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Chris Herring’s Blood in the Garden is a well-researched work that captures the tenacity of the 1990s Knicks in all its feral glory
The New York Knicks of the 1990s continually found themselves intersecting with greatness. In the words of Chris Herring, whose debut book Blood In the Garden covers those teams, “They were a brute-force version of Forrest Gump, repeatedly intertwined with historic moments.”
From facing Michael Jordan and the Bulls multiple times in the postseason to being overshadowed by O.J. Simpson’s low-speed chase during a 1994 Finals game; from Reggie Miller’s 25-point fourth quarter in 1994 to his 8 points in 9 seconds a year later; from their intense rivalry with the Miami Heat to their journey to become the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals, they were there for many of the NBA’s most memorable moments of the decade.
They never quite shaped the direction of the league, but a whole lot of teams had to go through them on their way to shaping it themselves. Throughout Blood In the Garden, Herring tells their story, offering Knicks fans a chance to relive the team’s most extended run of relevance while giving outsiders the opportunity to learn why the reputation of these teams refuses to die over 20 years later.
Despite the Knicks of the 1990s seeming like a single entity, there are two distinct eras captured in the book. Though despite their differences in coaches and personnel, they are united in their hardnose style, the presence of Patrick Ewing, and their inability to quite win it all. In the first half of the decade, the team was led by coach Pat Riley whose intensity translated to the court, finding expression in the play of men like Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, and John Starks.
After Riley left for the Miami Heat – launching one of the most intense NBA rivalries of the last three decades in the process – Don Nelson briefly took over, trying and failing to modernize the team before resigning just 59 games into his tenure. This cleared the way for Riley protege, and future professional grump, Jeff Van Gundy to take over and reinstate the style that Riley had previously utilized to great success. With the Van Gundy hire also came fresh blood as they signed Allan Houston in free agency while trading Starks, Mason, and Oakley in separate deals in exchange for Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and Marcus Camby, respectively.
Blood In the Garden gives you stories you’ve never heard before about some of your favorite (or most hated) Knicks players
Blood In the Garden is full of new stories and anecdotes that even the most die-hard Knick fans will not have heard before. Herring also does a good job at humanizing several of these Knick players, helping readers get to know them better and more deeply than may have been possible at the time. This is especially true of Anthony Mason, the “habitual line-stepper” who emerges as the team’s, and the book’s, complicated, tortured, and sometimes too passionate heart. In many ways, he is representative of the team itself: enigmatic, self-destructive, rebellious, passionate, both wounder and wounded.
Though his teammates are not as fully sketched, one will nevertheless get a feel for Oakley and Starks and the difficult journeys all these men took to find a place in the NBA. Perhaps ironically, Patrick Ewing, the most famous and distinguished member of these teams, the lone player to be with the Knicks throughout the entire decade, is the one who feels most distant and unknowable. The details of his life are recounted yet he seems to exist behind a veil, making Ewing both the central and most mysterious figure of the book.
The Van Gundy years are also given much less space and attention, despite the fact that Riley coached less than one more full year than Van Gundy did in the 1990s. The rivalry with the Heat and their playoff runs, especially the 1999 Finals trip, are both well-covered, but the book seems less curious about the men and players involved. Readers will walk away feeling like they know Riley, Mason, Oakley, and Starks much better than they do their late 1990s counterparts.
While the book ends almost immediately after that unexpected 1999 Finals run, the seeds of the team’s next two decades of near-constant futility are seen being sown as James Dolan rises to the top of the franchise’s leadership. Readers will see him meddling behind the scenes, making ill-advised, impulsive moves that no one else seems to think are wise or necessary apart from himself. At one point, he reportedly fires GM Ernie Grunfeld, in part, because of how his wife “carried herself inside the arena’s celebrity lounge, Suite 200.” Such stories do not fully explain the team’s struggles in the new century, but they do make them a lot more understandable.
Unfortunately, with these Knicks teams already being so iconic, Herring is not able to really cast their story in a new light. Their cultural significance or influence is not as explored as it could have been. It’s not that a book with this many new anecdotes and stories necessarily needs to justify its existence. However, looking at the wider world of New York and placing the team in a broader context than that of the NBA could have showcased why they meant so much at the time and continue to resonate today. Near the beginning of the book, Herring writes “ Those Knicks made you feel something,” and as ably and engagingly as he tells those stories, exploring those feelings, in addition to the narrative itself, would have played a major role in making this book truly separate itself from the pack.
Despite their failure to win a title, these Knicks teams remain some of the most beloved and iconic squads in NBA history. As the last era in which the Knicks were consistently competitive, it still holds a certain place in the hearts of New Yorkers who remain eager for the team to return to glory. For those Knick fans eager to relive the franchise’s most recent glory days, or for any NBA fan who would like to spend more time with some of the biggest personalities of the 1990s, Blood In the Garden is sure to delight. Though be warned; once you finish this book, you are at least 50 percent more likely to complain about today’s NBA players being too soft. In light of what an enjoyable read Herring’s book is, it’s a risk worth taking.