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.
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 team."
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 Starks.
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 post-game 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."