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(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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“It Was Like True, True Disdain for Each Other”

An oral history of the 1997 Knicks-Heat postseason brawl — and the four-season NBA playoff rivalry that began changing the fates of two franchises 20 years ago

Spend too long gazing into the mirror and you might start to hate what you see. The New York Knicks and the Miami Heat of the late 1990s were spitting images of one another, with their elite centers from Georgetown, disheveled Van Gundy brothers, and philosophies rooted in Pat Riley’s teachings. The teams were similarly skilled and stubborn, full of physically commanding bruisers who pummeled each other to low-scoring oblivion when the Knicks and Heat faced off. And the Knicks and Heat faced off a lot: For four consecutive seasons, beginning 20 years ago, these worthy adversaries met every spring in the playoffs in a haywire rivalry that was through the looking glass.

It was a brutal and rollicking stretch. Players dove into the crowd for loose balls, manhandled one another, and held onto grudges with the same pry-it-from-my-cold-dead-hands grip that they used on the basketball. There were mind games and body blows, friendships and fallings-out, lucky shots and Roundball Rock. There was Riley’s past (the Knicks, whom he’d taken to the NBA Finals in 1994) and his present and future (the Heat, whom he’d taken over in 1995 after a tumultuous departure from New York that involved a trip to Greece, a faxed resignation, league tampering charges, and a cruise ship named the Imagination). There was, at the heart of the rivalry, the sort of bitter, begrudging respect that can arise only from mutually attempted destruction. Of those four postseason meetings, the Knicks would win three, including a 1999 first-round upset of the top-seeded Heat that fueled New York’s run to the Finals. But it was the one series that they lost to Miami, in May 1997, that wound up feeling like the one that got away.

Twenty years ago, in the second round of the playoffs, a routine Miami trip to the foul line in garbage time of a blowout Game 5 sparked a freakish fight, led to suspensions and a day in court, and resulted in Miami battling back from down 3–1 to win the series. Some games hang on a bounce, some plays hinge on a screen. This series, and the ones that would follow, turned on a free throw.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part I: “He Was the Main Shark”

It’s a distant memory now, but two decades ago two things about the New York Knicks were usually true: They’d win around 50 games a season, and they’d still be playing basketball in mid-May. From 1992 to 1997 the team dipped below the 50-win mark only once, the year after Riley left the team. Grueling, physically confrontational playoff battles — against Jordan’s Bulls, or Reggie’s Pacers — were a seasonal springtime norm at MSG.

Note: All titles reflect positions during the 1997 NBA postseason.

Mike Francesa (WFAN radio host): It seemed like every weekend in May on a Sunday there was a game at the Garden. When my mother was alive, I must have missed Mother’s Day for like, eight years in a row. She’s like, “Do you have to go to the Knick playoff game?”

J.A. Adande (NBA reporter, The Washington Post): What Riley did with the Knicks, getting that team to the 1994 Finals that really didn’t have very much firepower, that might’ve been his greatest coaching achievement.

Francesa: The Knicks owned this town. Owned it. They were Topic A so much.

Under Riley, the Knicks lost in the conference finals to Chicago in six games in 1993 and fell in seven to Houston in the 1994 NBA Finals. But by the summer of 1995, Riley — frustrated by the layers of oversight in the Knicks organization, tempted by the Miami Heat’s promise of enormous control, and having negged Heat owner Micky Arison — faxed in his resignation and went on vacation to Greece. The move would lead to tampering charges against Miami and a settlement in which the Heat gave the Knicks a 1996 first-round draft pick and a million bucks.

Ira Winderman (Heat beat writer, Sun Sentinel): Pat Riley wanted open-checkbook basketball where he didn’t have to worry about the Madison Square Garden executives going through executive meetings [and] he could get what he wanted. He found his partner in Micky Arison.

Dave Checketts (Madison Square Garden president), in a press conference the day Riley resigned: He wanted ownership. He wanted autonomy. He wanted a number of things that we really couldn’t give to him.

Pat Riley (Heat coach and president), to the New York Daily News in 1995: I got tired of being used, manipulated, promised, ignored, threatened and eventually, I got tired of somebody not living up to his word.

Russ Granik (NBA deputy commissioner): Miami had tampered with Pat when he was still under contract with the Knicks. I don’t remember anything [else] quite like that.

Winderman: Micky Arison was willing to spend a million dollars in the fine, he was willing to give up the first-round draft choice to the Knicks, so you knew something big was brewing because Pat Riley was not going through all of that … to just go to some middling situation.

Tony Fiorentino (Heat assistant coach): It’s one of the great marriages in pro sports history, Arison and Riley.

Riley became, for a time, Public Enemy no. 1 in New York. (“Boo Pat the Rat,” said one headline in the New York Post before Riley’s first return to MSG in December 1995; a fan held up a “BENEDICT RILEY” sign.) The Knicks struggled in their first season without Riley, bumbling through a brief Don Nelson coaching reign that alienated players and fans. (His benching of crowd favorite John Starks never went over well.) With 23 games to play in the 1995–96 season, Nelson was fired and Jeff Van Gundy, a longtime Riley assistant, was promoted to head coach. The Knicks made the playoffs, but went into the offseason looking to make some changes. Riley, meanwhile, was eager to make his mark in Miami, a franchise that had been mostly mediocre since joining the league as an expansion team in 1988. He began shaping a team that looked a hell of a lot like the one he’d just left.

Fiorentino: We were a franchise that just existed. We weren’t going anywhere, we weren’t doing much. And as soon as Riley came aboard he gave the franchise legitimacy.

Winderman: It really was sort of ragtag, non-Riley style, non-Riley players for that first year.

Fiorentino: He got the job in September. [In November] we got Alonzo Mourning. Then a few months after that, in February, that’s when he made the big trade to get Tim Hardaway.

Winderman: [It was] very far from Showtime Lakers and more of a clutch-and-grab, New York Knicks approach. And it was clear by getting Alonzo Mourning and P.J. Brown and some of the players he got that that’s the style he still was embracing.

Mike Wise (Knicks beat writer, The New York Times): [Riley’s Knicks] had been this brooding bunch of hooligans that beat the shit out of you.

Winderman: He was sort of trying to bring, I guess for lack of a better way to put it, New York tough down to South Florida.

Walter McCarty (New York Knicks rookie forward): Rick Pitino, in college [at Kentucky], if I didn’t get an offensive rebound, or if I didn’t block, or if I got pushed in a game or whatever, would always say: “If you’re going up against the New York Knicks one day, Charles Oakley and all, you better hit somebody.”

Francesa: Riley really is a tough guy from Schenectady. He’s not Showtime, tequila sunrise, Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson. He built the Gordon Gekko image in L.A. partnering with Kareem and Magic, going from a guy who was an extra player to a guy who became this superstar sex symbol with the Armani suits.

Wise: That story about how he got close with Michael Douglas — I’m like, that makes perfect sense, because everyone used to call him Gordon Gekko. He turned this place into such a shark tank, and he was the main shark.

Riley, speaking at the cruise ship press conference announcing his start with the Heat: A lot of people in New York feel like I abandoned them, and that’s just not right. This was a case of standing on principles.

Francesa: He brought the Armani suits and he brought the Gordon Gekko haircut to New York, but what he also brought to both teams was basically a lunch-pail mentality: no rebounds, no rings; no blood, no foul; nobody comes down our lane.

The Heat had never cracked 50 wins since joining the league. In Riley’s first year, they won 42 games, made the playoffs, and lost to Chicago in the first round; they went 61–21 in Riley’s second season. Thirty-two of those wins came on the road, where at one point the Heat went on a 14-game winning streak. Riley was named Coach of the Year.

Fiorentino: I remember going on a six-game West Coast trip and a reporter asked Riley, “What’s a good record? 5–1? 4–2?” And Riley said, “I want to win them all.” And we went out, and we won them all. And I remember Alonzo Mourning was sitting next to me, and goes, “That’s why I love the man.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part II: “Chicago Was Always on Your Mind”

In the summer of 1996, Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld acquired three key players on the same day. Grunfeld hoped that newcomers Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and Chris Childs would make the team younger and bolster the talent around Patrick Ewing enough to give the Knicks a legitimate championship shot. “There is no guarantee that the Knicks will be good enough to dethrone the Chicago Bulls next season,” wrote Clifton Brown in The New York Times, “but New York’s chances have become dramatically better.” With four championship rings already on their fingers and two more to come, the Bulls were the league’s gold standard, final boss, and white whale.

Jeff Van Gundy (Knicks head coach): When you’re playing in that era and trying to put a team together in that era, Chicago was always on your mind. Indiana was terrific, Miami was great. It wasn’t like you could just focus on one team, but what you did know is that you better put together a good team, because back then the Eastern Conference was an absolute bear.

Winderman: You knew if you were playing Michael Jordan, you were done anyway.

Adande: I don’t think people really suspected that Knicks team was capable of knocking off the Bulls. I don’t remember there being much doubt behind that.

Francesa: In 1993 the Knicks thought they could beat them. Then, obviously, [there was] that emblematic play of Charles Smith getting the ball blocked 42 times.

Wise: All these players in the league, all these great future Hall of Famers, had that number-two banana teammate. Michael Jordan never won a championship without Scottie; Karl Malone and John Stockton were together. I was like, “Why can’t they put the requisite talent around Patrick Ewing where he could actually contend for a real title?”

Francesa: Checketts said to me, “My greatest disappointment is that I never got Patrick a good-enough second player.” They always tried, and they kept wheeling them in.

Mike Breen (WFAN radio play-by-play): They still had their core; Ewing, [Charles] Oakley, and Starks were still here, and had been through old wars with the Chicago Bulls. Now all of a sudden you bring in some new younger players.

Buck Williams (Knicks forward): Ernie Grunfeld was kinda gearing up to challenge Chicago. From day one it was understood that we had to go through them, and he tried to put together a talented team that could compete with the Bulls.

Van Gundy: We were healthy [in 1996–97], we had great depth, we were tough and smart. It was a well-put-together team. Obviously with all the rules changes that have happened along the way, it’s not how you would construct your team today.

Winderman: The flagrant-foul policy would eventually follow; suspensions for technical fouls would eventually follow. [NBA commissioner] David Stern knew what he didn’t want, and what he didn’t want was what Pat Riley started.

McCarty: The technicals and flagrants are different these days. Some of the hard fouls that we would see in the game, by Oakley or any of those guys — I mean, they would probably be ejected and suspended for five games, the way things are today.

Van Gundy: But for that time, certainly I think that was the best team we had put around Patrick, from a talent standpoint.

Patrick Ewing (Knicks center), to reporters after the Knicks’ Game 7 loss to the Heat in the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals: I believed in my teammates. We had a great team. The chemistry was great. Everything was great.

John Wallace (Knicks forward): We matched up well with Chicago that year. We really, really did. Scottie Pippen was great but he didn’t like to play post defense all the time, and we felt like we could take advantage of that.

Wise: Allan Houston gave them this sort of moxie and skill that they were missing. They’d always had the brute, Derek Harper nastiness, but they needed the skill player who was going to knock down that shot from the perimeter that nobody could stop. [Houston] was sort of like Reggie Miller with actual — he didn’t need 20,000 picks to free him like Reggie. On top of that, they had Larry Johnson’s decreased athleticism but increased mental toughness. He understood the game better and was afraid of literally no one, that perfect blend of skill and toughness. Chris Childs was like the perfect, chip-on-shoulder former CBA guard.

Van Gundy: We had some new players that left a huge impact, but a lot of the guys had been there since I was an assistant coach. I felt it was an advantage to have great players, but also have a history with them — particularly with being a nonplaying, you know, ugly short guy.

Wallace: We had everything. We were loaded. Top to bottom. That’s all we talked about.

Wise: It was kind of cool, the last day of the regular season, they pulled this game out of their butts against the Bulls. And they’re going into the playoffs thinking, “We’ve got the freakin’ Bulls’ number!” And I know that nobody in their right mind who watched the Bulls win the title against the Jazz that year is going to agree with me, and maybe only people who saw that team and remember will feel this way, but I was convinced that if Michael Jordan was ever going to be beaten by an Eastern Conference team in his heyday, in his prime, that was going to be it.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Part III: “Like Fighting Your Brother That Knew All Your Moves”

The Knicks finished the 1996–97 season 57–25. Starks was named Sixth Man of the Year. Ewing averaged 22.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game and was named to the All-NBA second team. Third-seed New York faced the Charlotte Hornets in the first round.

Wallace: I remember [Charlotte’s] Glen Rice vividly singing “I Believe I Can Fly” in the hallway, and Van Gundy made a comment about, “We’re going to clip those wings” or whatever. You know, our typical New York attitude.

The Knicks swept the Hornets in three games and moved on to face Miami, who had beaten the Orlando Magic 3–2 in the first round. Knicks-Heat was a series filled with drama and intrigue on and off the court. The story lines were catnip: Riley, the smooth operator who haunted the organization like an ex-boyfriend, against Van Gundy, his longtime protégé. As if that weren’t enough, Van Gundy’s brother, Stan, was an assistant coach for the Heat. Childs and Brown had been teammates in New Jersey. Ewing and Mourning had both played center at Georgetown and were ostensibly friendly; Mourning and Johnson had both played on the Hornets and were reportedly not.

Francesa: You’ve got Pat Riley’s DNA, and Riley’s toughness, on both sides of the series, and that’s what really made that crazy.

Wallace: Playing Miami was like fighting your brother that knew all of your moves, that knew every way that you fought.

Fiorentino: It was very physical; Jeff Van Gundy was a disciple of Pat Riley.

McCarty: Jeff was a very fair coach, straight down to business. I don’t know if I ever saw him smile. I see him smile much more on TV than he did when he was coaching.

Williams: He’d come to practice every morning with rings around his eyes from watching basketball all day long. His wife probably wanted to kill him.

McCarty: He probably slept on the couch.

Wallace: When the protégé goes against the mentor, that’s Riley and Van Gundy. The protégé is always trying to prove that they appreciate you teaching them, but now they’ve got to show you that I can beat you.

Williams: You had not clashing philosophies but similar philosophies clashing. We were running a lot of the same offense.

Wallace: The mentor is there to show you, “Yeah, I showed you some stuff, but I didn’t show you everything.”

Van Gundy: I think the constant beating of the same story over and over — you know, mentor and pupil; brother and brother — I think everybody got tired of that on both sides.

Wallace: It was a war from every aspect, at every level, from management to the coaches to the players. It was like true, true disdain for each other.

Breen: They wound up playing each other in four consecutive years in the playoffs, and they seemed like they were scratching for every single possession. It was a struggle to score 90 points, let alone 100. And it just seemed like, from the first quarter — guys denying the ball, and guys battling for rebounds — it was just incredible for 48 minutes. It seemed like this absolute iconic tug-of-war between these two teams.

Winderman: Knicks-Heat was Riley versus Riley.

P.J. Brown (Heat forward), to reporters following an April 12 regular-season game against the Knicks: I dislike them more than any team in the league. Everyone in this locker room feels that way. It’s all that arrogance, like they’re gods or something. They act like they’ve won a championship. … They haven’t won anything.

Francesa: I knew Tim Hardaway well, and he’d be on the foul line, and I always used to sit under the basket, and he’d be shaking his head that no one could make a basket. He’d be smirking at me, because he loved it.

Tim Hardaway (Heat point guard), discussing the Knicks rivalry, per the Hartford Courant: I hate them with all the hate that you can hate with. Can you hate more than that? If you can, I hate them more than that.

In the first four games of the ’97 series, neither the Knicks nor the Heat ever surpassed 90 points. (Wise described Game 1 as “a game that had the esthetic appeal of cars being crushed at a junkyard.”) The two teams split the first two contests in Miami, with Game 2 being a tight 88–84 Heat win in which, among other things, Starks collided with two Heat players and ended up on the floor. Brown was asked about it afterward. “I think this was the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I think you’ll see a little more of that, maybe worse.”

Game 3, played on Mother’s Day at Madison Square Garden, was a tense, close battle that ended when Ewing rejected a Tim Hardaway 3-point attempt that would have tied the game, and then added a free throw for a 77–73 win. By the end of Game 4, an 89–76 Knicks win that put New York up 3–1 in the series, things had gotten so physical between Oakley and Mourning that Riley complained. “No man wants to be walked over by another guy,” he said. Reactions to the game highlighted the beautiful ugliness of it all.

Mike Lupica (columnist, New York Daily News), writing after Game 4: The Knicks did not just beat the Heat at the Garden. They tied Pat Riley’s team to the back of a New York City taxicab and dragged it around the city for a while.

Michael Wilbon (columnist, The Washington Post), writing after Game 4: Has there ever been a playoff basketball series this disjointed, this aesthetically challenged, this turnover-infested, this absolutely bone-ugly? You know what the lasting image of Knicks-Miami will be? Two guys wrestling each other to the floor (no foul called) while the ball sails out of bounds.

Winderman: It was wrestling. It was Monday-night Raw through the first four games of that series.

Breen: I just remember, doing the Knicks during that time, I received a lot of boxing play-by-play experience. There were a lot of brawls. … Instead of doing play-by-play, you do blow-by-blow.

Winderman: They were chippy players; it could not not be chippy. It had to be chippy. Everyone knew that. You almost had a feeling that the league office — I think it was Rod Thorn at the time, I might be wrong — but you almost knew that they were checking in from New York almost as if they had the stationery ready to issue the fines.

Granik: It was certainly an attractive thing for fans, but it did tend to erupt.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part IV: “He Was Going to Try to Cut Your Nuts off to Win”

Despite falling behind 3–1, the Heat were not ready to see their season end, and got out to a lead over New York in the second half of Game 5 in Miami. With two minutes to play, Brown converted a putback to put the Heat up 12, and on the next possession Oakley set a mighty pick that laid out Hardaway. Oakley and Mourning shared heated words. So did Childs and Brown. Oakley earned a pair of technicals for some after-the-whistle contact with Mourning, earning Oakley an automatic ejection. And with 1:53 to play and the Heat leading 88–74, Charlie Ward fouled Hardaway in the backcourt, sending Miami’s point guard to the free throw line.

Adande: The game was over, for all intents and purposes. We knew who was going to win, and I’m putting the finishing touches on my story on my laptop.

Scott Brooks (Knicks guard): The only reason I was on the floor was because it was a blowout.

McCarty: They were winning the game, and so our [starting] players go to the bench, so there’s me [out on the court].

Breen: Charles Oakley got thrown out, so the game had really turned. It was just like, let’s get out of here, and let’s get away. All of a sudden all hell breaks loose.

With Hardaway at the free throw line, Brown stood in the lane between Wallace and Ward. Brown hopped up after the second attempt to prepare to grab a rebound on a miss. Ward, a former football player and Heisman Trophy winner, lowered his shoulder, stuck out his rear, and rushed Brown as if the Heat forward were a tackling dummy.

Fiorentino: I think Charlie Ward was just trying to box him out, but he got a little too excited and undercut P.J.’s legs.

McCarty: P.J. takes him and just throws him to the ground.

Adande: I remember, over the top of my laptop, seeing Charlie Ward’s legs flip up in the air. P.J. Brown suplexed him, basically. It was like a WWE move.

Fiorentino: P.J. is 6–11; Charlie Ward is 6–1.

Winderman: Did Pat Riley ever stand in the locker room and say, “The first chance you get, I want you to fight these SOBs”? No.

Wallace: I just remember grabbing P.J., Charlie is trying to tackle him, and then we just take P.J. down.

Winderman: Did Pat Riley say, “If that little SOB football player undercuts you, I want you to rip his arm off and send him twirling like a helicopter”? No.

Wallace: I’m on top of P.J., whatever we’re doing, trying to hurt him, whatever you want to call it. Then Pat Riley is trying to pull me off. It was just a crazy, crazy experience.

Brooks: You don’t know what’s gonna happen. You don’t know if punches are gonna be thrown.

Winderman: Pat Riley never said you have to go fight. Pat Riley didn’t have to say you have to go fight. But if Pat Riley says, “Protect what is yours,” it’s the same thing in a different message.

Riley, in the Chicago Tribune before Game 7: I wanted them mad, and I didn’t care if they were mad at me, as long as they were mad at somebody.

Winderman: A friend of mine who also was close to Pat Riley said that he could see in P.J. Brown that Pat Riley’s speeches and everything had created that moment, that all it took was that one flashpoint and that P.J. Brown was going to be the ultimate soldier, the ultimate warrior in that moment, and he was just waiting.

Brown, to Sports Illustrated before the 1997 playoffs: Playing for Pat Riley is like a match made in heaven. With him, defense is first and scoring is second.

Entering that 1996–97 season, Brown left the New Jersey Nets and signed a seven-year, $36 million deal with the Heat. “Off the court he’s one of the league’s most mild-mannered players,” said an April 1997 Sports Illustrated article about Brown and his contract. “[But] Brown doesn’t back down on it.” During the Heat’s first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic that season, Brown was awarded the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for “outstanding service and dedication to the community.” That season he was also named to the NBA All-Defensive second team. On the TNT broadcast of Game 5 against the Knicks, Verne Lundquist pointed out that “P.J. Brown is not distinguishing himself and the citizenship award he was given earlier this year.”

Breen: Of all the people in that series, of all the antagonists and tough physical players, Charlie Ward and P.J. Brown were without question two of the tougher, both mentally and physically, players in the league. But they were also two of the kindest — I mean, they were two of the ultimate gentlemen.

Fiorentino: We felt P.J. Brown was our best player in that series. He was performing the best out of Mourning, Hardaway, Voshon Lenard, [Jamal] Mashburn, [Dan] Majerle, all those guys.

McCarty: [Ward] was the glue to that team.

(AP Images)

(AP Images)

Fiorentino: [Brown] was a very good D player, very good at rebounding, he was shooting the ball well.

Van Gundy: [Ward is] also the quietest guy. He sat behind me on the bus for, what, our maybe our 10 years, maybe, together in New York, and probably said, like, a total of 100 words. Charlie was a devout Christian and during the game he was going to try to cut your nuts off to win, and then pray for you afterwards.

Fiorentino: Anyone who knows P.J. Brown knows he has a really good temperament, that he’s a really good guy.

Van Gundy: People, they don’t realize, we’re never going to see an athlete like Charlie Ward again in our lifetime. Heisman Trophy winner, drafted in the first round [in the NBA], goes to play [an 11-year] career in another sport, basketball, and gets drafted to a third sport, baseball. This combination is never happening again.

Brown, to reporters after Game 5: He was clearly going for my knees. Just look at the tape. He went in low like he was playing football or something, like he was at Florida State. If he wants to play football he should go back to Florida State.

Charlie Ward (Knicks point guard), to reporters after Game 5: I was just trying to protect myself. I’m not going to let anyone treat me like I’m a little kid.

Breen: The incident happened down by the Knicks bench, so the Heat players were all the way on the other end. If it happened in front of the Heat bench, it’s a different scenario.

Van Gundy: Well, you know, I blew it. After P.J. Brown picked up Charlie Ward and dumped him, instead of making sure first that the bench stayed where it was, I ran on the floor and tried to help mitigate.

The Heat bench players remained put — referee Dick Bavetta’s proximity to their bench may have helped — but Houston and Johnson, who had been semi-zoned out on the Knicks bench just seconds earlier, ran onto the floor to try to separate players. Starks also ran into the scrum from the sideline, earned a technical and an ejection, and gave the Miami crowd the middle finger on his way out. (“Because I felt like it,” he explained at the time; he was later fined $5,000 by the league.) Ewing, who had left the lopsided game earlier, lingered near the Knicks bench.

Granik: My first reaction was, all right, you knew several people had come off the bench.

Williams: I was sitting on the bench with Patrick, and I had a lot of experience in the NBA over the years, and I was next to Patrick yelling, “We need you for the next game!”

Granik: I knew there’s no question, playoff game or not, we were gonna have to apply the rule that said players who come off the bench are going to be suspended. I’m not sure I instantly knew exactly whom that involved.

Adande: And of course, that rule came about because of the [1993] Knicks and Greg Anthony running on the court in the game against the Phoenix Suns when Greg Anthony wasn’t even in uniform. He was wearing that hideous shirt.

In response to that 1993 brawl — which left Riley with ripped pants — the league toughened up its rules, adding “any player who leaves the bench during a fight is automatically suspended for a minimum of one game” to the rulebook.

McCarty: Being a rookie, I don’t even know if I knew that rule.

Wise: I just remember in the press room after, we were watching replays and they were breaking it down in slow-mo, and we saw Ewing come almost to midcourt and someone trying to push him back. And we were like, “Wait, wait, the don’t-leave-the-bench rule!”

Williams: Pat’s such a loyal teammate, he just could not contain himself, and he decided to go out there to support his teammates. I knew at that point, I knew that Pat was gone.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part V: “The Law Here Is Not That Complicated”

Amid all the technical foul ejections and automatic suspensions, the Heat won Game 5, 96–81. “Coach Riley incited it,” Williams said after the game. “It’s so unfortunate that the guilty party will not face any suspensions.” Riley fired back: “I wasn’t one of the players who tried to walk over one of my players,” he told reporters. “I wasn’t coaching Charlie Ward when he took P.J. Brown’s legs out from under him.” As the basketball world waited to see how the league would dole out the punishment, Knicks fans hoped there might be some room for interpretation.

Francesa: I remember in the beginning thinking, “Boy, how stupid are these guys? They get what they deserve.” But as I came around, and we argued more on the air, and the fans poured in, I really thought there should have been more common sense. Yes, letter, [Ewing] stepped on the floor. But he had no intent of anything, he had no intent of participation, or of mayhem.

Wise: All we could think was, ‘They wouldn’t suspend Patrick Ewing.’ You know, they might suspend a couple of those other guys, but they’re not gonna suspend Patrick Ewing.

Granik: I’m a huge Patrick fan both personally and as a player, but Patrick did not ‘just’ step over the line. Our rule was leaving the bench area, and he clearly did that.

Wise: If David Stern proved nothing else, he proved that he didn’t care whether New York wins another title.

Van Gundy: It was all pretty cut-and-dried.

Granik: One of the last things we wanted to do was suspend the star player for a team at that stage, but if we didn’t do it then, you know, we were opening it up to question every time.

Van Gundy: Well, I should say, it was cut-and-dried until Mourning, like two years later, got suspended but they took it back. The NBA during that time played fast and loose with who they wanted to suspend, and certainly some of our guys deserved it. Patrick Ewing didn’t.

The morning after the game, NBA executive Rod Thorn announced the suspensions: Brown for two games; and five Knicks — Ward, Ewing, Houston, Johnson, and Starks — for one each.

Adande: I was in the Washington Post office when the word came down. Did it come over the wire? It was a different era at that point. I don’t know if it would’ve been emailed or if we would’ve just checked the wires for it. [Thorn] might’ve even sent a fax.

Ernie Grunfeld (Knicks GM), to reporters following the suspension announcement: I’m disappointed with the decision, especially as it pertains to Charlie Ward and the way he was viciously body-slammed to the floor by a player a foot bigger and 75 pounds heavier.

John Starks (Knicks guard), to reporters: I don’t have any regrets for what we did because we were basically going out there and sticking up for our teammate. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it again.

Francesa: The crime did not deserve the penalty, and the pain from the penalty never went away.

With the Knicks required to dress at least nine men, another NBA rule kicked in: With the exception of Ward and Brown, the principals in the fight, the order of the suspensions would be determined alphabetically by last name and split among the remaining games. Ward, Ewing, and Houston would be out for the Knicks Game 6, and Johnson and Starks would be sidelined in the event of a Game 7.

Breen: If his name was Patrick Zewing, he would have played in Game 6.

Led by first-year executive director Billy Hunter and lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, the National Basketball Players Association filed an injunction in federal court on the day of Game 6. Seeking a delay of the suspensions, the union argued that each case should be examined by an arbitrator and that everyone should be able to play until then. The case was heard by Judge Jed Rakoff.

Billy Hunter (National Basketball Players Association executive director): [In] the role of the union, we didn’t want to be in a situation where we pick a side [between players], who was right, who was wrong.

Jed Rakoff (U.S. district judge for the Southern District of New York): I came into my chambers and one of my law clerks, whose husband was a very devout Knicks fan, said that the players were going to file a lawsuit seeking to overturn the commissioner’s ruling, and that her husband had told her that he hoped the case would go to me, and if so, he was counting on his wife to make sure that the right side won.

Granik: We had tried to make the rule as clear as possible: You didn’t have to get in the fight, you just had to leave the bench area, which unfortunately [Ewing] did.

Jeffrey Kessler (players union lawyer), speaking in court: If the suspensions happen today, and a week from now it is found that Patrick Ewing should have played and Allan Houston should have played tonight and the Knicks lose the game and lose the series and the course of history is changed, no one can give that back to them.

Rakoff: The law here is not that complicated. They had to show, in order to get a stay of the suspension, that they would suffer irreparable harm. That was pretty easy for them to show under the circumstances because clearly it impacted the playoffs. But the second thing, where they ultimately did not succeed, is that they had to show that they are likely to prevail [in arbitration] in the end.

At 5:15 p.m. ET on Friday, May 16, hours before tipoff, Rakoff — himself a Knicks fan — issued his decision. “Although this court is sufficiently parochial to wish the Knicks would be in every playoff in every series,” he said, “one cannot imagine that will be the case.” He sided with the league, upholding the suspensions, and Brown, who had flown to New York just in case the suspensions were stayed, headed back to Miami. Kessler had to break the news to Ewing.

Kessler, speaking to Columbia Law School students in 2009: It was like calling a close relative and saying someone died.

Ewing, to reporters after Game 7: I felt they robbed me. They robbed me of a great opportunity.

Rakoff: I have three daughters who were teenagers at that point, and they had boyfriends who were very serious Knicks fans, and when I called my wife afterwards she said, “Oh yes, I know all about it. And your daughter says you’d better not come home tonight.”

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part VI: “I Remember Sitting There With a Terrible Feeling”

The two teams returned to the Garden for Game 6, with Brown suspended for Miami and the Knicks without Ward, Ewing, and Houston. Still, the Knicks got off to a 10-point lead by the end of the first quarter.

Breen: People always ask, “What’s the loudest you’ve ever heard Madison Square Garden?” There’s a lot of answers for that, whether it’s the Larry Johnson four-point play or John Starks’s dunk over the Bulls. But the loudest pregame I have ever heard was before that Game 6.

Fiorentino: We had the best road record in the league; we won 32 games on the road. So even if nothing happened, the Heat still would have had a pretty good shot. We would have liked our chances going into the Garden for Game 6.

Breen: The game operations people did a magnificent job of this little video they played before. They’d had a theme [that season] that if I can remember correctly was “12 men, one mission.”

Wise: They had this big message on the scoreboard, like, All 9.

Breen: On the black screen with white lettering it said “nine men, one mission” and they were down to nine guys and I don’t think I’ve ever, in all my years — as I’m thinking about it, I always get goose bumps.

Brooks: I remember thinking, “All we have to do is win this game and then we play the Bulls.”

Wise: The place just erupted, and the night was crazy, and the lineups were nuts, and they came out like gangbusters — and they just folded down the stretch.

Breen: I’ve never heard a pregame crowd so fired up, to the point where it inspired the team so much that I think they went up by double figures early in that game and didn’t have enough to sustain.

Wise: I spotted Grunfeld’s wife and daughter chanting “Riley sucks!

(Getty Images / AP Images)

(Getty Images / AP Images)

The Heat, fueled by 28 points from Mourning and 20 from Hardaway, steadily fought back and took the lead in the fourth quarter, and Dan Majerle hit a pair of dagger 3-pointers in the game’s closing minutes to keep the Knicks at bay. The Heat won on the road, 95–90, to send the series back to Miami for Game 7, where the Knicks would be without Johnson and Starks.

Wallace: I feel like I let my team down. I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. Dan Majerle hit a long, long 3-pointer on me.

Van Gundy: We thought we were winning. All we were focused on was playing great, and guess what, we played great, but they played better.

Fiorentino: The biggest play of that series was in New York, in Game 6. They had a breakaway layup and Ike Austin came out of nowhere and blocked the shot. And with that shot we got momentum and won the game.

Rakoff: I of course watched the team that night, and it was amazing how well they did without so many of their key players. My job was to decide the law, obviously, like it or not.

Francesa: Game 7 was on a Sunday afternoon. I remember sitting there with a terrible feeling watching that Game 7, I really do.

Wallace: Game 7 was just a battle of attrition. We just didn’t help Patrick Ewing enough that game, and I think we should have gone to Larry a bit more.

Adande: It just felt helpless in Game 7 [for Ewing], like he was out there and he was trying, but he just didn’t have enough help and you just felt like everything had kind of conspired against him. He was in a lot of ways the tragic figure of 1990s NBA.

Miami went on an 18–0 run in the first quarter in Miami Arena. The Knicks had no answer for Hardaway, who finished with 38 points. Late in the game the Knicks couldn’t get any closer than within eight points of the Heat, and they had to play out the excruciating final minutes knowing that their comfortable 3–1 series lead and anticipated showdown with Chicago had disappeared. Ewing, back after his Game 6 suspension, finished with 37 points and 17 rebounds. “Well, one guy showed up today,” muttered his agent, David Falk. In the locker room, Houston wept.

Riley, to reporters after Game 7: I know this is disconcerting for the Knicks. I don’t blame them. What happened turned the whole thing around and upside down.

Wise: I felt like I was in some high school locker room. I had covered prep sports in Sacramento, and it was like covering the seniors’ last game, when they know they’re never going to play together again, and they know they’re never going to play a game that important again in their lives.

Riley, to reporters after Game 7: I’ve been two years with this “Riley sucks” crap. I’m a happy rat right now. OK? I’m a happy rat.

Wallace: I can vividly remember Coach Van Gundy, after we lost Game 7, sitting behind the bus, drawing up these little pebbles in the ground. Just that distraught, and tuned into, like, “All right, what plays would have worked better?” That’s just the way he was wired.

Van Gundy: We won three of four [series against Miami between 1997 and 2000], but our best team, and our healthiest team, was that first year. You always feel a little regret, because — if I would have done what I should have done, and made sure the bench stayed first, you know, maybe it’s different.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Part VII: “It Really Was a Four-Act Play”

Asked after the Game 7 loss whether he believed this Knicks team had been his best shot at winning a title, Ewing replied: “I definitely thought so.” The Miami Heat went on to lose in five games to the Chicago Bulls, who went on to beat the Utah Jazz in the Finals that would include the Flu Game. And while New York was successful in the seasons after that, the Knicks have won just one playoff series since eliminating Miami in 2000.

Fiorentino: It just seemed like nobody in that era could beat Jordan in a [playoff] series.

McCarty: I was so hurt by it, because I thought we would be there, that I didn’t even watch that series between Miami and Chicago.

Brooks: There’s a few moments in my playing career that I’ll always remember. My first year, making the team in Philadelphia. And then winning the [1994] championship with Houston … against New York. And then another moment, which never happened, would have been playing in the conference final against the Chicago Bulls. Just being around that would have been a career highlight.

Van Gundy: In some people’s minds, it’s like we were on equal footing with Chicago that year. That’s some revisionist history. OK, we always played them well in the regular season. But at the moment of truth, could you have beaten a Jordan team in his prime four times?

According to Checketts in The New York Times, Knicks owner James Dolan showed up at Knicks training camp in Charleston, South Carolina, in the late summer of 1997 to let everyone know how he felt about what had transpired during the postseason.

Checketts, speaking to The New York Times: He told them that the brawl in Miami had cost us a championship. If it happened again, he was holding them personally responsible.

It happened again. The Knicks and Heat would meet three more times in the playoffs over the next three seasons. In December 1997, Ewing broke his wrist and missed most of that season and much of the playoffs, but the Knicks still beat the Heat in a first-round series best remembered for another melee in which Van Gundy wound up wrapped around Mourning’s leg.

Van Gundy: You know, people ask me about that and truly — and I’m not trying to be funny — but I understand why some criminals plead temporary insanity. I truly have no recollection. They say, “What were you thinking?,” and obviously I wasn’t. I fell down Mourning’s leg [because] he’s so big and strong, but also Larry Johnson hit me with a glancing blow a little bit, so I was a little unaware.

Francesa: [Van Gundy] became the folk hero. He’s this little 5–9 guy who looks like he should have his paper tucked under his arm on the subway, and he’s hanging on to Zo’s leg on the court. It made Jeff kind of like this popular everyman.

Before the lockout-shortened 1998–99 season, New York dealt away Starks and Oakley for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby in separate deals. That team went all the way to the NBA Finals because of one fortuitous bounce: With less than a second to play in the fifth and final game of the Knicks’ first-round series against the Heat, a floater from Houston bounced around the rim and the backboard before finally dropping in to give New York the upset over the East’s top-seeded team. The Knicks would beat the Heat once more in the spring of 2000, coming back from down three games to two and winning in the final seconds of another Game 7. It would be Ewing’s last season with the team, the official end of an era.

Williams: It’s so interesting in the playoffs. I mean, it’s always a situation. That Game 5, for example, you have all your starters pretty much on the bench and the reserves are playing. Or the ball takes a funny bounce.

Hunter: Game 5 had an impact in that it switched the energy of the whole series. I think if that had not happened, the Knicks might have won the championship that year.

Francesa: So many of those games came down to a bounce, or a shot, or a fight, or a whistle, or a foul. That’s what made it so gripping.

Williams: One year, Allan Houston shoots and the ball sits on the rim and it falls in for the Knicks, who go on to the championship game and play in San Antonio. So it’s all circumstantial. Never know how the ball is gonna roll.

Adande: If you think about those meetings — that [Game 5] fracas, and the [1998] Zo–Larry Johnson fight, and Jeff Van Gundy hanging from the ankle — those really stand out. The only basketball play that stands out is the Allan Houston shot, and even that wasn’t pretty; it bounced high off the rim a couple times. It was not beautiful basketball.

Winderman: For as much as people look at [the 1997 series] as the Heat breaking through, whatever transpired in the Heat’s favor just led to nothing but heartbreak from Allan Houston’s leaning shot going forward after that.

Francesa: The first year was the most painful, and the team the Knicks had the highest hope for, but [Knicks-Heat] really was a four-act play. It was just unbelievable, and the intensity of the basketball is I think what we miss so much.

Van Gundy: I do think we had a great shot [at beating Chicago] that year, just like we had in ’93. But putting yourself in a position and actually finishing it off, it’s just different. We would have had to play the series of our life.

After a Game 6 loss to New York in 2000, Pat Riley characterized the rivalry between the Knicks and the Heat as “one big death grip that both teams have on the other.” Neither team could ever really get out of the other one’s grasp. The Heat were thrilled to turn chaos into a comeback in 1997, but they couldn’t make it all the way up the ladder for nearly a full decade The Knicks frustrated Miami for three years in a row, but are still haunted by those 1997 Game 5 what-ifs. What if Ward had just watched Hardaway’s late-game free throw fall? What if Austin didn’t make that Game 6 block? What if Patrick’s last name was Zewing? What if that really was the team that could have somehow worn down Pippen, and Rodman, and Jordan?

The Heat won the 2006 title; the Knicks missed the playoffs for eight of nine seasons beginning in 2002. In 2012, the old rivals met up in the first round of the playoffs, but it was a far cry from the old days. The Heat won in five games on their way to the 2012 title, and won the championship again in 2013.

Riley, to the Hartford Courant before the 2000 Knicks-Heat series: Do we have to beat them to get over a mental hump? Or to make my life better? Or to ensure my peace of mind so when I’m 65, I won’t have any nightmares? No. I’m past that now.

Winderman: It all went back to the Knicks. Those Knicks series did not end until the Heat won the 2006 championship, and Pat Riley could finally cut the cord — and finally did in Miami what he never was able to do in New York.

Fiorentino: What was a little strange was when we played the Knicks LeBron’s [second] year, we won the first three games, two in Miami, one in New York, and they won Game 4. And they had all these balloons coming down from the ceiling.

Francesa: The Knicks owned this town. Now it’s almost like, the franchise has been in cold storage for 15 years in that crypto thing that’s 200 degrees below zero. Like they sent them to the place where they cut Ted Williams’s head off.

Thanks to Matt James and David Shoemaker for art direction; Zach Kram and Chris Almeida for interview and research assistance; and Erin Barney, Paolo Uggetti, Daniel Varghese, and Ryan Wright for transcription assistance.

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