We had come to witness the dynamic dawning of a new era in sports; we had no idea what we’d get, instead, was the crashing and burning of a different era. There was a thick gallery surrounding Tiger Woods that Thursday morning, June 15, 1995. He was 19, and the defending US Amateur champion, and this would be his first-ever round at the US Open.
Everyone at Shinnecock Hills knew what was coming. Everyone wanted to say they were there to watch the launch of this fresh sporting chapter. The favorites – Greg Norman, Nick Price, Corey Pavin – could wait for the weekend. Tiger was the star on this day, even though he shot a perfectly ordinary 74.
He was all the buzz.
Until a buzz of a different kind exploded at Shinnecock, the buzz of a fax machine in Manhattan that could be heard everywhere New York sports mattered: up north toward Westchester, west toward New Jersey, even all the way out east in Southampton, where even a phenom like Tiger Woods stood no chance against a force named Riles.
Because in the middle of that afternoon, all the way from vacation in Greece, Pat Riley faxed in his resignation after four years leading a Knicks renaissance that had captured the very soul of the city. The Knicks, notably Garden boss-of-bosses Dave Checketts, acted shocked and hurt by the news, even though it was revealed later that Riley had made his intentions perfectly clear to them.
Twenty-five years later, it is that easy to mark the line of demarcation between where the Knicks were, and where they are. The death rattle took a couple of years: there were still enough good players, and after a Don Nelson hiccup there was a terrific Riley-trained coach in Jeff Van Gundy to ensure five more years of high expectations and dashed hopes at the Garden.
But in so many ways a profound portion of the Knicks’ soul died on a sunny afternoon 25 years back, when Riley took his Armani collection and his winner within and soon did what so many New Yorkers do, migrating to Miami, building his own fiefdom there. Twenty-five years later he has three championship banners to argue for his side of an old, bitter war.
The Knicks? Well. We know what’s befallen the Knicks. We know where they are, and who they are. We also know that they face their most important coaching decision in years, maybe decades, maybe all the way back to May 31, 1991.
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That’s when the Knicks hired Riley away from NBC after a one-year hiatus from coaching, when Riley then cajoled Ewing into staying in New York and sharing his vision, when together they put together a four-year stretch of unparalleled winning (223-105) unequaled even by the Knicks’ championship teams. Riley’s Knicks never did get that last piece of the puzzle figured out, which leaves his a flawed legacy, if an unforgettable one.
And for the better part of a quarter century now, the Knicks have tried to figure out a way to replicate what Riley wrought, when he made the Knicks New York’s essential team. In those years baseball season didn’t begin in New York until the day after the Knicks were eliminated, even in a baseball-mad town. That all literally happened in a different century. It feels even longer.
Tom Thibodeau doesn’t have the four rings on his resume that Riley had when he was hired, but he is far and away the best coach available for hire. That used to mean something to the Knicks. Back in ’91, the easy move would have been to retain John MacLeod. The more complicated one – as Checketts would discover soon and often – was to hire Riley, and all the drama and success and aggravation that would bring.
It is almost impossible to remember this, but two years ago Mike Budenholzer was available, and he was interested in the Knicks, and he brought a track record of winning from the NBA hinterlands of Atlanta … and the Knicks hired David Fizdale instead. Budenholzer took Milwaukee as a “consolation” prize and now has a terrific chance of winning it all if and when the NBA resumes.
The time for being cute is over for the Knicks. Thibodeau is available. Thibodeau has won, and if he’d gotten even a small break or two back in his Chicago days he might own a ring or two as well. If he isn’t Riley – if nobody has ever quite been Riley, part hustler, part huckster, part Svengali, pure winner – he’s as good as the Knicks can ask for now. He brings gravitas. He brings success. Once upon a time, that’s all that mattered to the Knicks.
If the Knicks themselves want to matter again, it starts the same place it started on May 31, 1991: by hiring the best man for the job.