“He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters…” — George Orwell, “1984”
Since Lebron James unleashed “The Decision”, on a unsuspecting NBA landscape, the world has Witnessed™ an explosion of Heat hatred. Whether it was the way in which James’ announcement went down, the WWE style preseason pep rally or the 7 imaginary titles counted off in said rally, Lebron & The Heat have rubbed more people the wrong way than a Tokyo subway perv. But this Horde of Heat haters are, essentially, bandwagon haters. Just as Columbus “discovered” a fully inhabited continent, these newly minted haters have discovered a new world already inhabited for over a decade by fans of the New York Knicks.
Since the events that gave birth New York’s animosity occurred in the era before the internet & all it’s myriad neural pathway echo chambers, a surprising number of modern NBA fans have a incomplete picture of why Knick fans despise Miami. It has very little to do with Lebron James and his decision to spurn New York, and everything to with Pat Riley. So consider the following timeline my version of George Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate, only it may take a bit longer and will actually be true.
The Bulls sweep the Knicks 3-0 in the first round. A series which featured the Knicks worst playoff defeat (126-85) and MJ’s mind bending baseline spin around Oakley & Starks to Ewing tomahawk facial. You know the one. Coach John MacLeod (32-35) resigns to coach Notre Dame. He is the Knicks 5th coach in 5 years. Of those 5 years only two finished above .500, the first coached by Italian restaurant aficionado & tabletop Romeo Rick Pitino and the second coached by current NBA
executioner executive Stu Jackson. Rumors swirl that the Knicks may try to hire former Laker coach and current (terrible) NBA on NBC analyst Pat Riley. Patrick Ewing, fed up with years of losing and having little confidence in New York’s schizophrenic management to surround him with talent, attempts to use a arcane clause in his 10 (!!!) year contract to become a free agent. The clause states that Ewing may opt out and become a unrestricted free agent if he is not one of the top four players in the league in terms of salary.
Ending weeks of speculation Pat Riley is introduced as head coach of the New York Knicks. The contract, reported to be worth. $1.2 million per year, would last five years. Meanwhile, in attempt to keep their franchise center, The Knicks offer Patrick Ewing a new contract that would make him the highest paid athlete in team sports. Ewing rejects the offer and files for arbitration. Unconvinced by the reputation that clings to Pat Riley like an Armani suit, Ewing expresses the desire to play for a winner as being his paramount concern.
Ewing’s arbitration case begins. Ewing and his agent David Falk contend that Ewing is not among the top four highest paid athletes in the NBA, thus triggering his escape clause allowing him to become a unrestricted free agent. The Knicks contend he is. In late July Ewing loses his arbitration bid. Rumors of a trade begin to take shape.
Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley meet face to face for the first time. Ewing remains skeptical of Riley, asking him:
“Why do you think you’re going to be any different? You’re just one of six coaches they’ve had here in five years. They’ve all come in and said the same thing you’re probably about to say to me.“
“You might be right. The only thing that I have, that I can bring, is credibility.“
Despite Riley’s words, Ewing remains non committal. The Knicks continue to explore trading Ewing. The Suns and the Warriors are two of the teams mentioned. Patrick Ewing turns 29.
Knicks President Dave Checketts announces trade explorations are finished and that Ewing will be staying. the Knicks enter into negotiations with Ewing to alter his contract in order to give the Knicks flexibility to make moves under the existing salary cap. Nirvana’s, “Nevermind” is released.
Ewing speaks on the record for the first time regarding his free agency bid.
“New York is a great town, I started my career here, and I definitely would like to finish it here,” Ewing said. “But I wanted the Knicks to do the right things to insure that we’d be an elite ball club. We were there for a year, but when Rick Pitino left, things went to pieces.”
“My goal is to win. I was happy for Michael Jordan when he won a championship, but it was hard for me to sit there and watch it. I’m jealous. I want that situation to be me.”
With Ewing back in the fold and Riley at the helm, the Knicks would carve out a reputation as bruising, hard-nosed, Eastern Conference bullies and make one run to the finals. Bucking the expectation that Riley would install a Laker style uptempo offense the Knicks would instead become a team known for its grinding, physical defense. During the Riley years the Knicks would become entangled in two of the three great Knick rivalries of my lifetime. One futile, where they were cast as upstarts, versus the Bulls. The other, largely successful though wildly gut wrenching, as the favorites against The Pacers. These two rivalries would produce many of New York’s signature playoff moments, many in the form of soul crushing defeats: Stark’s head butt, Reggie and Spike, The Choke sign, Reggie’s 25 point 4th quarter, The Dunk, The Charles Smith Game, Pippen’s dunk over Ewing, the Ewing outback dunk, 2 for 18 and finally, most painfully, 8 points in 9 seconds and Ewing’s missed game 7 finger roll versus The Pacers. The label of the then 32 year old Ewing as choker would be cemented with his missed finger roll, despite the fact that he had 29 points 14 rebounds 5 assists and 4 blocks in the game. No other Knick would reach 20 points in that game on May 21st, 1995.
In the aftermath of that loss Pat Riley would resign. It would later come to light that during the 1994-95 season, while under contract with the Knicks, Riley had been in contact with the Miami Heat to become their next coach. Perhaps as early as February, 1995.
After a 100-91 Knicks victory over (Ironically? Fatefully?) the Miami Heat, Riley ripped his team as being unprofessional, but refused to comment further. In Miami, the Heat fired coach Kevin Loughery and named Alvin Gentry as interim coach. Heat owner Mickey Arison is quoted as saying Miami would be looking for a coach “like Pat Riley.” During this time, Dick Butera, a Colorado based businessman and friend of Pat Riley has a telephone conversation with Arison and Riley is a topic of discussion.
During a 94-75 New York victory over Denver, Riley and Anthony Mason exchange angry words and Mason is sent to the locker room. Riley begins to speak openly of turmoil within team. Declining to comment on whether he intended to sign a contract extension with New York (he had one year remaining) he spoke of the pressure of coaching in New York:
“To be honest with you, I can take it,” Riley said. “And I might be one of the only ones who can. I think that’s what this town is about. They test everybody. They want to see if you can take it.”
The Knicks are eliminated in seven games at the hands of the hated Indiana Pacers. Ewing’s finger roll bounces bounces off the rim with a whimper. Refusing to comment on his contract, Riley blamed internal divisions for New York’s disappointing finish.
On June 4th, Riley’s friend Butera secretly meets Arison in California and gives the Heat owner a list of requirements Riley would need in order to agree to coach Miami. He is still under contract with New York with one year remaining and this is tampering.
June 15th, Riley resigns, citing friction between himself and Knicks management. Riley stated that his resignation had nothing to do with money and was primarily based on differences over control and final say in basketball matters. Four years of hard fought basketball and talk from Riley about team and accountability culminated in Riley’s resignation via fax. 10 days later from Athens, Greece Riley would make comments that appear to show his dissatisfaction with New York’s style of play:
“The model followed today in my country is something I don’t like,” Riley said, “The pace has become slower, and continuous contact has isolated players into individual battles.”
Which is a little like Doctor Frankenstein saying he doesn’t like the bolts in his monster’s neck.
For the first time The Heat openly acknowledge Riley as their top choice for Heat coach. Riley, however, was still under contract with New York and any team who wished to hire him had to obtain permission from New York before speaking to him. Despite this, reports surface of negotiations between Riley and the Heat. The Knicks file tampering chargers with the NBA.
The 14-point memo from Pat Riley to the Miami Heat delivered by Butera to Mickey Arison and dated June 5th 1995 (four days before Riley’s final face to face meeting with Knicks president Dave Checketts and 10 days before he officially resigned from the Knicks) surfaces during the tampering proceedings. It outlines contractual and financial requirements in the form of a ownership stake, a $300 per day per diem, the purchase of Riley’s homes by The Miami Heat, credit cards, limousine service to and from games, and a salary of $15 million over 5 years (The same salary offered by The Knicks). Heat owner Mickey Arinson admits receiving the memo. Riley never testifies. The text of the memo begins:
“All discussions are to be in strict confidence. We will publicly deny any discussion and any public release will kill the deal.”
Also introduced into evidence are phone records detailing contact between Riley’s friend Butera and Arison.
Eager to avoid the judgement of the tampering investigation and to speed the acquisition of Riley, The Heat settle with New York for the price tag of $4 million and a conditional first round pick. $1 million for the terms of the settlement and $3 million to repay a loan Riley took out from the Knicks. Riley is announced as Heat coach soon after.
In Miami Riley would assemble a team that was the mirror image of the Knicks and played the same grinding style. The style that Riley said from Greece that he, “didn’t like.” They would meet in the playoffs for the first time in 1997 and the third great New York rivalry of my lifetime was born in earnest. The story lines binding the two teams together in mutual hostility were compelling: The Knicks had added forward Larry Johnson, a former teammate of Miami’s Alonzo Mourning in Charlotte. The two never got along in Charlotte and the relationship dissolved over money with LJ blaming Zo’ for destroying the team. Alonzo and Patrick Ewing are close friends, Patrick mentoring Alonzo when he played for Ewing’s alma mater, Georgetown University. New York’s coach is former Riley assistant coach Jeff Van Gundy. Jeff’s brother Stan is a current assistant coach for Riley in Miami. And of course there was Riley himself, the former New York coach who’s flight from the team under cover of darkness you’ve just read about.
In addition to the previously mentioned Larry Johnson, the Knicks added sharpshooting guard Allan Houston. The Knicks had finally surrounded Patrick Ewing, now 34, with the talent he’d need to contend for a title in a NBA dominated by MJ’s Bulls. Ewing still had something left in the tank that resembled his peak form, averaging 22 points 10 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. The additions of Johnson and Houston made the Knicks back into a elite Eastern Conference team with a record of 57-25, third best in team history. There was a palpable feeling in New York and among Knicks fans that this was New York’s best chance since 1994 and maybe their last. Coming into the playoffs as the 3 seed, New York demolished the Hornets in the 1st round, setting up the much awaited showdown with number 2 Miami. New York would win game 1 in Miami and both at the Garden jumping to a 3-1 series lead and leaving a distinct impression that they were the better team. Then in game 5, late in the 4th quarter with Miami in the lead, 6 foot New York guard Charlie Ward attempted to block out 6’10” Miami forward PJ Brown. Brown picked up Ward and flipped him, feet pinwheeling over head, into the crowd. A melee erupted and in the aftermath, the NBA used the 2 year old “Bench Rule” for the first time in the playoffs. Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks, and Charlie Ward (guilty, apparently, of being thrown into the stands) were all suspended. Because the NBA stipulates that a team must have at least 9 players available, the suspensions were spread out over game 6 and if necessary 7. Only PJ Brown was suspended for Miami. In my most paranoid moments I imagine that this was exactly Riley’s plan, put into motion when he realized New York was better. New York would lose in game 7.
That game 5 altercation is why I recoil from the fake tough guy, “show the McHale clothesline 20 times”, line of NBA playoff discourse. Because in the intensity of the playoffs, things can easily spiral out of control. And though there is no excuse, in those moments players can lose their ability to check themselves when the instinct to protect ones teammates meets unexpected and swiftly moving events. And then, as a fan, you have to watch your team’s last best chance to win a title, and your favorite player’s last chance to redeem his reputation, slip away in a flurry of NBA red tape. But, I digress.
New York would meet Miami 3 more times in the playoffs, each time as the underdog, each time emerging victorious. It almost made me feel better. The last time, in 2000, I remember watching Pat Riley’s game 7 post game, drinking in every word, every look on his tortured face as he was forced to praise New York and their will to win. I recalled the oft quoted Pat Riley maxim, “There is winning and there is misery.” And I enjoyed the fact that he was feeling the second thing. I remember he kept rubbing his hands together, almost unconsciously, eyes staring straight ahead. Like a man washing his hands. He’s gotten better at keeping his hands clean hasn’t he?