This story was originally published in Newsday on April 22, 1999
It wasn't the Knicks disappointing 21-21 record that finished Ernie Grunfeld. Nor was it any one of his often-questioned personnel moves.
Ultimately, the reason Grunfeld was stripped of his title as general manager and president of the Knicks yesterday was that his boss, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts, began to see the Knicks as a fractured and troubled team that "was no longer on the same page."
"What forced me to do it was this organization was not headed in the right direction and that was not helping anybody," said Checketts, who will take over Grunfeld's duties for the rest of the season. "Particularly, it was that this organization in many ways was not showing signs of coming together to solve its problems, but rather breaking apart."
With just eight games remaining and the Knicks in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, Grunfeld has been reassigned to serve the club as a special consultant. Checketts, who served as the team's president until Grunfeld was elevated to the position in February,1996, said he will spend the remainder of the season evaluating the team.
Though Checketts declined to go into details about who exactly was not on the same page, it is widely known that Grunfeld and Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy have not seen eye-to-eye for some time. Van Gundy did not agree with Grunfeld's decision last summer to trade Charles Oakley for Marcus Camby. According to two sources, the relationship between the two over the past month had soured to the point where they were barely speaking.
When asked if that relationship had any bearing on Grunfeld's removal, Checketts said: "I will only say the organization has not functioned very well together."
Van Gundy told the Knicks public relations staff he did not want to comment yesterday on Grunfeld's reassignment. The coach also did not return calls to his home.
Van Gundy's tenure could last just several weeks longer than Grunfeld's.
"There are no winners in today's announcement," Checketts said. "It's not a show of confidence in anybody."
Checketts informed Grunfeld of his decision Tuesday night, and then talked to the team about the shakeup after practice yesterday. Checketts also challenged the team, which has lost four straight, to make the playoffs.
Grunfeld said in a prepared statement that he was "disappointed" with the news but would continue to help the organization. Grunfeld has been reassigned to serve the club as a "special consultant."
A major criticism of Grunfeld's acquisitions as general manager is that he has been unable to find the right talent for this team. When Grunfeld took the job, the Knicks were searching for their point guard of the future. They still are despite having signed Chris Childs and Charlie Ward to expensive, long-term deals.
This season, Grunfeld has been criticized for trading Oakley, often called the heart of the team, for Camby, a talented young player whose game is a complete mismatch for the Knicks halfcourt offense.
"I didn't make the trade," Oakley said last night. "It's one of those things. He'll get another job."
Grunfeld's other big trade was to send Chris Mills, John Starks and Terry Cummings to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell. Sprewell, like Camby, comes off the bench and is not happy about it.
Checketts, while saying he was not involved in the day-to-day running of the club, said: "No question, I have a lot of responsibility. I'm not making this guy into a scapegoat for mistakes I might have made."
Still, at least one Knick felt Grunfeld had been made into a scapegoat for the team's problems.
"Ernie doesn't play. He doesn't put on his shorts and shoes and go out there and perform," Childs said. "It's a tough business. I feel bad for him that he had to be pinpointed as why we're not winning. It's the guys who go to the gym every day that aren't getting it done. It's unfortunate he has to have the blame for the way we've performed."
Someone has to take the blame for an organization spending so much money on a club that is struggling to make the playoffs. The Knicks payroll of $ 68.3 million is the highest in the league.
"This is not just about Jeff," Checketts said when asked if the Knicks needed to make the playoffs for Van Gundy to keep his job. "The Knicks are 21-21 with eight games left to play and the highest payroll in the league. I'm not laying that at the feet of Jeff and the players. I'm just saying as an organization, we're not performing."