“We hated each other. It was extremely physical. It wasn’t really a foul until you drew blood," is how Patrick Ewing described the Bulls-Knicks rivalry in The Last Dance. But just how deep one of the most iconic basketball rivalries really was is best described in a segment from Chris Herring's Blood in the Garden: The Flagrant History of the 1990s New York Knicks.
Bulls vs. MSG personnel
Amid the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, the world's most famous arena hosted the world's most famous basketball team going for its third straight NBA championship. The Knicks, hunting for their first NBA title since 1973, were the last conference hurdle standing in the way of the Bulls' blossom into a dynasty. And the entire city -- MSG personnel included -- wanted to make sure that didn't happen.
So during Chicago's morning shootaround at Madison Square Garden, one meant to be off-limits to everyone but the Bulls, an irritating sound started echoing through the arena.
"A few men in hard hats and orange vests were standing in the arena's 300-level concourse, making obnoxiously loud alterations to pieces of steel with sledgehammers high above the court for some reason," Herring writes. "Which had been fine—annoying, but fine—while the Bulls were merely getting loose. But now, as they were going over the particular details of their defensive scheme with assistant Johnny Bach, they actually needed some quiet."
Two-time NBA champions going through defensive tactics in silence seems like a guaranteed right. But with the stakes so high, and their arch-nemesis on the other side, the Knicks went out their way to deprive them of it. Until Phil Jackson decided he's had enough.
“Hey!” Jackson yelled. “We've got practice! Can you stop for a bit? You're not supposed to be here!”
"There was a brief silence that hung in the arena after Jackson's request," Herring continues. "After a few seconds of thinking Jackson's request over, a member of, the small group responded to the coach. 'F--k you!' he shouted down to Jackson, as the men kept sledgehammering during the walk-through."
The NBA is better when the Knicks are good
The moment, with all its farcicalness, perfectly summed up New York's city commitment to the city's franchise. The same goes for the Bulls-Knicks rivalry -- at some point, it became much more than two teams trying to outscore each other game in and game out.
And while it's obvious who won that battle -- Michael Jordan and the Bulls knocked the Knicks out of the playoffs five times between 1989-1996 -- the side who got the most out of the iconic rivalry might be the city of New York, especially from today's perspective.
An iconic organization, bouncing between Draft lottery, free agency depressions, and apparent playoff contention for decades -- except for the 70s -- finally had a team good enough to go all the way. Had it not been for arguably the greatest team ever, they probably would've lifted the trophy. But the justified optimism alone made the Knicks into what everyone keeps saying they are; one of the greatest sports organizations ever.
The NBA is better when the Knicks are good. During the 90s, they were good. They just weren't good enough. But it wasn't for lack of trying, and I mean by everyone -- players, coaches, men with hard hats and orange vests...