turnaround for the Knicks as the team continued to struggle during the 1985-86 and 1986-87 season. Those struggles prompted the dismissal of then coach Hubie Brown. After acquiring Ewing the organization continued to build through the draft with the acquisition of point guard Mark Jackson (1987-88); and the trade wire by acquiring the mighty Charles Oakley (1988-89) in exchange for Bill Cartwright. The hiring of coach Rick Pitino and his pressing defensive approach cobbled the Knicks emerging talent towards a brief resurgence. That resurgence peaked during the 1988-89 season in which the Knicks (52-30) won their first division title in twenty years and reached the Conferences semifinals where they bowed out in a 4-2 series to the Rising Chicago Bulls. However, with Pitino9;s resignation, the Knicks would again decline under the stewardships of coach’s Stu Jackson (1989-90 [45-37] and 1990-91 [7-8]) and John MacLeod (1990-91 [32-35]). The organization faced a cross roads during the 1990-91 season as the Knicks were eliminated (swept) during the conference quarterfinals by the eventual NBA Champion, Chicago Bulls- an experience that would often be relived by the Knicks of the 1990s.
At a cross roads for the Franchise’s revival and the Career of their lone Superstar, the Knicks turned towards Pat Riley, who was signed and served as the Knicks Head Coach from 1991-92 through 1994-95 season. If the drafting of Patrick Ewing signaled the arrival of a Superstar New York could call their own, then the signing of Pat Riley brought to New York a style of play that placed the franchise in the midst of title contention and that produced a supporting cast of blue collar heroes from a collection of league journeymen and role players. With Pat Riley, the team transitioned towards a gritty defensively oriented style of play that made use of the available cast around Ewing. Ewing’s supporting cast included, amongst others, eventual fan fan favorites Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Derrick Harper and John Starks whose fiery determined style of play and feel good turnaround story spoke to the heart of New Yorkers. With Riley at the coaching helm, Ewing and his supporting cast would contend for the Eastern Conference title, while reaching the NBA Finals once during the 1993-94 season.
During the 1995-96 season the Knicks would transition from coach Riley, briefly to Don Nelson and then to Riley’s assistant Jeff Van Gundy. That transition would signal the second phase of the Knicks 1990’s era revival. The transition from Riley to Van Gundy continued the Knicks Franchise’s tradition of gritty defensive oriented basketball. Van Gundy’s transition as head coach was aided by the acquisition in 1996-97 of star free agent, Alan Houston, and the trade for Star Forward, Larry Johnson. During the 1998-99 season the Knicks would continue to replenish their roster with the trades for Star Guard/Forward, Laterell Sprewell, and the shot blocking rebounding Forward, Marcus Camby. The second phase of the 1990s Knicks’ revival resulted in the trades of Ewing’s supporting cast of blue collar role players -Mason, Starks and Oakley- for a replenished group of rising stars acquired to assist Ewing in his quest for an NBA Championship. But despite a replenished roster the Knicks would only reach the NBA Finals stage once during the 1998-99 season, though they frequently appeared in their respective conference finals and quarterfinals.
Yet, both of Ewing’s 1990s era Knicks’ Teams would experience the frustration of several pitfalls in pursuit of NY Basketball’s Championship Dreams. The first of the Knicks’ Waterloo’s would be found in the near yearly showdown with the Michael Jordan era Bulls of the 90’s who denied Ewing and the Knicks- amongst many other teams- their opportunities to claim an NBA title. The Knicks would also be victimized by their own set of miscues and frustrated moments throughout the 90’s. During the early 90’s the Knicks Murphy’s Law moments included Charles Smith inability to put back a missed layup or draw a foul call in the waning seconds of Game 5 of the 1992-93 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Pat Riley’s stubborn insistence not to replace an ice cold John Starks for guards Derrick Harper, Hubert Davis or Rolando Blackman during the deciding Seventh game of the 1993-94 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, Patrick Ewing’s passive missed layup against the the Indiana Pacers in game seven of the 1994-95 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Murphy’s Law also effected the Knicks’ franchise during the second half of the 1990’s. For instance, the Knicks likely best opportunity to reach the NBA Finals during the 1996-97 season was frustrated by a brawl against the Miami Heat, which whittled the Knicks’s 3-1 commanding series lead resulting in the Knicks bi-annual ouster during the quarterfinals of the NBA Playoffs. During the 1997-98 season, Ewing would go down with a wrist injury that sidelined him for the season and limited his short playoff appearance against the Pacers who ousted the Knicks 4-1 during that year’s conference semifinals. The Following Year, an injury to Ewing’s Achilles tendon would sideline Ewing during most of their Conference Finals against the Pacers and the whole NBA Finals series against the San Antonio Spurs.
The yearly frustration experienced by Ewing and his 1990s Knicks teams transformed the Superstar Center into a tragic hero subject to a yearly ritual akin to the plight of Sisyphus. But a disconnect underscored the franchise’s plight. That disconnect recalled another western classic, namely the frustrated efforts of people divided by the walls of language to build the unfinished pillar towards the heavens in the moral tale of the Tower of Babel. Basketball in many facets is a highly synchronized game where coordination and timing culminates in the rhythmic flow of an offensive set or the quasi-harmonious movement of teammates rotating on defense to account for an open player on offense. The ability to facilitate the effective flow of the game for a team on offense or defense results in terming certain players and coaches as orchestrators, further underlying the importance of the managed and well timed rhythm of the game. That said, timing and coordination likewise play a role in the degree of a team’s successful construction as a championship contender or playoff caliber team.
The Ewing Era Knicks in essence, via the work of the front office, were able to cobble together two different teams that included various components needed of a Championship caliber basketball organization. Nevertheless, the franchise was not able to coordinate those various aspects in a manner that allowed the Knicks to place the best possible complete team on the floor against their adversaries. During the first phase of the Ewing Era Revival the Knicks surrounded a franchise Center in his prime with a supporting cast constituted from some of the best role and effort players the 1990s had seen. Yet, amongst that cast there was an absence of a Co-Superstar or set of top tier stars capable of helping shoulder Ewing’s and the Franchise’s challenge of returning the Larry O’Brien trophy back to New York.
Only as Ewing exited his prime did the franchise acquire a collection of upper tier star players needed to round out the Knicks into the sort of team that could compliment the franchise’s Superstar center. However by that time wear and tear and a series of injuries underscored Ewing’s decline, relegating Ewing to a role player and often a cheer leader as he watched a new cast of stars carry on the Knicks’ beleaguered quest for NBA Immortality. Throughout both phases of the 1990s Knicks’ revival the constants were a commitment to tenacious defensive basketball, outstanding coaching and great leadership exemplified in team captains such as Ewing, Oakley, Johnson and Houston. All those elements reflected the then franchise’s commitment to substance over style. However, despite the great strengths of the 1990s Knicks the disconnect reflected in the inability of the franchise to surround their franchise Center with a balance of role players and either a superstar sidekick or cast of stars to balance out those teams, obstructed the Knicks attempted climb towards the pinnacle of the NBA.