Executive In Exile


During the duller moments of the NBA Finals, more than a few mystery-minded MSG denizens were overheard wondering whether one of the dozens of fans seen wearing Ernie Grunfeld masks was, well, Ernie Grunfeld. n n They should not have bothered. The deposed Knicks president and general manager was in far too much psychic pain to attend. Besides, even the largest Garden seat could not possibly have held his well-built 6-6 frame— not with that humongous knife sticking out of the middle of his back.

“I watched the games at home,” Grunfeld says. “Alone. With my family.”

Grunfeld is not one of your run-of-the-mill “disgruntled ex-employees.” A Knicks forward from 1982­86, he was first a color analyst (1986­89), then an assistant coach (1989­90) for the team after his playing days ended. Moved into the executive suite, he went from director of basketball administration (1990) to vice president of player personnel (1991­93) to vice president and GM (1993­96) to president and GM (1996­99). His rapid advancement was no coincidence: based on his (mainly) masterful moves, Grunfeld was soon widely acknowledged as one of the top young basketball minds in the NBA.

So, understandably enough, two months after the ax was swung by MSG president Dave Checketts, the ex-GM is still reluctant to recall all the details of his beheading. “I don’t want to take the attention away from the players,” he says in a voice so painfully low you can barely discern the words. “Not right now. This should be their time in the limelight, not mine. I’m so proud of them. They did fantastically well to get as far as they did.”

“Especially after what we all went through,” he adds, even more haltingly.

What Grunfeld is too classy to say is that his situation is simply saturated with the most outrageous irony. The team that did so “fantastically well” was his team, put together by his vision, through his trades and drafts. “Firing Ernie was not just an enormous mistake,” says one Knicks insider who’s worked closely with both Grunfeld and Checketts for years. “It was more than that. It was a shameful act. I’m telling you, this thing made the whole office sick. For weeks afterwards, everyone here was walking around ashen gray, looking like they were about to throw up.”

It wasn’t just that Grunfeld was so good at what he did. Or that he is such an easygoing guy. No, the reaction to the firing was so profound Knicks-wide, and leaguewide, because Grunfeld and Checketts were the best of friends as well.

Their wives socialized. Their nine kids— Checketts has six, Ernie three— played together all the time like some hoops-fueled Brady Bunch. During the early years of their Knicks administration, these two sandy-haired young guys from different backgrounds— Checketts is a Mormon believer from Utah, Grunfeld a Romanian Jew via Forest Hills— had such an aura of enthusiasm over their united success that it managed to melt even the most cynical of NBA hearts. “After the first half of each game, I would try to nudge away from the seat next to Dave in our GM box,” says Grunfeld. “But, relentless, he would come right after me. I mean, he got so psyched he’d be punching me in the arm and the shoulder— hard!— after every basket. After a while I was all black-and-blue— so I’d start to punch him back. By the end of the game we were like a couple of silly kids hitting on each other. We had so much fun.”

So where did it all go wrong? How did these two decent men get caught up in such an indecent situation? “This city, with all the pressures and all the press, has a way of dividing people,” says Checketts. When asked for examples, he cites “Al Bianchi and Rick Pitino, Dave DeBusschere and Hubie Brown,” all Knicks coaches and GMs who eventually became estranged. So is Checketts talking about Grunfeld and Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy? Nah. Looking at his haunted visage and watching him squirm, it’s obvious that these “divided people” are Ernie and himself.

Coming into the season, Grunfeld knew he was about to embark on a risky, perilous path. “With Michael Jordan’s retirement, I knew there was an unprecedented opportunity for us to win an NBA championship,” he says. “But I also knew that, in order to take full advantage of that opportunity, we had to make some drastic changes.”

To wit: the aging, creaky-kneed, slower-than-molasses outfit that relied too much on a physically punishing defense for so long now needed to get younger, swifter, and much more versatile.

But to accomplish that, and to do it under the NBA salary cap, some important feathers had to be seriously ruffled. Along with the less significant Chris Mills and Terry Cummings, wildly popular Knicks vets Charles Oakley and John Starks were traded in order to acquire Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell. And the fans, predictably egged on by a lemming-like press and basketball ignoramuses like Mike and the Mad Dog, went into a full howl.

“It didn’t matter,” says Grunfeld. “As we were constituted, the team was not going to get any better. Camby was 10 years younger than Charles. He is a 6-11 guy with great ‘length’ who was the second pick in the draft a couple of years ago and had extremely live legs. And, talking to everyone who knew him, I knew that his ‘soft’ rep was unfair as well. I knew that, with the positive prodding of respected veterans like Patrick [Ewing] around him, he was the kind of kid who would respond by playing hard.

“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.

“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.