It has been 50 years since the Knicks' first championship, a title that came in their 24th season as an organization and one that began a span of four years in which they were in the NBA Finals three times.
They sent out lineups filled with players whose uniforms would hang in the rafters at Madison Square Garden one day, and when they celebrated their second title in four years in 1973, they couldn't have known that would be the end.
It has been 47 years since the last championship, more than a lifetime for plenty of the fan base.
In that long, spiraling descent to the bottom of the standings, it is hard to remember when the Garden was the Mecca in something more than name, when there was a constant buzz in the city for the Knicks. But for the fans and even for the players who were the heart of that last period of glory, there was a time when they were certain it would return.
“I thought when [Patrick] Ewing came,” Walt Frazier said. “I thought we’re back in the high life again.”
A little more than 10 years after that last title, on May 12, 1985, general manager Dave DeBusschere — one of the rocks of those championship teams — was seated on a stage and slamming his fist in elation as the Knicks won the first NBA Draft Lottery. That gave them the chance to select Ewing, the surest thing in college basketball, a defensive force with a relentless motor and a developing offensive skill set.
Almost from the moment NBA commissioner David Stern pulled the envelope with the Knicks' logo, conspiracy theories abounded that the league had rigged the lottery to put the Knicks back on top, ensuring that the largest market would lead the league through the next decade.
Stern, to his final days, scoffed at the notion of a fixed lottery., In any case, the next championship never came. After a few difficult seasons with Ewing — they won 23 games in his rookie season and 24 the next and didn't top the .500 mark until his fourth season — the Knicks rose, led by their star center. .
But even with trips to the Finals in 1994 and 1999, the championship never came. Instead, the path for the parades was occupied by everyday Manhattan traffic.
“The funny thing was when DeBusschere became the GM and they drafted Patrick, I said, ‘I don’t want you to play so good they forget who Willis Reed was,’ ” Reed joked in a phone call. “They had that one year they were there. I just think fate sometimes — you just don’t understand how that could have happened, no championships for Patrick. I thought that year with Patrick , they were going to win a championship. They should have.”
“I saw one or two championships coming from Ewing,” Frazier said. “I'll never forget DeBusschere hyperventilating. We’re back. I definitely thought that. Then ’94 was our year. We had the team.”
That 1993-94 season was the Knicks' best chance, as they won 60 games in the regular season and beat the Nets, Bulls and Pacers to reach the Finals. The Pat Riley-coached group of hard-hat players had a three-games-to-two lead over the Rockets and a chance to close out the championship in Game 6 in Houston.
John Starks had scored 16 fourth-quarter points, and with the Knicks trailing by two, he got the last shot, not Ewing. Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon got a fingertip on his potential championship-winning three-pointer and it fell short, allowing Houston to escape with an 86-84 victory.
That left the Knicks with a Game 7 on the road. Ewing could not carry them and Starks endured a nightmarish 2-for-18 shooting night in a 90-84 loss.
The only other Finals appearance for the Knicks since 1973 came in 1999, but Ewing, in his 14th season, was diagnosed with a torn Achilles tendon after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Without him, the Knicks had no chance against the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, losing in five games.
With no glory days since those two titles, the players from those title teams remain legends in New York, maybe more so because no one has followed them on that path.
“Yeah, but I don’t want that,” Reed said. “I want the Knicks to be winning every year. I’m rooting for the guys they got out there.”