Elbowing FOR Position : Bulls and Knicks Have Become the Worst of Rivals--and Their Coaches Do Little to Put Out the Fire


What’s a Knick?

According to the Bulls, it’s a thug who has to goon it up because he can’t play basketball. Coach Pat Riley knows it’s true, too, because he used to complain about all the things he now does.

What’s a Bull?

According to the Knicks, it’s a sissy who has to go crying to the newspapers and the referees because he can’t play a man’s game. Coach Phil Jackson knows it’s true, too, because he used to do all the things he now complains about.

Whatever happened to the days when everyone pledged eternal mutual respect for their most hated foes, at least until reporters left the dressing room? They are over for the moment, at least for the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, rivals with such a profound distaste for one another they can’t wait to tell the world about it.


“I don’t think they like us,” said Knick guard Doc Rivers, heretofore known as the NBA’s reigning nice guy, before their mid-February meeting.

“I’m not expecting any Christmas cards or Valentine cards from any of those guys and they won’t get any from me. It’s just

a rivalry. After the game I’ll say ‘Hi’ to Scottie (Pippen) and Michael (Jordan), and we’re friends. During the game, we’re enemies--and that’s nice. That’s what competition should be.”

What happened, in fact, was that Jordan wasn’t even there, suspended for throwing a punch the game before. The Bulls staged a brave fight, but succumbed to the Knicks--who flew home laughing.

Even if it wasn’t the real team without Jordan?

“To be brief,” Charles Smith said, “I couldn’t care less.”

Nobody, not even the Lakers and Celtics, whose rivalry defined the NBA, ever talked as much trash as these guys.

The Celtics and Lakers hated each other as institutions, but lived

for their games. The annual Celtic visit to the Forum was almost a Laker holiday; Michael and Wanda Cooper had an annual team party afterward. The more they played, the deeper grew their respect for each other. Magic Johnson called Dennis Johnson the best defender he had ever seen and all but became blood brothers with Larry Bird, who in turn called Magic the best player he had ever seen. In time, Bird would do commercials with Magic, Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

So far with the Knicks and Bulls, contact breeds only contempt.

As soon as Riley has finished lauding Michael Jordan as the best player on the planet, and Jackson gives Patrick Ewing his due, they get down to real cases.

The Bulls see Anthony Mason’s crazed look and hear John Starks’ mouth.

The Knicks see Jordan, Jackson and Pippen, noses in the air, refusing even to acknowledge a rivalry.

“The rivalry?” says Rivers, a man of relative peace in this context, a Chicago native who has been a Knick only since October.

“It surprised me how quick it came about. Last year, going into the playoffs, there wasn’t a rivalry. Chicago beat New York all the time. Now it is, because the Knicks last year showed Chicago that they can compete. I think that makes rivalries.”


I’m not going to lobby about it or complain about it. We’re just going to play. If you’re talking about tripping, holding of jerseys and forearm smashes--those things aren’t part of basketball.

--Laker Coach Pat Riley, before the 1988 finals vs. Detroit

Well, Jackson’s talking a lot. Coach Riley is just responding to Phil Jackson (who) thinks we play dirty basketball, ( that ) we push and we shove. . . It’s like the kettle calling the pot black. I DID watch Phil Jackson play. --Doc Rivers

Did it start when Riley’s overachievers tried to beat the Bulls up last season?

Or when the Knicks were playing the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs and, in a little-noticed breach of etiquette, Jackson said: “I expect to play Detroit.”?

Riley noticed.

Ever on the lookout for ways to psych up his players, Riley was about to enter motivational paradise.

“I think one of the great things that happened to us,” he would say later, “I don’t think Chicago respected us at all. At all!

“They were so damn surprised in the first game that we got their attention.”

Not that anyone else gave the Knicks a chance.

The Bulls were defending champions who had gone 67-15 and swept Miami in the first round.

The Knicks were the same suspects who had been reviled by their own fans for years and reshaped into contenders by Riley before collapsing down the stretch, blowing a five-game lead with eight to play and tumbling into second place. They earned the right to meet the Bulls in a series against Detroit that looked more like mud-wrestling and was known to critics by various names, one being “the Death of Basketball.”

If the Knicks enjoyed a matchup edge, it went unnoticed in the regular-season’s four games, which the Bulls swept.

The Bulls weren’t above letting the Knicks know about it, too, as during the last meeting, when Jordan made a game-ending free throw with his eyes closed.

To everyone’s surprise, the Knicks stunned the Bulls in Game 1 of their series in Chicago, 94-89.

Everyone then assumed that the Bulls would heed their wake-up call, but the Knicks almost beat them again in Game 2, surviving an early assault by Jordan, who had 21 points by halftime. The Knicks trailed by one point with 2:03 to play before B.J. Armstrong made two baskets for an 86-78 victory.

Games 3 and 4 were played on back-to-back weekend days in Madison Square Garden, courtesy of NBC.

The teams split, the Bulls winning Game 3, 94-86, and the Knicks winning Game 4, 93-86. Jackson, the former Garden favorite, was ejected, waved goodby to the fans and later launched into an Eastern-conspiracy speech.

“I think they’re licking their chops on Fifth Avenue,” he said, alluding to NBA headquarters.

“I don’t like orchestration. It sounds fishy, but they do control who sends the referees. If it goes seven games, everybody will be really happy. Everybody will get the TV revenue and ratings they want.”

The boys on Fifth Avenue fined him $2,500 for that one.

They were helped along, in case they needed it, by a formal protest filed by Knick General Manager Dave Checketts.

It was protest season. Robin Ficker, the Washington lawyer who derides visiting teams at Bullets’ games, somehow got a seat right behind the Chicago bench and spent the game reading aloud from the book, “The Jordan Rules,” a chronicle of Bull turmoil. Chicago General Manager Jerry Krause protested loudly to Checketts, who denied knowing anything about it.

Ficker later said he got his ticket from a Washington neighbor--Ewing.

A day later, Riley, emerging from practice, looking playoff-gaunt as usual, was asked to respond to Jackson’s charge, which he hadn’t yet seen.

Riley read the statement as mini-cams cranked away. He responded with a frontal assault, a public lecture to Jackson on a champion’s obligations.

“I was part of six championship teams,” Riley said. “I’ve been to the finals 13 times and I know what championship demeanor is all about. The fact that he’s whining and whimpering about the officiating is an insult to how hard our guys are playing.

“Being a champion is about taking on all comers without whining.”

Of course, the list of men Riley has charged with insulting his team reads like a “Who’s Who” of coaches--Dick Motta, Doug Moe, Chuck Daly. Even now, it’s hard to say how seriously Riley takes any of this, because he, like Jackson, has been on both sides of this particular issue. However, despite Riley’s denials, Knick observers say that he doesn’t like Jackson.

Jackson’s feelings are hidden less effectively; he has complained privately about all of the media attention Riley gets.

Games 5, 6 and 7 elicited more charges and countercharges, mostly centering on Xavier McDaniel, who said he would like to fight the entire Bulls team. McDaniel concentrated, though, on bullying Pippen, whose scoring average and shooting percentage dropped. The New York Daily News chronicled the mismatch day by day in a box.

The Bulls prevailed easily in Game 7, 110-81, after no-nonsense referee Jake O’Donnell blew two quick fouls on Gerald Wilkins for bumping Jordan, after which Jordan scored 42 points.

The Knicks went home to retool.

No one forgot or forgave anything.


I think once you’re a Knick, you’re looked at as a thug. I got that community - service award for good sportsmanship ( the basketball writers’ J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award ) . I don’t think I’ll be getting that in New York.

--Doc Rivers

It was a different Knick team that opened this season, reinforced by Rivers, Charles Smith, Rolando Blackman, Tony Campbell and Herb Williams.

So successful were Checketts and Riley, the Knicks were virtually considered co-favorites.

So offended was Jackson, it seemed as if he could barely tolerate the sound of their name.

In the routine preseason jiving, Jackson tabbed the Cleveland Cavaliers, whom the Bulls had dispatched in six games in the conference finals, as the primary threat in the East.

And in another in his growing string of dismissals, Jackson said of the Knicks:

“They’ve got Patrick, who is what, 30? And Rolando Blackman, who’s 33 or whatever. They’re players with a lot of habits, an accumulation of personal failure.”

In case anyone needed it in fewer syllables, Pippen said of the new Knicks, “Same guys, new address.”

Pippen actually didn’t mean to insult the Knicks to their faces. He said it on the bus, but Jordan helpfully relayed it to reporters during the buildup for the season’s first meeting.

The next day, the Knicks took the Bulls apart, 112-75.

Jordan left with a sprained ankle, returned but missed 16 of his 20 shots.

“If I play a decent game, I think we can beat them, no problem,” Jordan said.

The second meeting was in Chicago on Christmas night, another made-for-TV appointment that didn’t enchant Jackson.

“Christmas is always a family day,” Jackson said. “It’s a giving day, a holy day for Christians and a meaningful day of peace and light. To mar it with a game in which you have to come out and fight with guys who are going to foul you on every possession turns it into something else. We’re not going to be able to enjoy the day.”

Imagine his feelings when the Knicks took a 14-point lead before Jordan led a rally to repel them, 89-77.

Before the February game, Jordan complained of Knick “bully-ball.”

“There is a big difference between playing hard and committing hard fouls,” he said. “They cross that line. It starts with Riley. . . . He knows he doesn’t have the athletes to play with the better teams, so he has his players get in your face. . . . Their whole game is intimidation.”

Someone, presumably the wily Riley, made sure the Knicks got this clip, even though it was three weeks old.

“Nickel and dime stuff,” said Rivers, barely batting an eyebrow.

With Jordan gone, the Knicks didn’t have to intimidate anyone and won. They lead the series, 2-1, with one game left, the season closer in Madison Square Garden. Should the Knicks win, they will have the tiebreaker in the event they finish even with the Bulls.

There are indications now that both coaches are tiring of the feud.

After the last game against the Knicks, Jackson told reporters: “You guys are as much at fault in fueling this rivalry as anybody.”

Well, maybe not as much as he is, but you get the idea.

For his part, Riley insists that he and Jackson are only doing their jobs, if in Jackson’s case perhaps the slightest bit more.

“All we do is protect our teams,” Riley said. "(Jackson) can say whatever he wants to say. He has the right to say that. How we react is insignificant, in a way, because they’re just words, but sometimes people have the tendency to go too far. Sometimes coaches have a tendency to speak in general terms: they. They are hatchet men or they are whiners.

“But when you start personalizing things, maybe you’re stepping over the line a little bit. . . . Yeah, I think (Jackson) insulted Patrick and Ro and Doc and Charles.”

Actually, Jackson had neglected to mention Rivers.

‘The good thing was, he didn’t think I was old,” Rivers said, laughing. “I was going to send him a thank-you letter.”

Three weeks before, Riley had told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum: “Jackson has crossed the line.” If Riley is now softening his lines and Jackson isn’t going to let the media push him into any more expressions of scorn, there might be hope for peace in this weary world.

At least until the playoffs.