Ian Begley, SNY.tv | Twitter |
As a Knicks assistant coach in the 1990s, Jeff Nix had a front row seat for the last era of sustained success at Madison Square Garden.
"Every night was electric. I don't think there will be anything in my life that will replace the feeling of walking out of the tunnel at the Garden for a game," Nix, a New York assistant from 1992-2000, said this week. "The place was buzzing. I get goosebumps talking about it right now."
Nix said the crowd at MSG was intense every night in that era, rooting (or booing) teams with legitimate championship aspirations. But the building had a distinct feel on certain nights.
"Whether it was No. 23 or No. 45 -- it didn't really matter what number he had -- when Michael Jordan showed up, the energy was at a whole different level," Nix said. "The buzz at the Garden when Jordan would come out -- the Bulls and that roadshow - it was just different."
That Knicks era may get a cameo or two over the next few weeks during ESPN's 10-part documentary on Jordan. The series -- dubbed The Last Dance -- is focused on Jordan and his last championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98.
Jordan's Bulls and the Knicks, of course, had so many memorable battles in the '90s, but they didn't meet in the 1997-98 playoffs. Patrick Ewing went down with a broken wrist in mid-December. Jeff Van Gundy & Co. adjusted on the fly, made the playoffs but ultimately fell short of another showdown with Jordan and the Bulls.
Below, Nix talks about some of his memories of that team -- and that Knicks era -- ahead of the premiere of ESPN's documentary on Sunday.
COMMITMENT TO WINNING
When Ewing broke his wrist on an alley-oop attempt in Milwaukee in late December, the Knicks were 15-10, seemingly primed for another deep playoff run. They returned the core of a team that won 57 games the previous season. The Ewing injury, obviously, dampened outside expectations. But Van Gundy's message to the team in the aftermath was consistent.
"He said, 'Hey, we have enough talent to win. We're going to have to make some changes, make some adjustments, we're going to have to move some guys around. But we have enough talent,'" Nix said. "….At the time, he was put in a position that was so difficult. He almost had to reinvent us. Then we were just fighting for our lives every night to try and scratch and claw wins to try to get into the playoffs.
"Everybody just kind of accepted it. 'This is the reality of what we have and we're going to go out every day and make the best of it.'
"From my eight years on the coaching side on the Knicks, collectively for all eight years but specifically when I look at this season, I don't think I was ever around a group of guys that put winning above everything else like they did. In all my eight years on the coaching side, from Ewing all the way on down to the 15th guy on the bench, winning was important.
"That year, we had three guys that played 82 games -- (Allan) Houston, (Charlie) Ward and (John) Starks. In today's world, playing 82 games is like a sin. Chris Mills played 80 games that season, (Charles) Oakley played 79. We just had a great group of guys that wanted to win, that was most the most important thing. It wasn't, 'let's get through this practice so I can get to my two or three other things that interest me - my car dealership, my record labels, whatever.' It was about the New York Knicks and winning games."
LARRY JOHNSON, GALVANIZING FORCE
All these years later, Larry Johnson's most memorable moment as a Knick was the four-point play in the final seconds of Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals that helped catapult the Knicks to the Finals.
But inside the locker room, Johnson left his mark as a relentless optimist who helped galvanize that 97-98 team.
"He was the best teammate I've ever been around," Nix said. "Without being loud or obnoxious he'd just grab one of his teammates, pull him to the side and he was always so positive. 'Hey, hang in there, we're going to get through this' or 'Hey, you didn't shoot the ball well last night, let's get 100 shots up and I'm rebounding for you. Not the coach, not the equipment guy, I'm rebounding for you.'
"Larry was a master in our locker room. He was the most positive guy and probably the best teammate I've seen in my life. He made such a difference from a cultural standpoint. He always had a concern for his teammates and that carried over for everyone. Larry kind of brought everybody up a level.
"When Patrick went down, Larry was probably the one guy that could rally the troops and galvanize us, saying, 'Hey, guys we're going to be OK. We're OK.'"
On the court, Nix recalls that the paint opened up for Johnson after Ewing went down. He averaged 15.5 points and 5.7 rebounds overall in 1997-98 and 18 points per game that postseason.
CHARLIE WARD, QUIET LEADER
That Knicks team had big personalities like Oakley, John Starks and Johnson, but it was led by one of the more understated players on the team: Charlie Ward.
"With Charlie, he was a Heisman Trophy winner, star quarterback, and you'd think that he'd be a vocal leader. One of those 'rah-rah' guys," Nix said. "But Charlie was so quiet. He didn't say much at all. But he led by example and the players knew that Charlie was in charge. It was amazing to me. It opened my eyes to watching and learning different ways to lead.
"You have the 'rah-rah' leader, you have the locker room leader and then you have someone like Charlie: just a low-key personality, highly competitive and led by example. It seemed like every year, we brought point guards in and it was, 'OK, this guy is going to beat Charlie out' and he never beat him out. Charlie just had such unbelievable will like, 'OK. Just keep bringing guys in. I'm just going to keep beating them out every year.'"
Ward was also impactful on the court. In the 1998 postseason, he averaged career-highs in steals, assists and 3-point percentage.
The Knicks won 57 games the previous season but lost in the playoffs to Miami in a series marred by a controversial brawl in Game 5. Five Knicks were suspended for the brawl and the club lost the series in seven games after leading, 3-1. As Nix recalls, some of the animosity from that series carried over to New York's first-round matchup with Miami in 1998. That bad blood fueled another fight -- this one in the closing moments of Game 4. Alonzo Mourning and Johnson threw punches at one another and Van Gundy famously hung on to one of Mourning's legs in an attempt to separate the players.
"The last thing he wanted to have happened was that," said Nix, who worked for New York in coaching or a front office role from 1992-2007. "No one wanted to see Larry and Mourning get into that and lose players for the next game. No one wants to see any of that stuff happen but it happened and it was a spontaneous reaction from Jeff. And that's Jeff, he's totally invested in the team. He's fully committed to his players. It's all about team. There's nothing that he ever did that said, 'it's about me.' It was just about the team. That was just another example."
The Knicks beat Miami in five games in the first round, but lost in five games to Indiana in the second round. Ewing returned in Game 2 of the Pacers series after missing more than four months, but his timing was off. With Ewing working off the rust, New York didn't have enough to get past Reggie Miller & Co.
"We just kind of ran out of gas. Patrick came back and did the best he could in the four games he played. But clearly his shooting -- he shot 36 percent and 60 percent from the free-throw line -- coming off that wrist injury, he gave everything he had, it's just hard.
"But I'll always remember that team as a great group of guys because they showed such resilience as individuals and as a team: to see your star player go down, clearly everybody wants to rally around Patrick, but they also rallied around each other. And they elevated each other's game. It was remarkable."
FROM MICHAEL JORDAN TO BILLY JOEL, GARDEN BRINGS OUT EVERYONE'S BEST
Something else Nix will always remember? The crowds at the Garden during that era. Despite all of the losing during the last six seasons, there have been a few nights each year when MSG is loud and electric. But back then, it was intense and intimidating every game.
"When you walked out the tunnel to the middle of the court -- the old tunnel -- the feeling you would get (is indescribable)… Here I am as an assistant coach. I can't imagine what it felt like for the players. It would give you chills. The crowd was unbelievable. There was just a feeling like, 'This is the Garden.' It was the winning, the fans are knowledgeable. They're passionate as hell. And they're going to let you know how they feel. You're going to get an honest reaction at the Garden. There's nothing phony about it.
"This is where I get back to how much respect I had for the guys we had when I was on the coaching side. They had to bring, not only their 'A' game because the crowd expected it and the people paying top dollar expected you to give a great effort, but they also knew that the opponent was coming in there and wanted to play his best game of the year individually because it was the Garden.
"Our guys understood that and I think they rose to that occasion every night, which is really, really hard to do knowing that you can't just show up at the Garden and say, 'Hey, we're going to win because we're playing at home.' You knew that you were going to get your opponent's best shot. They could be on a four-game road trip and it's the last game of the road trip, but it's the Garden, and they're bringing it. And that goes for Bon Jovi, that goes for Billy Joel, that goes for Bruce Springsteen, that goes for anybody that comes through that building. The circus, hell, the dog show, the poodles bring their best effort. There's something about that building that, if it's your home court, you've got to work hard to protect it. You've got to be ready to go because your opponents are bringing it. And our guys were, every night."