Executive In Exile

Former Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld Talks About the Firing, Friendship, and The Future Of The Knicks

"Oak, hardworking guy that he is, was simply not going to take us to that next level," he adds. "But Marcus Camby could. So how could I not make that trade?"

Of course Sprewell, who had choked his previous coach, came with entirely different baggage. "In Spree, I saw a three-time All-Star who was first-team All-Pro at Michael's position the year Jordan played baseball," smiles Grunfeld. "He's a terrific slasher who would attack the basket— a type of talent we didn't have much of. He could be another go-to guy. And, once I sat down to break bread with him, I was convinced he was not a bad person at all."

"I had lots of conversations about the direction we were taking with Ernie," says Knicks chief scout Dick McGuire. "He wanted to build a quick, slashing second unit as kind of a change-up from our first team, which played such a different style of ball." Grunfeld and Van Gundy were always in agreement about Sprewell— who would lead a second team of slashers along with Camby and Chris Childs— coming off the bench.

AP/Wide World
"Never exactly friends": Ernie Grunfeld and Jeff Van Gundy
AP/Wide World

"In the process, Ernie wanted to de-emphasize Ewing's role a bit as well," adds McGuire. "He knew full well we couldn't go any further with just Patrick. Most importantly, in Allan Houston and Sprewell, he saw his own version of Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen: a couple of 6-6 guys who are simply too quick, too athletic, and too everything else on both ends of the floor for opponents to match up with at the swing positions."

Unfortunately, with all the new pieces not getting the time needed to fit together as a unit, the team got off to a slow start. "This wasn't a good time, this particular season, to infuse so much important new blood into a team," admits Grunfeld. "Not with the shortened training camp. And certainly not with so little time to practice due to that absurd schedule. Fifty games in 90 days. Gimme a break."

At the same time, Grunfeld had an even more serious problem: he couldn't get Van Gundy to share his vision of the new direction for the team. The coach was simply too deeply steeped in his Pat Riley­esque, all-Ewing, all- defensive style. Worse, Van Gundy was miffed at what he saw as a personal slight. When Riley was on board, Checketts and Grunfeld had an unbreakable in-house rule: no move would be made unless all three of them approved. Van Gundy expected the same rule to hold true for him. And it did. Sort of. Until the Camby acquisition.

So, when the team started out playing like a bunch of strangers who didn't particularly like each other, the pressure began to build. Van Gundy was not playing Camby all that much. Sprewell was mouthing off about coming off the bench. Then the four dailies, and the insufferable radio shows, started calling for heads (of Checketts, of Grunfeld, of Van Gundy— pick one).

"Jeff and I were never exactly friends, but we never had a word of outward disagreement either," Grunfeld says. "We had respect for each other's talents, and that was enough. But then I would begin to read in the papers that he's keeping Camby on the bench just to get me. And the next day he would read, or hear on WFAN, that I was bitterly complaining to confidants about his lineups.

"I'm sure neither was ever true. But it still inevitably created an aura of dissension around the team. It still created a mess."

No wonder those within the Knicks organization started to become "divided people."

By mid April all Checketts could see was a struggling team with the highest payroll in the league on the verge of missing the playoffs. "I did what I felt I had to do— and I did it only after a lot of soul-searching," he says. "I wanted to stop the division between my coach and my GM that was tearing the team apart."

So, in late April, he invited Grunfeld to dinner at their favorite restaurant— a dinner that had more betrayal and bloody mayhem served up than any since Michael Corleone came out of the bathroom in that Italian restaurant.

Van Gundy's gig, ironically, was saved only by the eerie fact that the team took off the following night— the start of a run that would take the team to the Finals. The Knicks, seemingly improving on a nightly basis, would evolve into Grunfeld's vision come true.

Which left everyone involved feeling happy, sad, and furiously foolish. Except Grunfeld, who was just plain furious.

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