April 21st 1999: Ernie Grunfeld demoted as Knicks GM
The longstanding tension between Ernie Grunfeld & Jeff Van Gundy officially came to an end when Team President Dave Checketts notified Grunfeld of his demotion while out eating dinner. Checketts & Grunfeld became close friends after working together since 1991. Unfortunately, the long simmering feud between Grunfeld & JVG proved to be too much for Madison Square Garden to handle.
Grunfeld & Van Gundy were both assistant coaches under Stu Jackson. After the Knicks fired Stu Jackson, there were rumblings that assistant coaches (including Van Gundy) thought that Grunfeld undermined his coaching tenure. Grunfeld quickly moved into the front office as Van Gundy remained an assistant coach for several more coaches until 1996.
The tensions boiled further leading into and through the 1998-99 lockout season. One point of contention was trading both Charles Oakley & John Starks. Van Gundy, who had the utmost support of his teammates, wanted to retain both players. Grunfeld, on the other hand, accurately predicted that the team was getting too old. He saw trading both players as necessary to endure one final run with Patrick Ewing nearing the end of his NBA career.
Due to the lockout, there was enormous pressure on the Knicks and the team struggled from the onset. The Knicks teetered on missing the playoffs for the first time since 1987. Latrell Sprewell & Marcus Camby also played limited minutes for most of the season to the ire of the front office.
Throughout the season, Jeff Van Gundy’s job was on the line. With Phil Jackson sitting out the year, there was rampant speculation that the Knicks would hire Phil to replace Van Gundy. Therefore, the tensions were very high. To make it even worse, there were various stories reported about the front office’s dissatisfaction with Van Gundy and vice versa. There were several public retorts expressing their dissatisfaction towards each other.
Furthermore, it seems that the beat reporters & PR team played a major role in the feud. The NY Post, led by Peter Vecsey, received scoops from Grunfeld. The NY Daily News’ Mike Lupica received scoops from Checketts. Frank Isola & the NY Times’ Mike Wise received scoops from Jeff Van Gundy & the players who sided with their coach. The PR department within the Knicks organization took sides in the feud too.1
Because the internal turmoil leaked to the press, Cablevision, the new Knicks’ ownership group, had enough and wanted to squash the infighting. James Dolan, at the time the vice chairman of MSG, & the late Marc Lustgarten forced both parties to resolve their differences. When it seemed that the differences were irreconcilable, Dolan & Lustgarten forced Checketts to fire one of them. Because Van Gundy had the support of his players, Checketts had to fire Grunfeld.
The firing was done at a strange time, which doesn’t seem to be out of the ordinary in the Knicks landscape. The Knicks were barely scratching the 8 seed at the time of the demotion. Eventually, the Knicks secured the 8 seed, defeated the #1 seed Miami Heat, and made it to the NBA Finals. Van Gundy remained with the Knicks on a contract extension until the beginning of the 2001-02 season.
Grunfeld’s legacy with the Knicks is honestly a mixed bag to me. Obviously it’s easy to say that the Knicks made the playoffs every single season he was a part of the front office, including the two NBA Finals runs in 1994 & 1999. His notable signings included Anthony Mason, Allan Houston, Chris Childs, & Kurt Thomas. His more notable trades included acquiring Doc Rivers, Charles Smith, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, & Marcus Camby. He did draft both Greg Anthony & Charlie Ward. However, I do wonder whether Grunfeld did enough to surround Ewing with a legitimate #2 option and provide him with younger talent that could have helped the Knicks compete against the more athletic playoff teams. The Knicks mostly neglected draft picks and favored acquiring older, past-the-prime veterans.
The Grunfeld demotion had long-term repercussions on the direction of the Knicks franchise. For one, James Dolan became a more influential and vocal voice in the Knicks front office. His influence led to Dave Checketts’ dismissal in 2001. His influence and the tensions from the 1998-99 season also helped formulate the current iteration of the Knicks media policy that certain beat writers (i.e. Isola) consider draconian and “big brother-lite.” The new media policy led to fewer leaks and the beat writers lost their once valued access to the organization. Isola seemed to have a big problem with the policy. Furthermore, Van Gundy’s resignation and the eventual dismissal of some of his assistant coaches (Tom Thibodeau) furthered Isola’s feud with the organization. Essentially, there’s a reason the New York Daily News is not highly regarded within Madison Square Garden.
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