February 1st 1984 was a day that forever lives in NBA History. A day that forever transformed a league ravaged with barren arenas, tepid enthusiasm for broadcast television, and rampant drug use amongst the players. The NBA was a league where bench clearing brawls was too often a norm. Most of the United States saw the Kermit Washington punch front and center. Furthermore, the rampant drug use led to alleged accusation of match fixing, especially by the Knicks in the early 80s. Fans lost interest in watching the games and owners and franchises were hemorrhaging money to the point where the league nearly faced contraction of 7 teams down to 16.
David Stern took over as commissioner in 1984 after he spent the past 6 years working in the NBA General Counsel under Larry O’Brien. It is well known and documented by now how Stern impacted the league as a whole. However, Stern, a life-long Knicks fan, specifically helped mold the team as a franchise over the past 35 years through his initiatives and decisions. His imprint remains throughout the modern Knicks history – from 1984 to now.
NBA Draft Lottery:
The Draft Lottery came out of desperation to solve an issue that some fans1 now embrace with pride: tanking. Unlike in recent years and decades, tanking used to be a relatively easy process circa 1984. The NBA Draft order was in inverse order with the worst team from each conference facing off in a coin flip for the #1 pick. The worst case scenario for a bottom feeder was the 2nd overall pick in a draft.
In 1983 and 1984, both the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers (then San Diego Clippers) publicly embraced losing. Then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling chased losing, but the Rockets out-lost the Clippers and won the coin flip in both years to draft Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon respectively. Upon becoming commissioner, Stern immediately went to work to implement the draft lottery. The reason: Patrick Ewing.
Patrick Ewing was the prized basketball prospect in the then-upcoming 1985 NBA Draft. Ewing took the Georgetown Hoyas to 3 NCAA Finals. He was the best college prospect the league had seen in a long while.
At the end of the 1984-85 season, the 7 worst teams faced off in a Draft Lottery with equal odds (14.3%) of winning. One of those teams was the New York Knicks. The Knicks suffered a horrible setback at the end of the year when Bernard King tore his ACL. Bill Cartwright, their top pick from 1979, missed the entire season with foot injuries. Madison Square Garden was half empty most of the season as the Knicks mired in losing.
In the back of his mind, Stern saw Ewing as the generational face of the league alongside Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Hakeem Olajuwon, and the defending Rookie of the Year in Michael Jordan, amongst others. The NBA wanted to create a buzz and what better way to do it than by having the best college prospect in decades take over Madison Square Garden for decades to come? It was a perfect match, right?
The rest is history. Ewing spent 15 seasons with the Knicks as the team marched through the NBA Playoffs in 13 of those 15 years with two NBA Finals appearances. In recent years, fans embarked on the journey of the draft lottery eternity. The Knicks, unfortunately, were not able to secure that #1 selection in recent years. With the lottery odds smoothing out across all teams, the path to #1 is a lot harder.
NBA All Star Weekend:
One of Stern’s immediate changes was transforming the All Star Game to All Star Weekend. This included events such as the Three Point Shootout, the Rookie/Sophomore challenge (now Rising Stars Challenge), and the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Stern attempted to mirror the events that occurred during Super Bowl weekend as a way to excite fans and corporate sponsors. That plan definitely was a success.
6 Knicks participated in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, including Kenny “Sky” Walker, who won the 1989 Slam Dunk Contest, and three-time winner Nate Robinson. The 2006 Slam Dunk Contest was one for the history books as the 5’9 (I guess?) Robinson squared off against Andre Iguodala in controversial fashion. In recent years, Knicks fans enjoyed seeing their rookies and sophomores participate in the NBA Rising Stars challenge. Then-sophomore David Lee won the MVP in 2007 with 30 points and 11 rebounds on a perfect 14-14 from the field.
Under Stern, the Knicks hosted the NBA All Star weekend twice; 1998 and 2015. The 2015 All Star Game was special as that was one of the last announcements Stern made before he retired in February 2014.
Stern immediately made it a priority to expand the game outside of the United States. Predating the NBA’s presence in the Olympics, Stern helped form the McDonald’s Open, competition that featured an NBA team against championship clubs in Europe, Australia, and South America.
The Knicks represented the NBA in 1990 in Barcelona. The Knicks faced Pop 84 in the Finals, a Croatian club that featured future NBA champion Toni Kukoc. The Knicks won 117-101 and Patrick Ewing won the MVP.
The trip to Barcelona was a precursor to the 1992 Olympics where Patrick Ewing represented the Knicks and Team USA, The Dream Team. Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler represented the Knicks in future Olympic tournaments.
The Knicks held preseason games against Maccabi Tel Aviv in the late 2000s. In 2013, the Knicks went to London for the first time to play the Detroit Pistons. They later returned to London in 2015 and 2019.
Before 1984, watching NBA games on television wasn’t a very fun experience. The NBA on CBS infamously aired playoff and finals games on tape delay, even as stars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird began to take force in the league. After 1986, Stern helped propel significantly lucrative TV deals, starting with TBS and TNT in 1988.
The most pivotal moment came in 1990 when the NBA signed a 4 year $601 million deal to broadcast games on NBC. This marked the era of the NBA on NBC that also coincided with the beginning of the Michael Jordan dynasty.
I vividly remember watching some of my greatest Knick moments on NBC, whether it was a playoff moment (the Larry Johnson 4 point play) or a silly moment.2 The theme song and the playoff triple headers were everlasting. The Knicks and NBC helped set my plans on the weekends. Seeing the Knicks in the introduction scenes would often pump me up before elementary school basketball games or imaginary basketball games at my basketball court at home.3
After 2002, Disney became the premier nationally televised broadcaster of NBA games on ABC and ESPN. TNT, likewise, took on a much larger role for Thursday night and NBA Playoff broadcasts. Stern’s intention was to improve the fan experience of watching basketball, especially on television. Whether it’s watching Inside the NBA or watching Doris Burke masterfully analyze the game, I think Stern’s dream came true.
While Stern overall brought goodwill to the Knicks and the NBA, there were some decisions that impacted the Knicks in mixed fashion.
After the memorable Trent Tucker basket on MLK Day 1990, Stern enforced the aforementioned “Trent Tucker Rule” that required 0.3 seconds to be on the clock for a player to get a shot off. The only exceptions were tip-ins. The rule didn’t seem to matter when David Lee tipped in the game-winner against the Charlotte Bobcats in 2006, but it impacted Amare Stoudemire against the Celtics in 2010 and then-rookie Kristaps Porzingis against the now-Charlotte Hornets in 2015.
However, certain rules haunted the Knicks in other scenarios. After the infamous Greg Anthony fight, Stern implemented a rule that enforced automatic ejections and 1 game suspensions for anyone that threw a punch. A year later, the Derek Harper/Jo Jo English fight triggered a new rule stating that anyone that left the bench during an altercation would face a 1 game suspension.
The latter rule came to punish the Knicks in the 1997 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat. After the Charlie Ward/PJ Brown fight, the NBA suspended Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Patrick Ewing 1 game each for leaving the bench. The suspensions were staggered, but left the Knicks undermanned as they lost to the Heat in 7 games.
In later years, Stern eliminated hand-checking and instituted the defensive three second rule in an attempt to increase the pace and offensive output of games. This was definitely in response to the tough defensive Knicks teams of the 90s along with the Bad Boy Pistons.
Before attracting controversy for simply working in Madison Square Garden for way too long, Steve Mills was a longtime executive working with the NBA league offices starting in 1984. He went from the corporate sponsorship department to the Vice President of Special Events. In layman’s terms, he was a bridge between NBA and Corporate America. He was instrumental in many things including that same McDonald’s Open, USA Basketball, the creation of the WNBA, and negotiating the end of the 1999 NBA Lockout.
Through his work with David Stern, Mills ended up with the Knicks, a nearly 20 year tenure that has often been marred with controversy than success.
Stern publicly intervened in the Knicks’ affairs after the Anucha Browne Sanders lawsuit tarnished any semblance of a reputation for the franchise. Stern pushed James Dolan to shake up the organization as he was forced to fire Isiah Thomas in 2008. Steve Mills quietly left the organization soon after to return back in 2013.
Under the Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald era, the Knicks unwound themselves from salary cap purgatory to become players in free agency for the first time since 1996. While missing out on LeBron James, the Knicks signed Amare Stoudemire and acquired Carmelo Anthony to help the team make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The team made the playoffs for 3 straight seasons, until Mills returned.
Stern presided over 4 lockouts; 1995, 1996, 1999, and 2011. The ’95 and ’96 lockouts had little impact on the Knicks organization. However, the 1999 lockout proved illustrious for the franchise.
Upon the end of the lockout, the Knicks traded for embattled Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell. Sprewell was suspended for a bulk of the 1997-98 season for choking then-coach PJ Carlesimo. The Knicks overhauled their roster, letting veteran leaders Charles Oakley & John Starks depart in return for Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell. Furthermore, Patrick Ewing came back from a wrist injury.
The 1998-99 Knicks started the season off very slow. Pressure amounted on the team to win games, but there was internal tensions brewing between the front office, particularly Ernie Grunfeld, and Jeff Van Gundy. The tensions became public and eventually the Knicks fired Grunfeld. The Knicks snuck in as the #8 seed and made a miraculous run to the NBA Finals.
One of the after-effects of that season was James Dolan’s newfound control on the franchise. Because of the Grunfeld/Van Gundy spat, Dolan later instituted a new media policy that certain beat reporters still hate to this date.
The 2011 NBA Lockout altered the Knicks in other ways. One of the immediate effects was trading for Carmelo Anthony midway through the 2010-11 season rather than waiting for free agency. With an impending lockout, the Nuggets were hellbent on trading Melo and Melo wanted a move to secure his contract.
The 2011-12 lockout season proved to be tough for the Knicks as many players – including Melo – came into the season out of shape. Injuries were prevalent and chemistry was often sparse at times. Linsanity gave the team a spark, but a tough losing streak forced a coaching change. The change propelled the Knicks to an 18-6 record to go back into the NBA Playoffs for the 2nd consecutive season.
It’s fair to say that Stern’s actions left a visible imprint on Knicks history. He was a trailblazing commissioner that revolutionized the sport of basketball forever. The league would not be where it is without David Stern. The Knicks wouldn’t be where they are as well..
Knicks Film School Historian, amongst other things