"They're a team without a flaw," said Denver coach Doug Moe after the Knicks nipped the Nuggets 124-123 in overtime a few weeks back. "Not to take anything away from Detroit, but I rate New York the top threat in the East." Actually, the Knicks have taken something away from the Eastern Conference champs, specifically, a psychological advantage, with a 133-111, 88-85 and 100-93 sweep of their three games with the Pistons so far this season. And they have now won two of three from the Cavaliers, possessors of the NBA's best record, 34-10. With 21 home games among the 36 outings New York had left on its schedule as of Sunday, things figured only to get better.
It wasn't too long ago, of course, that the Knicks were less a novelty than a complete joke—the NBA's whoopee cushion. From '84-85 through '86-87, the Nix had the league's worst record, 71-175, and in the once-boisterous Garden, one usually heard no more than some boos and the caustic, knife-on-a-plate voice of coach Hubie Brown.
"It was like a ghost town around here," says guard Trent Tucker. "That's kind of incredible for New York City."
Well, the loud cheers, the crowds (this season's average attendance: 17,661, compared with 13,684 in 1987-88 and 14,185 two seasons ago) are back at the Garden, where at the end of last week New York was 19-1, having lost only to the Lakers last Nov. 22. Predictably, comparisons with New York's championship teams of 1970 and '73 have been heard, but even though New York City native and longtime Knick fan Pitino occasionally convenes his players at center court in the Garden and asks them to look up at the championship banners, don't try and push the past on this crew.
Asked what he knows about the old Knicks, Ewing answers, "Nothing.... You've got to acknowledge them as a great team, but beyond that I don't think about them."
Like those illustrious predecessors, who were known for their unselfishness and for their savvy, this New York aggregation has two trademark strengths too. However, full-court pressure defense and three-point gunning aren't traits associated with NBA championship teams. Can these Knicks break the mold?
Absolutely. First of all, they're not a carnival act, the press and the three-point shooting and Jackson's occasional ill-fated flights into passing fancy notwithstanding. They have Ewing, whose improving back-to-the-basket offense keeps New York's half-court game a shade above respectable. (And it may get much more than respectable if general manager Al Bianchi completes a deal with the Portland Trail Blazers that would bring forward Kiki Vandeweghe, a prolific scorer, to the Knicks in exchange for a future first-round pick. The deal was still alive as of Sunday.) They have a 10-deep rotation. They have players who came from winning college programs: Ewing (Georgetown), Jackson (St. John's), rookie substitute point guard Rod Strickland (DePaul) and backup forwards Kenny Walker (Kentucky) and Sidney Green (UNLV). Ask the Knicks if they're surprised that success has come so suddenly, and they'll say, "No. We expected it."
And they have an unusually close relationship with Pitino, who goads and scolds as much as any coach in the league but gets everything out of his players. Pitino has known Ewing, Jackson and Green since they were high school freshmen and he was a college assistant visiting their gyms, and he tried to recruit Newman, New York's starting small forward, for Boston University, where he was the coach from 1978 to 1983. Newman chose Richmond over BU because he believed the rumors that Pitino would be leaving the Terriers, which indeed he did when Brown brought him in as a Knick assistant for two seasons ('83-84 and '84-85).
"I used to tell my friends that that man would be an NBA coach someday," says Newman. "Even back then you could tell it. The thing that made him different was that he really wanted to make you better."
Indeed, though his acid comments from the bench evoke memories of Brown, Pitino is close to his players. It pays off, maybe because the Knicks are young—at 29, Tucker is the oldest player on the roster—and, like their coach, hungry.