1999 Knicks: The ugliest Cinderella story in playoff history
As things stand, with the first round of the NBA Playoffs in full swing, there are a total of 16 teams who can end the 2015-16 season with the Larry O'Brien Championship trophy in their grasp.
From the heavily fancied Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs to the 'just-sneaked-in' Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets, technically all eight teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences have a shot at securing their place in the history books.
In reality, though, the likelihood of a team outside of a pool of around three or four franchises winding up raising a banner come the Autumn is slim at best. For the lowly eighth seeds, those odds are damn near non-existent.
That was the case in 1999, too, however, when the New York Knicks entered the playoffs as the number eight seed in the Eastern Conference. Six weeks later, they’d done what no team ranked that low had ever done before – reach the NBA Finals.
Before delving into one of the most unlikely playoff runs in recent memory it is important to understand what happened to put New York in such a precarious position in the first place.
BEST LAID PLANS
As San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich put it back in ’99, the Knicks “had a lot of things go wrong that were distractions all year long.”
The 1998-99 season itself isn't often looked back upon fondly by the majority of NBA fans, largely because precisely none of it took place in 1998.
As a result of a dispute between the owners of the NBA’s then 29 franchises and the players plying their trade in the league, a lockout was enforced on July 1, 1998. The owners wanted changes to the salary cap to limit spending, whilst the players, led by the Knicks’ own Patrick Ewing as head of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), wanted to raise salaries for those earning the league minimum.
With both sides refusing to buckle, the lockout rolled on through the summer into autumn and, ultimately, into the New Year as first preseason and then, for the first time in the league’s history, regular season games were cancelled.
Amidst fears the season could be a total whitewash, peace finally broke out on January 18, 1999. A deal was struck to end the lockout ensuring an unorthodox campaign could get underway with 50 games crammed into just 90 days.
The first games were scheduled for February 5 and, on the eve of their belated season opener against the Orlando Magic, the New York Knicks were actually expected to be one of the main challengers for the title.
Unlike in recent years, the 1990s were a period of relative success for the Big Apple franchise. Known as an aggressive team capable of bullying the opponent, the Knicks’ six campaigns heading into the 98-99 season had ended; Conference Semi-Finals, Conference Semi-Finals, Conference Semi-Finals, Conference Semi-Finals, Finals runners-up, Conference Finals.
With Michael Jordan having retired (for the second time) and Scottie Pippen also leaving Chicago in favour of the Houston Rockets, the popular opinion was that this could be the year New York finally raised a third title banner at Madison Square Garden.
“The Knicks are afloat in more talent than ever. And there's no Michael Jordan in the way, and no more excuses.” – New York Times, February 5, 1999.
What’s more, Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld had taken advantage of the truncated campaign to give head coach Jeff van Gundy’s two big-name additions at his disposal.
QUALITY WITH RISK
Marcus Camby, the second overall pick in the 1996 draft, arrived from the Toronto Raptors in June of ‘98. Selected to the All-Rookie first team in his debut campaign and coming off a season in which he led the NBA in blocks, he promised to offer much-needed relief for the now 35-year-old Ewing at the five spot.
The other high-profile arrival came with slightly more baggage but equal promise that he could provide the edge New York had been searching for.
Latrell Sprewell was a three-time NBA All-Star when the end of the lockout allowed the Knicks to trade away John Starks, Chris Mills and Terry Cummings to bring him to New York from the Golden State Warriors.
Undoubtedly one of the most talented shooting guards in the league at the time, Sprewell had finished fifth in the NBA in scoring as recently as the 1996-97 campaign with 24.2 points per game. The 12 months before his arrival in NYC, however, meant the move was a risk.
Back in December of 1997, Sprewell choked then Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo and dragged him across the Golden State practice court. In handing down a one-year suspension, the longest in league history at the time, NBA commissioner David Stern described the incident:
“First, he choked him until forcibly pulled away. Then, after leaving practice, Mr. Sprewell returned and fought his way through others in order to commit a second, and this time clearly premeditated, assault.”
Although Sprewell’s suspension was reduced to 68 games, when coupled with the fact he spent three months under house arrest after an out-of-court settlement related to a car accident, the potential for the trade to backfire was very much there. While most of the league hadn’t played in 10 months due to the lockout, Sprewell was 15 months removed from his last NBA game.
Nevertheless, complimenting the likes of shooting guard Allen Houston (a future two-time All-Star), power forward Larry Johnson (already a two-time All-Star) and the ageing but effective 11-time All-Star Patrick Ewing, the new arrivals, whose contracts took the franchise’s payroll to a league-high $68 million, set the Knicks up to be a force in the Eastern Conference.
NOT IN THE SCRIPT
A 95-83 loss to the Magic on opening night, then, wasn’t in the script. And, although the team would win seven of their first 10 games, they stood on a precarious 14-10 record at the halfway stage of the season.
Like the rest of the league, the Knicks were struggling to blow off the cobwebs brought about by extended basketball abstinence. Add to that the fact that Sprewell (broken ankle) and Ewing (Achilles) combined to miss 19 of the team’s first 28 games through injury and things were far from rosy in the Garden.
Van Gundy was unable to find the crucial winning formula in the weeks that followed, either. Often unable to implement his preferred lineup – through a combination of injuries and front office bickering – the team struggled to gel having traded away key figures of seasons past in the form of Charles Oakley and John Starks.
The Knicks were no longer the tough team who thrived on physicality in years gone by, but weren’t the up-tempo roster they were supposed to have become. They were in limbo.
By the time they lost 72-67 against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 19 it looked like they’d be watching playoff basketball from their collective sofas for the first time in over a decade:
“The thought of the Knicks still playing in mid-June was a joke to anyone who lived outside New York. They were arguably the league’s most disappointing team and were in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1987.” – Los Angeles Times, June 16,1999.
Sitting on a 21-21 record with just eight games of the regular season remaining, the loss to the 76ers, their fourth straight defeat, brought things to a head – and saw heads roll.
All three of head coach Van Gundy, General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and team president Dave Checketts had, to varying degrees, been facing calls to be fired as the dysfunctional season unravelled.
Amidst reports, at first denied and then admitted by Checketts, that Phil Jackson had been contacted about taking over as head coach, Van Gundy’s job had been on the line on more than one occasion. Game reports from March 14, April 4 and April 8 all made reference to his precarious position.
For months, too, there had been signs of a rift between Van Gundy and Grunfeld. Arguments centred on a battle between Grunfeld’s vision of a youthful, faster paced Knicks and Van Gundy’s resentment of the loss of Oakley and an insistence of running things through Ewing. But it was the GM who paid the price when Checketts removed him from his role with two weeks remaining in the regular season.
“It had been a tumultuous year,” Van Gundy said recently when reflecting on the front office change of April 1999. “All that stuff was unfortunate…A lot of things happened that hurt people. It was a tough period.”
It was seen as little more than a peace-offering for the restless natives at the time but, whether by accident or design, it coincided with a much-needed run of form for a team who were, at that stage, on the outside looking in at the playoff positions.
Winning six of their final eight games, including two against the high-flying Miami Heat, the Knicks salvaged their season to sneak in as the eighth seed in the East with a 27-23 record, one game ahead of the Charlotte Hornets.
The fact, though, that Ewing was jeered by home fans as the team clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Celtics in their penultimate regular season game, and Van Gundy, per CBS, “trudged off the court with his head down, wearing a frown” that night, proves that optimism wasn’t exactly flowing out the Garden heading into the postseason.
Yet, after 90 days of play, the team with the third-worst offense in the league and enough front office controversy to top the standings in that department still had something to play for. What came next would ensure their place in NBA folklore, and its history books.
RIVALRY IN ROUND ONE
Although in the playoffs, a loss in the first round would still confine the Knicks to their worst campaign since 1991 – and likely cost Van Gundy his job.
So, despite their clear status as underdogs heading into an opening series against long-time rivals, the Miami Heat, the pressure was still on the New York franchise.
12 months earlier, they’d come out on top against the same opponents in a fractious series and the tension was just as high as the likes of Ewing and Alonzo Mourning locked horns once more.
To many people’s surprise, it was New York who handled the pressure in game one, coming out in true gunslinger style to win 95-75 in Miami’s own backyard. Sprewell and Allan Houston put up 22 points apiece and Heat coach Pat Riley described it as a “butt-kicking.”
Even still, these inconsistent Knicks surely couldn’t get the better of Tim Hardaway and co. over a five-game series? And when, having split games two and three, Van Gundy’s men allowed Miami to tie things up at 2-2 after scoring just 10 points in the final quarter of game four, the smart money was certainly on the Heat.
“We’ve just got to come back, regroup. We definitely didn’t want to go back to Miami but we’re going back. We just have to stay confident, and come out to play.” – Patrick Ewing in the locker room following game four.
So the Knicks’ season came down to a Sunday evening game on May 16 – a game where 14,985 fans inside the Miami Arena, and millions more watching on TV, would witness a shot that Van Gundy would later describe as having “saved jobs” and “altered lives”.
“OFF THE FRONT RIM…AND IN”
After 47 minutes and 56 seconds of basketball that optimised the gruelling, attritional nature of the Heat-Knicks rivalry at the time, New York trailed 77-76 and looked set to join a long list of ‘plucky number eight seeds’ who gave it their best shot but succumbed to the odds.
Instead, after a season of misfortune and missed opportunities, the Knicks saw lady luck shine their way twice in the space of five seconds.
First, Miami handed the Knicks an inbound play at the edge of the arc after the ball ricocheted off of Heat point guard Terry Porter’s leg. Then…well it is better described by New York’s radio play-by-play commentators:
“Miami leads New York 77-76 and 4.5 left in the game…Charlie Ward inbounding on the right sideline…Houston pops out on top…down the lane…running jumper…off the front rim…and in.”
People in attendance describe how “time stood still” as Allan Houston’s ugly jump shot bounced off the rim and, finally, into the basket with 0.8 seconds on the clock. The Knicks weren’t standing still, though, they were moving on to the Conference Semi Finals as just the second eighth-ranked team in league history to knock off a number one seed.
“You would hope it doesn’t come down to a bounce of a ball, but being realistic, I certainly could have seen a coaching change if we lost,” Jeff van Gundy in 2009.
THROUGH THE GEARS
Up next were the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had won the pair’s regular season series 2-1. This Knicks team – with Ewing zoned in on the hunt for an elusive title and Sprewell firing on all cylinders – was not the same team that had been in near disarray in the regular campaign, however.
The Hawks found that out to their cost, and they wouldn’t even have the luxury of a game five as New York steamrolled an Atlanta team led by Dikembe Mutombo 4-0.
Seemingly now content with a bench role that had caused some friction earlier in the season, Sprewell was the catalyst – the risky offseason arrival scoring 31 points in the opening two games while his fellow newcomer Marcus Camby provided the perfect foil in an increasingly effective second unit.
Although game four, a 79-66 procession, didn’t have the same nail-biting finish as the previous series’ decider against Miami, it did still provide New York with a second memorable moment in what was fast becoming a Cinderella story.
With just three minutes remaining and progress assured, the Madison Square Garden crowd erupted as one in support of their head coach. Chants of “Jeff-Van-Gundy” filled the arena in a show of solidarity for a man whose future the franchise was refusing to guarantee.
It was a far cry from the calls for his job barely one month earlier but, then again, so was everything else about this playoff Knicks.
INDIANA AND INJURY
Riding the crest of a wave, the team took their new found swagger into an Eastern Conference Finals series against familiar foes, the Indiana Pacers. Like New York, the Pacers began the season with huge expectations on their shoulders but, unlike the Big Apple franchise, they’d matched them - falling to number two seed only because of their head-to-head record versus Miami.
They’d been even more dominant in the playoffs and met the Knicks in game one as the proud owners of a 7-0 postseason record.
The opening encounter of the series was billed as Ewing vs Reggie Miller – a battle of two veterans searching for a legacy-altering ring – and it played out that way too. Ewing had a 16 point, 10 rebound double-double while Miller tied the game-high with 19 points. It was only Ewing who came away with victory, however, as New York went 1-0 up.
Then came another twist. This one, though, for the first time in a month, didn’t turn in the favour of Van Gundy and his charges.
Having played through the pain of a nagging Achilles injury to help the Knicks through rounds one and two, Patrick Ewing's ageing body finally gave up.
Downed by a tear in his left Achilles, Ewing was ruled out for the remainder of the playoffs after just two games of the team's Eastern Conference Finals series.
The team's talismanic center actually suffered the injury in the warmup for game two. Despite feeling what he later described as a "ripping sensation" as he went through his preparations, Ewing still went on to score 10 points in 20 minutes of play, but the Pacers evened things up at one apiece after the future Hall of Famer, effectively playing on one leg, missed a shot at the buzzer.
One MRI was all it took to deflate the mood in New York and see many media outlets predict a free run for Indiana to the NBA Finals.
Predicting this Knicks team was a bold move, however, and power forward Larry Johnson was waiting on hand to deliver another miracle moment.
A DIFFERENT LARRY LEGEND
Once again finding themselves battling against the odds, the Knicks were trailing 91-88 with 5.7 seconds on the clock in game three. In an age when the three-point shot was far less prevalent, it looked almost a lost cause.
By the time the buzzer went, New York had won the game 92-91 on the back of a four-point play from Johnson. Lady luck may have shone on the MSG side once again with people almost immediately noting the foul on Johnson’s three-point shot was a bad call, but the call came regardless and the Ewing-less Knicks took an advantage they wouldn’t let slip.
“On the bench, Patrick Ewing raised his arms skyward…On celebrity row, Spike Lee jumped into the arms of rapper Puff Daddy, who joyfully spun the diminutive director in circles. And the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden stayed put long after the game, chanting: “Larry! Larry! Larry!” – Baltimore Sun, June 6, 1999.
Although the Pacers levelled things once more with a game four win, six days after Johnson’s miracle play the New York Knicks were celebrating having become the first eighth seed in NBA history to reach the Finals.
Adding another layer to this complex story, it was Marcus Camby who finally stepped out of Ewing’s shadow down the stretch, dominating off the bench to finish one rebound shy of four straight double-doubles as the Knicks claimed a 4-2 series win.
Their improbable run to the NBA’s showpiece event had given the Knicks a real belief that they could do the unthinkable and claim the championship. They were embracing the role of unlikely heroes and playing out their own ‘ugly’ version of a Cinderella story.
But there would be no fairytale ending for Van Gundy, Ewing and co. They’d beaten the odds to get to the Finals but, in five games against the San Antonio Spurs, they could only beat Gregg Popovich’s men once.
Led by David Robinson and a young second-year phenom named Tim Duncan, the Spurs were just too much for a short-handed Knicks team who, six weeks earlier, had been the butt of many NBA jokes.
It was left to Van Gundy to sum up the rollercoaster ride New York had both endured and enjoyed:
“As disappointed as I am in the result for our guys because I really was hopeful for them that it would work out,” he said after their runners up status was secured.
“They stand for, to me, a lot of things that should be taught about the NBA and team basketball. When it was tough going they didn’t point fingers of blame at each other.”
Latrell Sprewell may have described the Knicks’ playoff heroics in 1999 as “all for nothing” in the aftermath of their Finals humbling and, for him and his teammates, it probably felt like that.
In the wider context of the NBA, however, New York’s rise from last-gasp playoff entrants, to gung-ho eighth seeds and eventually the Eastern Conference’s last chance for title glory has offered hope for every lower ranked team entering the playoffs in the years since.
Yes, it was an unusual season and yes, the Knicks still couldn’t get Ewing his ring. Nevertheless, it is a tale of resilience that any roster would benefit from remembering as they plot their own path to glory.