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In the Knick of Time

In the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, a bruising and volatile Knicks team rallied to earn the 8-seed, then fought through injury and improbability to make the NBA Finals. Twenty years later, New York fans are still chasing the high.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Seven days from now, the New York Knicks will conclude their worst season in 73 years of existence. Oddly enough, it may also be the high-water mark for hope among the fan base in decades. After years of bloated contracts and draft debts and disappointment after disappointment, the Knicks, ostensibly, have a plan. Their league-worst 15-62 record could spring a generational talent in this year’s draft, and their heaps of cap space could, as owner Jim Dolan recently boasted, lead to “a very successful offseason when it comes to free agents.” There’s still much ground to cover before that fantasy matches reality, but the amount of organization and long-term planning by the franchise is startling. Even at their very best in recent history, the Knicks were a beautiful mess.

As chaotic as it would be to have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in New York’s media fishbowl, any team will have a hard time topping the wild ride of the Knicks’ 1998-99 season. Following a lockout that lasted until mid-January, the Knicks won six of their last eight games just to make the playoffs, then became the first and only no. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals. They fielded the most expensive roster in the league, more than doubling the salary cap. They demoted their general manager, Ernie Grunfeld, in April; they vanquished bitter rivals the Indiana Pacers in June. And they did it all with a postseason leading scorer who was fresh off the longest suspension in NBA history. With so many close finishes and hot-and-cold stretches, a sold-out game at Madison Square Garden in 1999 could feel like an acid trip. As then–Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy jokes, “one Allan Houston shot saved jobs and altered lives.”

The Knicks of the future may very well be better, but it’s tough to imagine any team mirroring the spirit of the city the way the Knicks of 1999 did. “I think fans here have been chasing the feeling and attitude of that team ever since,” New York radio personality Peter Rosenberg says. “To me, they were just such a hard-nosed, gutsy team that defined the way New Yorkers think of basketball.”

The Knicks of the ’90s were grinders. A stout defense powered New York into the playoffs every season that decade, and was the key to pushing the Houston Rockets to seven games in the ’94 Finals. On the other end, Patrick Ewing, the franchise’s only no. 1 overall pick since the NBA-ABA merger, and John Starks, an undrafted prospect turned franchise cornerstone, generated points while Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason scrapped for every inch of the court. It wasn’t always smooth, and sometimes it bordered on boxing, but it was effective.

Yet by the 1998 offseason, the team’s core was on the wrong side of 30. After a 43-win season that ended with the Knicks getting bounced from the second round in five games, Grunfeld, the team’s lead decision-maker throughout most of the decade, began refurbishing the roster around Ewing. He started with the draft-day trade of Oakley, the then-34-year-old anchor of New York’s pugnacious defense, to Toronto for Marcus Camby, the no. 2 overall pick in 1996 who had led the league in blocks the previous season. Grunfeld then dealt Starks, age 33, for Latrell Sprewell, a 28-year-old with as much baggage as promise.

The season prior, Sprewell had been banned for attempting to choke out his coach, P.J. Carlesimo. Originally, Sprewell’s contract was voided and he was suspended for 82 games. Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, William J. Drummond lamented, “Sprewell stumbled over a trip wire and set off a 50-kiloton explosion of society fears about the African-American male.Sprewell’s punishment was eventually reduced to 68 games in arbitration. Nevertheless, a villain for the common fan was spawned.

“The typical commentary—and sports radio has been filled with nothing but for eight days running now—goes something like this: This guy is an animal, a hoodlum, a gangsta, a cancer. I don’t care about his background, he’s making $8 million a year to play a game, he should control himself,” the Los Angeles Times’ Peter H. King wrote at the time.

In December 1997, when he spoke to the press for the first time after the incident, Sprewell said he had been “vilified.” “Every time I look at a clip, it’s always a picture of me looking mad and being aggressive,” he said. “I never see a picture of myself with a smile on my face. That’s unfair.” (Sprewell did not respond to interview requests.)

New York isn’t the ideal destination for a star hoping to escape controversy, but the Knicks’ roster turnover opened up space for disparate talents to carve out roles. Without access to official facilities amid the lockout, Knicks players put together runs at West Hempstead’s Island Garden basketball club and other gyms around the metropolitan area. It was there that the hints of something special began to emerge.

“Everybody played defense,” starting point guard Charlie Ward says. “Those scrimmages showed us what they were capable of doing. We knew Latrell could score the basketball, and we knew Marcus was a very good defender and rebounder. It was good to have something younger, something different.”

Scrimmages and makeshift practices would have to do as the calendar flipped past fall and into winter. The lockout swallowed games through January, and with teams withholding pay on guaranteed contracts, pressure ratcheted up on the National Basketball Players Association. The beating heart of the lockout was, to put it bluntly, a coordinated push to curb players’ earnings on behalf of the league’s 29 owners (12 of whom were billionaires). A clause in the 1995 collective bargaining agreement allowed the owners to opt out and renegotiate if more than 51.8 percent of basketball-related profits were going to players; by 1998, that share had bumped to 57, with league revenue at a reported $1.7 billion. The clause was exercised, and the standoff began. Also on the table: a hard salary cap, tamping down Bird rights, restrictions on new money earned from the league’s four-year television deal with Turner and NBC, and “aberrant behavior” regulations like testing players for marijuana use.

Though games weren’t being played at the Garden, Ewing was still doing battle in Manhattan. The face of the Knicks was also the president of the union, pitting him against NBA commissioner David Stern at the negotiating table. At the time, Ewing was mocked for calling the lockout “a battle for survival.” He had his work cut out for him. “David Stern was not an easy person to negotiate with,” says Joshua Gordon, a sports business professor at the University of Oregon. “[Ewing] did a good job of standing ground and sticking up to someone who was difficult to work with.”

Several players and union officials recently sang the praises of Ewing’s work as union president to The Ringer. Ward said Ewing was “very helpful” in funneling the information from the meetings to fellow Knicks players, even bringing them to some of the negotiations. “Patrick, he already had his long-term deal,” says Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney who worked both Sprewell’s arbitration and the lockout negotiations. “But he still fought tooth-and-nail for the other players, because he cared, and I had enormous respect for him.” Said Ewing in January 1999: “I led the best way I could. I was strong when I needed to be strong.” (Ewing declined an interview request through Georgetown, where he now serves as head coach.)

Stern threatened to cut off negotiations on January 7 and wipe out the entire season; he even mailed the latest proposal directly to players in an effort to sow discord. One day before that deadline, Ewing, Kessler, and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter got the players together at a midtown law office bordering Central Park. Kessler said Shaquille O’Neal showed up to cast his vote in a full-length mink coat. (Shaq previously addressed the lockout with reporters on the set of Cousin Skeeter, his TV directorial debut.) The union voted to accept. The players got their increases to the minimum salaries; the owners got their max player salary, a luxury tax, and the median exception. The season would begin on February 5; you could no longer call 1-800-TALL-MEN to employ Grant Hill. Kessler remembers most people left the building feeling satisfied by the progress made that night, with a notable exception.

“There were all these reporters waiting downstairs. The door opens on the lobby floor, and as I’m going in, out of that elevator walks Donald Trump. He immediately got this huge smile on his face because he thought all these reporters were there for him,” Kessler says. “As soon as they saw it was him, they all walked away. Let me just say that he looked extremely disappointed in that moment. That’s a picture that will stay in mind.”

With negotiations complete, it was time to face the music (which at that time was probably Ruff Ryders). Could the Knicks make do without Starks and Oak? Could they take advantage of Michael Jordan’s retirement to break through in the Eastern Conference? Could they pull off something special with 36-year-old Ewing’s last shot at a championship? Many questions were to be answered in real time.

The Knicks began the season ripping off two separate four-game winning streaks in their first 11 matchups. The defensive intensity Ward noticed in the offseason runs translated immediately, with Van Gundy’s group smothering the paint and racking up blocks—opponents shot 38 percent from the field through a bruising first 20 games. Finding a consistent offense, staying healthy, and winning away from the Garden proved greater challenges. Ewing was still one of the sport’s best centers, but he had played 13 seasons before this one, at a time when getting submarined by Bill Laimbeer was an occupational hazard.

More auspicious Knicks games would feature balanced scoring with consistent ball movement. Allan Houston, then 27 and in his sixth NBA season, could bail out possessions with midrange isolations; Sprewell and Chris Childs were capable of initiating pick-and-rolls off the bench; and between Ewing, Camby, Larry Johnson, and Kurt Thomas, the Knicks could be real irritants in the paint. But the scoring remained erratic, sometimes downright anemic. Ewing missed 12 games because of ribs and Achilles injuries, and wound up wincing throughout the season; Sprewell missed 13, hindering his chances of reaching the starting lineup and establishing rhythm. New York entered April at 17-14, good for seventh in the East. The team won one game, then lost three straight, followed by three consecutive wins, and four more losses.

“With losing two perfect symbols of New York City basketball, two of the most beloved players not just in the history of the Knicks, but in all of New York sports … you knew it would take some time to jell, that there would be some rough patches early,” remembers Mike Breen, who began calling Knicks games on WFAN radio in 1991 before assuming the play-by-play telecast for MSG Network in ’98. “But the inconsistency lasted the whole year. Every once in a while they’d play a great game and you’d think they could beat anybody. Then the next night they’d go out and play like they just met each other.”

Sprewell made his Garden debut with 27 points in a January 28 preseason game. “Almost 14 months—it felt like an eternity,” he told reporters afterward. Then he dropped 24 points in the Knicks’ season opener. But in his second game, Sprewell suffered a heel injury that kept him out until March 5. Camby, the Knicks’ other new addition, was relegated to a bench role and his early production fluctuated. Ewing averaged fewer than 20 points for the first time in his career. Larry Johnson also put up career-worst offensive numbers.

Perhaps the season’s nadir came when the Knicks lost a 72-67 slog to the Philadelphia 76ers on April 19. (Yes, that’s somehow the score of an NBA game, and yes, that game’s leading scorer was Matt Geiger.) Grunfeld was demoted from GM the next night. For all the hype they garnered, the Knicks looked like underachievers, teetering on the edge of the playoffs.

“We were really struggling. We had to fight hard to not become a divided team,” Van Gundy says. “There was no foundational relationship to carry us through that difficult start. We were trying to find a rotation that worked, and we were crowded positionally. The one thing I never had to worry about was our practice habits. We had tough guys.”

Van Gundy pinpointed April 25 in Miami as when the season turned. Johnson dropped 23 points on 10-for-13 shooting and the Knicks erased a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Heat and stay above .500. New York went on to win six of its last eight, and squeezed past the Hornets to earn the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Sprewell went just 2-for-9 from the floor against the Heat in a continuation of his season-long shooting struggles, but neither his dip in production nor his transition to a bench role proved a detriment to what the Knicks were building.

“If Spree was asked what he thought about not starting, he never gave a politically correct answer, like, ‘All I want to do is win.’ He said what he wanted,” Van Gundy says. “But it never impacted his energy or his passion. I loved his honesty. Him accepting or at least putting up with not being a starter was absolutely critical to us finally getting it together.”

For their efforts, the Knicks were rewarded with a rematch against top-ranked Miami, led by former Knicks coach Pat Riley, who’d skipped town via faxed-in resignation in the summer of 1995. The two sides cleared benches in the ’97 playoffs when P.J. Brown suplexed Ward; they cleared benches again in the ’98 playoffs, when Alonzo Mourning and L.J. exchanged punches. Both of those series went the distance. The ’99 edition didn’t disappoint.

In his four seasons with the Knicks, Riley swapped the flamboyance of the Showtime Lakers for straight-up bully ball. The results still followed: New York topped 50 wins every season he coached. But the breakup was not an amicable one, and it got uglier as Riley engineered a competitor in Miami that not only looked like the Knicks, but could beat the Knicks.

“We were running the same plays, because we were built the same,” says Ward, who played one season under Riley. “We were drinking out of the same water. … That’s one of the reasons why, during the course of that series, a team would be up 20 points, then the next thing you know, the other was.”

Their first-round playoff series in 1999 played out with the same unevenness and gripping intensity as their clashes in the regular season. The Knicks won Game 1 in Miami by 20 points, with 22 apiece from Houston and Sprewell. They dropped Game 2 by 10, going 39 percent from the field as Mourning torched them for 26 points, eight rebounds, three steals, and four blocks. In a raucous return to the Garden, the Knicks won Game 3 behind some of the cleanest shot distribution you’ll see in the postseason. The bottom-seeded Knicks were disorienting Dan Majerle and Jamal Mashburn, while turning Tim Hardaway’s offense into a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare. Only Mourning seemed capable of doing damage, and for all of its capriciousness during the regular season, New York was consistently good (19-6) at home. Mourning was actually held in check (5-for-13 shooting) in Game 4, but a rally from bench players Clarence Weatherspoon, Voshon Lenard, and Terry Porter evened the series. In a potential clincher, no Knick topped 12 points. The series was headed back to Miami.

“There were times when you’d think they would win the series easily, to then thinking, they’re not gonna win a game,” Breen says. “It was an absolute bloodbath, and every possession mattered. You’d think, ‘Oh, first quarter, no big deal.’ Nope. Every possession mattered.”

Watch Game 5 now and the gameplay looks almost unrecognizable. Limbs bang, bodies clump together. The floor shrinks and the crowd revs up with each feed inside to Ewing or Mourning, while shooters skulk around as afterthoughts. The two sides hit seven total 3s in the game.

But the game did not lack in excitement. A crafty baseline spin move by Johnson on Mashburn put the Knicks up 74-73 with about two minutes to play. Then a Mourning hook shot gave the game its fourth lead change in two minutes. Porter, fouled on a rebound, sank two free throws to make it 77-74 with 58 seconds to play. Timeout was called and the arena chanted, “Whoomp, there it is.” (Tag Team, the bass group responsible for the preeminent Jock Jam, is from Miami.)

The whoomping was in vain. Ewing got to the line and hit both free throws. Johnson then came away with a steal off Hardaway. A final play was drawn up, with Sprewell banging around a Ewing screen and searching for space. It was a slovenly set, no one got a shot up, and Porter knocked the ball away from Spree and out of bounds with 4.5 left. On the second inbound, Houston curled around action, ducked two defenders and lurched forward a shot from the right elbow. Right iron, glass, net. The game, and the series, went to New York.

For Van Gundy, the two plays underline the need to focus on process over result: “When Houston’s ball is in the air, on that shot, everybody was still the same coach and the same player,” he says. “When it rolled in, it didn’t make us better. If it rolled out, it didn’t make us worse. I always use that as a point of reference for myself, to not think that change is always for betterment.”

The Atlanta Hawks, New York’s next opponent, were no joke—Dikembe Mutombo finished second for Defensive Player of the Year that season, while Steve Smith was an All-Star the previous year. But the Knicks made quick work of them with a four-game sweep. Camby had his first signature Knicks moment—13 rebounds in Game 2, three blocks in Game 3, and one massive dunk on Mount Mutombo. Better still, Sprewell finally hit his stride, averaging a team-high 22 points and 34 minutes in the series. He wouldn’t play the first six minutes of a game, but he might play the next 18.

“You knew he had talent, but when you watched him on a night-by-night basis, this son of a gun really competed at such a high level,” Breen says of Sprewell. “The bigger the game, the more he seemed to embrace it and thrive off it. He wanted to step on his opponents’ throat, and it was really fun to watch.”

“They really wanted us to beat Reggie Miller,” Ward says. “More so than the Pacers. I had never really seen something like that before.”

Like the Heat, Knicks fans had a lived-in disdain for the Indiana Pacers—but, really, it was all directed at Miller. In a brief time, Miller fashioned a reputation for tearing down the Garden. The heat check in front of Spike Lee came in the 1994 playoffs, and the iconic eight points in nine seconds happened against the Knicks the following postseason. For good measure, he hit a game-tying 3 that more or less swung their 98 second-round series.

“In my era of broadcasting Knicks games, he was the no. 1 villain. There was a respect factor there, but he tortured them. He thrived, he egged it on,” Breen says. “That’s what the Knicks fans always wanted, to shut him up.”

After the Knicks gutted out a 93-90 road win in Game 1, Van Gundy says referee Dick Bavetta met with him and Pacers coach Larry Bird to warn both that the forthcoming games would be called tighter. It was another physical, exhaustive series. It would also cost the Knicks Ewing, who succumbed to the Achilles injury in Game 2 and would miss the rest of the postseason. It was a devastating moment. One of the franchise’s greatest players had fought through the lockout, then through body aches and waning skills on the court, only to be forced to watch his last, best chance at a title from the bench. ‘’It’s frustrating to work so hard and be so close to something I’ve dreamed about for so many years,’’ Ewing told reporters at the time.

But there was no time for rumination. The faster, younger Knicks now controlled a huge part of Ewing’s legacy, with the Eastern Conference finals knotted up. Suddenly, Larry Johnson had become the most experienced player in the rotation as a seven-year veteran. Like Ewing, Johnson was well past his prime, and he was already laboring through the chronic back problems that would force an early retirement in 2001. While he wasn’t a mainstay like Ewing, L.J. quickly endeared himself to New York as a natural entertainer and a prideful scrapper.

In Game 3, with Ewing wearing all black on the bench, the Knicks were promptly dominated at center by the 7-foot-4 Rik Smits (25 points on 13 shots). Down 91-88 with 12 seconds on the clock, the Knicks called timeout to advance the ball. As shooters and screeners crowded together, Ward’s hurried pass was tipped and fell into the hands of Johnson, who took a jab step toward isolated Antonio Davis, drew contact, and put up a 3. The shot dropped—and-1.

Ward swears the reaction from the crowd is the loudest he ever heard, and he won a Heisman Trophy playing at Florida State’s 75,000-capacity stadium. Kessler was in the stands, with his son, stunned. Breen remains impressed by Chris Childs, who grabbed and composed L.J. before the free throw attempt.

“People that were at the game told me it was, without question, the loudest the Garden had ever been in their time,” Van Gundy says. “I wasn’t really thinking about it like that, because we still needed to get a stop, and we were fortunate enough that Mark Jackson missed a floater in the lane that could have won it.”

The Knicks dropped the next game, but took Game 5 in Indiana behind a 29-point ravaging from Sprewell and 21 more from Camby. A most volatile ride could continue to the Finals with one win at the Mecca.

“Game 6 might have been Allan Houston’s finest moment. He did whatever he wanted that night. The old expression was true: He would not let the Knicks lose, in a zone I had never seen from him,” Breen says. Houston freed himself up all night with masterful footwork, finishing 8-for-9 in the second half and tallying 32 points. Miller shot 3-for-18, and the Knicks forced 26 turnovers from an overmatched Pacers team. The win was followed by another wrenching loss—this time it was Johnson, who fell to the floor toward the end of the first half with a sprained right knee—but the blaring final buzzer vindicated one of the strangest, most resilient conference champions ever.

“We wanted Patrick to get a ring, but we all wanted a ring. I didn’t have a ring!” Sprewell said during a 2017 team reunion. “We wanted to do it for New York as well. We had so much pride in being Knicks players.”

It doesn’t end with grace or catharsis. With Ewing sidelined and Johnson soldiering through the knee injury, the Knicks didn’t stand much of a chance against the behemoth frontcourt of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. After a tepid start to the season, San Antonio won 31 of its last 36 games, breezed through Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves and Shaq’s Lakers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and tiptoed into an incipient dynasty with Sean Elliott’s Memorial Day winner over the Trail Blazers. The Spurs topped the Knicks in five games, with Duncan earning Finals MVP after averaging 27 points and 14 rebounds in nearly 46 minutes a game.

“Physically and sizewise, they just didn’t have enough. They had been through so much during the course of that season, that without [Ewing and Johnson] it was going to be impossible,” Breen says. “It was such a difficult year, emotionally. The mental fatigue had taken its toll.”

Jaren Jackson (Sr.) hit nine 3s in the series, but the Knicks made 11 total. Avery Johnson sealed it, hitting an open 3 in the deciding Game 5 that was created by double-teaming Duncan. Sprewell (35 points in Game 5) and Houston averaged more than 20 points a game in the Finals, but no other Knicks player reached double-digit scoring averages in the series.

“If Patrick and Larry were healthy, we would’ve had a chance,” Ward laments. “If you’re going to make it to the Finals, of any sport, you need some fortune and some breaks that go your way. To then not have your full stable of guys at the last stage, that was tough.”

It’s hard not to see the loss to the Spurs as the end of something. The Knicks won 50 games and went six games against Miller and the Pacers in the following year’s conference finals, but things quickly fell apart from there. New York has made the playoffs only five times since the turn of the century, and made it past the first round in only one of them; even the headiest of times ultimately failed to live up to expectations.

The ’98-99 Knicks trudged through a stressful, tangled-up ride of a season, and on the verge of letting it all slip away, they got tough and got it together. That’s the platonic ideal of a New York sports team; fans have been starving for something resembling it ever since. Even if the Knicks turn it around this summer and execute their dream scenario in free agency, they’d still become more of a star-studded favorite than an underdog. And yet, two decades of constantly fearing the worst possible outcome could be erased with one more thrilling gut-check campaign. Things wouldn’t look or play out like they did during that unreplicable Knicks season, but New Yorkers will be clamoring for anything that feels even a bit like it.

Twenty years later, the Knicks are still the only franchise to reach the Finals as an 8-seed. If nothing else, that’s a singular accomplishment.

“It’ll certainly take some unusual circumstances,” Van Gundy says. “Usually, you’re an eighth seed for a reason.”

Steven Louis is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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