Chapter One: Speaking a New Language 1 SPEAKING A NEW LANGUAGE
Twenty minutes into his first practice as Knicks coach, Pat Riley looked a bit ruffled.
It was unusually muggy on the morning of October 4, 1991, in Charleston, South Carolina. Inside the team’s practice gym—which lacked air-conditioning and was a sauna in the best of times—the air was stifling. Yet those pressure-cooker conditions were but a small reason why the coach appeared uncharacteristically off-center. Riley, featured on the cover of GQ two years earlier, had long been known for his pristine, slicked-back hair and stylish Armani threads. But now a number of the pomaded strands atop his head had popped out of place. Beads of sweat were showing through his team-issued polo. Momentarily doubled over and breathless, the 6-foot-4 Riley had his hands on his kneecaps.
At 46, he was the most accomplished coach in modern NBA history, having won four rings while leading the Showtime Lakers, a job that had allowed him to stand still on the sideline, relatively relaxed, while his clubs sped up and down the court. Which is why, on that October morning, it was such a change of pace for Riley to desperately sprint across the court to stop two Knick players from killing each other in the first basketball drill of the coach’s tenure.
It had all begun with Riley splitting his team up to conduct three-on-three box-out drills. The smaller wing players headed down to the far end to work with assistants Jeff Van Gundy and Dick Harter, while the post players stayed with Riley and assistant Paul Silas. The concept was simple: coaches would launch fifteen-foot jumpers, and the six players would battle for positioning inside the paint to secure the misses.
In the group of post players, sharp-elbowed forward Xavier McDaniel was dominating the exercise, albeit in a slightly underhanded fashion. As Riley’s and Silas’s shots ricocheted off the rim, and the muscle-bound teammates barreled into one another, McDaniel, a Knicks newcomer and a former All-Star, was quietly hooking opposing players’ legs—a wily, veteran trick that often caused them to trip just before they could leap for rebounds. Doing this, McDaniel twice managed to beat camp invitee Anthony Mason to the ball. Mason wrote off McDaniel’s first hook as an honest mistake. The second time, he grew agitated.
“You do that shit again, I’m gonna fuck you up!” Mason snarled, pointing in McDaniel’s direction.
McDaniel, apparently undeterred by Mason’s threat, then hooked the leg of rookie big man Patrick Eddie one play later, causing Eddie to tumble as McDaniel skyed for yet another board. By then, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Mason had seen enough. No more warnings. It was time to follow through on his promise.
The bowling-ball-shouldered southpaw shuffled toward McDaniel and delivered an abrasive left fist to his jaw; a punch that reverberated so loudly players on the other end of the gym heard it. For a split second after Mason’s blow, there was nothing but silence. Stunned, McDaniel briefly grabbed the side of his face, perhaps to make sure it was still intact. Then he set his sights on Mason and charged at the 24-year-old like a bull chasing a matador.
As Mason sought to backpedal toward the sideline, McDaniel rammed into him, landing a right haymaker before pulling his teammate in closer. Finally, after a few more pummeling blasts from each man, Riley and nearly a half-dozen others sprinted in to break up the altercation.
“His ass is gonna have to come back this way at some point!” McDaniel yelled while being pulled away.
It was the first time the team found Anthony Mason in the middle of things. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Although Mason’s cartoonishly chiseled physique stood out to everyone in the gym that day, he was a relative unknown from a basketball standpoint.
Having endured a nomadic career in which he bounced from one league to another—one part of the world to another—Mason was hell-bent on showing he belonged. He had spent time overseas with pro teams in Turkey and Venezuela, where bus rides to road games were so long his ass would go numb, and the planes they flew on were so small that the seats required passengers to sit sideways. He dealt with two years of language barriers, social isolation, and unfamiliar food for a mere shot at making an NBA team. Not only was this camp a chance to accomplish that goal, it was an opportunity to do it while playing in New York, where he’d grown up and played on countless outdoor courts.
So Mason, who lacked a guaranteed contract and was far from a lock to make the roster, wasn’t about to be punked by McDaniel. Not with the stakes this high. He had come too close to merely become an obligatory world traveler all over again.
“Mase treated the box-out drill like it was Game Seven of the Finals,” says center Tim McCormick, who helped break up the brawl.
In some ways, McDaniel was Mason’s opposite. Where Mason had to wander the globe before getting his audition in Charleston, McDaniel was a South Carolina native who’d traveled all of ninety minutes for the first practice. Months earlier, the scoring-challenged Knicks traded with the Phoenix Suns for the former No. 4 overall pick, who was coming off a season in which he’d averaged 17 points and seven rebounds. The Knicks planned to make him their starting small forward. Unlike Mason, McDaniel’s place with the club that year was as secure as superstar Patrick Ewing’s. He had nothing to prove that day in camp.
Yet McDaniel was no more willing to back down than Mason. McDaniel prioritized manhood. Specifically, his own manhood. According to McDaniel’s teammates in Seattle, he often walked around the Sonics’ locker room fully erect after games, hanging towels on his hardened member. Also, he fought people—and he fought them constantly.
“X wanted to fight everybody,” says Frank Brickowski, a Sonics teammate during McDaniel’s rookie season. “There were certain guys in the league you didn’t fuck with, and X made it known very quickly that he was one of those guys.” Brickowski learned the lesson quicker than anyone. In the 1985 preseason, in McDaniel’s very first practice as a professional, he abruptly dropped Brickowski with a blow to the face. A few days later, as if to prove it was nothing personal, McDaniel also drilled fellow teammate Reggie King in the face with a three-punch combination.
Then, once there were actual games, McDaniel got to fight players who weren’t on his team. By the end of his 1985–86 rookie campaign alone, he’d been in a total of nine separate scuffles. His most enduring image came one season later, in 1987, when McDaniel, in the words of Sports Illustrated writer Bruce Newman, attempted “to do the neck version of the Heimlich maneuver on Wes Matthews,” choking him out to the point that Matthews’s eyes began rolling into the back of his head.
“I never wanted to back down and be branded a wimp,” McDaniel says years later of his scroll-length NBA fight card. “And in order to get respect, sometimes that was how we had to settle things.”
Fortunately for Mason and McDaniel, that way of thinking wasn’t a problem for their coach, who learned the importance of toughness at the age of nine. In grade school, Riley routinely received after-school beatings from older, bigger kids at a park in Schenectady, New York. One day, a boy wielding a butcher knife chased Riley home, leaving Riley so fearful that he hid in his garage for hours after being pursued. When Pat never came to the dinner table that night, his dad fished him out from the garage and told him enough was enough. Riley’s father instructed his older sons to take Pat to the park the next day.
When the older boys asked why, Riley’s father said the first step in developing Pat’s toughness was to face his fears head-on.
“I want you to teach him not to be afraid,” he told them.
From then on, Riley not only lost his fear of fights; on some level, he grew to crave them. In 1968, on his first date with girlfriend Chris Rodstrom, Riley took her to a San Diego boxing club to watch a bout. Rodstrom wore a white dress, which turned out to be an unfortunate choice. The couple was sitting ringside, and one of the very first punches of the fight sprayed blood all over Rodstrom’s outfit. When Rodstrom didn’t seem too bothered by it all, the scrappy Riley told himself, “This is my kind of girl.”
Two years later, they were married.
If there was value for Riley in finding a wife who could tolerate seeing a little violence, the trait would also prove valuable for Knicks fans during the Riley era. Mason and McDaniel’s run-in was far from the only one to take place during the team’s training camp at the College of Charleston.
Even when there weren’t skirmishes, physicality defined the practices. John Starks, who was entering his second year with the Knicks that fall, recalls hearing an array of Batman-like sound effects—POW! THWACK! BONK! ZWAP!—as bodies collided during that initial box-out drill.
Within minutes of that practice beginning, the usually fearless guard decided he had no interest in penetrating toward the hoop once scrimmages began. “Man, I’m not going to the basket today—I’m not going in there,” he told himself. Another preseason invitee, Dan O’Sullivan, described layups in that training camp as “miracles” due to the sheer assault someone would have to endure in order to get one. “You were honestly a lot better off taking a twenty-footer,” O’Sullivan recalls. “At least you’d live.”
It was on that first day of camp the Knicks learned that this was Riley. This—not Showtime—was the culture Riley wanted to establish. One that would epitomize toughness by making teams pay for having the audacity to wander into the paint. One that would put a premium on conditioning so the club would have the stamina to finish close games. One that would treat Knick players like royalty, while normalizing the notion of a nasty streak by issuing fines to players who were kind enough to help up fallen opponents.
The coach’s blueprint, which he loosely explained to his players inside the practice gym’s locker room that morning, would dictate how the Knicks played basketball for the better part of the next decade.
Given the team’s makeup—led by Ewing, and far more established in the frontcourt than in the backcourt—there was no point in Riley trying to craft an uptempo attack like he’d employed in Los Angeles. Instead, the Knicks were uniquely positioned to exploit their advantages on the defensive end.
By the fall of 1991, the smashmouth “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons had been dethroned after back-to-back title runs. They were aging and running out of steam. But to Riley, their ideology remained sound. And with the Knicks being younger than the Pistons, the coach figured New York could maximize its chances of beating Michael Jordan and the defending-champion Chicago Bulls by tapping into the same bloody-knuckle, back-alley defensive tactics Detroit once thrived with.
Adopting that strategy might inch up to and occasionally step over the boundaries of what the NBA allowed. But for a team that desperately needed to close the talent gap—Jordan and the Bulls had swept the Knicks the postseason before—it might help. Riley even hired Harter, an ex-Pistons assistant credited with designing tenets of Detroit’s brutal attack, to implement those same defensive principles in New York.
If the club was going to wear out opponents by bludgeoning them, and wear down referees by hacking so much that they’d simply stop calling fouls, the Knicks themselves would need to be in elite shape.
The first fifteen minutes of that camp-opening practice were devoted to an “easy run,” Riley’s ironically named exercise that sapped players of oxygen by requiring them to dart up and down the court with their arms raised to make their breathing more shallow. Later on, each Knick would take part in “17s,” which meant seventeen sideline-to-sideline runs in under a minute’s time, briefly resting, then repeating the process over and over until the coach saw fit. A few players grew light-headed from the exertion and sweltering conditions in the gym, which left the floor so wet that the team was forced to move to another court during practice.
“We weighed in to start the workout, and weighed out at the end. I was nine pounds lighter after,” says forward Brian Quinnett, adding that players were handed bottles of Ensure after the session to rehydrate.
Quinnett was far from the only one who’d pay a physical price during practices that year. McCormick, the backup center, was tasked with serving as a practice partner to the mean, manhandling Charles Oakley.
That tackle-dummy role would have been highly unenviable for any player, let alone an aging vet going into his eighth year, with retirement on the horizon. Like most people, McCormick valued his limbs, and wanted to keep them—something that was never a given when sparring with the likes of Oakley. Each day, the men battled on the glass and in the low post. And most days, things played out the way you’d think.
“He was just so much stronger than me, and was beating me up in drills every day,” McCormick says.
The beatings weren’t exactly softened by an underlying friendship, either. In fact, for months, the two men never spoke. About their families. About opponents. About anything. McCormick simply showed up, day after day, and silently got the hell beaten out of him by Oakley.
Then, one day, when he’d finally had enough of Oakley’s elbows in a drill, McCormick thrust his arm back wildly with the power forward standing behind him, catching Oakley in the mouth and causing him to bleed. As Oakley walked away to find a trainer, he shot McCormick an unmistakable death stare.
“I was convinced he was gonna kill me that next day,” McCormick says. “But instead, he walks up, slaps me on the back, and asks how I’m doing. I was so confused, because it was the first time he had said anything to me. Then, as I thought about it, I realized: Charles never really respected me until I hit him.”
That bizarre blossoming of a friendship between Oakley and McCormick was emblematic of those 1990s Knicks. They often didn’t need words to get their message across. Instead, they spoke volumes and fundamentally altered the makeup of the sport through their primal physicality alone.