Rick Pitino, the coach of the New York Knicks, is pacing frenetically in front of his team's bench at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have just scored, and the Indiana Pacers are preparing to inbound the ball and advance it upcourt. This is common-place stuff in the NBA, but not against Rick's Knicks. Rick's Knicks don't like teams to get the ball upcourt.
"Hands, Oak! On him, Oak! That's it!" Pitino shouts. (He wants power forward Charles Oakley, whose nickname describes his indomitable presence at the front of the press, to pressure the inbounds pass. Somehow, the Pacers get the ball in.)
"Over, Dougie! Dougie, over!" (Pitino wants backup guard Gerald Wilkins, whose teammates call him Dougie after Wilkins's favorite rap singer, Doug E. Fresh, to challenge the dribbler, Vern Fleming.)
"There it is, Mark! Trap, Mark! Trap! O.K., back." (Pitino wants point guard Mark Jackson to trap Reggie Miller, and after Jackson fails to get to Miller in time, Pitino wants him to go back over the half-court line.)
"Up, Patrick. Watch the long one, Patrick." (Pitino wants center Patrick Ewing, the last line of defense in the press, to come up and cut off a passing lane at midcourt, while at the same time guarding against a long pass behind him—in other words, to watch out for everything.)
"Up on him. Johnny, Johnny, that's you! That's you!" (Pitino wants small forward Johnny Newman, who has streaked up the floor at full speed, after the Pacers advanced the ball to midcourt, to approach the Pacers' Fleming from the blind side and steal the ball from behind. The Knicks call this "back-tipping.")
Only 10 seconds have expired and, surprisingly, Pitino has not. His blood pressure may have risen a little, and he may have to push a few strands of black hair away from his choirboy face, but he will live to make life miserable for the Pacer offense again. And again.
These are Rick's Knicks at the midpoint of the NBA season: young, sassy, ornery, intense, fearless. And, after home-and-away wins over the Pacers (120-111 at the Garden and 113-106 in Indiana) wrapped around a rousing 125-109 rout of the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Garden last Thursday night, they led the Atlantic Division by 4½ games over Philadelphia and owned the league's fourth-best record (30-16).
"I remember what all the 'unnamed coaches' kept saying last season," says Pitino, who at 36 is in his second season at the helm in New York. " 'The Knicks can't win with that press.' 'Pitino's going to wear out his players.' 'They can't win with that college system.' " He stops and flashes a small smile. And...? "And here we are."
Yes, here they are, a onetime novelty item now conspicuously displayed with the NBA department store's big-ticket goods. The Knicks' press and a ban-anything-but-the-bomb mentality on offense—they're on course to shatter the NBA records for three-point attempts and conversions—have made them fun to watch and fearsome to play.
"They're a team without a flaw," said Denver coach Doug Moe after the Knicks nipped the Nuggets 124-123 in overtime a few weeks back. "Not to take anything away from Detroit, but I rate New York the top threat in the East." Actually, the Knicks have taken something away from the Eastern Conference champs, specifically, a psychological advantage, with a 133-111, 88-85 and 100-93 sweep of their three games with the Pistons so far this season. And they have now won two of three from the Cavaliers, possessors of the NBA's best record, 34-10. With 21 home games among the 36 outings New York had left on its schedule as of Sunday, things figured only to get better.
It wasn't too long ago, of course, that the Knicks were less a novelty than a complete joke—the NBA's whoopee cushion. From '84-85 through '86-87, the Nix had the league's worst record, 71-175, and in the once-boisterous Garden, one usually heard no more than some boos and the caustic, knife-on-a-plate voice of coach Hubie Brown.
"It was like a ghost town around here," says guard Trent Tucker. "That's kind of incredible for New York City."
Well, the loud cheers, the crowds (this season's average attendance: 17,661, compared with 13,684 in 1987-88 and 14,185 two seasons ago) are back at the Garden, where at the end of last week New York was 19-1, having lost only to the Lakers last Nov. 22. Predictably, comparisons with New York's championship teams of 1970 and '73 have been heard, but even though New York City native and longtime Knick fan Pitino occasionally convenes his players at center court in the Garden and asks them to look up at the championship banners, don't try and push the past on this crew.
Asked what he knows about the old Knicks, Ewing answers, "Nothing.... You've got to acknowledge them as a great team, but beyond that I don't think about them."
Like those illustrious predecessors, who were known for their unselfishness and for their savvy, this New York aggregation has two trademark strengths too. However, full-court pressure defense and three-point gunning aren't traits associated with NBA championship teams. Can these Knicks break the mold?
Absolutely. First of all, they're not a carnival act, the press and the three-point shooting and Jackson's occasional ill-fated flights into passing fancy notwithstanding. They have Ewing, whose improving back-to-the-basket offense keeps New York's half-court game a shade above respectable. (And it may get much more than respectable if general manager Al Bianchi completes a deal with the Portland Trail Blazers that would bring forward Kiki Vandeweghe, a prolific scorer, to the Knicks in exchange for a future first-round pick. The deal was still alive as of Sunday.) They have a 10-deep rotation. They have players who came from winning college programs: Ewing (Georgetown), Jackson (St. John's), rookie substitute point guard Rod Strickland (DePaul) and backup forwards Kenny Walker (Kentucky) and Sidney Green (UNLV). Ask the Knicks if they're surprised that success has come so suddenly, and they'll say, "No. We expected it."
And they have an unusually close relationship with Pitino, who goads and scolds as much as any coach in the league but gets everything out of his players. Pitino has known Ewing, Jackson and Green since they were high school freshmen and he was a college assistant visiting their gyms, and he tried to recruit Newman, New York's starting small forward, for Boston University, where he was the coach from 1978 to 1983. Newman chose Richmond over BU because he believed the rumors that Pitino would be leaving the Terriers, which indeed he did when Brown brought him in as a Knick assistant for two seasons ('83-84 and '84-85).
"I used to tell my friends that that man would be an NBA coach someday," says Newman. "Even back then you could tell it. The thing that made him different was that he really wanted to make you better."
Indeed, though his acid comments from the bench evoke memories of Brown, Pitino is close to his players. It pays off, maybe because the Knicks are young—at 29, Tucker is the oldest player on the roster—and, like their coach, hungry.
Pitino raised the blood pressure of Knick executives recently when he revealed in an interview with the New York Post that if he could do it over again, he probably would not have left Providence College in the summer of 1987 to take the Knick job. "Without question I'll go back [to college ball], and in a lot shorter time than people ever would think, too," he said. He emphasized that he's happy in the New York job and enjoys the pro game ''between the lines" more than the college game. But he prefers the deeper involvement with players that a college coach gets—"taking players to dinner, having long talks with them, sharing time with them away from the court."
Pitino reaffirmed those sentiments last week. "My career is college coaching," he said. "That's how I would define myself. I won't be coach of the New York Knicks for a long period of time. I won't go two or three contracts. [He's in the second year of a three-year deal now.] It would simply be too much physically and emotionally the way I go at the job to stay long. And I won't cut back on the emotion." Pitino stressed that his feelings had nothing to do with coaching burnout—this is a man, after all, who on at least 10 occasions this season has attended a college practice on an off-day when the Knicks were on the road. It's just that he was never happier than in 1986-87, when he guided a lightly regarded Providence team into the Final Four and was named Division I coach of the year.
Wherever Pitino is, the full-court press is sure to follow. He came to the Knicks last season convinced that a pressure defense would work even better in the NBA than it did in college because the pros' 24-second clock would work in the defense's favor. That's a theory that other college coaches have espoused upon arriving in the pros, and most of them have had to eat their words. But now, thanks to Rick's Knicks, that concept has fewer and fewer detractors. New York has four basic presses. White: full-court zone pressure with trapping (double-teaming). Red: half-court trap. Black: full-court man-to-man. Blue: half-court trap extended to three-quarters of the court. Successful implementation of the press requires that a team have certain attributes: quickness, anticipation, endurance and someone as imposing as Ewing at the back of the defense to guard the basket. The Knicks have all of these.
They also have at the front of their press the 6'9", 245-pound Oakley, who flaps his arms and kicks his legs in a demented jumping-jack fashion to distract the man inbounding the ball. Like the bully on the playground, Oakley can be avoided for a while, but eventually—somehow, some way—he's going to get your lunch money. The Knicks knew they were getting one of the league's top rebounders when Bianchi stole Oakley from the Bulls in exchange for oft-injured center Bill Cartwright last summer, but they didn't know they were also getting such a heady, all-around player.
New York does a few tricks with its defense that most pressure teams don't, but the power of this press doesn't lie in its complexity. "When the Knicks are playing in Madison Square Garden, using their white press, which is full-court 1-2-1-1, it's like playing against seven men," says Detroit assistant Brendan Suhr, who joined the Pistons on Jan. 9. "In fact, when I was an assistant in Atlanta, [coach] Mike [Fratello] would practice against it with seven defenders on the floor."
The strength of the press, Pitino believes, is that it doesn't have to produce an immediate result to be effective. In New York's game against the Lakers at the Forum, for example, L.A. shredded the press en route to a 69-63 lead at the half. "Hey, Rick, you've got to take off the press," shouted a Knick fan as Pitino walked to the dressing room at halftime. Pitino shook his head insistently. "No," the coach told him. "Watch what happens now." And sure enough, by the fourth period, the physical and mental strain of looking over their shoulders for the quick-handed Jackson or dealing with the mad windmilling of Oakley had exhausted the older Lakers, and New York won.
The other Knick knack, shooting the three-pointer, was not nearly so important to Pitino when he arrived in New York. His Providence teams were among the nation's leaders in three-point shooting, but the added length of the NBA three-pointer (23'9" at its maximum compared with 19'9") worried him. Last season's Knicks did fire up 567 treys to rank third in the league, but it wasn't until the beginning of this season that Pitino was fully committed to the long ball. He needed three-point shooting, he felt, to get the proper "spacing" in his half-court offense and to remove some of the double-and triple-teaming inside on Ewing.
"So he gave us the green light," says Newman. While most NBA coaches get queasy even talking about the three-pointer and consider it a kind of guilty pleasure at best, Pitino revels in it. He loves to hear that his team (with 634 attempts and 218 conversions through last week) is on course to smash the single-season NBA three-point records (705 attempts and 271 conversions) set by last year's Celtics, and he loves to stand with arms upraised, like Prospero on his island, when a Knick lets one fly and then shake his fists when it goes through.
The Bianchi-Pitino team that has turned around New York might never have been put togther if the conglomerate that owns the Garden, the Knicks and the NHL Rangers—Gulf + Western Inc.—hadn't finally firmed up its lines of communication with the club. For years, Knick general managers operated in a kind of limbo, out of the flow of NBA conversations, unable to pull the trigger on a deal until some G + W executive returned from other company business in Outer Mongolia. Now Gulf + Western has a Madison Square Garden Sports Group, headed by Jack Diller, who works directly with Bianchi and his counterpart on the Rangers, Phil Esposito. The day before Diller reported to work in April 1987, he went to his safety deposit box, removed the Knicks' 1970 championship ring that he had earned in a previous tenure as vice-president of business and legal affairs, and slipped it on.
"Just a reminder," said Diller. "I've seen the players glance at it."
Diller was savvy enough to hire Bianchi, who in turn was savvy enough to hire Pitino. Coach and general manager clashed a few weeks ago after Bianchi objected to Pitino's criticism of rookie Strickland's play, but it was nothing more than a couple of egos battling for position under the boards. It happens. Bianchi and Pitino are both ferocious competitors, and all that either of them wants is a winner.
And perhaps this is the year. Pitino's sentiments about getting out of the pro game could change, one supposes, but it's not likely, and the wonders he's working in New York right now could not be duplicated year after year with team after team. Pitino is not a Pat Riley, who enjoys the daily challenge of motivating men who have done it all. He prefers to take a lump of clay, mold it in his image, put it on display and then dig his fingers into another. Rick's Knicks are more flash dance than long, slow waltz, and their ascent has been unique and fascinating.
And maybe, because of Pitino's impatience and the young legs his brand of basketball requires, it had to happen this quickly to happen at all.