clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Author Chris Herring discusses his new Knicks classic, “Blood In The Garden”

Y’all gotta get this book!

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NBA: NBA Draft Lottery Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

We are told “History is Written by the Winners”, a cliché many Knicks fans would agree with, because much of our youth has been all but forgotten and/or written out by ivory tower basketball historians. As time has passed, and we’ve gotten further away from Jordan’s blur of empire, our beloved bridesmaids have become an aging footnote, one of several foes he stepped over to take his six rings, among the morass of the Eastern Conference. We are lumped in with the Pacers and Heat, a step below the foes he vanquished in the Finals. Well, there will never be a ten part primetime documentary about the Knicks teams that arguably pushed Jordan harder than any other team he played throughout his run of dominance. But now, at long last, we have something better.

Chris Herring, a Chicago native and former Knicks beat writer for the Wall Street Journal who was barely alive when Pat Riley came to MSG, has written Blood In The Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks, a full court triumph about a fated decade of Knicks basketball that instantly joins the pantheon of New York City hoops classics, alongside Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot and Pete Axthelm’s The City Game. It isn’t just a recounting of game tape, but a book that animates the attitude and energy of a time, a team, and a place. It works as a primer for those who weren’t old enough to vividly recall those almost glory days, and a necessary behind the scenes, insiders compendium for those who were. It’s a wide lens survey of a league, and a game in flux. And it’s the rare, vivid, tragic portrait of a team that pulled up just shy of the mountaintop.

The image on the cover, Pat Riley picking at his lip, throwing side eye in terse concentration, John Starks checking in with his coach, looking annoyed, Patrick Ewing sneering incredulously, Charles Oakley looking like Luca Brasi en route to a hit, and Anthony Mason staring someone down just off camera, could be the poster for a 90s Scorsese film, or an album with a parental advisory sticker affixed to its jewel case, and the content within is just as confrontational.

It’s a 300-page tone poem, and that tone is aggrieved, annoyed, and aggressive. Herring’s work is populated by construction workers telling Phil Jackson to fuck off during a playoff walk through, Xavier McDaniel brandishing erections in the locker room like a firearm, and fines issued to Knicks that help fallen opposing players to their feet. To call Blood In The Garden microscopically detailed would be an understatement. It’s a book that has spoken to Starks’ CBA Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets coach, that knows the color of former GM Dave Checkett’s wife’s Chevy Suburban, that knows precisely what profanities Anthony Mason hurled at his coach on Senior night in 1988 at Tennessee State, and the DeBarge song he played for his girlfriend when he proposed outside their crib on 99th Avenue in 1994.

The book is composed of analytic postmortems you’d expect from a former FiveThirtyEight writer, particularly focused on blow by blows of the playoff campaigns of the 90s, but is seamlessly blended with heartfelt portraits that serve as personal histories, scouting breakdowns and psychological profiles of the characters in and around the franchise during this era.

In other words, it’s a must read for any fan of the Knicks, any fan of the league and its history, and any Michael Jordan completist, not to mention people who simply enjoy a great and well reported piece of longform journalism. What I love about it is it finally gives words to a feeling I have held in my head and my heart for over 20 years. That these men may not have won the championship we all desperately wanted, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t earn their dignity, and our respect in their hard fought postseason wars. Herring has ensured their efforts, their history of defeat, will not soon perish from this Earth, so I had to sit down and discuss his work with him. He was gracious enough to humor me with some of what I’d imagine, the week his book is being released, is hard to come by time.

(This interview has been edited and condensed to make me sound like less of an asshole)

Chris, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time out to talk to me. As a lifelong Knicks fan, I thought the book was absolutely incredible, so we have to start at the obvious place, with your most remarkable piece of research, the item that literally pops out at the reader at the beginning of the book. Of course, I’m referring to Xavier McDaniel’s performative locker room boners.

(Laughing) I keep getting responses to that, which is so funny because it was maybe one of the last 5-10 details I got in the two years I worked on this thing. As I’ve worked on it you realize…. I had plenty of stuff on McDaniel, but I thought about it and I realized I don’t have much on him besides he gets in a lot of fights. So for anyone that was really the case with I wanted to go back and basically whitepage the crap out of everybody to figure out who I could call or talk to that was connected to him. Former teammates, former coaches, former high school coaches, relatives, spouses, anybody.

But you start at the most basic level, you start with teammates from other teams, so I called Frank Brickowski, who was one of the first guys Xavier McDaniel punched, a teammate of his in a practice, and he only had good things to say. You know, he said, “He had a pretty hot temper, he wanted to fight everybody, myself included” but then he said, “you know the other weird thing about him though, he would wrap a towel around his dick, and he would have the biggest hard-on, and just wrap a towel around his dick and walk around the locker room that way everyday! Every game!”

So I was like, “What?” I had to ask him a follow up cause like, I just needed to make sure, “You’re being completely serious?” And he said, “I’m completely serious.” That was such a wild and out of nowhere detail but also, I couldn’t think of anything else to attach it to the way this dude thought about manhood. It might’ve been a really stupid way to think about it, a weird way, but that’s the way this team was wired, just a lot of weird stuff like that, and that one was certainly the weirdest.

The way it was on page four, I kinda felt like, at least I’m opening this and I’m opening this with a bang. People will see that I’m not going to pull punches with the details when I’ve got them, but I’m also not going to introduce them for no reason at all, I want them to make a point.

No, I thought it was, I had to stop a reread it like, “Wait, am I seeing this right?” But it really set the tone. It says, these guys were mean, angry alphas and it was great placement.

You mention in the acknowledgments that the book kind of fell into your lap when Jonathan Abrams, a great fellow writer, recommended you for it. How does it feel to be a kid barely old enough to remember this team (Author’s note: Herring was born in 1987), from Chicago, assigned to become the guardian of a history so precious to so many New Yorkers? You know, as someone who writes for a Knicks blog, the team still comes up on a weekly basis, we talk about the 90s, it’s still happening.

You don’t want to sound corny when you say it, but I take the assignment, and took when I covered the team, very seriously. I’m writing about a team that I know a lot of people care about. What I find really interesting, and I covered the team post 2000s, mostly down periods, people seem to respect and really appreciate the fact that I wasn’t punching down with what I was writing, and with the way I was interacting with people on Twitter.

First of all “Do No Harm”, but as journalist it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to be critical, I was critical of the Knicks plenty, but I wasn’t looking to abuse the fanbase that had already taken that from their own team for years and years and years. And also, I wanted to show a level of care with what I was writing whether it was a sensitive issue or just the day to day of what they were doing, because what an honor to write about a team that many people care about in that kind of market.

So the idea of trying to do a whole book and something that’s going to sit on library shelves, forever? That people can access forever? You’re damn right I’m going to take really good care of that, and make sure I dot my Is and cross my Ts as far as reaching out to everybody, trying to make a more concerted effort for the people that didn’t agree to talk to me.

A perfect segue. You spoke to 204 sources for this book and I have a partial list of the people I’m most impressed by I’d like to quickly go over: Starks’ Cedar Rapid Silver Bullets coach George Whittaker, Anthony Mason’s Tennessee State teammate Nico Childs, the Knicks team chaplain John Love, and then these guys that I have lumped together: Gary Waites, David Cain, Greg Butler, and seemingly anyone who ever attended a Pat Riley training camp for New York-

Oh totally, those were my favorite people to talk to. 100%.

I believe it. But how do you even get to David Cain? Do you get a roster list from the training camps? Does he maintain contact with the team? A trainer?

Oh, no. The best advice I got for this book was from Jeff Pearlman. He said, “It’s doable, you just need to do a lot of work. You have to interview everybody, and that doesn’t just mean the key guys, you gotta interview everybody, and that starts with buying media guides for every single season of that run, and not just picking off the key guys, everybody that worked in the organization, call them all. Call everybody.

And in that case, it meant all the training camp invitees as well, and quite. And quite frankly, and this is the way I thought about all of this, Riley, Ewing, Starks, Oakley, Mason, those guys were the key characters of that era, they’re also going to be the most quoted because their interviewed the most frequently because they’re the best players, they’re the star coaches.

So it’s a lot harder to pick out information from them that has never been heard. They’re always interviewed and unless they play it close to the vest, they probably have shared that information or those details anyways. You can’t assume that, you still speak to them, but my point is the frame of reference that Patrick Ewing has as a guy that was the face of the franchise for 15 years, stuff will blend together for him, he’s so used to answering certain things that unless you have an unusual question, or something really specific to ask him, what are the chances you’re going to get a different answer than what’s been out there in the media anyways.

The people that you get totally new information from are the ones that have never been asked the question, that have never been quoted and never been interviewed. And frankly I dealt with a lot of that because I went so low on this list of people, like the people who had only spent three days in training camp with the Knicks, to the marketing people, to the secretaries of the executives, to the community outreach people, to the close friends of Anthony Mason, to the college roommates of Anthony Mason, to women Anthony Mason was engaged to or had children with.

Those people aren’t quoted, but they obviously have a story to tell. And they probably have a more vivid story to tell because for them, the three training camp days with Patrick Ewing, they’re really going to remember that because it’s three days and it’s Patrick Ewing. Patrick Ewing isn’t going to remember them. So I would say that sort of stuff is way more valuable, and I’d say the vast majority of the stuff I got from the book came from those people, and it was about getting other folks to confirm it.

And that’s the way I think reporting should work and that’s the way I wanted it to work: Work your way from the bottom to the top, and you have much stronger questions for the people at the top by the time you get there.

I think you make a great point, because otherwise you’re just compiling old Sports Illustrated articles, right?

Exactly.

This is for Posting & Toasting so I want to get into some fun, dumb bar argument, comment thread kind of debate. I thought your pull of a random loss to the Sixers in January of 94, when Hornacek predicts the play call then jumps the passing lane, was incisive and instructive as to Riley’s lack of imagination when it came to coaching the team, You bring up that he barely worked on offense in his famously intense practices, and I personally have watched and re-watched the old Bulls and Rockets series, and the Bulls ability to run a full court press, for instance, drives me absolutely nuts. So the win totals are undeniable right? The Knicks jump up a level the second Riley takes over. But for years, I’ve wondered if in terms of his management style, with his ego fully tumescent after the success in LA, if the game and its players had passed him by.

I think your question is brilliant, first of all (Author’s Note: I promise, he actually said this!), that you’re reading this book that closely to even have that question. So I’ve said this to other people and I’d say this to anybody: I think Riley was a brilliant coach. He was certainly the right coach for the Knicks, I think they did lose something when he went to Miami. And I do think maybe it could’ve worked a little bit longer, but I do think he burnt himself out.

I hadn’t thought a lot about how tactically he might’ve burnt himself out, but the Xs and Os, I actually realized this while I was writing the book. But at one point I was like, “Man, every time I’m describing a play that they ran, whether it was Game 2 of the 93 Conference Finals where Starks gets “The Dunk”, whether it’s Game 7 of the series against the Pacers where Starks misses the layup and Ewing dunks it home to go to the Finals, it was always a Starks/Ewing pick and roll. Like it was always the same play.

And so tactically, there was some of that that I saw, and some coaches told me, “We did get stale”. We didn’t do anything special. Now I will say, in response to that, I don’t know how much they really had to turn to. They didn’t have a whole lot of offense. They probably had more than that, where they could’ve done more inventive things than that. And they did run some stuff that was different in fairness to them. For instance, the play that Hubert Davis got the shot on, where Scottie Pippen fouls him, that was a pretty nifty sort of play that they did win a game and a series off of that sent them to the Finals.

But there was a lack of creativity on offense, and I don’t know if anyone was excited about Don Nelson at the time replacing Pat Riley on offense, but his ideas were flawed, but there were aspects of it that made sense. If you could maintain enough of Riley’s defensive mentality and wed that with Don Nelson’s offensive ingenuity, this could work. This roster you could maybe win a Finals with.

But I do think Riley was burning himself out. The psychological way he was coaching this team was insane. It wouldn’t be allowed in today’s game. The way he was coaching that team wouldn’t have been completely allowed. He would’ve had to make some tweaks. You couldn’t tell the team that the team psychologist can’t have interaction with my players. There’s taking pride in having guys taping up for shoot arounds that go two and a half hours. To run them ragged to the point that they can’t even really play well in a game later that night. That couldn’t have existed in today’s NBA and I don’t know that it could’ve existed much longer in New York back then.

I think it worked in Miami because he got what he ultimately wanted, but even there he stepped away from coaching at a certain point, so I think he’s just someone who, it’s like if you look at something for way too long, way too hard you give yourself a headache, that’s kind of the way he coached the teams that he had. And it happened in LA as well, and they had all sorts of success. I tend to think about how bad everyone wanted him to stay, and think, “If we could’ve kept Riley……” I think he would’ve burned himself out anyways.

It’s funny because in my notes I actually have 89, and Michael Cooper calling Riley “Coach Hitler”, and Kareem throwing him under the bus because of the training camp before the Finals with Detroit. My personal take is he really lucked out with Shaq and LeBron coming there after he stepped away from coaching and that whole cycle played itself out again in Miami. And it really salvaged his career from being a one hit wonder in LA with Magic and Kareem.

But what I don’t remember seeing anywhere else is you also report a pretty convincing argument that Riley, who famously refused to go to Renaldo Blackmon in Game 7 when Starks clearly didn’t have it, did so over a locker room disagreement about whether wives could come on the road to the finals with the players, potentially sinking a championship because of a vocal disagreement with a player who challenged his authority. There’s a stubborn pettiness to him that seems eerily reminiscent as someone who covers a Tom Thibodeau-coached team. And I just wonder if in some ways his approach and philosophy ultimately hindered the team, and prevented the Knicks from winning a Finals.

The what ifs on that Game 7 are fascinating. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think that’s why Riley held him out, but enough of the other players think that’s why, and enough of the other players wonder if that’s why, that it’s worthwhile including. Blackmon himself says he’s not sure, which to me suggests if you have that thought in your mind because of that? It tells you how the players perceived Riley’s decision making.

But the fact that Riley hadn’t played him for the six games before that, including the game when Starks was brutal in Game 1 too, where he shot 3-18, I trust that’s more how Riley was wired, that he really did believe Starks was his best option, he really did believe Starks was carrying him throughout the series, which he was.

So I tend to think that, but, the fact that people think he was holding Blackmon out because of that, and I tend to believe, leave enough breadcrumbs throughout the book because, Riley, the in or out nature of Riley’s decision making and thinking, if that’s the way he’s wired? He’s not wired all the way right. So of course it’s feasible that he might’ve held Rolando Blackmon out of a big moment like that. I don’t know if that’s why.

One of the more interesting suggestions the book seems to make is Starks’ streakiness could be attributed to a lack of polish and experience, before the Knicks he never really had stability in his situation dating back to high school when he was still growing into his body. Are there specific aspects of his game, his shot, his mentality that feel “fixable” in retrospect? Did you have any conversations with trainers or coaches that helped you understand why he was prone to these historic droughts and downpours?

There were some. I make an allusion to this in the book, but he wasn’t the best passer. The Knicks weren’t a skilled passing team at all. Every now and then you’d see a really sweet pass someone would throw for an alley oop, but they just were not that skilled in passing the ball and Starks was the guy that had the ball in his hands the second most on the team. ‘Maybe the most on the team considering how much he shot, but also how many pick and rolls he was running with Patrick in key moments. And, you know people went out of their way to tell me he struggled to get the ball out to Patrick, even in practice. You, know, just to throw entry passes into the post, he couldn’t do it. And Riley would yell at him for it.

So that sticks out as one thing, but I also made a point to mention too that Doc Rivers tore his ACL, and they were already using Greg Anthony as a point guard but then they had to slide John Starks into that role and John’s offensive game was hindered by the fact that he was trying to create so much for other guys when he wanted to look for his own shot.

If he had it going from 3, he was going to keep looking for the 3, even if you closed out really hard on him. He was that sort of player, where he wasn’t always necessarily taking what the defense would give him. He was the most athletic guy on the roster, I would say by far unless I’m forgetting somebody else, and sometimes would fall in love with the jump shot instead of going to the basket.

But I think even today, everybody has got that guy on their team, where you’re excited when they get hot, but you’re a little terrified when they go cold because they don’t have that mental censor in their head to kind of say, “Ok, stop shooting”, or contribute another way.

Microwave.

Right. And like, Starks was a hard-nosed defender so he was doing other stuff, but offensively he could literally shoot you out of games in ways microwave scorers don’t usually get a chance to do that? Because they’re not going to get almost 20 shots in a Finals Game 7, because it’s your sixth man. You couldn’t do that with Starks because he was effectively the best scorer in that series.

So to answer your question, I don’t think you fix that because he had a microwave scorer’s mentality, but he was too important to this particular team to treat like a microwave scorer, where you could just pull him out of the game and put him back in, and that was part of the problem. He was their second best offensive player. If you had an Alan Houston on the wing with a John Starks, they probably win that title.

Yeah, the feature was a bug. I apologize but I write about music sometimes and this one is really important to me. Did you by any chance investigate Fat Joe’s...

Yes (Laughing). Yes.

(I was going to say “Fat Joe’s claim that Biggie’s “A Story To Tell’’ is about Anthony Mason”, but I didn’t have to.)

I knew where that one was going. Yes, I did (Continues laughing).

Did you get anywhere?

I tried to. There were one or two people who told me yes but they weren’t people I trusted more than other people who probably would’ve known, and those people told me no. I think Mason was the most intriguing, interesting player to that story, I think you could tell a lot of stories through him, as it related to the team, and how emotionally charged up the team was, the faults and the flaws of the team, but I also wanted to be really careful in telling his story so that’s why I didn’t include that, because I didn’t get a definitive answer.

I felt I got plenty of notorious detail on him early, I write in the book that he slept with a couple teammates’ wives, which more than one person told me that, or at least that he bragged about that, but he did tell some of his closest friends that happened, but I didn’t want to put something in that would grab that much attention that I wasn’t sure about. I even asked women that he had children with about that and to their credit, they answered, “I don’t know about that specifically, but there was plenty”. So the closest people to him in his life basically said, “No”, so I didn’t think it was worth debunking.

I thought more than anyone else, he really jumped off the page, and based on your reporting, I’d say because of how thirsty he was, he would’ve made for a great candidate to get caught up in a scenario like the one Biggie presents.

Since we’re on gossip, something I had simply blocked from my memory was how insane and egregious the suspensions around the PJ Brown playoff brawl were, did you have any perhaps unsubstantiated dirt or whispers from around the league in regards to Stern and the suspensions, reactions, insinuations, anything fun and unverifiable from that decision that got cut you’d be willing to share with us?

I asked as many people as I could about that. David Stern died in the middle of me waiting on our interview, so that never happened unfortunately, I obviously wanted to talk to him about plenty of stuff. I did talk to a lot of people directly around him and the league office in those years, that were like, top two, three, four executives in the league at the time, that would’ve helped make decisions like these.

And the truth was, essentially the way it was described to me was the Knicks were the reason a lot of these rules came about, like fighting, leaving the bench, and so now, yes the Knicks are mad about this ruling, about this decision David Stern has made, but they were the reason these rules exist in the first place, and you can’t really argue the technicality. Like, yes, you could argue they were coming down a bit harshly but this is why we wrote the rules the way we did.

Patrick Ewing did walk off the bench. No he wasn’t halfway down the court, no he wasn’t actively engaging, but he did leave the bench. You couldn’t make an argument that he didn’t. But it’s crazy, for weeks, months, I was just asking “Can someone send me video?” I couldn’t find the video anywhere, I don’t know if anybody can find it, to what extent Ewing came off the bench, I’ve never seen evidence of it actually. I was never able to track it down. It actually made me uncomfortable to write about it because I could never see it for myself.

The Zapruder footage aspect of that is fascinating.

Yeah, but everybody, the lawyer who fought for an injunction in court, the judge who was a Knicks fan too, nobody was willing to say Ewing hadn’t walked off the bench. He didn’t go that far, but he left the bench and the way the rules were written states any player who leaves the bench will be suspended.

And to be fair, players from the Heat told me if it had happened under their bench it might’ve been the same situation.

That’s what I was going to say, did the Heat players really not leave the bench? Do you think it could’ve been a dirty pool type of thing where Riley instructed his players, “Don’t leave the bench ‘in the event’ something happens.”?

Riley may have been more prepared for it just because he knew the messaging that he’d given them, I had the detail in there where Ike Austin saw PJ Brown, and Riley telling him, “You’ve gotta fight, not lay down and fight.” He kept using the word fight over and over again, and that kind of message he had for his team in shoot around charged his players up, especially PJ Brown, to the point that he was kind of ready to fight going into that game. I do wonder, some of it was premeditated in that might’ve been something Riley wanted to happen, but it felt more like a perfect storm of mess ups.

Several coaches from the Heat did tell me they absolutely would have been up if it was under their bench. And also think about where the cameras were trained, because of where the free throws were happening. Even if the Heat did step on the floor, they were a good 70-80 feet away from where this is happening if you’re on the Heat bench, so who knows if there was even a camera pointed in their direction?

So the Knicks frustration was they felt they were constantly being made examples of by the league because of the fact that they were the Knicks, and because of the fact that the league office was in New York, and the idea that they had to disprove that there was a cozy relationship, like if you’re a child, and your parents come down on you harder to show your siblings there’s no favoritism. And there’s no real way to debunk that unless someone came out and said, “Yeah, we fucked the Knicks on purpose.” And nobody said that. The way it was explained to me was, “The letter of the law was this, and they broke that law.”

I would say the league could’ve interpreted the intent of the law rather than the letter, but Stern was always a strongman and Suns fans could argue the same. If that happened today, I can’t even imagine what kind of conspiracy theories the internet would spin.

As a Jew, I must know, what was the Holocaust book Ernie Grunfeld gave to Butch Carter that changed his life?

Let me see, I’ve got it in my notes. You know Grunfeld is the only player in the history of the league that’s the descendent of Holocaust survivors?

Well, yeah, there’s a reason for that (laughing).

Right. So his son wrote a book about that, and the role basketball played in his family’s lives. It’s called “The Rest of Us” and it’s about Eastern European immigration. I haven’t gotten around to it yet but I’m going to read it.

Might’ve been a good thing to read before the Rockets series (laughs)

So let’s close with Patrick. Late in the book you make a great point, a belief I’ve personally held for a longtime, that Ewing had the least help, was the most relied upon, of any of the stars of his generation he will be compared to for the next 100 years or so, so would you humor me in a bar argument exercise?

Ok.

Could I throw out a few NBA stars from the 90s, and you could tell me whether you have them ranked above or below Patrick all time, and feel free to elaborate as little or as much as you’d like:

Ok, shoot.

Karl Malone

Ok. (Deep Sigh) I’ll put him above Patrick for the following things. I think he would’ve gotten a couple championships if it wasn’t for Jordan. And I also think he was the best player at his position for the vast majority of his career, where I’m not sure you ever could’ve said that about Patrick. He was in the top two or three of that conversation,

But I also think he got routinely outplayed by Hakeem and even David Robinson during those years, and certainly Hakeem sort of ate his lunch in those Finals, I’d give it to Karl Malone for that reason.

You know, it’s funny, I think Malone and Robinson, you can make diametrically opposed arguments for in relation to Ewing. With Malone, he has the quantity while Ewing has the quality, and with Robinson, he has the quality while Ewing has the quantity.

When you say quality…..

Like at his Peak, Patrick had a “higher absolute peak”, was “more dominant” for longer than Malone, but Malone did it for longer with more regularity.

Yeah. He stayed really healthy over the course of that career. Really up until that Lakers run.

Yeah, and alternately David, I thought when he was dominant he was so dominant, but Ewing was better for longer.

And the thing you have to keep in mind with Malone, and maybe it’s something I don’t weigh fairly, but the counter for Ewing is who he had passing him the ball. Like there’s literally a statue in Salt Lake City of not just Malone, but the guy who was passing him the ball all those years. It’s their statue, like it’s two statues but it’s essentially them running a pick and roll. Patrick Ewing did not have that. Instead he effectively had a second best player who couldn’t pass him the ball. I’d give the nod to Malone, but it’s not as much of a gap as people would think though, because Ewing was really damn good. The Hakeem thing does hurt the case though.

Malone was incredible obviously. But he was also the product of a system. He had this well oiled offensive Jerry Sloan machine that Patrick was never the beneficiary of. He had to find his offensive wherever it came to him.

So this one is a softball, Mutombo.

Oh. Ewing. Mutombo was awesome but, obviously Ewing.

Yeah. Just so you know I set this up to skew Ewing (laughs). Alonzo.

(Laughs) That’s a really good one. I’ll go with Ewing here. Because, you know, Alonzo had more talent around him offensively. So I’ll go Ewing here. Alonzo was incredible though.

Incredible. Shorter peak though, I would say.

Shorter peak. And that was kind of out of his control too, but I’ll go Ewing because Ewing was great for a really, really long time. And I think the other thing, when you talk about peaks, the tough thing about Patrick is most of his peak came when the Knicks just weren’t very good, and if you’re going to hold that against him and say “Well, he wasn’t contributing to big time winning”, ok, but you can look at his teams and those teams were even lighter on talent than the ones that did win.

Alonzo generally had really good talent around him. Sometimes it was really young talent: Larry Johnson, the Charlotte teams, certainly the Heat teams that never got it done, never made the Finals, so I’ll go Patrick there.

And also, you know, and I don’t think this gets talked about enough, he’s really two different players over the two halves of his career. Both were dominant in different ways.

I agree with that.

I think if Patrick was around now, he’d be the greatest stretch 5 of all time. If you have him move four feet back. Anyways. Kemp

I’ll go Patrick here. I just think the longevity of the peak wasn’t there. Completely different players.

Completely. Barkley.

Oh, that’s a good one. I’ll go Charles here.

That’s fair.

I think so much of his career, I’m a little younger than you but people our age only think of him in a Suns uniform, but that guy was really really good before he ever stepped foot in Phoenix, those Philly years. He had a completely different body composition, but also made the most of his talent because the way that guy could rebound, he wasn’t very tall.

Incredible.

He would’ve been a beast in today’s NBA, even without the ability to shoot. He could’ve stood to take less threes, even with his knocks on Draymond’s percentage I think his is lower, but I’ll still go him over Patrick. And not to say this is Patrick’s fault, but Barkley has an MVP to his name, where Ewing did not, and having an MVP during the Jordan era was really tough.

I have a sort of random question concerning something that has always bothered me, and since you actually studied the Knicks 99 run I’d be interested to hear your take on it. Are you familiar with the Ewing Theory?

Yeah, absolutely.

How do you feel about it in relation to its origin, which was this playoff run? I had forgotten Ewing was even there for the start of the Indiana series and came up huge in Game 1, so in light of that, and as a guy with Patrick as my profile avatar, I have to ask, do you think the team benefitted from his absence, as Simmons asserted back then? Do you think the Knicks might’ve been more competitive in the Finals with Patrick?

In 99? Absolutely. The Ewing theory, I’m not going to call it BS, there’s a little validity to it but very little. Like, can Ja Morant miss 12 games and you go 10-2? Of course you can. So there are elements of that theory that hold true, from game to game, if for nothing else strategic reasons like, you’ve got no film on what this team looks like without this guy for long stretches of time, so the defense isn’t going to be as prepared offensive guys have to move the ball more, and it just creates a more hectic nature for the defense.

So I can buy that for a few games at a time, but show me an example of teams that thrive season in, season out. They’re making deep playoff runs, it doesn’t happen. The Ewing Theory is cute for a few days or a few games in the regular season. It doesn’t work, the only recent example I can think of is when Kyrie was out of the lineup and the Celtics almost made the Finals anyways. That’s the only one I could even think of. I just don’t think it happens that teams play much better than they would with their best player throughout the playoffs.

And that Spurs series in particular? There’s just no way. They were playing against the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan and David Robinson. You’re not gonna win a series without Patrick Ewing and without Larry Johnson at full strength.

With Chris Dudley.

Yeah! With Chris Dudley. Either way, I don’t think they win that series, but if you take out their best player who happens to be a center against a team that’s basically using two hall of fame level big men, there’s just no chance. So the Ewing Theory I think sounds silly in that respect, but I think a team can hold its own at times.

My interpretation of it has always been addition by subtraction in short windows in a specific context. The argument I think in this specific instance is that at this point Ewing had moved to a different stage in his athleticism, and perhaps against the Pacers sort of opened something up. But I think if you look at Game 1, I think even in that very specific context it’s a flawed theory. I don’t know that we (scoffs), “We”, the Knicks wouldn’t have just handled the Pacers easier with Ewing in the lineup.

Good point. I harped on the Spurs a lot. So the Pacers specifically where they won without Ewing for the most part, the Pacers series, by that point the Pacers were a much faster team than they’d been in the past. They were not plodding anymore. They had more offense than the Knicks did. But to not have Ewing, kind of, “The Placebo Effect” could be another name for the Ewing Theory, they have to play faster now, and it might’ve even helped them match up a little bit better.

But you know, Jeff Van Gundy was so disgusted at me asking that question. I didn’t ask it quite in that way, but he said point blank, “We were never better without Patrick. We always had a better chance with him.” But yes, it forces you to change and the way you change can throw defenses off for a while. But it’s only for a while, and it’s certainly not going to get you through the best team in the league when that team is dominated by their big men.

Such a great point that you can wrong foot a team by giving them a different look necessitated by losing a guy like Patrick. But that doesn’t necessarily mean qualitatively the team is better without him, which is sort of what that theory is asserting.

But I can’t thank you enough Chris, I’ve already taken way too much of your time. I was hopeful I could even get through my questions, this was above and beyond. The entire Knicks fanbase Thanks for this book, I’m sure it’s all we’re going to be talking about for some time.

Thank you man. Pleasure was mine.