When the New York Knicks were a force in the mid 1990s, with Pat Riley as coach and Patrick Ewing leading the way, there was dissension within the locker room. Anthony Mason wanted more shots. Greg Anthony wanted more playing time. Charles Oakley wanted more money. And that was just the half of it.
John Starks wanted the ball at the end of the game. Ewing wanted Charles Smith to play stronger. Smith wanted plays called for him. Derek Harper wanted to fight, or at least was willing to at any moment. They were a collection of egos with separate agendas. And yet they won.
The difference between the Knicks of the mid-’90s and the Knicks of today who are losing, bickering and apparently clueless on how to extract themselves from the malaise? The coach.
Riley was a street fighter as a kid growing up in upstate New York, not the polished model always runway ready. By the time he got to the Knicks, he had less interest in stylish clothes (although he still put it together), and more excitement about the challenge of meshing the collection of misfits into a unit that came together once the ball was thrown up.
And he did it because he had their respect. He had won with the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which gave him immediate cache in the locker room. But Riley, truth be told, was the toughest of all the Knicks. He instilled a fighter’s mentality into his team, starting in his first practice, when he allowed Xavier McDaniel and Anthony Mason to fight it out, MMA style, while teammates stood around in a circle and watched.
Message delivered. The Knicks were going to be tough. Fighters. That mentality got them to the Eastern Conference finals and one game from the NBA championship in 1994.
Derek Fisher, another smart, tough guy, has to impose his personality, playing style and will onto his team. It’s tougher for a first-year coach to do so, especially when some of the players make more money and believe they are beyond reproach. But enough about Carmelo Anthony.
Seriously, though, Fisher faces perhaps the biggest challenge of any coach in the NBA. He’s breaking into the ranks in New York, where the scrutiny is more intense than anywhere else. He’s doing it with a few players who have been borderline malcontents elsewhere and he’s doing it with his star player at the center of the tumult.
Ewing almost always was above the fray during his Knicks glory years. He became more assertive as a leader as he aged, and when he spoke, the team took heed. He had respect.
Does not seem as if Anthony is looked at in a similar fashion. Losing magnifies any blemishes within a team, so it’s prudent to not take what’s going on now as Armegeddon (one of Riley’s refrains). But the word that Anthony and teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. got into an argument on the court that carried into the locker room is emblematic of a team that is losing and does not know how to handle it.
Not that they should be gracious losers; show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you a perennial loser. But Fisher, a five-time champion who made significant shots in those title runs, has to shelve the “Triangle offense,” shake up the lineup, sit down the non-producers, challenge each individual and hypnotize them, if necessary. The Knicks have lost nine straight games, most in ugly fashion. They are 4-20, the worst start in franchise history. Their talent, especially in the Eastern Conference, should reap more. Much more. And in sports, it always comes back to the coach, fair or not.
“Maybe (we should) have another meeting if it is somebody in here that’s putting the stuff out there,” Anthony about the turmoil. “We need to figure that out and diffuse that because we don’t need that right now, especially when we’re losing basketball games.”
Adding to the mess is that Anthony suffered a knee injury and reports surfaced that he might require knee surgery. That means it could get even worse for Fisher and his team before it gets better. A lot of any turnaround will fall on Fisher. And to think: If Steve Kerr had accepted Phil Jackson’s offer, he’d be suffering through this madness. Surely, somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Fisher wishes Kerr had.