The New York Knicks: What Could Have Been
I came along to follow major sports early in 1985. My absolute earliest memories are of the 1984 Olympics. Along that same period was a time of renewed hope for the New York Knicks, a franchise that had wallowed in mediocrity at times, and abject failure at other times following their run at NBA Titles in the early 1970s. Gulf & Western came along to purchase the team in 1977, and one of the new owners’ first moves was to (prematurely) send all-time Knicks legend and fan favorite, Walt “Clyde” Frazier to Cleveland for has-beens and never-weres.
This is the equivalent of banishing a war criminal to Siberia, with regards to the NBA.
Except Frazier had done nothing but help guide the Knicks to their first NBA Title in 1970, and was the seminal piece of Game 7s in NBA lore, as his 36 point, 19 rebound game clinched the Knicks’ second (and 40 years later — LAST) NBA Title in 1973.
Way to treat your legends. To make it worse, about 25 years later, the Knicks did the same to Patrick Ewing, who I will discuss shortly; as he is the centerpiece of this trip down memory lane and what could have been.
The early 80s were turbulent times in New York. The economy was bad, the city was broke (although it claims broke annually before it decides to go on some lawmaking campaign designed to shakedown its residents, but I digress). The Knicks were mired in perpetual doldrums annually. Despite some very good players coming down the pike, including the early years of Bill Cartwright and Micheal Ray Richardson, as well as the homecoming of Brooklyn native Bernard King, the Knicks could never get over the hump even when they did make the playoffs.
There was constant flux in the front office, as the team went through three general managers in a five year span (Dave DeBusschere, who barely did anything of note, other than drafting Patrick Ewing in 1985; which anyone could have done and Scotty Stirling — whose name is still sour in my mouth 25 years after giving away Bernard King for nothing). DeBusschere is a Knicks legend and we will always respect his mammoth contributions to the Knicks’ title teams in the 1970s. As a GM, he was mostly a sitting duck. The coaching carousel included five coaches in five year after the late, great Red Holzman retired for good in 1982: Hubie Brown, who had guided the Knicks to the playoffs in 1984, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson and John MacLeod.
The team did not settle on a coach for more than two years (although Pitino left on his own volition, to the University of Kentucky — no less — which was on sanctions levied due to widespread cheating by players such as Dwane Casey and others — under Eddie Sutton’s watch) until Pat Riley was lured by President of Basketball Operations Dave Checketts in 1991.
Six years of Patrick Ewing’s career were already virtually wasted, as new GMs brought in new coaches, and new coaches brought in new regimes and philosophies, all with middling success at best, until Riley came on board.
WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG
The Knicks drafted All-American center Bill Cartwright out of the University of San Francisco in 1979, and had acquired Micheal Ray Richardson a year earlier. Cartwright had explosive scoring years playing next to Richardson, and the Knicks were a middling team under Red Holzman, in his second go ’round as Knicks head honcho. Notably, current Knicks head coach Mike Woodson was a rookie the year after Cartwright was brought to New York. By 1982, and Richardson’s drug habits no longer able to be hidden from the media, Holzman had enough, and Richardson was traded for scoring maven, and Brooklyn native, Bernard King. The Knicks struggled in 1982-1983, but in 1983-1984, they were building something in Hubie Brown’s “All hands on deck” 10-man rotation. King scored at a prolific clip (noted by his legendary one-man show in the 1984 NBA Playoffs vs. Detroit), but outside of that playoff appearance, the results were ghastly.
Cartwright was still performing at a near-All Star clip when King came on board, and the stage was set, despite King having a personal all-world season in 1984-1985 before his (Knicks) career-altering devastating knee injury vs. Kansas City a week before my 6th birthday in 1985. The most unsettling part of the injury, which did not look as bad as it turned out, initially — as Marv Albert and Butch Beard spent nearly ten minutes speculating on air what was the real issue with King, who lay slapping the floor in excruciating pain — was the fact that King really had no chance to affect the layup attempt by Reggie Theus. Theus had sprinted ahead of the pack on a fast break, and King went flying in at the last second in desperation to attempt to block the shot. For the younger crowd, or for those who didn’t see it at the time (or since), he tore his knee up just as Derrick Rose did during the 2012 NBA Playoffs; same ligaments, same planting to jump scenario, no contact and seemingly innocuous at first glance.
BOY WAS IT THE FURTHEST THING FROM INNOCUOUS.
The Knicks were on their way to the worst record in the league regardless, as there were only a handful of games remaining.
What happened next still haunts any Knicks fan who can remember 1985 or prior to this day.
Despite claims from the outside (mostly Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets fans), the Knicks were awarded the first pick in the initial NBA Lottery in 1985. As Patrick Ewing was coming off a stellar college career, which saw his teams make it to three National Championship Games in four years of the NCAA Tournament — winning one, losing one due to one of the biggest mishaps in basketball history by his teammate Fred Brown, and losing another following a once-in-a-century 2nd half performance by an outclassed Villanova Wildcats team just weeks prior to the 1985 NBA Draft (Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas had also made it to the Final Four in 1983, before losing to then-called “Akeem” Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler of the Houston Cougars. Olajuwon would continue to get the best of Ewing for the next fifteen years during their NBA careers.
This made drafting Ewing a complete no-brainer, and the Knicks did.
However, due to King’s injury, and the lack of medical advancements in treating multiple knee ligament tears, King’s rehabilitation — vigorous and unforeseen as it were at the time — took two full years. Although he came back to play in the Knicks’ final six regular season games in a lost 1986-1987 season, Stirling shipped King off; stating that he believed King’s game was gone.
King scored at the same prolific clip once he went to Washington, for six full seasons. Stirling had no legitimate reasons for trading King except fears that his knee would not hold up. Beyond that rationale, it was foolish to think that the player who scored easier than anyone in NBA history would not at least be a borderline-All Star level, if not truly indeed an All-Star, which King was, in WASHINGTON, with the Bullets.
Cartwright had missed the 1984-1985 season with busted feet, similar to another Bill on the west coast that year — Walton — in what would signal the downfall of Cartwright’s once-promising career. By the time he came back in 1985-1986, he was relegated to backup duties to the lauded Ewing, King had been traded, Hubie Brown was on his way out as Knicks’ coach, the roster had been completely overhauled and/or ravaged by injuries and there were nothing but has-beens and 12th men on the team.
Had Cartwright and King been healthy, or even just one of them (as King had been in before the knee injury in 1985, just before the drafting of Ewing), the Knicks would have at the very least been able to package Cartwright, along with their decades-long tradition of trading away future picks — to receive a player that could have played alongside Ewing and King; presuming King had never suffered the horrific knee injury.
As it were, the Knicks gave away King to the Bullets and Cartwright was later traded for Knicks fan favorite, Charles Oakley, before the 1988-89 season. Oakley was a fine player, but he was not the scoring punch that the Knicks need. Nor would they have one until John Starks came along five years later. By this point, Ewing’s knees, which had given him problems since high school — were beginning to slow him down noticeably.
The Knicks had several fine seasons in the late 80s and early 90s, but the few times they made right on their draft picks (Mark Jackson in 1987, Rookie of the Year in 1988, Rod Strickland in 1988, traded less than two years later, as he and Jackson were ball-dominant point guards — senseless, considering the Knicks could have made a move up in the draft to get what they needed — a shooting guard/scoring small forward — by drafting Hersey Hawkins or Dan Majerle, if they were going to simply give Strickland away for an aging Mo Cheeks.
The lack of stability in the 1980s really hurt the Knicks franchise, and set them back for years. Ironically, there was no real stability in the front office or on the sidelines until the maligned Cablevision conglomerate, consisting of the Dolan Family; notably the son, James Dolan, purchased the team in 1994 (following the Knicks’ NBA Finals berth) from Paramount/Viacom, which had spun from Gulf & Western a few years earlier.
Once again, by this time, Ewing, aged 32, was showing signs of decline and wear and tear on his knees. Despite valiant efforts, and playing for another five years, his best years were behind him; wasted while the reluctant-to-rebuild front office signed aging player after aging player and traded away its future year after year with its 1st Round draft picks. The picks they kept were some of the most abysmal picks the team has ever made. The good picks were packaged and shipped off immediately, or before they could realize their promise.
Kiki Vandeweghe was brought in along with Oakley, but Vandeweghe had just suffered a debilitating back injury 18 months prior and was a shell of his former self with the Knicks. He did invent the now-popular “step-back” move, and it was his main scoring move, along with long distance shooting. Vandeweghe had been a prolific scorer previously in Denver and Portland, but by the time he reached New York, his best years were behind him. Into the 1990s, the Knicks brought in Mo Cheeks, Doc Rivers, noted bust Charles Smith, Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman and other hired hands who were well into their 30s, for their 1993-1994 NBA Finals run. The sacrifice? A mortgaged future, awful drafting (Charlie Ward, Hubert Davis) and no maneuverability under the new salary cap, which restricted the Knicks from retaining Anthony Mason, and led to the Knicks signing scapegoat, but Knicks fans’ favorite, Allan Houston to two crippling contracts.
Although the Knicks had playoff success from 1995-1999, the window was completely shut on the Ewing era, as Oakley was traded for a younger, but unpolished Marcus Camby in 1998, Starks was traded to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell (who spearheaded the Knicks’ 1999 NBA Finals march), Ewing was traded to Seattle in 2000, and most of the remaining roster was gutted. Dave Checketts left shortly after Dolan forced him to trade Ewing, and the Knicks were on their way to perpetual ineptitude (with help from GMs Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas) for the following decade.
People can say what they want about Ewing, but the Knicks’ front office was more unstable than most patients housed within the Creedmoor Mental Institution in Queens. With a sound regime, wise drafting and trading, the Knicks would have won at least two titles with Ewing, despite the exploits of Michael Jordan.
It all started downhill when Micheal Ray sniffed away his entire career and legacy and Coach Holzman walked away for the last time. It has been 30 years of mismanagement since 1982, and the Knicks appear to finally be stabilizing in the front office and on the sidelines.
They already wasted an entire era of one Knicks legend, let’s hope they do not waste the prime years of a potential legend in the making, in Carmelo Anthony. If you do not learn from your past, you are doomed to repeat it.
I will always be wistful of what COULD HAVE BEEN with those mid-late 80s Knicks.
If Bernard had just left Theus to attempt the layup uncontested…