Knepper, Paul. The Knicks of the Nineties: Ewing, Oakley, Starks and the Brawlers That Almost Won It All. McFarland, 2020. Pp. 288. Acknowledgments, bibliography, endnotes, introduction, photographs, prologue, $35 paperback.
Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo
Gritty, tough and talented. On paper, the New York Knicks of the 1990s should have won at least one NBA title, but they never did. Of course, the 1990s were dominated by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who won six NBA titles.
When one takes a snapshot of pro basketball in the 1990s, the Bulls dominate the picture. That perception was sharpened with “The Last Dance,” the ESPN miniseries released earlier this year. It was made even clearer when Charles Smith’s shots were rejected four times by the Bulls in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. Doc Rivers would compare that sequence to “the sudden death of a family member who was perfectly healthy,” (p. 68), Paul Knepper writes in his well-researched narrative, The Knicks of the Nineties: Ewing, Oakley, Starks and the Brawlers That Almost Won It All.
The Knicks certainly came close. They qualified for the playoffs for 14 consecutive seasons from 1987-88 to 2000-01. They lost in the finals twice (1994 and 1999) and fell in the conference finals five times. The Knicks are almost the roundball version of the 1990s Buffalo Bills, and, to a lesser extent, the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1990s Atlanta Braves, and the New York Mets of the late 1980s. The Dodgers, Braves and Mets each won overall titles, but there was that nagging feeling that there should have been more.
Still, the Knicks played solid basketball during the 1990s, and Knepper, a Jericho, New York, native who now lives in Austin, Texas, grew up a fan of the Knicks. “I think about the Knicks more than I should,’’ Knepper told the New York Post. “I’m one of those people who long for those days in the ’90s.”
Knepper, an attorney who graduated from the University of Michigan and earned his juris doctor from Fordham University School of Law, exhibits a lawyer’s eye for documentation for his first book. He conducted 88 interviews with former players, coaches and executives. Interestingly, Knepper’s interviews did not include Pat Riley or Patrick Ewing, but he did speak with John Starks and Charles Oakley. The insights of former Knicks and Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts, however, give Knepper’s work depth and context.
His bibliography includes 31 books, five newspapers, two magazines and websites such as ESPN.com and Basketballreference.com. Knepper’s narrative benefits from his experience as the Knicks’ featured columnist on Bleacher Report and the defunct website, Love For Sports. Knepper began researching Knicks of the Nineties three years ago, figuring it was a story that needed to be told. The Knicks, far removed from their glory days of two decades ago, have witnessed a revolving door of coaches and mediocre performances on the court. “I don’t think Golden State Warriors or Lakers fans are nostalgic right now about other eras,’’ Knepper told the New York Post. “But this is a great fan base and New Yorkers love their Knicks. It’s been pretty brutal to watch the last two decades and people are nostalgic for those ’90s teams.” So, Knepper told the newspaper, “It struck me: Someone should write a book about those days and I thought, ‘Why not me?’”
Knepper peppers his narrative with brief stories about key players — and bit part actors — on the Knicks. Riley, for example, was a gym rat and a basketball junkie despite his slicked-back look and expensive Armani suits. “If ‘The Boss’ was ‘Born to Run,’ Riley was born to coach,” Knepper writes (p. 19). Riley was also a “master motivator,” sometimes turning his back on a player in an elevator or sending messages through the media. Other times, he would challenge players directly (p. 23).
Riley “had his finger on the pulse of his team” (p. 74) and embraced analytics long before it became common in sports. Riley’s assistants kept track of “hustle stats,” and the coach posted the results and praised players who excelled (p. 75). Xavier McDaniel “had a chip on his shoulder” and never shied away from a fight (p. 27). Riley loved John Starks’s competitive spirit, even though his game was “raw” and “he played at full speed all the time, had questionable shot selection and was reckless with the ball,” Knepper writes (p. 30). Charles Oakley was the Knicks’ “thug,” Knepper writes, a 6-foot-9 enforcer who put fear into opposing players. He became a franchise cornerstone, a player beloved by fans because “he collected as many floor burns as baskets.” (p. 40).
After a few misses, the Knicks reached the NBA Finals in 1994, employing a strong defense and a workmanlike ethic. But just like their opponents, the Houston Rockets, New York lacked a consistent second scorer and depended too much on Starks, a streaky shooting guard “with no conscience and a short temper,” Knepper writes (p. 97). The Knicks had taken a 3-2 series lead against the Rockets in the Finals and headed to Houston needing just one win to earn the NBA title. They lost both games. Starks, who scored 16 of the Knicks final 22 points in Game 6, went up for a shot from the left corner with New York trailing by two and seconds remaining. Somehow, Hakeem Olajuwon managed to get a finger on the ball, and it fell short of the hoop. Ewing was open but Starks did not pass to him.
Before Game 7, Riley spent the afternoon at his hotel with close friend Dick Butera, Knepper writes. As they waited for an elevator, Riley said to his friend, “Well, buddy, I know three guys that are gonna show up tonight.” “Who?” Butera asked. “You, me and John (Starks),” Riley said (p. 101). Riley stuck with Starks in Game 7 despite his ice-cold shooting (2-for-18, and 1-for-10 in the second half). “Feast or Famine shot the Knicks out of the game,” Knepper writes (p. 103).
Riley had star appeal, but after he left for the Miami Heat — and started a heated rivalry with the Knicks — New York failed in its experiment with Don Nelson as coach, replacing him after 59 games with longtime assistant Jeff Van Gundy. Van Gundy, short and underappreciated, emerges as a hero in Knepper’s book. While he seemed to be “a polar opposite” to Riley (p. 133), Van Gundy shared his mentor’s fiery competitiveness, and was a tireless worker who was detail-oriented and obsessive about basketball. Knepper compares the two coaches — as many Knicks fans did during the 1990s — in stark terms. Riley resembled a Wall Street banker with his tailored suits. Van Gundy, meanwhile, looked like “an accountant with a bad comb-over and bags under his eyes.” (p. 134). Before taking over the Knicks, Van Gundy’s head coaching experience had been limited to McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, New York. But he was dead serious and determined as the Knicks’ coach, holding grueling practices and dealing with the media sternly. “He looked like he was making a hostage tape during press conferences,” Knicks broadcaster Mike Breen said.
The players knew Van Gundy had their backs. A memorable brawl between the Knicks and Heat included Van Gundy, knocked to the floor during the fight, hanging onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg. “It remains the most recognizable image of Van Gundy’s career with the Knicks,” Knepper writes (p. 167). Chris Childs told the coach he “looked like a jockey who fell off his horse.” Van Gundy also knew about gamesmanship. After the Knicks eliminated the Heat in the playoffs to become the second eighth seed to knock off a No. 1 in the postseason, Van Gundy was seen arguing vehemently with a referee. “What are you doing?” Checketts asked. “We won.” “Coaching for the next round,” Van Gundy said (p. 197).
Knepper also writes about the tenure of the mercurial Latrell Sprewell. When he was a member of the Golden State Warriors, Spreewell infamously choked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, during a December 1997 practice. Despite his emotional baggage, Van Gundy thought acquiring Sprewell was a “no-brainer,” but the Knicks had to give up Starks to obtain him. Sprewell was an interesting mix — intensity on the basketball court matched by eclectic off-court pursuits such as chess and automobiles. He also could assemble “everything from computers to old stereos,” and was well-versed in new technology (p. 180).
Knepper also revisits several off-the-court incidents. There was always drama in New York, and the Knicks could lean into the bizarre. One instance came in 1999 when Checketts invited Ernie Grunfeld, the team’s general manager who had been with the team’s front office for nearly a decade, to dinner and fired him “over biscotti and fresh fruit.” (p. 189). “In the middle of dessert, Grunfeld found out he was the main course,” Journal News sportswriter Ian O’Connor wrote.
Knepper’s narrative about Ewing, who he calls “The Big Fella” (and Van Gundy called “The Mortgage”) is also interesting. Ewing was one of the most coveted players coming out of college after starring for Georgetown, and he was a force for the team for a decade. When he was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics late in his career, Ewing was the Knicks’ all-time leader in points, rebounds, blocks, steals, field goals made, minutes and games played, Knepper writes. All he lacked was a championship ring. Knepper notes that Ewing had been peddled several times during his career before he eventually went west. He was offered to the Heat, but the Knicks were rebuffed. Checketts, in 1991, tried to trade Ewing to San Antonio, along with $10 million, for David Robinson. Spurs owner Red McCombs turned down the deal (p. 7). Ewing was “respected, but never loved,” Knepper writes (p. 228).
Knepper may be an attorney, but it is fortunate that he did not write The Knicks of the Nineties in lawyer speak. His prose is insightful and filled with colorful anecdotes. Sometimes he gets too familiar, referring to players by their first names or nicknames, but it is part of the book’s charm.
The Knicks of the 1990s may not have won an NBA title, but they sure gave it a good try. Knepper brings that heady era back to life.
Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.