Chris Herring's new book, Blood In The Garden, explores the triumphs and heartbreaks of the New York Knicks and offers an expansive look at the team in the 1990s. Whether you love them, hate them, love to hate them, or have completely abandoned them for the Brooklyn Nets, they've got a fascinating history to explore—from winners to losers to laughing stock, Herring explores it all, kicking things off in the 1970s before zooming in on the 1990s.
This past week, the author spoke about the ups and downs of the Knickerbockers with Alison Stewart on All of It.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full segment (including a listener call-in) here:
In the beginning of the book, you write about the Knicks of the 1970s and '80s first. I'd love for you to read from page 10, about the '70s Knicks.
Well, let's start here: The New York Knickerbockers of the early 1970s were the hoop aficionados' team of choice. They won with their brains. Aside from having a couple of players who'd become NBA head coaches, including Phil Jackson, an eventual Hall of Famer, New York's roster possessed a future PhD, a Rhodes scholar who'd become a US Senator and presidential candidate, and a man who could memorize vast portions of the New York City phone book in one sitting. Those clubs possessed skill, they packed the court with players capable of hitting open jump shots, they had an abundance of talent... Defined by synchronization, savvy, and on-court selflessness, their players relied on making the extra pass so frequently that years later Jackson revealed the Knicks made a point to slightly deflate basketballs just before games would start. This disadvantaged opponents when they tried to dribble and get didn't get the same bounce they were accustomed to, but it helped the Knicks who were far more interested in passing the ball than dribbling it to begin with. To many this share the wealth mentality represented basketball and its purest. A tribute to how the sport was meant to be played. And with it, the Knicks won two world championships in 1970 and 1973.
So what happened in the eighties then?
The Knicks were pretty horrible in the 1980s. You know, there were a lot of things that impacted a lot of teams in the 1980s. The league was growing during the eighties because of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but the drugs were just kind of hounding so many players and, you know, their minds weren't really in the right place.
And the Knicks were in the middle of New York City, which was a place that was obviously hit by a lot of that stuff too. So it got so bad that the players wouldn't come to practice sometimes and stopped coming to practices during Red Holzman's last year, the legendary coach that they had. It got so bad to the point where there were questions about whether the drugs were impacting the players' decisions to get in bed with sports betters, who we're trying to convince them to shave points. And there never really was a definitive answer on that. The Knicks were investigated by the FBI, some of their players were investigated by the FBI for maybe shaving points to try to throw games purposely to do favors for drug dealers, basically, who were thought to be maybe providing drugs for some of the players.
And then the management was just terrible. There were so many injuries that they had, they were practicing on a court that was, you know, someone described it to me as a court that was worse than the one that he played on in seventh and eighth grade, that tore up players, knees. And they just could not make good trades. The players hated their coaches during those years. It was just kind of a miserable experience for most of the players, most of the coaches during that time. And so you had the Knicks go from being one of the most hallowed teams in the seventies to just kind of being a team in the 1980s, that not only was not selling out their game, people kind of felt like they were shaming the Garden, you know, this historic place to play and that they were not really worthy of the court that they were playing on during the 1980s.
For most of that time, even after they got Patrick Ewing.
[On] St Patrick's Day they had a promotional night where they had posters of Patrick Ewing, you know, a life-size poster of him, a seven-foot-long poster. And people had gotten it that night for the game, but they were losing to a horrible Nuggets team by something like 27 points and fans started throwing the posters onto the court and they had to stop the game and the PA person came over the announcement system and basically begged them to stop. But that was how bad things were during the 1980s. Even once they got this legendary player, fans were just really fed up with how bad the Knicks were during a lot of those years.
What was one of the first things that happened in the nineties that started to change things for the Knicks?
The very first thing I think, to give him credit, is they hired a guy named Dave Checketts to be the general manager, the president of the team and his first move was probably the smartest one they made during all those years was to hire Pat Riley. Who'd been, you know, the Lakers coach and won four championships. Wore the Armani suits, had the slicked back hair, they hired him away from a job that he had with NBC as a TV analyst and, you know, getting him completely changed the mindset of the team. And it changed the way they played, which was the way they would play for the better part of a decade. The title of the book is Blood In The Garden, and Pat Riley was more or less telling them to extract blood from opponents however it needed to happen. I have a chapter in the book called "Knock Michael Jordan to the floor," and that was because Pat Riley literally gave them those instructions.
There's this moment in the book you write about an ad agency coming up with this line, "Tough town, tough team." And the picture is an overhead shot of the Garden floor with a cutout in the paint of like a dead body, a chalk outline... So how did that symbolize the Knicks at the time? Who would be happy with that image and who wouldn't?
Well, I was a little bit surprised that Pat Riley wasn't happy with it because he was, again, he was the guy that was more or less ordering that to happen. He was telling his players... I want you to foul these players whenever they come into the paint, and whenever they get anywhere near the basket, foul them. And I want you to fail them so much that it almost confuses referees because yes, they're going to call us for a lot of fouls, but if they do that a bunch of times in the first five minutes of the game, referees have places to go. The fans have places to go. The TV networks have places to go. So they're eventually going to have to stop calling fouls because they can't stop the game every five seconds for fouls. So they're going to have to start being more judicious about what they call and it almost... we talk about gaslighting and the idea of confusing people by turning the light switch on and off. You're almost going to be doing that with referees because they're going to be confused about what to call. But as far as the chalk outline, Pat Riley was telling them to knock players down aggressively, he was showing them video footage of rams violently headbutting each other, and violent car crashes before games to really charge them up, to get them to play violently. And that was the messaging he gave. That was why the ad agency made that promotional poster.
So, I found this so interesting, at one point when Pat Riley came in, they were at an event and they entered a ballroom and there were four tables. And he told groups of players to sit together. And then he told them, 'I sat you in cliques because you are in cliques and you're playing like you're in cliques.' What did pointing that out do and what were the personalities of these cliques?
I want to say it was the first time they'd fallen into a four-game losing streak. So they're in Oakland, he takes them there and you know, he separates them. He basically puts Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing at one table, he takes all the teams white players and puts them at one table, and he puts all the rookies essentially at the last table. And then he says, 'You guys are playing like cliques, you can tell that we're not a team yet because you guys don't really hang out with each other. I'm not saying you have to love each other, but you can actively tell that there's some of you guys that really don't like each other... I'm not saying you guys have to be friends, but you need to be family. It cannot look like that on the court because it actually impacts the way we play."
Fast forward and I think they ended up winning their next five or six games. He had another instance like this a couple of years later in 1994, where they were in the midst of another four-game losing, and Pat Riley was trying to figure out some way to kind of coalesce them again around a similar goal, a common goal. And he actually had the plane reroute from where it was going to be going to Sacramento, he had the pilot take them to Reno... he took the players to gamble for 36 hours. And I have a chapter in the book called "36 hours in Reno." And he goes, and he essentially takes $10,000 in cash of his own money and gets each player, these millionaire players, um, $500 in casino chips each. And they just gamble for 36 hours. And the outcome of that was that they then won their next 15 games. They went from a four-game losing streak to a 15 game winning streak that kind of catapulted them to reach the NBA finals and really get one game, maybe one play away from winning a championship.