Review by Budd Bailey
It was easy to hate the New York Knicks of the 1990s. They were, in the eyes of opposing players and fans, thugs in shorts.
That makes it a huge surprise how easy it is to love “Blood in the Garden,” a book on that era in the team’s history.
The style of those Knicks’ teams was a little unexpected at the time. They had brought in Pat Riley to coach the team. He had established a reputation during his championship run as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. They didn’t call that era “Showtime” for another. Players like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy always put on a great show, fast-breaking their way to slam-dunks, wins and titles. They could have been called the Hollywood Lakers.
This Knicks team was, well, different. A role model might have been the Pistons, which followed the Lakers to a run of success. Detroit pushed people around in winning a couple of championships. Riley arrived in New York in 1991, and didn’t have “Showtime” talent. So he adapted like all good coaches do. The Knicks got tougher. As one opposing player said, when you came to Madison Square Garden, you didn’t know if you’d win. But you knew you’d bleed.
Riley did have one major piece of the puzzle in center Patrick Ewing. Considering how well-known Ewing was when he came out of a great college career at Georgetown, he might be one of the most underrated players of his era in the pro ranks. Ewing developed a reliable jump shot with the Knicks, but still could battle anyone in the paint. Add that to an unsurpassed work ethic, and you had a heck of a player.
Ewing’s supporting cast was sometimes good, but never quite good enough. It also was a little odd. John Starks and Anthony Mason weren’t the typical set of players, but both had a relatively unique skill set by NBA standards that make them good-sized parts of good teams. The Knicks had some memorable playoff losses to Chicago and Indiana in the early 1990s and lost in the NBA Finals to Houston in seven games in 1994. Yes, there were some well-publicized fights along the way.
It was more of the same for a while after that, even though the cast changed somewhat – starting with Riley’s departure to Miami in 1995. The Bulls and Pacers often were in the way, but the Knicks made it back to the Finals in 1999 … only to run into a San Antonio team that was ready to dominate the league in the next few seasons. The Knicks blew up from there, and haven’t been too relevant since then.
The key to the book, though, is in the telling. Herring, now with Sports Illustrated after a stint with the Wall Street Journal, talked to everybody associated with the Knicks, and a few people outside of the organization. Everyone seems honest and forthcoming about what happened. The stories come pouring out – legendary practice sessions, trade discussions, discreet meetings at restaurants, deliberations about firings and hirings, etc. Herring even found out how John F. Kennedy’s Jr.’s request for season tickets was handled.
As one sportswriter said, you do your best writing when your notebook is full. Herring’s notebooks were jammed with information, and a lot of it was entertaining. Some of the Knicks of that time period probably could look up several times while reading this and say, “I didn’t know that.”
What’s the overall result, then? “Blood in the Garden” is as entertaining as any sports book of its kind. And if I enjoyed it so much, imagine what a fan of the Knicks in that era must feel while turning the pages. We’re talking died and gone to heaven. Herring has put together a superb look at a team that never could get over the last hurdle or two.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)