‘Blood In The Garden’ chronicles the almost-best team of the 1990s
This might come as a shock to modern-day NBA fans, but the New York Knicks have actually been good once or twice in their long history. There were the cerebral Knicks of the 1960s and 1970s, who won two championships and were in contention for more. And then there was the team that played hard and fouled often during the 1990s, under the leadership of Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing, and John Starks. They never won any rings, but in hindsight, they may have been one of the best teams in NBA history even without the confetti falling around them.
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“Blood In the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks,” by Chris Herring, is a fantastic document of the era when Riley, a multiple-championship winner with the Showtime Lakers, took on the blue-collar media capital of the world and steered a previously moribund Knicks franchise to the brink of winning it all. Herring, a veteran chronicler of the NBA, has interviewed over two hundred people connected with the team during its decade of near-greatness, and his ability to render each of the personalities connected with the team’s successes and failures in sympathetic light is a testament to his skills. The book moves at a rapid pace, covering everything from the battles that the Knicks had with Michael Jordan to the first rumblings of the dysfunction that would be James Dolan’s current ongoing ownership of the team.
This Knicks team, Herring argues, won because of the grit and work ethic of Riley, Ewing, and players such as Anthony Mason, who may not have been an all-star quality player but who fulfilled his role brilliantly. Riley, he of the Armani suits and slicked-back hair, was much more demanding than his years out on the West Coast coaching the likes of Magic and Kareem would suggest; Herring describes the grueling three-hour-plus workouts he put his team through in order to toughen them up for each game.
Many veterans fell by the wayside, but some, like Charles Oakley and Starks, thrived under Riley’s take-no-prisoners approach, and the team’s record improved every year that Riley was at the helm. Following the team’s devastating loss to the Houston Rockets in 1994, Riley would take his talents to South Beach, leaving the Knicks for the Heat as both coach and team president. But the story of the 1990s team doesn’t end there.
With the promotion of Jeff Van Gundy to fill the vacancy, and the hatred born between New York and Miami over Riley’s contentious exit, the stage was set for a no-holds-barred grudge match between the two teams every time they squared off, especially in the playoffs. The NBA literally changed the rules regarding flagrant fouls on account of how physical the Knicks were during this era, singling out players like Oakley and Latrell Sprewell as examples of what not to do on the court against opponents. The team never really backed away from their reputation, though, and earned a second NBA Finals appearance in 1999, where injuries to their main core of play-makers kept them from winning against an ascendent San Antonio Spurs team.
“Blood In the Garden” is a fast-moving, funny, moving, and heartbreaking account of a team that had almost everything that it takes to win, but not quite. The Knicks ran into the immovable force that was Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty, only reaching the Finals after each of Jordan’s two retirements. And they had tough competition from Riley’s Heat teams and the Reggie Miller-era Indiana Pacers. Herring succeeds in capturing the diverse personalities of a team that didn’t have to like each other in order to play beautifully together.
Perhaps the most human portrait that emerges from the book is that of Anthony Mason, a contradictory figure who was at the center of the team for much of the decade, and whose tragic death in 2015 helped bring his former coach and teammates together one last time. The Knicks of the 1990s may not have won it all, but their constant presence in the conference finals ensures that their legacy must be considered. And Chris Herring’s new book ensures that his ability to unearth the history of this magnetic, flawed franchise will stand the test of time as well.
Atria Books (January 18, 2022)