There are older rivals. The Knicks and Celtics have been playing since stamps cost three cents. There are more accomplished rivals. The Lakers have won championships in seven of the eight decades the NBA's existed; the only time they didn't, in the 1960s, they reached seven finals. There are one-sided rivalries and rivalries whose spoils were split right down the middle. Yet in all of Knick history, there is but one rivalry born of injustice.
After being destroyed by Chicago in the first round of the '91 playoffs, New York had been declining for a couple of years, to the point that Patrick Ewing took the Knicks to arbitration to gain free agency (he lost). By autumn, he'd re-signed, agreeing to what was then the biggest contract in American sports: six years, $33 million. What changed? On May 31, 1991, the Knicks hired Pat Riley as head coach.
An icon of cool, Riley, 46, had already won the third-most titles of any NBA coach, and was instantly -- and remains to this day -- the most important import the Knicks ever imported. They've never had the best player. Before Riley, they never had the best coach. Now they did. Under Riley, New York became the league's strongest, most physical, best conditioned, most defensive team, whose relentless, grinding style of play mirrored their progress: they lost in the second round in '92, the conference finals in '93, and game 7 of the '94 Finals. The stage was set: 1995 would be the year of their coronation. Instead it was the year of regression, losing to the Pacers in seven, at the buzzer, in the second round. Instead of the Riley era ending with confetti and rings, it ended with a fax.
There were (and remain) disputes over why he ultimately left. Maybe he asked for big money and control over personnel and a 25% ownership stake. Maybe not. There's no disputing the shock, pain, and awe his departure caused. The more you hate someone, the more you once loved them. New York had loved Riley. Hard. The day he resigned as HC of the NYK, a hate that would last for generations began. It hurts when you get dumped. It hits a new level when you see your ex with someone new. In September, Riley became the Miami Heat's president and head coach. The Knicks accused the Heat of tampering and received a million dollars and Miami's 1st-round pick the following June (hey, Walter McCarty!) - a Pyrrhic victory, but what's a little hate between new enemies?
In December, Riley made his first trip back to MSG. He didn't even wait for the P.A. introduction; he walked right out onto the floor and faced the crowd - literally. He didn't pretend the moment wasn't what it was. The hate and the boos that thundered down blew away anything Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller ever heard in New York. It was the angriest I've ever heard the Garden. And Riley stood there and took it. He blew kisses to the crowd, mouthed "I love you," waved his arms down toward his shoulders, as if to say Bring everything you got. I want it. I can take it. I've never been able to find video of this night. Maybe that's for the best, because this moment showed me something I'd recognize sickeningly years later, during my parents' divorce:
The pre-Riley Heat had never won a playoff series. Their best players were Glen Rice and Billy Owens. Riley turned them into Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. It was like watching your ex leave you for some loser, only pretty quickly the loser has a new haircut and is dressing nice and you're remembering what your hair looked like when you met your ex. Still, success eluded Miami: the '96 Heat were swept in the first round by Chicago by 20 a game. Miami won the Atlantic Division the next year, but nearly blew a 2-0 lead to the #7-seed Magic, finally winning in five. Orlando's leading scorer in that series was Penny Hardaway. Second? Derek Strong. If you remember Derek Strong, you are Derek Strong.
The Heat met a revamped Knicks team many felt (and feel) was their best chance ever to beat the Bulls. New York crushed Charlotte in the first round, shooting 57% from the field with five players averaging 14+ points per game. All that stood between Knicks vs. Bulls VII were the traitor and his posers down in South Beach. New York had won 3 of 4 against Miami that year and took a 3-1 lead in the playoffs, up as much as 20 late in a game four that saw Scotty Brooks and John Wallace get fourth quarter minutes. All was as it should be. The Knicks were legit. The Heat weren't. Riley had committed a sin and the cosmos were making sure he paid for it. The world is just.
P.J. Brown's assault of Charlie Ward comes at the 3:38 mark in the video below, but go to the 3:27 mark. Watch it from there. Remember: there's less than two minutes left. The game was lost. Then, so was the series.
Just before all hell breaks loose, the camera finds Houston and Johnson on the Knick bench, the cornerstone acquisitions of the post-Riley Knicks and the new hope for winning a title. Instead, one man picked up another man eight inches shorter than him and threw him, David Stern rode the letter of the law all over its spirit's carcass, and Houston, Ewing and Charlie Ward were suspended for game 6, with LJ and Starks suspended for game 7. The posers won. The pain began, one that only deepened after the Heat were dominated in five by Chicago. Jordan and Scottie Pippen were so comfortable that series, they cracked up themselves and a postgame press conference sharing scatalogical nicknames. You didn't see that shit when they played New York. The Heat had won a series. The Knicks would have vengeance.
One year later, the teams met in the first round, which Ewing missed after dislocating his wrist. In the dying seconds of a game 4 Knick win that evened the series 2-2, LJ was face-guarding Mourning as Hardaway missed a three when the god of righteous vengeance (GORV) made the first of three appearances in this rivalry. In this incarnation, it took the form of Mourning's blinding rage.
The Knicks got the better of the Mourning/LJ trade-off and went on to take the deciding game 5 in Miami, playing a picture perfect final six minutes to win by 17. Riley goes straight to the locker room. The dynamic between Riley and Jeff Van Gundy was a drama unto itself. New York is the makeover capital of the world, so the switch from identifying with Riley the master's Madison Avenue cool to Van Gundy the pupil's plebeian everyman was, morally, the best back scratch ever.
If some justice is good, more is better. When the top-seeded Heat met the 8-seed Knicks in '99, '98 was no longer enough. '98 had merely been an eye for an eye. The Heat had to lose, again, always. Salt their fields; leave the land a ruin, for this generation and the next. Plus the East was wide-open. Jordan was gone - for good! Serious this time! (well...)
The Knicks won game one by 20. Miami took game two, the Knicks won game three by 24, and the Heat won game four in NY. Game 5 was close throughout. Thirty seconds left. Miami up one. Hardaway turns it over. Twenty seconds left. Sprewell and Ewing trot out some nonsense two-man game that wastes 15 seconds. 4.5 seconds left. Houston is 4 of 12 shooting. GORV can be anything. The wind. A child. A shooter's bounce.
In 2000, they met one last time. In a welcome symmetry, each team won 50+ games, as when they first met in '97. There were no suspensions, no brawls. Both teams shot 40%. The Knicks scored 568 points, the Heat 562. The series went seven because that's what Knicks/Heat was. The only certainty was exhaustion. Even the shot clocks were sweating. The biggest margin of victory was 8. The Heat won the odd-numbered games; the Knicks, the even.
From fax to fight, this rivalry spent two years in the womb before birth; it was a monster. Every possession was a slugfest, every game a title bout, every series an epic poem. Anthony Carter won the overtime game three with a pretty much illegal bucket; his missed three at the buzzer in game six led kept the Knicks alive. Childs kept the Knicks in a game seven they trailed throughout, until they regrouped and fought back late. GORV manifested as Mourning's folly, gambling on a steal and missing, giving Ewing the dunk that put the Knicks up 83-82, the last points of the game and the rivalry's glory days.
12 years later, two very different Knick and Heat teams met in the first round. Mike Woodson and Erik Spoelstra? Capulet-Montague they ain't. The lone link to the good old days is the original link. Riley's last title as a coach came in 2006; he won two more as president. The 2011 Knicks gave a taste of what might have been one wonderful February night in Miami. In 2012 the title-favorite Heat went up 3-0, but in game four Carmelo Anthony scored 41 and outplayed LeBron James, leading the Knicks to their first playoff win in over a decade. Still no rings in New York, but at least there was confetti.
Twenty years later, the ex has come out ahead. A year after losing LeBron, the Heat are already inspiring Riley mythos articles, while the best part of the Knicks' present is their future. As the teams evolve in the fluid East, it's possible there's one last chapter in the Knicks/Riley saga, and that the players who'll define the next chapter are already in place. It'll be nice to hate again.