Review: Blood in the Garden
Even though I grew up in California, my favorite basketball team was always the Knicks. I don't remember why I became a Knicks fan other than that I disliked the idea of rooting for a frontrunner and the Knicks seemed like the polar opposite of the flashy and much-loved MJ Bulls.
I remember that back in the late spring of 1994, during the Knicks' second round matchup with the Jordan-less Bulls, I bet my brother $20 that the Knicks were going to win it all that year. It was a terrible bet given that my brother didn't give me odds and the Knicks would have to win three more rounds to win it all, but that's besides the point. In the end, the Knicks came within a single game (and one horrendous John Starks cold spell) of winning the NBA championship. The Knicks haven't been anywhere nearly as close in the 29 years since.
As someone who lived through and followed the 90s Knicks closely, reading Chris Herring's comprehensive history of the team, Blood in the Garden, was a lot of fun. For myself and other Knicks fans, I think there are two levels on which one can read the book:
(1) Learning about stuff you didn't previously know about. Back in the 90s there was no social media or the internet – and although I read Sports Illustrated, the local paper, and any other basketball related publications I could get my hands on, a lot of information regarding the movement of players, contracts, free agency, trades, etc. simply wasn't as available as it is today. For instance, I remember wondering why the heck Xavier Mcdaniel was no longer on the team in the 92-93 season. This book explains that. Other pieces of information I didn't know that were in the book include the story of how Pat Riley exactly came to the Knicks (and how he left), why Rolando Blackman hardly played in the '94 playoffs, Jeff Van Gundy's detailed back story, what happened with Don Nelson's short tenure and much more.
(2) Reliving events you knew about but hadn't perhaps thought about in a long time. This was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the book, because even though I might remember the overall outcome from each year of the 90s Knicks (how far they made it, who beat them, etc.), reliving those playoff runs game by game really brought me back to those exciting, though ultimately disappointing, years. From the surreal OJ White Bronco chase that was played via split screen along with the Knicks-Rockets NBA finals, to the multiple brawls between the Knicks and the Heat, to the LJ 4 point play and the heartbreaking Charles Smith game, the 90s Knicks had A LOT of incredibly memorable moments.
All in all, this book got me thinking quite a lot about how NBA basketball has evolved and changed since the 90s. There are plenty of people on the internet who will swear by the quality of 90s basketball and will call today's players weak, floppers, soft, etc. I'm not one of those people. That said, what Blood in the Garden did make me long for were the true rivalries that thrived during the Knicks 90s heyday. Over the course of the 90s, the Knicks met the Bulls, Pacers, and Heat five, five, and three times, respectively, in the playoffs – with the majority of these series being hard fought, memorable matchups. While personnel would shift to some degree from year to year, the cores of the teams were usually somewhat stable – making for strong rivalries between players and fans alike.
Over the entire course of the 21st century, I can think of only a few basketball rivalries that maybe came close to the intensity of those Knicks rivalries (Lakers/ Kings of early 2000s, Lakers/ Spurs of early 2000s, KG/ Pierce Celtics vs. Lebron in Cleveland + Miami) and no true rivalries over the last ten years or so. This is due to a lot of factors, including increased player movement, a decrease in physical play, and the fact that many top NBA players likely grow up playing with one another in the AAU circuit, etc. The 90s may not have necessarily been a decade for beautiful basketball, but for fans who, first and foremost love great competition, it was a golden era. And while the team of the 90s was undoubtedly the Bulls, the Knicks are arguably near the top when it comes to being the second most memorable team of the decade.