Chris Herring chatted with The Knicks Wall on writing about the history of the 1990s Knicks, embellished encounters with presidents, and more.
If you were to describe the 1990s New York Knicks, perhaps the only proper word to use would be “flagrant.”
Forget the “Bad Boys” of Detroit; Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn were lambs to Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley’s lions. While Detroit had the “Jordan Rules,” New York forced the NBA to change them overall with their brute force and physicality. That decade’s Knicks teams were built on the mentalities of blue-collar players and fans. To escape the World’s Most Famous Arena on any given night without having picked up/been on the receiving end of some sort of flagrant foul was just about as likely as any of those teams actually winning a championship when push came to shove.
What, too soon?
Chris Herring’s new book, Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks, takes what we believed we already knew about the Mecca’s ruthless squads of yore not one step further, but 100, even more. It’s an exhaustive, all-embracing look at the franchise’s golden age, one made up of teams that never reached the peak, but can never be left out of any conversation about that era in the NBA. In a conversation of our own, I talked with Chris about the book, his storytelling process, the anecdote he wishes could’ve made the final cut, and more. The questions and Chris’ responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Will Bjarnar: I think there’s the obvious, this being a fascinating team in general in addition to your history when it comes to covering the Knicks with The Wall Street Journal. What made you want to tackle these teams, this era of the Knicks, in your first book or as a book in general?
Chris Herring: Well, it wasn’t my idea. Somebody approached me about doing it first, but I said no. It wasn’t really a natural thing for me. I just kind of always assumed in my mind that, sure, I was interested in doing a book, but I just kind of figured I’d be that person that, when a team I’m covering wins the title, I’d write a book. Or maybe, I’ll convince the team to let me embed with them for a season. I never really thought I’d do something on a team that existed a long time ago. I don’t know how sexy a subject that is to everybody. It’s not The Last Dance, necessarily. They never quite won, which for a lot of people means, “Oh, well, then they don’t qualify to have a book done about them.” And that’s just not true.
I describe them in the book as a Forrest Gump sort of character, where they’re always in the picture. In some way, even if they’re not the focal point, they’re in the conversation, in the picture. Sometimes, you know, you might not even notice them, but they’re there, whether it the O.J. [Simpson] car chase happening during Game 5 [of the 1994 NBA Finals], or if it’s the Reggie Miller rivalry, or if it’s the Heat rivalry, certainly the Michael Jordan stuff. You can make an argument that even though they weren’t the team that defined the era, the Knicks might have dictated more about the way that decade was run. And what would come after that, the way those things were dictated. I think you could make the argument that the Knicks were more integral toward rule changes and the way the league operated, even more than the Bulls were responsible. And that’s really unusual for a team that doesn’t win. So, when it came to the book, it was going to be hard to find a subject more interesting than the Knicks from those years.
WB: Some of the few final, really masterful passages of the book touch on that, the idea that it’s impossible to talk about that era without the Knicks being a part of the conversation. If you’re talking about the ’90s, you’re probably going to start with Michael Jordan and the Bulls. From your perspective, what really made that team become so special historically? Because you don’t hear people talking about similar teams of a similar ilk from the same era, like the Rockets or the Trail Blazers or, as you mentioned, the Heat. The Knicks, of all those teams, stand the test of time.
CH: Maybe it’s because I covered them for so long. Maybe it’s because I live in a city where it’s now been a long time since the Bulls have won. But there’s something to be said for how people are sometimes more fascinated by the things that don’t quite happen than they are by things that do. And certainly, within those fan bases, when it still hasn’t happened for them. Of course, they’re going to hang on to what quite didn’t happen. The Knicks were extremely close. I would say another fanbase that could relate with some of that is of the Buffalo Bills.
WB: Oh, boy. I’m from Rochester, so that’s right in my sweet spot.
CH: I think that people can develop soft spots for teams that don’t quite get there. I live in Chicago, we’re probably 60 to 70 percent of the population are diehard Cubs fans. Think about Steve Bartman. Think about Scott Norwood with the Bills. You just have players and figures you develop soft spots for. For me with the Knicks, that’s Charles Smith. Think about it: John Starks had, one of the worst performances ever in a Game 7. And people love the guy. Now, granted, he had a lot of positive moments that overshadow the one bad one, but the one bad one essentially cost them the title.
I just think there’s something to be said for the fact that the fascination factor is just stronger, particularly when fanbases haven’t experienced a whole lot of winning. They don’t have anything else to look back on other than those years. The ’90s Knicks played a certain way. They played really hard. I mean, even people that didn’t like the Knicks have to admit that they played really hard, that the effort level was deserving of a championship. People are fascinated by that.
WB: How actively did those teams influence not just its fans, but its city as a whole, to the point where visiting Madison Square Garden for a game felt like a spiritual release or a religious experience? I mean, they call it “the Mecca” for obvious reasons. How individual was that to the Knicks as a franchise in the ’90s? And what made them the team that was so capable of pulling such a passion from their fanbase, in particular?
CH: I’ve thought about that a lot. When I go back and watch the starting lineup introductions, which were so emotionally charged during those [Pat] Riley years, how loud, in particular, the Garden would get. I just did a podcast a while ago and the host asked me, “Are you a Knicks fan?” And I said no, I don’t particularly care who wins or loses. I just want to write good stories. I’m pretty agnostic when it comes to rooting interests. But I get goosebumps watching the Knicks starting intros from those years because it’s just so loud. And you can hear fans going nuts in such a way…maybe there’s some of that today, but man, the passion that fans had back then.
For some people, the one thing that matters more than anything else outside of providing for their family or their family, in general, is making sure they watch the Knicks game when it’s on. It’s the one team in the city they’ve got. Back then, the Nets were in New Jersey. Every other sport was divided by two teams. The Knicks were the only one in the city. So, it really did feel like they had a singular grip on the city.
I do think that New York probably did have more blue-collar people that really appreciated the fact that the Knicks had a bunch of guys that reflected their backgrounds. Anthony Mason was from New York, in Queens. You had a player in John Starks that had bagged groceries a few years before he made it to the NBA. Oakley was blue-collar to a tee in terms of his family’s history and the idea that he would work in crop fields with his grandfather just to provide for the family. It was a pretty blue-collar team. Maybe not Riley with Armani suits and the way he looked. But he was blue-collar, too. He came from a blue-collar community. [Patrick] Ewing was the one blue-chipper they really had, but everybody else fit.
WB: Let’s talk a little bit more about your process in step-by-step terms. You talked to hundreds of people for the book, from players to coaches, executives, people in figurehead’s corners throughout that era. Just take me through your process of how you weaved through all the winding avenues of this team and the people that comprised it.
CH: The first people I called and interviewed for the book were people that were part of the 1991 training camp with the Knicks, which probably sounds backward. But if you start the book process by interviewing John Starks and Patrick Ewing and Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, what the hell are you going to ask them when those are your first calls? You’re going to ask them about the big moments that they’ve already been interviewed about three million times. So, to me, the best way to go about it was to turn the glass upside down, to turn everything on its head; interview the people that, in some cases, had only been with the Knicks for a week in a training camp before they got cut. But guess what? Because those people have been there for a week, they’re going to have such a limited frame of reference because they were been there for a week as opposed to Patrick Ewing being there for 15 years. They’re going to remember everything so vividly because they only had that week to account for.
I remember when Anthony Mason died, people were making kind of a big deal about remembering him from the first day of practice under Pat Riley when he and Xavier McDaniel had this massive fight. It was no more than 10 or 15 minutes into their first practice. I’d heard about it, but nobody could tell me why it started. So, I was calling those ’91 training camp invitees, and finally, I got a guy named Patrick Eddie, who not only was in the training camp but was with the Knicks for that one year, the one year in the NBA he played. I asked him, “Do you remember much from that first day camp from camp at all? From the Mason-McDaniel fight?” He’s like, “I definitely could say something about that because it happened because of me.”
This is why you talk to everybody. Because most people probably don’t even remember Patrick Eddie. To have something that you can build that whole narrative off of, literally the one that opens the book, is so invaluable, and no one’s ever talked to him before because nobody knows who he is. And people would assume that he didn’t matter because he was only there for part of that one year, but that matters a great deal. And he gave me a lot more than that.
[Eddie] basically lived with Anthony Mason as a rookie and was telling me that they lived in the same complex. But Anthony Mason and him would go out and hang out at night, and he would call Anthony Mason ugly. Mason, feeling like he was being challenged, would go out of his way to go, pick up women and bring them by Patrick at his apartment just to show him. “Oh, you think I’m ugly? Actually, I’m going to have a new girl with me on my arm every night. And, you know, maybe you’ll hear me from across the hall as you’re trying to go to sleep with this woman.” That’s essentially what Anthony Mason did, just to make a point.
If those are the only two things I get out of Patrick Eddie, okay, fine. But some of the most interesting stuff will be from people like him because he remembers something that no one else is going to remember. And he’ll tell me something that he has no reason not to share because he’s never been asked before, and is happy to explain it. So, just that sort of stuff was invaluable.
WB: I love that, on a list of three Patricks on the Knicks in the ’90s—Ewing, Riley, and the unknown Eddie—that the definite number three is the one that gives you the best info.
CH: I got more information from him than the other two combined. I still remember that conversation, and he was one of the first three people I talked to. Like, Anthony Mason passed away in 2015, and he was telling me that he cared about him so deeply because he was his first friend with the Knicks during that year. He told me that he didn’t have enough money to get to Anthony Mason’s funeral; he kind of hit hard times when he only had one year in the NBA. So Eddie had to drive, I think, from Milwaukee to New York for the funeral. It was snowing, he couldn’t afford hotels, and was going to be driving there, driving back. He was telling me that he was running late to get there. So, he started speeding aggressively, got pulled over multiple times, and got a ticket in one case. The second time it happened, the cop let him off because he basically did his research to figure out this was an actual baseball player who did have an actual connection to Anthony Mason. But Eddie wasn’t going to miss that funeral for the world. I had so many conversations like that, about stuff that would never make the book, but was so fascinating.
WB: Sticking with that theme of characters in the book. Pat Riley is undoubtedly the biggest character in the book. But then you have someone who I’m also fascinated with and how prominent he is, especially early in the book: Charles Smith. He’s a bit more of a mild-mannered kind of person being shoved headfirst into this franchise that is built on bruising. During this process, what was most important to you about making sure that every single one of those characters was represented properly in order to completely paint this team’s picture?
CH: I had certain people I expected to write full chapters on. Charles Smith was not on that list. But then I thought about it more and started researching and talking to more people and writing. You can’t really tell the team’s history and the heartbreak of their history without fully explaining Charles Smith and how he came up the way he did, and how he was viewed; how Pat Riley never believed in him. You need that backstory.
And… God bless him. You know, he still lives in the New York area. I could hear the subway doors closing when I was on the call with him. It takes a lot to live in New York, given what his history is. John Starks shot 2-for-18 in Game 7 in ‘94. It cost them a championship. When Charles Smith missed four straight shots against the Bulls in ’93, it was a Game 5, and even if they win that game, they still have another game to win. Yet it’s a completely different set of feelings that people have for Smith. I think most of them are negative. That’s heavy to carry that with you. He absolutely carries it with them.
I felt like it was extremely important to get into who he was, why he was the way he was, and not just in that chapter about that play and what led up to that play, but also what came after it. There was a certain player that fit those Knicks, and he just was the only guy on the roster that didn’t. Doc Rivers said they were constantly trying to pull Smith in and loop him in to make him more comfortable, but you can’t really change somebody. And I think some of it frustrated Pat Riley, that he couldn’t change him. That was a failure on his part to some extent, that he tried to change him instead of just having one guy be different. I included Smith a lot because I wanted to kind of shine a light on where Pat Riley fell short and in the ways in which I feel like Pat Riley, as great a coach as he was, a lot of the stuff he was doing and saying would not fly today.
WB: Is there something that didn’t make the book or didn’t necessarily make sense in the book that, maybe you’re not going to wish that could have gotten in there, but one of the more fascinating things that you were able to uncover that you didn’t get to share in the book?
CH: There was this wild anecdote which I so wish could have made the book. I did my legwork on it to make sure it was true, but I debunked it pretty quickly, that it wasn’t true. I was so disappointed.
So, the Knicks had been on a long home winning streak earlier that  season, and there was a game that Richard Nixon went to. Nixon’s grandson wanted to go to a game. The Knicks know he’s there, they put him in a VIP section and they ask him in advance, “Would you be willing to come by and take a picture with the team after the game is over?” He said sure. Well, the Knicks lose the game. Since it broke the home winning streak, the Knicks were feeling kind of down. But Nixon comes to the locker room anyway. Patrick Ewing apologizes to the former president for the Knicks’ performance. And Nixon accepts the apology but says it’s not necessary. He grabs Ewing by the shoulders and he says, “Well, that’s okay, Patrick, I know you guys gave it your all. But in the future, if you can’t beat them, cheat.”
My jaw dropped when I was told that detail. Granted, I’m sure to some extent Richard Nixon would have been kidding. But, you know, I’m a political science major. I’m a history buff, so I’m beside myself. I was so jazzed to write. I was like, let me write this chapter now.
Well, within an hour or two, I had debunked it. I’m going back and I’m trying to figure out, how to pinpoint when this happened, whether this happened. I go back and look to see what games Nixon would’ve went to, and all I keep finding is this one game he went to on a Saturday or Sunday. The Knicks blew the Timberwolves out. So, there’s no chance that they lost to end the streak. And the person who told me said they thought they had read it somewhere, not seen it firsthand. I was so disappointed. But it was actually a good exercise in a way. I was really dejected. But it was a really good reminder that you’ve got to vet everything.
WB: Oh, that’s killer. I’m just imagining Tricky Dick putting his hands on Patrick Ewing, and telling him to cheat.
CH: Advocating the idea of cheating! That would have been wonderful. I still wish that could have been in the book.
Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks will officially hit bookshelves on January 18th.