Commentary

Past still defines Heat-Knicks rivalry

While the current Miami and N.Y. teams excite, nothing matches the battles of the '90s

Updated: February 27, 2011, 7:09 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

MIAMI -- The New York Knicks and Miami Heat might soon wage an epic struggle for control of the Eastern Conference, but surely they cannot match the rivalry shared by their forebears of the late '90s, when Knicks-Heat was defined by hate, fear, envy, even the perceived threat of military intervention from Israel.

Yes, we will explain.

Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, Chauncey Billups and Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire and Chris Bosh -- they could all use a refresher on why their teams are supposed to act like the Jets and the Sharks, or at least the Yankees and the Red Sox, when they meet before an ESPN audience under the Sunday night lights.

Of course, it all started with the 1995 power play between Knicks and Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts and his coach, Pat Riley, who wanted full autonomy over personnel matters and something richer than the five-year, $15 million contract he was being offered. Riley had his guy, Dick Butera, secretly hammer out a $40 million deal with Heat owner Micky Arison that included everything but a fleet of Arison's cruise ships. The Knicks coach abruptly took his talents to South Beach, and Miami would surrender a million bucks and a first-round draft pick in the nasty tampering case that followed.

Riley quickly built the Heat into a contender worthy of the Knicks' contempt, and the trials of these two heavyweights mirrored those of Ali and Frazier, with one exception: The Knicks and Heat had four fights, not three.

They unfolded in four consecutive years, all culminating in sudden-death games on Miami's home floor. First blood was drawn in Game 5 of the best-of-seven 1997 conference semis, when Miami's P.J. Brown responded to an aggressive box-out attempt by New York's Charlie Ward -- who was digging into Brown's knees -- by body-slamming Ward near the Knicks' bench, emptying that bench and leading to a wave of suspensions that claimed Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Ward.

"More than anyone," the Knicks' Buck Williams said, "Coach Riley was responsible for this. By appealing to the emotions of his basketball team for two days, Coach Riley incited this sort of behavior. It was pretty much like a time bomb waiting to explode at the end of the game."

The next day Riley's assistant, Stan Van Gundy, called his beloved brother, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, and said, "What is wrong with Charlie Ward?" An enraged Jeff responded, "F--- you, what about P.J. Brown?" They hung up on each other, and never again spoke during a Knicks-Heat series.

[+] EnlargeClarence Weatherspoon, Jeff Van Gundy
Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Van Gundy was a key figure in the Knicks-Heat rivalry of the '90s.

Decimated, the Knicks blew a 3-1 lead and left Jeff to make a lonely Game 7 walk to Riley's office to congratulate his former Knicks boss, a mentor Van Gundy admired and yet one the losing coach believed had played too many public mind games in the series. "I didn't realize I was coaching against Phil Jackson out there," Van Gundy said bitterly before Riley calmed him down.

The following year, with the Knicks about to even their first-round series and force an all-or-nothing Game 5, Johnson and Alonzo Mourning decided to escalate the tension that existed between them as Charlotte teammates by squaring off in Maurice Lucas-Darryl Dawkins form. Van Gundy wasn't about to let another brawl destroy another season, not after owner Jim Dolan and fellow Garden executive Marc Lustgarten ambushed him over lunch during training camp in Charleston, S.C. Van Gundy was insulted when his two superiors told him they didn't believe his Knicks were disciplined enough to win a title.

"It was very hurtful," Van Gundy said, "and I took it personally."

But Dolan didn't stop there. "[George] Steinbrenner had been whispering in Jim's ear that he needed to get involved with the players and coaches if he wanted to be a great owner," Checketts said.

"So Jim sat there and started lecturing Jeff on how the brawl of '97 and the suspensions cost the Knicks a championship, and that Jeff would be held personally responsible if that ever happened again. I think Jeff felt the onus of that, and that led to his involvement in the fight between Alonzo and LJ."

His involvement? Van Gundy tried to separate the flailing Mourning from the flailing Johnson, and then the third man in, Charles Oakley, struck his coach with a glancing blow. "And a glancing blow from [Oakley] for me was a knockout punch," Van Gundy said. "So I slid down Alonzo's leg, and everyone saw the rest." Van Gundy clutched Mourning's ankle as if his very life depended on it.

"People ask me what I was thinking," Van Gundy said, "and I wasn't thinking. Now I know why people plead temporary insanity."

Mourning and Johnson were suspended for Game 5, and privately Checketts was happy with the trade; he believed Miami would sorely miss Mourning's size. Meanwhile, down in Miami, Riley revealed his little secret to Stan Van Gundy:

"I'm going after your brother today."

If Stan didn't know what his boss was talking about, he'd find out soon enough. Riley launched a mean-spirited offensive on Jeff in The Miami Herald, mocking Van Gundy's modest physical stature and collegiate playing career and calling him a "cheap-shot coach" who was instructing his players to hit Mourning's fractured face.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesYou probably won't see LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony go at it to the level former Heat and Knicks players did.

With his hand trembling around his omnipresent Diet Coke, Van Gundy sat in silence as his Knicks closed out Game 5. The losing coach made no congratulatory appearance in his office.

Riley did send a note after the eighth-seeded Knicks won the 1999 series on Houston's heartbreaking Game 5 leaner, the shot that hit the rim and the backboard -- as if to waterboard the top-seeded Heat even more -- before falling through the net with eight-tenths of a second to go. "Triangle Down," Riley wrote in the gracious letter, referring to the play called for Houston. "You had no timeouts and you still had a play to win the game."

As much as Van Gundy enjoyed the letter, especially the opening line ("As I sit here with my rum and coke," Riley wrote), he enjoyed the three words written on the envelope more.

"Coach Van Gundy," it read. Riley had always called him "Jeff" and had never called him "Coach."

In 2000, Miami blew an 18-point lead in Game 6 and had Clarence Weatherspoon, of all people, take and miss the potential winning shot in Game 7 to lose a third straight series to the Knicks on Miami's own court, a fact too cruel to accept.

Tim Hardaway called official Dick Bavetta "Knick" Bavetta after Jamal Mashburn all but chased Bavetta, Bennett Salvatore and Dan Crawford out of the building. "They had three officials in their pocket," Mashburn would say.

It was a pathetic postscript to a rivalry with a positively absurd beginning. Not long after the Knicks filed their tampering charges against Miami in '95, a limited partner of Arison's, Raanan Katz, a former member of the Israeli army, had two intermediaries deliver a verbal message to Checketts that referenced Israeli commandos and the revenge they sought against the Palestinian terrorists involved in the 1972 murders of Olympic athletes in Munich. Checketts reported the alleged threat to his owner, who relayed it to NBA attorneys. The league demanded a written explanation from Katz, who admitted making the remarks but only in an eye-for-an-eye context. "I was just saying that if Dave Checketts tries to screw us," Katz would say in a 1995 phone interview, "we were going to screw him back."

The other day, Checketts recalled that the perceived threat inspired him to take precautions. "I had security at my house, security when I went to work at the Garden, and a guy following me around when I went to my seat to watch games," he said. "It was a bizarre time."

The wounds healed at a glacial pace. At the 2008 Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Riley and Ewing, Checketts and his former coach shared their first conversation in 13 years. Ewing said some nice things about Checketts at the podium, and then Riley shocked the former Garden president by doing the same. When the ceremony ended, Riley approached Checketts and the two embraced.

"I'm sorry," Riley said. "I want you to forgive me."

"I'm sorry for my share in it too, Pat," Checketts responded, "and I want you to forgive me. It's over. It's all over."

As Miami's president and the maker of the greatest free-agent class of all time, Riley stands as the last true survivor of the NBA's most hostile conflict.

He knows that nothing LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony will do Sunday night can touch the untouchable (and sometimes unwatchable) event that was the old New York Knicks against the old Miami Heat.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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