It’s perhaps easily forgotten that Bill Belichick’s record during his first head coaching stint with the Cleveland Browns was 36-44, and among other things, included a very un-Belichick deal for Andre Rison. Even after his first Super Bowl win with the Patriots, Belichick’s record in New England resembled that of the individual he followed, Pete Carroll. Carroll’s quarterback was Drew Bledsoe. Belichick really only started winning once a brutal injury to Bledsoe forced a back-up by the name of Tom Brady into action.
Of course, in talking about Belichick in New England we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. After his struggles in Cleveland, Belichick resumed coaching under Bill Parcells. When Parcells resigned as head coach of the New York Jets Belichick was named his replacement, only for him to quickly resign the position. Several years later Belichick explained the why behind his decision: while the exact quote isn’t handy, Belichick’s answer was that he knew the Jets job would be his last one in the NFL if he failed. And with the Jets a rather dysfunctional organization during even the best of times, he wisely walked away from what’s mostly been a graveyard for coaches.
All this and more came to mind while reading Sports Illustrated writer Chris Herring’s very interesting new book, Blood In the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks. Toward book’s end, Herring quotes the late Marc Lustgarten (then president of Cablevision, the new owner of the New York Knicks) as telling Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts that “We’re one hundred percent owners now, and Jimmy will probably be a bit more involved than the previous regimes have been.” In this case, “Jimmy” was James Dolan, son of the founder of Cablevision, Charles Dolan.
Dolan’s execrable reign as owner of the Knicks speaks to how important ownership is. As Brian Billick put it in More Than a Game (review here), a “good owner isn’t going to win the Super Bowl for you,” but “a bad owner can lose you one, either by undercutting or overruling his front office or coaching staff, or by being so impatient that he sabotages his own team.” The Knicks have been stupendously bad ever since Dolan took over, including a disastrous stint for Phil Jackson despite the latter having won six NBA titles as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and five as head man for the Los Angeles Lakers. It starts at the top, and Dolan is screamingly loud evidence of this truth. It’s very difficult for talent to overcome tragic management.
Happily, or sadly, Herring’s book isn’t about Dolan’s Knicks teams. There’s some hesitation here about happy or sad simply because some of most entertaining sports books your reviewer has read were those about baseball’s often dysfunctional New York Mets. By extension, how interesting to read an inside account of what’s happened to the NBA’s most valuable franchise under its present owner. For now, all one can conclude about Dolan is what it was easy to conclude when Donald Sterling owned the Los Angeles Clippers: the NBA’s soft socialism is great for the bad owners who see their investment soar despite overseeing failure, and bad for the good owners whose success the bad ones free-ride on. But as mentioned, Blood In the Garden (from now on referred as “Blood”) is not about the 21st century Knicks.
Instead, it’s a story of the Knicks teams from the 1990s. While they never won a world championship in that decade, they came agonizingly close in 1994. And in addition to another appearance in 1999, the Knicks were regularly in the discussion as the 20th century came to a close. Not only were they playing in the NBA’s largest media market with seven major newspapers following them, the Knicks had a very physical, and some would say violent style of play that made it difficult to not watch them. Thanks to Herring, readers can now learn the story of this most compelling of teams.
Violent (or flagrant as the book’s title suggests) the Knicks certainly were. That was the culture. It was what head coach Pat Riley grew up with in Schenectady, NY. Riley’s life was a different one. Herring writes that Riley “routinely received after-school beatings” from older kids in Schenectady’s parks. His father eventually instructed his older brothers to make sure his son faced up to his fears. You don’t hear as much about this today. Whereas bullies were the cultural norm in books and movies from the past, they seemingly were because culture is always a reflection of reality to some degree. Reading about Riley, the question was “what’s changed?” Why don’t young people fight, bully, and get bullied like they used to? The guess here is that the change is economic. Parents are nicer and kids less violent because life is better, and it’s better because it’s far more prosperous. When economists, politicians and pundits claim wage stagnation for “Real America” going back decades, they vandalize reason.
Still, it seems the Knicks teams Riley coached more resembled the personality of the head coach than did the “Showtime” Lakers teams. The Knicks were brutal. They seemingly had to be as they lacked the blue chip talent that Riley’s Lakers teams had. So many of the Knicks players had essentially come from nothing. They were seemingly fighters in personality, but also out of necessity. This was their chance. In the first Knicks practice under Riley, an Anthony Mason who’d played all over the world in order to get his NBA chance found himself being hooked in drills by tough guy star Xavier McDaniel. McDaniel was more established, he’d been a first round draft pick, and was a household name going back to his days at Wichita State. Mason was undeterred, telling McDaniel “You do that s—t again, I’m going to f—k you up.” About another Knicks tough guy in Charles Oakley, backup center Tim McCormick recalled to Herring that “Charles never really respected me until I hit him.” Again, the Knicks were different.
While Patrick Ewing was the team’s star, and Ewing was a pedigreed player going back to high school as a top recruit, a national champion at Georgetown, and a #1 overall draft pick, the players around him not infrequently had something to prove. Or that they were desperate to prove.
Anthony Mason had come up in Queens without a father around, and ultimately ended up playing college basketball not at Duke, Kentucky, or UCLA, but at Tennessee State. He joked that he attended Tennessee State because “[The ratio] was about 8-to-1 in favor of chicks,” but ratios are realistically never a problem or a question for basketball superstars. Mason plainly ended up at TSU because he was lightly recruited, after which he toiled in professional basketball backwaters like Turkey and Venezuela before getting his shot. Overlooked people need to be seen, and presumably never forget feeling overlooked. Environment can’t change us as much as it reveals qualities already within us. Being underestimated revealed the ferocious competitor in Mason. Herring notes that after retiring from the NBA, Mason played his just-graduated-from-junior-high son Antoine in a one-on-one game, only for the match-up to be uncomfortably close. With it 10-9, and Antoine about to tie the score, Mason “clotheslined his adolescent son in the throat,” picked up the ball as his son was laying on the ground, then scored to win the game. He was still proving his doubters wrong long after his playing days ended.
John Starks came up from limited circumstances in Tulsa, OK. His path was littered with nothing schools; think Rogers State, Northern Oklahoma, Tulsa Junior College, Oklahoma Junior College, and finally Oklahoma State. Having been similarly overlooked, Starks “always liked the idea of dunking on someone to punctuate things.” Herring indicates that this was on his mind in 1993 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals versus Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Television was much less segmented then, and this rates mention simply because many more millions saw live (including me) Starks’s legendary, left-handed dunk over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant than would have seen it in 2021. And it was legendary. With the exception of Julius Erving’s under-the-backboard-and-back lay-in for the Philadelphia ‘76ers, Starks’s dunk rates as your reviewer’s second favorite basketball play of all time.
Starks and Mason aren’t just interesting for their very entertaining (Mason in particular) stories. They’re also a signal of a truth about sports and life in the U.S. While pundits focus endlessly on race and racism, Starks and Mason speak to why the greatest answer to both is meritocracy. In leagues and businesses defined by merit, color no longer matters. Neither does where you played. In sports, they’ll find you if you’re good; background be damned. This is important simply because writers and pundits continue to focus on race, and tallying up how many or how few coaches there are based on race. This is such a mistake. The reality is that any owner and any fan base couldn’t care less about the color of the individual leading the team, or for that matter the racial makeup of the team. Owners want to win. So do fans. To focus on race in the NBA or any other profession is very mistaken.
Worse, it’s bad for those it’s allegedly intended to help. Herring reveals through the Knicks what we all intuitively know: a focus on racial quotas paradoxically makes it harder to hire black coaches. When the Knicks were looking for a replacement for Don Nelson (Nelson replaced Riley), they considered Don Chaney for a time only to go with Jeff Van Gundy. Knick executive Ed Tapscott (black himself) relayed to Herring that “Dave [Checketts] expressed concern that he wouldn’t want to have to fire Don if he hired him, because Don was [black].” Doing so would engender baseless calls of racism. The emphasis on race is thankfully unnecessary where merit is paramount. Period.
More on Starks, Riley famously stuck with him in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets despite the guard missing shot after shot. Where it gets interesting is that Rolando Blackman was sitting on the Knicks’ bench; Blackman a former Dallas Maverick who “enjoyed his career-best scoring average” against the Rockets. About Blackman, Scott Brooks (a Rockets guard) recalled for Herring how surprised he and his fellow players were that Blackman was allowed by Riley to languish on the bench. For years, Blackman had “just killed us, and we couldn’t stop him, no matter how hard we tried.” Herring reports that before the Finals the veteran Blackman had argued with Riley in the locker room about whether wives should be allowed to travel with the team to Houston. Blackman felt they should. Riley didn’t. Did the disagreement spill over to Game 7? Riley admits now that not playing Blackman was “the biggest mistake I ever made.” The player seemingly agrees? Herring reports that Blackman’s never written Riley back despite his ex-coach having “sent handwritten letters” to him over the years.
More broadly, Riley’s decision arguably speaks to how wasted all the whining is from people in business about “stolen IP” and corporate espionage. As June 22, 1994 hopefully reminds people, lots of players, coaches, ex-coaches, and commentators thought Riley did the wrong (or the right) thing in sticking with the guard (Starks) without whom the Knicks likely don’t make the Finals as is. By 1994 Riley had four NBA rings as a coach, yet somehow his thinking was wrong. But was it? He thinks so now, but there’s no easy answer. Since few people see personnel or information in the same way, it’s foolhardy to automatically assume the lifting of private information will result in like, or similarly effective usage of it. Nick Saban has lots of ex assistants who are head coaches now, they learned his system up close, but few are imitating it successfully. What applies to sports applies to business.
Notable about the team’s style of play and the fights was that eventually the NBA changed the rules with an eye on greatly limiting the physicality of the game. Herring notes in Blood that the Knicks players saw the changes as a direct response to their style. Maybe so. Hopefully so. Compelling as those Knicks teams were, the rules changes spoke to how money protects people.
Indeed, it’s easily forgotten that right into the 1980s NBA playoff games were often televised on tape delay, and very late in the evening. When the League was less popular, the sport was much more violent.
By the 1990s, and when the Knicks reached a level of success that they’d not enjoyed since the 1970s (two championships – 1970 and 1973), the League had a lot more to lose. Players were earning a lot of money, which meant the teams and the League wanted their assets protected. The players were too valuable for the Knicks’ style. Good.
Along the lines of the above, as late as the 1980s Herring writes that the Knicks’ practice facility was the “rock-hard court” at Upsala College in New Jersey. As one ex-Knick (Butch Carter) told Herring, “That facility was horrible. I hadn’t played on a floor that bad since seventh or eighth grade.” Herring adds that some players felt the court at Upsala “played a role in the team’s struggles to stay healthy.” Please remember this the next time some errant sports commentator or writer complains about how “it’s all about the money today.” Yes it is. And that’s a good thing for the players. Precisely because they’re being paid so much, owners and management treat them in ever better fashion. While Riley was there, he was able to command a private plane for the Knicks to travel on, plus the players were put up in hotel rooms on game day so that they wouldn’t have to head all the way home after shootarounds earlier in the day.
When Riley ultimately left the Knicks, he did so for a deal with the Miami Heat that included a substantial ownership stake, purchase of some of his houses, plus $50 million over ten years. The latter would be nothing to write home about today, but at the time the number was huge. Quoting the late, great Warren Brookes, “we’re blessed by the genius of the relatively few.” The relatively few elevate us. Riley is the few. He’s a winner, and he took his winning ways to more championships in Miami.
At the same time, even winners can’t overcome incompetence. As mentioned, Phil Jackson succeeded everywhere he went in the NBA, but was a disaster with the Knicks. Sports fans should think about how Jackson fared with “Jimmy” Dolan “a bit more involved than the previous regimes have been.” Ownership matters. Always and everywhere. Even the greats can’t overcome the bad. Hopefully Chris Herring follows up his excellent book with one that covers the horrid Knicks teams that came after the fascinating ones of the 1990s; that, or Herring’s book inspires a look by someone else into what became of what was once so great, and such a joy to watch.
Reprinted from RealClearMarkets