At 8:30 last Friday morning New York Knicks assistant coach Jeff
Van Gundy's concentration was jolted by an insistent knock on
his Philadelphia hotel door. Van Gundy had already been up for
more than an hour, rewinding and fast-forwarding a tape of the
Chicago Bulls, in search of some tiny weakness that New York
could exploit to upset the Bulls and shake his team's malaise.
The Knicks had lost nine of their last 13, including a listless
105-88 defeat to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers at Madison
Square Garden three nights before.
New York wasn't going to face the Bulls until Sunday and still
had to play the Philadelphia 76ers that Friday night, but as Van
Gundy later explained, "when you're an assistant, you have to
think one game ahead." That thinking required immediate revision
after he opened his door and saw Knicks president Ernie Grunfeld
standing there. "Jeff," Grunfeld said, placing his hand on Van
Gundy's shoulder, "you are the new coach of the New York Knicks."
The news sent waves of confusion, fear and excitement through
the 34-year-old career NBA assistant. He had spent more than six
years alongside New York coaches Stu Jackson, John MacLeod, Pat
Riley and Don Nelson, hoping someday it might be his turn to run
the team. It never occurred to him that his opportunity would
unfold as early as it did.
A few doors down the hall Nelson, suddenly the former coach of
the Knicks, hastily stuffed his clothes into his garment bag.
Only eight months earlier he had signed a three-year, $5.1
million deal, succeeding Riley with a flourish, promising a
kinder, gentler Knicks era that would be prosperous under his
innovative coaching style and strategy.
March 18, 1996
Instead, Nelson's 34-25 cameo in New York, on the heels of a
highly publicized firing by the Golden State Warriors 13 months
before, left in tatters a coaching career that spanned nearly 19
seasons. The only man ever to win three NBA Coach of the Year
awards was jettisoned by the Knicks for failing to communicate
with his team, for quirky rotations and lineups that frustrated
and puzzled his players, and even for the laid-back style that
had been trumpeted as an antidote to Riley's regimentation.
It's hard to determine what was more shocking: how swiftly New
York's management gave up on Nelson or how quickly his players
did. "It's really strange," Nelson said on Monday. "I thought
change would be good for this team, but, looking back, it was a
bad fit. I'm kind of a creative coach, and this is an uncreative
Even though Van Gundy was a "little discombobulated" in his
debut against Philadelphia--a horrid 100-92 Knicks loss--his
promotion was warmly received by his players. And there was
nothing disjointed about their performance on Sunday against
Chicago, when the Knicks crushed the Bulls 104-72, holding
Chicago to its lowest point total since Michael Jordan's return
from retirement last March. After building a 50-42 halftime lead
with spirited play, New York withstood a 17-1 Chicago run, then
buried the Bulls with an avalanche of three-pointers down the
stretch. "Basketball is fun again," announced Knicks guard John
But remember, the Knicks had had fun under Nelson, too, when
they streaked to an 18-6 record to open the season. Then the
team hit a bad patch, losing 19 of 35. Trades were made and
Nelson tooled with his lineup, and the relationship between the
players and their coach quickly degenerated into backstabbing,
finger-pointing and name-calling.
When a slumping Starks was removed from the starting lineup, he
told the media that Nelson was a "nightmare." Anthony
Mason--around whom Nelson had designed a point-forward
offense--complained that there was no continuity in the Knicks'
attack. All-Star center Patrick Ewing, the Knicks' main low-post
threat, wondered aloud why Nelson positioned him so far from the
basket. And the postgame press conferences of Nelson, once a
media darling, turned grim. "He stopped being himself," said
Knicks assistant Don Chaney, a longtime Nelson friend. "This
team wouldn't allow him to be himself."
Meanwhile, Grunfeld, who once played for Nelson when they were
with the Milwaukee Bucks, became alarmed by the team's
fourth-quarter collapses and losses at home to weaker clubs,
defeats that were widening the gap between the Knicks and
Eastern Conference rivals like the Bulls, the Orlando Magic and
the Indiana Pacers. And after New York rolled over against the
Clippers, Grunfeld sat up most of the night thinking through the
decision he knew he had to make. Last Thursday he went to
Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts, the chief
executive of the Knicks, and the two men agreed to dump Nelson
and cut their losses. "This was very difficult," said Grunfeld
on Sunday, "but the players were not responding. We take a lot
of pride in our work ethic, and for some reason that was
slipping away from us."
The same athletes who had moaned about Riley's three-hour
practices were pining for more challenging workouts from Nelson.
According to the players, Nelson, who believed in resting his
veterans for the postseason run, often held practices that
lasted only an hour, and he sometimes didn't stick around until
the end. "I know what it takes to win," said New York power
forward Charles Oakley, who has been on the injured list since
Feb. 16 with a broken right thumb. "We weren't getting that out
of our practices. Nellie was laid-back. I have no problem with
the man. But that style won't work for the New York Knicks."
Nelson contends that his practices would have been "just right
for a normal team." He said, "I never had one-hour practices;
they were an hour and a half. But the players were used to three
hours, so it seemed like nothing. And the funny thing is, the
guys who wanted those three-hour practices couldn't have
physically completed them and survived the season."
Yet Nelson's problems with the players went deeper than a dearth
of wind sprints and shooting drills. By turning Mason into a
point forward, Nelson created a situation whereby Mason handled
the ball on almost every play, diminishing Ewing's impact as the
go-to guy. Ewing says he twice went to Nelson with his concerns
about the offense but never went to the front office. Team
sources say the 33-year-old Ewing believed that Nelson saw him
as an aging center who was no longer an elite player, an
evaluation that both stung and offended the proud big man.
Nelson does not dispute Ewing's interpretation. "I don't think
Ewing can carry the team like he thinks he can," Nelson said. "I
wanted to conserve him more and have another player or two step
forward. I felt, particularly next year, when [the Knicks] got a
big free agent, Ewing should have been the second-best player.
But he wouldn't let anyone else be the star around here."
A public feud with his players was the last thing Nelson needed
in the wake of his 1994 battle with Warriors rookie forward
Chris Webber, who thought Nelson was overly critical of his
play. The two wound up not speaking to each other, and Webber
was eventually traded to the Washington Bullets. "What happened
on the West Coast still bothers him," Chaney says of Nelson.
"And the minute the heat was on here, it popped up again. Nellie
made a change in the lineup, and all of a sudden he couldn't get
along with John Starks. That was crap, but [the media] started
dragging up all the old stuff about Webber, and Nellie didn't
know what to do. It reminds me of teachers in the local high
schools. They are so limited in how they can deal with kids.
It's kind of scary."
Nelson acknowledges that he has never fully understood what
happened in Golden State, and that might have affected his
judgment with the Knicks. "I think a lot of people were laying
in the weeds with it," he said. "And I think these problems,
combined with that, have probably put another nail in my coffin."
What scared the Knicks' front office the most was the appearance
that Nelson had stopped trying to reach his players. Said one
opposing coach who faced New York in the two weeks before
Nelson's dismissal, "He looked like a guy who had given up."
When asked if he thought Nelson quit on them, Starks answered,
"There's no question he did. It was time for a change, for him
and for us. No hard feelings. See you later."
Nelson says he never gave up on the Knicks but realized he would
be unable to make his mark without changes in personnel. A
source says Nelson tried to broach a Ewing trade, but he was
rebuffed by management. And, the same source says, when New York
didn't pull the trigger on a swap that would have sent Starks to
the San Antonio Spurs for shooting guard Vinny Del Negro, the
coach knew he would be stuck with the same core group until next
season. "I'm disappointed," said Nelson. "I loved this
opportunity. Ernie and Dave were first-class all the way. I
loved the city of New York. I loved everything except the team."
Most of Nelson's NBA friends believe his career is over. He will
turn 56 in May and will collect the remaining $3.5 million on
his contract. He is building a home in Maui and maintains a
residence in the San Francisco area, but he might want one more
chance to repair his image. "I've always said, when things go
bad, the first place you should look is the mirror," said
Nelson, whose career record as coach of the Bucks, Warriors and
Knicks is 851-629. "So I plan on taking a good look at myself,
without blaming anyone else, and trying to figure out why I've
Ewing believes that firing Nelson now, instead of waiting until
the end of the season, was essential because it makes the Knicks
more attractive to prospective free agents, such as Indiana's
Reggie Miller and Washington's Juwan Howard. "They're not going
to come if it's a bad situation," Ewing says. "Everyone in the
league knew it was bad here."
Yet a coaching change won't go far in satisfying the Knicks'
glaring needs, which include a small forward, a reliable
shooting guard and a younger nucleus (Ewing, Oakley, Starks and
point guard Derek Harper are all 30 or older). And unless Van
Gundy drives the team deep into the playoffs, New York will be
looking for a new coach again after the season. Management was
intrigued with the coy answers that Chicago coach Phil Jackson,
a former Knicks player whose contract is up after the season,
gave the media when he was asked if he had any interest in the
Knicks job. But few expect him to leave the Bulls. Kentucky's
Rick Pitino, a former Knicks coach, and the Cleveland Cavaliers'
Mike Fratello, a former New York assistant, have already
eliminated themselves from consideration. Ewing's old mentor,
Georgetown coach John Thompson, has been mentioned, but his
interest is said to be minimal. Would ever-restless Pacers coach
Larry Brown be tempted? Is Massachusetts coach John Calipari
ready to jump to the NBA?
For his part Van Gundy has promised to whip the team into mental
and physical shape. "If we look at the Chicago game and say,
'O.K., this is a start,' then we'll be fine," he says. "But if
we look at it and say, 'O.K., now we've arrived,' we're in
Trouble has a way of dogging the coach of the New York Knicks,
whoever he is. Van Gundy has watched four of them fall, but he
is still standing. And for the moment, his players seem happy to
keep him on his feet.