On This Date: Ernie Grunfeld demoted as Knicks GM

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.

On This Date: Knicks fire Don Nelson and promote Jeff Van Gundy to head coach

March 8th 1996:  The New York Knicks fire Don Nelson and appoint Jeff Van Gundy as the new head coach

In one of the shortest head coaching tenures in modern NBA history, the Knicks fired Don Nelson after only 59 games despite a 34-25 record with the team. Unlike the Golden State Warriors, where Nelson feuded with Chris Webber, the entire team had issues with Nelson. Nelson favored a modern up-tempo style of basketball while the players wanted more of the same under the Pat Riley era. He centered the offense around Anthony Mason and unleashed his skills as a point-forward to the disdain of Patrick Ewing. Ewing obviously favored centering the offense from the low post. In the weeks leading up to his firing, Nelson benched John Starks and had Hubert Davis replace him in the 4th quarters of games.

The final straw was when Nelson stated – off the record with people in Madison Square Garden – that the Knicks had to move on from Patrick Ewing and try to trade him to Orlando for Shaquille O’Neal. The word caught back to Ewing and the relationship was toast. The core Knicks – led by Ewing – sparked a mini-insurrection until Ernie Grunfeld fired Nelson.

In reality, the Knicks roster were insistent on maintaining the status quo and the style of offense and defense that thrived under Pat Riley. Nelson wanted to implement a modern, but eccentric approach to basketball that an old veteran team was not willing to accept. Some of his initial philosophies, including using Anthony Mason as a point forward, have been incorporated in today’s modern NBA.

Jeff Van Gundy replaced Nelson as the interim head coach. Van Gundy, then 34, stuck around as an assistant coach dating back to the Stu Jackson era. His offensive and defensive philosophies were largely influenced from the Riley era. He centered the offense back around Ewing and re-emphasized defense. The Jeff Van Gundy Knicks personified tough defense while often sacrificing high scoring outputs on offense.

Furthermore, Van Gundy inherited assistant coach Don Chaney from Nelson’s coaching staff to be his full-time assistant coach until his resignation in 2001. During his tenure with the Knicks, he played a role in developing 3 assistant coaches that eventually became NBA head coaches in Tom Thibodeau, Steve Clifford, and Mike Malone.

On This Date: Bernard King returns to MSG as a Washington Bullets player and Jeff Van Gundy unexpectedly quits

December 8, 1987: Bernard Kings makes his first visit to MSG as a member of the Washington Bullets

Bernard King returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time as a Washington Bullet. The Knicks got the last laugh in a 116-92 blowout victory. King came off the bench to score 19 points in 32 minutes.

Patrick Ewing & Bill Cartwright combined for 52 points and simply overpowered the Bullets’ frontcourt. Mark Jackson nearly had a triple double with 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists.

King missed the entire 1985-86 season and all but 6 games of the 1986-87 season recovering from the torn ACL.  In the 6 games, King averaged 22.7 points a game and shot nearly 50% from the field.

However, the Knicks decided against re-signing Bernard King in the summer of 1987 for various reasons.  At the time, the Knicks were afraid that King wouldn’t fully recover from the knee surgery.  At the same time, the front office didn’t like that King did most of his rehabilitation away from the team and barely attended games during the stretch.  Furthermore, the Knicks committed to rebuilding with Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson, & Kenny Walker, amongst others, and thought that King would be a deterrence to the development process.

Despite the Knicks’ qualms, King was able to make a near-full recovery and had several productive seasons after his Knicks tenure.  He made the 1991 All Star team and averaged 28.4 points/game that season, including a 49 point effort against the Knicks.

The Knicks had a short stint of success in the Rick Pitino era and spent a lot of effort looking for small forwards after King’s departure.  Perhaps Bernard King would have made a difference.


December 8, 2001:  Jeff Van Gundy unexpectedly quits

In a day that marked the downward spiral of the New York Knicks in the 2000s, Jeff Van Gundy (JVG) abruptly resigned after a 10-9 record to start the season. The team won 5 of their last 6 games heading into the resignation.

He was known as one of the hardest working coaches in the league.  Many of his former assistant coaches currently coaching in the NBA possess the same traits as him. Six + years of coaching at high intensity took a toll on Van Gundy and his family.  JVG, then 39, was married with a 6 year old daughter and often longed to spend more time with his family.

JVG felt he was losing the team as early as the 2000-01 season, the same reason the Knicks traded Ewing.  The team wasn’t playing with the same intensity that they were reputed for during the 90s.  He often questioned the team’s effort and publicly stated that the team was “mailing it in” during some of the games.

Additionally, Van Gundy dealt with tragedy close to home as two of his close friends, Farrell Lynch & Bill Minardi, were killed in the September 11th attacks.  The culmination of events leading up to the season were tough to overcome.

JVG left the Knicks with a 248-172 record.  He spent nearly 7 years as an assistant coach under Stu Jackson, John MacLeod, Pat Riley, & Don Nelson.  As a head coach, he led the Knicks to an unexpected NBA Finals run in 1999.  Despite the success, he was nearly fired on multiple occasions and dealt with a highly publicized feud with GM Ernie Grunfeld that led to the latter’s dismissal.  Furthermore, he outlasted both Patrick Ewing and Dave Checketts, leaving him with few allies internally in the organization.

Don Chaney took over for JVG as interim coach.  It’s safe to say the Knicks never recovered after his resignation during the decade.  Likewise, JVG has admitted that he shouldn’t have resigned.