’93-94 New York Knicks In Review
Ex-players, coaches and others close to the ’93-’94 Knicks remember the season.
“We played Phoenix on a Sunday and we don’t play in Sacramento until Tuesday,” D’Agostino said. “So, we fly to Sacramento—I was not on the trip. We’re in the air from Phoenix to Sacramento and I guess the legendary story—Riles had done this once with the Lakers, just taken them away somewhere where no one could find them and just give them the day off.
“They’re in mid-air and I think it starts with Riles. He goes to [then-Knicks athletic trainer] Mike Saunders and goes, ‘What if we just went somewhere? What if we went somewhere and hid for a day and I just give these guys a day off. Where can we go?’ Well, they were thinking of going to Vegas, I know that. They couldn’t do Vegas for some reason, so they wind up going to Reno. They put the plane down in Reno and they’re going to spend the day at a place called The Peppermill Casino in Reno.
“Now there are a lot of stories of what happened. When the plane sat down, no one told the players anything…the plane sat down on the airport in Reno and Riley and Saunders had arranged all this from the plane. There’s a line of limos on the tarmac waiting to take the players to the casino. The legend is that Riley stood at the foot of the stairs coming out of the plane and he handed $100 or $200 or $500 or whatever it was to each player as they came off the plane. And they went off into the limos and sent them off into the night.
“The next day, I’m sitting at my desk. Fred Kerber [of the New York Post] calls, and he says to me, ‘Where’s your team?’ I say to him, ‘What do you mean where’s my team?’ He said, ‘We’re in Sacramento, we can’t find your team anywhere.’ I say, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘Well, we called the hotel, they haven’t registered. We’ve called every other hotel in Sacramento, they haven’t registered. We can’t find anybody. Where is your team?’ Well, they were in Reno. [Laughs] But nobody knew! They didn’t find out until the end of that day, that they had just gone away to Reno for, I guess, it was around 24 hours. And then the next day they came to Sacramento, practiced and then blew out the Kings—beat them by 12—and that began the 15-game winning streak.”
Clifton Brown, the former New York Times beat reporter, said in a phone interview that he and fellow traveling media covering the Knicks took separate flights out of cities which they booked themselves, meaning they didn’t always travel together. He couldn’t remember when he had realized the Knicks hadn’t made it to Sacramento; times were different. Twitter, the Internet, even cell phones, were not prevalent. That made it a waiting game for the media to discover where the Knicks had gone.
Saunders, when contacted at his private physical therapy practice in Pomona, N.Y., remembered the story in a slightly different way from what D’Agostino recalled.
“We had not been doing that well,” Saunders said by phone. “And I said to Pat, ‘Pat, I think we have to loosen up a bit.’ Pat said, ‘What do you do when you have severe bleeding?’ I said, ‘You put direct pressure on it.’ He said, ‘That’s what we have to do—direct pressure.’
“Direct pressure didn’t work, so I think we were leaving from Phoenix to Sacramento and had a day off in Sacramento. And there’s nothing to do in Sacramento. So, Pat called me to the back—we had a charter flight—and he said, ‘Tell the pilot to go to [Lake] Tahoe, [Calif.]. So, I went to the front of the plane—I knew the pilots—and I said, ‘Pat would like to go to Tahoe.’ The pilot said, ‘This plane is too big to land in Tahoe, but we can get into Reno.’ I said, ‘Let’s go.’
“So, from the plane I arranged for a hotel/casino, limousines, the whole bit. And we landed and nobody knew what was gong on, except Pat and myself. Then [the players] see it’s a different airport and we get into the limos. They take us to the Peppermill Casino Hotel, Pat gives everybody $500 out of his own pocket—each person. That was $10,000. And that was that. We left the next day around 4 [p.m.], and we won the next 15 games.”
From March 1 to April 2, the Knicks won those 15 consecutive games and improved from 36-19 to 51-19. Despite a downturn immediately following the winning streak in which they dropped six of nine games to close out the season, Anthony felt that Riley’s Reno idea helped the Knicks into the Playoffs.
“The team was really struggling,” Anthony said. “Typically, when that happens that means you’re about to go have a difficult practice. But that was one of the last genius strokes, the genius of Pat Riley. It was about really taking some of the pressure off. And I think that really kind of changed our season, in some respects.”
Anthony added that Riley excelled at “being able to push the right buttons.” That Riley was known for being a disciplinarian and micro-manager makes a story like the Reno Trip seem unlikely. Yet Charles Oakley said that Riley’s decision to do something like that wasn’t out of character.
“He did a lot of special things,” said Oakley, who spoke about the 1993-94 season while introducing his Charles Oakley Collection at a K1X store in New York City October 15. “He was creative. He’s a guy you want to play for. He can keep you focused, he knew how to stop a slide, his charisma on the court—he’s in control at all times. He can see in a game when he has to call a timeout, when he has to go off. He would see body language. He’s the best at that, at reading people.”
Saunders spoke of another time—he said he couldn’t remember the season—when Riley took the team to a movie theater in Seattle. Riley told Saunders to get the players taped and all the equipment transferred to the team bus to make it look as though team would be going to practice. At the same time, the team made arrangements with a local movie theater for the players to watch Tombstone. (The movie was released December 25, 1993 and the Knicks played at Seattle January 29, 1994, making it likely that the excursion also occurred during the ’93-94 campaign.)
The move to start Harper also paid dividends, which was evidenced, in part, by the winning streak. In his 25 games after being named starter, Harper scored 10-plus points 12 times and collected six or more assists 13 times. The bump in minutes helped, as did his increasing familiarity with his teammates. But the winning streak isn’t something that Van Gundy is convinced helped the team in the playoffs.
“You want to be playing well,” he said. “It’s not for momentum. You just want to be playing well because what you’re trying to do in the regular season is create habits that can win under the crucible of the playoffs.”
The Knicks had won plenty in past postseasons; they had experience. What they didn’t have was a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks, who like the Knicks won 57 games, attained the first seed by virtue of a better division winning percentage. And that seeding was important because it mean that not only would the Knicks meet a tough New Jersey Nets team in the first round, but they would be set up for another round with the Bulls.
1994: March To The Finals schedule (all times 8 p.m. EST on MSG Network)
Wednesday, November 2: Knicks at Pacers Eastern Conference Finals Game 6
Monday, November 8: Knicks vs. Pacers Eastern Conference Finals Game 7
Thursday, November 10: Knicks at Rockets NBA Finals Game 2
Sunday, November 13: Knicks vs. Rockets NBA Finals Game 4
Monday, November 14: Knicks at Rockets NBA Finals Game 5
Photos courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images
Check back Friday for Part 2.