If there is one snapshot from the iconic Knicks-Heat rivalry in the 1990s, it’s Jeff Van Gundy charging onto the court in the final seconds of a 1998 playoff game and latching onto Alonzo Mourning’s leg as if it was his favorite chew toy.
It’s a moment everyone old enough to follow the Knicks back then remembers, and a moment Van Gundy, now an ESPN analyst, wishes everyone would forget. Truth is, he knows he will be forced to watch it again and again as the Knicks and the Heat prepare to meet in this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
“All I know is I looked like a fool,” the former Knicks coach told Newsday on Thursday morning. “It was temporary insanity. That’s all I can plea.”
As the basketball gods will have it, the Knicks open this playoff series against the Heat on Sunday, which is the 25th anniversary of the Van Gundy leg-riding game. So, as much as Van Gundy doesn’t like to rehash it, it’s worth a quick review here because it so perfectly captures the intensity of the Knicks-Heat rivalry.
The Knicks and the Heat met in the playoffs in four consecutive years from 1997-2000. The Heat were coached by Pat Riley, Van Gundy’s mentor who had abandoned the Knicks for the Heat in the summer of 1995.
Van Gundy had plenty of reason to be worried about a fight breaking out in that 1998 playoff series. The year before, the Knicks were leading the Heat 3-1 in a semifinal series when P.J. Brown flipped Charlie Ward on the baseline and all heck broke loose. Ward, Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston were all suspended for Game 6, while Larry Johnson and John Starks were suspended for Game 7. The Knicks lost three straight games and the series.
So, when Johnson and Mourning started throwing punches at each other near the end of Game 4 of the 1998 playoff series, Van Gundy lost his mind.
“I really don’t remember much about it,” he said. “What I do remember is the next year, I was coaching Alonzo in the All-Star Game. He came up behind me and just grabbed me to break the ice. He could have been bitter and held a grudge and would have every reason to do that. I always appreciated that.”
The Knicks would win that series and the next two playoff meetings. As intense as the battles were between the two teams, a bond has formed between almost everyone who played in and watched them.
“What I will remember about that four-year period more than anything is it started as contempt for each other,” Van Gundy said “From my view, it ended up being a thing of just incredible respect.
“You knew every time you played each other, that you had to bring your very, very best.
"Their players were incredible players and competitors. And the coaches were incredibly well prepared. And it just morphed into something special.”
There are a number of people in both organizations now who were a part of that rivalry. Riley, the Heat’s president, was also their coach back then. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau was an assistant to Van Gundy. Heat coach Eric Spoelstra was a Heat assistant coach/video coordinator. Heat assistant Malik Allen was a player during the tail end of the rivalry. Houston is currently a Knicks vice president of leadership and player development. The Heat’s Tim Hardaway is a scout for the Knicks. And a number of Knicks players from that era — including Johnson, Starks and Latrell Sprewell — work for the team in alumni and community relations.
Yet there are players on both teams and plenty of fans who weren’t even alive when the playoff rivalry was at its height — which is why Van Gundy thinks it has little bearing on the series that will open at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
“It’s not like Ewing and Mourning are going to walk through the door,” Van Gundy said. “The only people who remember those series are older fans and people who were a part of those teams. I’m not sure anyone else cares. I’m excited for Tom and I’m excited for Eric.
“It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”