Numlock Sunday: Chris Herring on Blood in the Garden
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to my friend and former FiveThirtyEight colleague Chris Herring whose book Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks is out this week.
Herring’s book is all about one of the most controversial organizations in the history of basketball, and how they were absolutely instrumental in shaping the game that has become popular today by serving as a blunt, violent foil. It’s an incredibly deeply-reported work about a fascinating era of sports that will never and can never happen again.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Can you tell me a little bit about your history with the Knicks? You went and wrote a history about a team in an era that you, personally, were only just becoming a fan. I would love to hear about your relationship with this team and what got you interested in potentially writing a book about them.
There was no history at all as far as when this team was playing, I was four when they hired Pat Riley. I grew up in Chicago during the time where Michael Jordan dominated the league, so I was a Bulls fan, but not even. For the majority of that era, I was watching cartoons. So the second three-peat that the Bulls had, maybe by the time they won the fifth championship, I understood a little bit better what was going on. But by that point — that would've been '97 — the Bulls haven't played the Knicks in the playoffs since I was of age to actually understand what was happening. The fact that the Knicks were a rival of the Bulls, I didn't know that, I didn't come up with that knowledge at all, I didn't care about the Knicks. I wasn't really even a Bulls fan until I was maybe nine or 10 years old, which was basically when Michael retired the second time. It really wasn't part of my consciousness, that had nothing to do with the project.
When I did develop a tie in the Knicks at all, not as a fan, but when I started covering the team for the Wall Street Journal as a beat writer in 2012. They had a really unexpectedly good season. They won 54 games and finished in second place in the East. The city was just on fire with how good they were, and really, it was weird because when I took the beat, everybody was really doom and gloom. Then when they were really good, they were like, "Man, this is incredible," and it really did feel like they were the center of the universe for a little bit. This was also one year after the Jeremy Lin stuff, where that absolutely made people feel like the Knicks were the center of the universe again. It's just been so few and far between the moments where they've been relevant over the last 20 years.
People kept telling me that and I never quite understood what the era before was, or what the ‘90s were like; you'd hear about "physicality" and it was just a buzzword. But a literary agent approached me back in basically the end of 2018 and said, "I'd really, really like you to take on this project. I've got publishers and people that run the publishing houses that are knocking down my door basically saying ‘Find me a writer that can do this and we'll absolutely bid on the book.’" He was just looking for a writer to cover it, was looking for someone that had a good reputation for having covered the Knicks but didn't necessarily want someone that's covered those teams from back then because he didn't want someone that would rely on a knowledge that they thought they had already because they were part of it or because they lived it.
I guess I had always planned that I would do a book, and it'd be my own idea at first and maybe it's something where I cover a team and they won a championship that season, and I’d write a book that offseason about what that season was like behind the scenes. But you can't plan for that. You don't know when that's going to happen. For most people, they don't have something put up on a plate for them for their first project when they're still trying to develop a name for themselves as a writer.
It's a really colorful subject during a time that a lot of people care about, even though they didn't win a championship. I knew it was going to be a ton of work, but I did eventually agree to do it. At this point, I'm really, really happy that I did.
I love that you bring up that — I don't want to say easy because no books are easy — but it's very simple to anchor a book to a championship. It's very simple to anchor a book to, "Here's a group of winners."
But what's so unique about this team is that they were so profoundly good for so profoundly long in such an interesting way, but! They never actually did come away with it. Can you get at what you think the most interesting thing was about this organization for the period that you covered it?
Here's the simplest way to put it. I think it probably looks or sounds strange at first, but it's absolutely true: I think that the Knicks changed more about basketball and the way the game would be played than anybody else during that era. I don't even think it's close.
The Bulls obviously were the dominant team in the era. They had the dominant player of the era, maybe of all time; no one's trying to make that argument. You could make the argument behind them that the Rockets won two championships during those years where Michael was out, they had a generational talent at the center as well, no one's debating that. The Rockets beat the Knicks head to head in '94. But when you look at today's game, and how beautiful the game is, and how much skill is involved in the game, where you have point guards that pull up from 40 feet away, there wasn't any of that back then, obviously.
The reason that I think we eventually progressed to what we have now is that the Knicks were a pound of flesh-style defense that the league basically said, "We will not have any of this in our sport anymore." And they essentially tried to usher out the style of play that the Knicks had, is that the Knicks were this Forest Gump-style blunt force object, where they were a part of so many moments that were remembered very vividly in NBA history during the ‘90s.
If you think about obviously the moments with Jordan, his 55-point game, some of those playoff series and some of the images where he's right in people's faces — because he really did not like the Knicks and the Knicks really made life hell for him — there are those moments. There are the Reggie Miller moments where Reggie scores eight points in nine seconds, and he has the game where he's drawing with Spike Lee and he scores 25 points in the fourth quarter. The O.J. Simpson chase that happened right in the middle of the Knicks' finals game, there was that in 1994, which was just bizarre that that happened.
Then obviously, the stuff with Pat Riley leaving the Knicks, the way he did it, he sent in a fax to leave the team and then they had really the most fiery rivalry in the late ‘90s where they played against the Heat four straight years in the post-season, which that's rare enough, but all four of those series went to distance and went the maximum number of games because they were so competitive. Two of them were muddied by the fact that there were suspensions — really, really big suspensions, to really key players because they fought in the middle of the series and had big brawls and fights during the middle of the series.
That was the team that Pat Riley had gone to, so of course, the Knicks really hated them and that those teams were built exactly like the Knicks because Riley started building his teams that way. They were part of the zeitgeist of the ‘90s, but also, the League basically said we have to change the rules and get away from this. They won't tell you definitively that the Knicks were the reason they changed the rules. The Knicks call them anti-Knicks rules, the players I talked to for the book, because they feel very firmly that those rules changed because of them. The League won't come right out and say it, but the people I spoke to from the League do say, "We had to change something because we were afraid of losing fans who wanted to see a game without people getting hurt. We were afraid of losing our players who we were afraid of getting hurt."
That wasn't the Knicks specifically, but it's funny, because they don't deny the fact that the Knicks had something to do with it. They're like, "We needed to get away from that generally, but yes, we can also admit that the Knicks were at the forefront of that or the team that everybody thinks about." They were worried about teams copying the Knicks and quite frankly, teams were copying what the Knicks were doing. The Knicks came in and didn't have nearly the talent that the Bulls did, so they used their physicality as an equalizer where Pat Riley would tell them literally in some cases to go out and knock Michael Jordan down to the floor during a playoff series. They were using physicality and intimidation as an equalizer because they didn't have the talent and the League, to a T, what they told me in the calls I had with them is that, "We didn't want physicality to basically become more important in our sport than skill and athleticism." The Knicks were at the forefront of that movement.
The League did away with that and said, "Okay, we're going to start penalizing flagrant fouls differently," which they needed to do after Charles Oakley finished the season with twice as many flagrant fouls as the next closest player and more flagrant fouls than 15 teams by himself. They had to start doing some of that. They had to change that. They had to start penalizing the fights more. Where it used to be that you could swing on someone in a fight and if you didn't actually connect with the person you were punching, then you weren't going to get suspended. They were like, "Okay, maybe that rule is stupid; if you try to swing at someone at all, we're going to suspend you. If you leave the bench, we're going to suspend you during a fight because that's dangerous and it runs the risk of the altercation becoming more serious with more people involved."
That really came back to bite the Knicks in the ass and they had a couple fights like that, one big one in '93 with the Phoenix Suns where Greg Anthony came off the bench and sucker punched someone in street clothes. They had another big one in '94 against the Bulls during the year where Michael Jordan had retired, but it happened right in front of the commissioner, David Stern, who was sitting at half-court with his wife and he had a mortified look on his face as he's watching his two marquee teams, the Knicks and Bulls, on national TV have this brawl that is spilling into the stands onto the people that have enough money to sit courtside.
He basically said, "Enough. We're going to start suspending anybody that leaves the bench during these fights." The Knicks had a big fight in '97 where that happened and everybody came pouring off the bench and everybody who did that got suspended, including Patrick Ewing, who really was never involved in the altercation but did leave the bench. The NBA basically enforced the letter of the law with that and they suspended Patrick Ewing for a game in a series where the Knicks had been dominating the series, but then because they got so many people suspended in that fight, the Knicks ended up losing the series where they were up three to one at one point — but they ended up losing the series because they had so many suspensions.
All that stuff, it came back to bite the Knicks in the ass, the fact that they couldn't control their emotions but also the fact that some people feel like the League had a bone to pick with them.
Anyway, I'm getting off course. My point is that all these rules changed essentially because of the Knicks and cleaned up the game in a way, that, if they were in a 25-year coma, the game wouldn't be recognizable to those guys. If you were to get people that are young now and make them watch games from the ‘90s, those games would be unrecognizable to them because it looks more like rugby than it does today's basketball. The Knicks, I describe them as these prehistoric figures where it feels like something you'd see in a museum at this point, because it's definitely not something you'd see on an actual court anymore.
It's amazing. Having read some of the book, the games are insane. I went back and watched YouTube videos and as a person who has watched some basketball these days, it's unrecognizable.
You started this out with alluding to this idea of physicality, which is putting it nicely. This is a fundamentally different sport. It seems like a key crux of your book, that the Knicks weren't so much just a team so much as they were a catalyst for the League to become what it needed to become.
That's the funny thing, is people have asked me a couple times, "Are you advocating for the sport to go back to being that?" No, I'm not. I'm a fly on the wall, and hopefully someone that you could tell got the insights from what happened back then. I'm certainly indicating what the players' opinions were and what the coaches' opinions were and the dislikes that they had for the League and the fact that they detested the League and the way that they officiated them and everything else, the way the League felt about them.
My opinion's not in there as far as what I think about the way the stuff should have gone. I think if you talk to enough of those players, especially the ones that are involved in the League now? Doc Rivers was a Knick back then for two years, and now is a coach, he's since won a championship, he says thank God that the rules changed. They couldn't keep going that way; someone was going to get hurt. The League was going to hurt itself by not evolving, thank goodness it's evolved.
You look at it, and Steph Curry is a joy to watch and I think actually brings new people into the sport. I don't think we've seen all of the things that will come from the way he plays basketball that will come eventually. I think in the future, the fact that you've got guys that are 7'1, 7'2, 7'3, in Kristaps Porziņģis' case that can hit 30-foot jumpers in the League again, I just feel like would be alien to people that somehow were in a 25-, 30-year coma. Just because we had Manute Bol back then who shot threes, but even with him, he was shooting them from right behind the line, not taking them from basically five feet on the other side of half-court. It's just a different sport.
I think you have a couple exceptions; I think Charles Oakley would love for basketball to go back to being the way it was. But for the most part, I think most people are really happy to seeing it evolve, because we actually realize we care about health on some level. I think also the psychological aspect of it, which is a big part of the book with Pat Riley, that part didn't even really seem healthy necessarily. As far as the idea that you're going to just run people and not really worry about their well-being? Someone might have chronic knee issues that you don't know about. It was this idea that toughness was something that you gauge based on whether someone could play through everything. I think we're a little bit smarter than that now.
You can see it almost as doubling down on the strengths of the sport. If you want to see somebody get punched in the middle of a game at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers play on Tuesday. If you want to watch a game that really pushes people past their physical breaking point to the point of injury, the NFL might have you covered. But it just seems like it's an opportunity to differentiate the sport, getting away from some of the stuff that the Knicks had, let's just say, pioneered in the ‘90s.
Yeah. I don't even really have words for what they were. Part of me, if I'm explaining to you my wildest dream for this book? Because I had someone make a trailer for it, it's almost more of a movie trailer. There's part of me that, I definitely have trust and faith in my ability to write, but my biggest dream for this book at some point is for it to become a documentary, because I feel like you have to see it to fully understand just how physical they were. My words can't do it justice. I don't know that David Halberstam's words could have done it justice. It's just that physically intense. Like you said, physical is a word you can use but it's not the word you should use. Because they were just bludgeoning people! People were ending up with broken wrists! In the trailer, you see people that look like their spines are not going to be intact when they try to stand up from the way that they're hit.
This was a coach that was showing them videos of rams head-butting each other with their horns, and violent car crashes before they walk out on the court for a game to psych them up for a game. Normally in a pregame talk in the locker room, you talk. There would be games like that where he would just show them imagery like that and not say anything to them, but it was actually saying everything to them, because that's the way he wanted them wired, and the way he wanted their mentality staged, was just through violence.
We'll never see that again. It's probably a good thing that we won't. But I do think it makes a really interesting subject for a book to see what stuff was like at one point at a time where basketball was really relevant in Madison Square Garden and the team was really relevant.
Yep, it's not called Fun in the Garden, the book is called Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks.
One thing I did want to highlight was, just as a journalist, I saw your notes on the sources section on just how many people you got to talk to for this one. It's so deeply reported, it's so impressively done. Do you have a favorite interview, or someone that you were just thrilled that you got the chance to get somebody on the record for?
I have to think about the favorite interviews. But I talked to, all told I think 204 was the number of people I spoke to. I don't know if there's one particular person, but I will say that the sorts of people that I've talked to, there was always a constant of who I really took the most pride in speaking to and what I felt like I got the most out of by speaking to those people. It was the people that were community outreach folks, marketing people, game ops people, people that sat at the scorers table.
Beyond that, even when you talk about the players, the players I spoke to that were generally my favorites were ones who got cut in training camp. That probably sounds ridiculous but no, it's true, because those were the people that — particularly the training camp cuts — they in some cases only spent two and three days around Patrick Ewing or Charles Oakley or John Starks or Anthony Mason. And because of that, a lot of people say, "You're getting your information from people who didn't know what happened."
If I'm talking about like the big, broad, sweeping stuff of the biggest moments? But also, because they were only there for two days, guess whose memories are going to be the most vivid throughout that era if you're asking people about stuff? Patrick Ewing, who shook probably 19 million hands and has interacted with everyone over the course of a 15-year Knicks career? Or Gary Waites, who spent six days with the team in training camp? You tell me.
I bet Gary Waites' recollections are going to be a lot more sharp than Patrick Ewing's, and Gary Waites is going to be able to tell me about if you've ever seen Training Day, and that night where Denzel Washington's character Alonzo drives Ethan Hawke's character around basically all night with all these ridiculous things, and all these death-defying things that he's doing, by driving him around at night as his sidekick as a cop? Gary Waites is describing his night out with Anthony Mason and it sounds exactly like that! He was only with the team for a week in training camp, not even during the season.
But the guy is telling me about how Anthony Mason kept them out until basically almost five o'clock in the morning, and that they have practice at eight o'clock in the morning, and that he's dead trying to do drills and running drills and stuff and that Anthony Mason's winning all the drills. You're trying to show people rather than telling them. I feel like you can show so much of who these guys were through these anecdotes like that, where it's not that the guy stayed awake all night, it's that he stayed awake all night and he did it by doing this and staying out on the stoop until one o'clock in the morning to drink gin with his friend, and then went to go pick up a woman, and then after that had his buddy that owns this restaurant and this after hours place open up the restaurant just for him, the woman and Gary Waites at 2:30, and then they finished eating at 3:30 and then they go home at 4:00 and then there's practice at 8:00.
That is showing someone rather than telling them and that's what the book was about for me, is when you get that many people to talk with you, I worked from the bottom up to try to get people to really open up to this book. When I did make it to the top of the food chain, as far as that era was concerned, I spent a lot of time talking to people that only had a week of interaction with the Knicks and some of the stuff they were able to tell me was just jaw-dropping. It was so much fun. I think it's a really good lesson in the idea that you want to get all the most important people certainly, but you really cannot avoid or ignore the people lowest on the totem pole. You're going to miss so many stories if you do that.
That's great. That's such a good note to end on. The book is Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks. Where can folks find the book? If you have a little elevator pitch for it, what would it be?
If you enjoyed those ‘90s years with the Bulls and Michael Jordan, if you liked “The Last Dance” documentary, you don't want to miss by only focusing on the top of the food chain, Michael Jordan. You're going to miss a lot and misunderstand a lot about what the ‘90s were if you don't understand the ‘90s Knicks. This is a book not just about them, but what the NBA was like at that time, about what the physicality was like at that time and what the mindsets were like at that time. I don't even think you have to be a diehard basketball fan to enjoy the book. Don't take it from me; The Wall Street Journal had a review on it yesterday saying you don't have to like basketball, you don't have to have been a Knicks fan. I think it encompasses what that era was like not just in the NBA, but in New York, generally the city and basketball.
You genuinely got the most important endorsement in the entire game when Spike Lee said, "Hey, buy this book."
My head's still spinning from that one, because I did not see that one coming at all. He heard about the book, I think maybe four days before the book came out and read the book in essentially two sittings and then tracked down my phone number to tell me and wanted to know everything about how I approached it, why I approached it the way I did. I'm still floating from that. That one's crazy.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.