'Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks' by Chris Herring
'Yet in having to endure such lean years, fans have only become more nostalgic for those nineties-era Knicks.'—Review #180
I love the New York Knicks almost as much as I love books. I own several Knicks T-shirts, a Knicks headband, a Knicks keychain, a Knicks baseball cap (fitted), and two Knicks bobbleheads (Walt Frazier and Amar’e Stoudamire). I have a Knicks emoji next to my name in Slack at work, where I am known as someone you ping for Knicks discussions. I subscribe to two excellent newsletters about the Knicks (Knicks Film School and What’s on Tap with Tommy Beer). I follow Knicks Twitter. I text my friend Jim about the Knicks so often that my wife refers to him as my other wife. I pay for a streaming service just to watch Knicks games. ‘John Starks: My Life’ is on my bookshelf. So when I heard last year that Chris Herring, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who previously covered the Knicks for The Wall Street Journal, was coming out with a book in January about the legendary teams of the 1990s, I was all over it.
Here’s the cover:
Per tradition, Knicks fans’ hopes were high when the current season started. We said things like:
But once again, things have gone sideways as they have seemingly done every year since the ’90s Knicks played. The team is below .500. The coach is on the hot seat. They lost Friday night and could lose again today. Fans are frustrated, like:
‘Blood in the Garden’ is a salve for another doomed season. It is deeply reported, and contains fascinating details and insights about the decade of Knicks basketball that changed the NBA and defined Knicks fandom ever since. Herring’s reporting also resurfaced many memories from when I first fell in love with basketball and became a Knicks fan. You see, I grew up in White Plains, N.Y., where several Knicks lived and near where the team practiced at SUNY Purchase. Back then, everyone in town, as well as across Greater New York, was wild for the Knicks. I still remember the buzz in high school the morning after this happened:
Many Knicks fans may have already heard about how Starks went from bagging groceries in Oklahoma to an NBA All-Star, but Herring’s reporting fleshed out his path through several junior colleges before making his way to Oklahoma State and then the NBA—a journey that made ‘The Dunk’ even more special. Herring also takes us through Starks’s personal struggles leading up to his infamous 2-18 shooting disaster in the 1994 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets. That sequence of the book reminded me of when I was with my best friends Brian and Armand at Armand’s house to watch a game during those finals, and it was interrupted by the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. I’ll never forget how the network cut away from the game, then went split-screen. What I didn’t remember until this book was that the Knicks won that game. I also remembered driving around White Plains with friends trying to figure out where Charles Oakley lived, a home that Herring describes as having a weight-lifting set in the living room. My favorite player is Anthony Mason. Herring goes deep into Mason’s story, chronicling his journey from Queens to playing college ball in Tennessee to his many clashes with teammates, coaches and opponents. I loved the artwork Mason would get etched into his hair, his toughness and how he would point at the camera during post-game interviews and tell his kids to go to bed (which Herring elaborates on). I wasn’t surprised Mason had an intense competitive streak, but I chuckled at the story where he was playing hoops with kids at a team event and knocked one of them down as stunned team execs looked on (the kid was fine). Herring makes our Knicks heroes more human, and in doing so made me realize how much I miss these guys:
People deride the ’90s Knicks for playing a brutal style of basketball. But to me those Knicks symbolize something important about New York City. This is a tough town where sharp elbows and grit are essential to get by. But sometimes it’s not enough. We’ll get knocked down, our dreams crushed. These Knicks never won a championship, but no matter how many times they lost to Michael Jordan or Reggie Miller or Alonzo Mourning or Tim Duncan, they always put in the work to come back. Just like New York has done again and again. Knicks fans know what it is like to chase dreams: to hope, have those hopes crushed, and to hope once more. New York City is called the Mecca of basketball, but Knicks fans have suffered through more than two decades of hoops futility since Patrick Ewing, Starks, Oakley, Mason, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby and Allan Houston took the court in Madison Square Garden. Still, we long for our Knickerbockers to tap into the golden days and to achieve new glory. As The Kid Mero reminds us, Ja Rule said ‘Pain Is Love’:
I could go on and on about moments in Herring’s book: Pat Reilly’s intensity (the baseball-spikes story was crazy); Xavier McDaniel’s shower antics (yikes!); Greg Anthony’s scrap with the Phoenix Suns provoking the NBA to curtail fighting, fouls and hand checks (his shirt belongs in the hall of fame); Ewing missing that finger roll against the Indiana Pacers (I died face down on my mother’s living room carpet); and Jeff Van Gundy’s perseverance through 1999’s improbable Finals run (under threat of being fired). But you should read it for yourself instead. ‘Blood in the Garden’ reminds me of other classics of basketball reporting, like ‘The Breaks of the Game’ by David Halberstam and ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith. It’s brilliantly reported and crisply written. I flew through it and enjoyed it tremendously. Even if you’re not a Knicks fan, if you love basketball, you should read this book.
How it begins:
There was a time, back in the spring of 1994, when bellies were perpetually full at Two Penn Plaza.
Back then, Knicks employees who worked in the Madison Square Garden corporate offices were treated to extravagant buffet lunches in the fourteenth-floor hallway—complete with lo mein, gourmet sandwiches, jalapeño cheese poppers, egg rolls, and desserts—whenever the club tallied a three-game winning streak.
The Knicks were transforming into an NBA fat cat, and one of the most feared teams in basketball. After a disappointing 39-win season in 1991, a personnel overhaul helped lift New York to 51 regular-season victories in 1992 and an Eastern Conference-best 60 triumphs in 1993. By then, the free lunches were no longer a rarity. They’d become an expectation.
Then came the mother of all buffets. In March 1994, with coach Pat Riley and the Knicks preying on one foe after another, they strung together a franchise-record 15 straight wins, and those celebratory lunches were held every week for five weeks in a row. It was during one of those jubilant meals that Frank Murphy, the team’s business manager, decided to rain on the lunch parade.
“Just make sure you enjoy this,” the executive said, “because it’ll never be like this again. This is special.”
‘Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks’ by Chris Herring was published by Atria Books in 2022. 349 pages, including notes. $26.67 at Bookshop.org.
Knicks fans, meet me in the comments.
Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #179
Do this: Chris Herring is talking about ‘Blood in the Garden’ at Greenlight Bookstore next month. Here are the details:
Read this: Something non-basketball related that I read this week is this great piece in Hobart by Melissa Ragsly: ‘My First Car: ’86 Powder Blue Hyundai Named Carolyn.’ I love how it captures the importance of solitude, and it reminded me of the restorative powers of driving aimlessly in my first car, a ’69 drab green Plymouth Satellite.
Read this too: The New York Times published this wonderful and colorful photo essay showing how a book is made. It features ‘Moon Witch, Spider King’ by Marlon James, which is on my reading list. I plan to review his ‘Black Leopard, Red Wolf’ later this year. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time, queue the music: