Unofficial History of the New York Knicks and Why I Care (and want others to also)
A couple of years ago, while walking down Main Street in Durham, and sporting my number 24 New York Knicks throwback jersey (one of four that I own, this one Hall of Famer Bill Bradley), a vehicle full of undergraduate young men gave me a ride-by shout-out and informed me that “THE KNICKS SUCK!” Based off of the Knick’s record from 2013 until now, I have to concede that they had a point. The team is snake bitten by inept ownership and management. For this, the second edition of UNH’s Main Street Magazine for fall semester of 2019, I have prevailed upon the editors to allow me page space to articulate just what Knicks basketball means to people from that city, and across the country.
The team, currently the highest valued in the NBA at 4 billion dollars (Forbes.com), was created in 1946 by Ned Irish, as part of the newly founded Basketball Association of America. The BAA became the NBA in 1949. The Knicks were a winning team and playoff contenders under the franchise's first head coach Joe Lapchick. Lapchick later coached at St. Johns in Queens, NY.
After Lapchick resigned in 1956, the team suffered a long drought similar to what it now experiences. In the 1960s, head scout William “Red” Holzman worked hard behind the scenes, scouting and laying the foundation of a contender by lining up such college stars as Willis Reed, Cazzie Russell, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier. Then in 1967, the NY Knicks management promoted Holzman to head coach, where he fine tuned the team he had meticulously assembled during the past decade.
With an emphasis on defense and moving the ball on offense, the Knicks had a playoff run from the 1966-67 season to 1974-75, with the team winning the NBA title in 1970 and 1973. Those teams, which I vaguely remember as a small child however have read many books about, were a metaphor for teamwork. Also, I believe, the team was a microcosm of the America spirit, in that players from diverse backgrounds and ethnic roots worked together to fell physically larger and more flashy basketball teams. I encourage fans of all ages to check out YouTube and other platforms that have color films of the Knicks of that era.
The Knicks first played at what was the third Madison Square Garden, on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets, in Manhattan. The current MSG, which occupies air space above the railroads of Penn Station on 34th Street and Eighth Avenue and opened in 1968, completed renovations in 2013 after speculation that it might move again. MSG now has a capacity of 19,812 for basketball, with concrete walkways overhead for bars and restaurants and viewing, as well as windowed concessions around the perimeter that give fans an awesome view of Manhattan. Basketball and hockey banners and jerseys adorn the iconic ceiling of the arena, loaning ambiance to the local team, in spite of the won-lost record.
After a brief coaching stint by former star Willis Reed, Red Holzman was brought back to coach in 1978 and molded a strong 1981 playoff team, featuring Ray Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, and Bill Cartwright. The team hit the skids again until Hubie Brown was brought in as coach. Building once more from the defensive end, and aided by the arrival of local star Bernard King, the Knicks made the playoffs in 1983 and 1984. They made a valiant effort in the semifinal round in 1984, losing in seven games to the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
The orange and blue were down again until an ambitious and forward-thinking young coach, by the name of Rick Pitino, built a strong young team around Hall of Fame Center Patrick Ewing. The 1987-88 season saw the Knick back in the playoffs, again losing to Bird and the Celtics 3 games to 1. This began a run of yearly playoff appearances that went from 1987 to 2001. Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy produced muscular and defense minded squads during those years. Those Knicks teams featured trips to the NBA Finals in 1994 (losing in 7 games to Houston) and 1999 (when the eighth seeded Knicks made it all the way to the finals round before running in to San Antonio of David Robinson and second year star Tim Duncan.)
That 1994 Finals was fascinating because it showcased a titanic battle of centers: Patrick Ewing versus Hakeem Olajuwon. The Knicks missed winning it all partly because of a brutal shooting night by John Starks (2 for 18 from the field in Game 7.) Not to put it all on Starks, who was also a clutch shooter on other occasions, and a ferocious defender.
Personally, I recall going to MSG as an adult for the first time, to see the Knicks take on rookie Michael Jordan on March 14, 1985. Even though the Knicks were in the midst of a 24-58 debacle, I remember the electricity in the arena as Bernard King was still on the Knicks and Jordan was much anticipated by fans. I looked up the box score on basketball-reference.com recently, and it was interesting to see that Jordan had 16 points on a slightly off night, and Bernard King scored 24.
I would like to emphasize how much fun it is to track sports while deployed in the military. When I was in Korea on my first Army enlistment in the late 80s, one of the things I enjoyed was listening to Armed Forces Radio. The Far East Network would broadcast live sporting events at all hours; sometimes I would get up at 3 A.M. to listen to the Knicks and other teams. By 2010 and 2011, having reenlisted and deployed to Iraq, I now had internet and could track games on ESPN Gamecast while far from home. It was a relaxing diversion from the deployments.
When Carmelo Anthony joined the Knicks for the 2010-2011 season, I was hopeful along with many fans. The orange and blue were back in the playoffs from 2010-2013, reaching a high-water mark of 54-28 in 2013 and defeating the Celtics in the first round before losing to Indiana. Then came the current drought, which is trying the patience of the most die-hard Knicks fans.
So as a nontraditional student at UNH Durham, I continue to pine for a winning season. I have been surprised-and pleased- when younger students approach me and want to learn the background of the players featured with my throwback jerseys. I have Bernard King, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere in my collection. Often, I find that while supporting the local teams, there are students here from New York and Connecticut who like the Knicks (and Rangers in hockey) as well.
With over 71 million in salary available for the summer of 2019, I anticipated that the team would have a shot at Kevin Durant. (I was not interested in Kyrie Irving joining the Knicks, after the bad atmosphere on the Celtics last year). The optimist in me looked forward to a Knicks resurgence; still, the fan in me had been hurt before by inept Knicks ownership/ management. It was almost like a miniature James Dolan figure, similar to the claymation characters in the old Christmas movies, was perched on my shoulder, just waiting to demolish my hopes.
And then it happened-again. Not only did Durant get away, ownership/ management backpedaled and tried to make it sound like they were not interested in Durant in the first place! In a July 1st article, SLAM reported that “James Dolan and his New York Knicks front-office, in their infinite wisdom, were reportedly ‘not prepared’ to offer a max contract to Kevin Durant as an unrestricted free agent.”
It is frustrating when I suspect that the Knicks ownership makes money, hand over fist, whether the team wins or loses. Not only that, oddball occurrences keep popping up that drive me up a wall. EXAMPLE 1: Very early on the morning of December 30, 2015, Knicks forward Cleanthony Early was held up at gunpoint and shot in the knee outside a strip club in Maspeth, Queens. I have to say it: I’m more than reasonably sure that Knicks Hall of Fame forward (and later Senator) Bill Bradley was never shot outside a strip club-at least not during the regular season.
EXAMPLE 2: An October 7, 2015 article in the New York Post detailed how “Knicks coach Derek Fisher was attacked in Los Angeles by NBA bad boy Matt Barnes, who drove 95 miles to ‘beat the s—t out of him’ when he found out Fisher was romancing his estranged wife.” Now here is my point, and I hope that readers agree. The team was 37-45 the year before and missed the playoffs. In October, shouldn’t Coach Fisher be breaking down game film in New York, instead of going to L.A. for some extracurricular activities? I’m just putting it out there.
I joke with friends that I’m not as bad as the deranged fan portrayed by Robert DeNiro in “The Fan” (“You don’t care?! DO YOU CARE NOW?!!”) That being said, I don’t think I am asking too much-as a lifelong and loyal Knicks fan-that the team becomes a competitor again in my lifetime. I’m getting a little worried, since I’m not getting any younger.
As I sit this November in my favorite spot at the Durham campus’ Memorial Union Building, wearing my #30 Bernard King jersey and trying to summon good Karma for my beloved NY Knicks, the orange and blue have a 4-13 record. I am encouraged, however, by the positivity of two wins versus a strong Dallas Mavericks team, plus a strong roster which I am convinced has playoff potential. The team has rookie star RJ Barrett (who I liken to Scottie Pippen of the Jordan Bulls), Julius Randle (a powerful front liner), second year shot blocker Mitchell Robinson, former Kentucky star Kevin Knox, a player with Walt Frazier’s skill set in Frank Ntilikina, and clutch competitor and former Celtic Marcus Morris Sr., among other talented young players.
If the Knicks are ever going to become contenders again, ownership should follow the professional examples of Danny Ainge of the Boston Celtics and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs especially are a template of modern sports success, with its playoff and championship runs from 1997 to recently. If a squad of former Knicks stars ever pools together their resources and buys a controlling interest in the Knicks, they would restore a winning tradition in NYC, I am sure of it.
And if there is new Knicks ownership/ management, students of the Durham campus of UNH will be treated to the sight of an older fan-sporting a throwback Knicks jersey- doing cartwheels in the big lawn in front of Thompson Hall.
(I really need to drink decaf!)