Finally, the Knicks Make a Move in Game of Checketts


Closure, New York style: You haven’t been voted off an island ‘til you’ve been voted off this one.

Dave Checketts of Bountiful, Utah, was an innocent when he became Knick president at 35, a teetotaling Mormon with a picture-postcard family.

When they removed him 10 years later as president of Madison Square Garden, his name reverberated in Gotham with those of Donald Trump and George Steinbrenner, but he wasn’t an innocent any longer. He was more like a gangster, who rises to power over the bodies of his friends.


In his heart, he kept trying to do the right thing, but he was running the coldest-blooded square block in the heart of the cold, cold city, where even an apple-cheeked boy has to do what an apple-cheeked boy has to do, until he, himself, had a bad day at the office.

Even among New Yorkers, connoisseurs of a good scapegoat, grilled to perfection, this was a shocker. Handsome as a movie star, sleek as mink, Checketts exuded power and success. He would be the next NBA commissioner, or return to Utah to run the Winter Olympics, or put together a group to buy the Garden, all of which was rumored.

Instead, he was canned by Charles Dolan, head of corporate parent Cablevision, for the best possible reasons.

The Rangers missed the playoffs again . . . the Knicks were dumped in the first round after making the last two East finals . . . and Dolan had a son rising in the Garden hierarchy.

Checketts took over the moribund Knicks in 1991, hiring Pat Riley as his first act of business.

Four years later, having turned the Knicks into a celebrity-studded hot ticket--but not a champion, a distinction Gotham takes seriously--Riley split for Miami and from Checketts, his erstwhile friend.


Of course, this was inevitable. It was inevitable Riley would do what was best for Riley (no matter what he said in his books about loyalty and mercenaries) . . . that New York would despise Riley for leaving . . . and that Checketts and Riley wouldn’t be friends any more.

The next season, Checketts, now head of the Garden, hired and fired Don Nelson by midseason.

What else was Checketts going to do? The team hated Nelson, especially Patrick Ewing, who wanted assistant Jeff Van Gundy promoted.

Van Gundy was a bald little guy who looked like a misplaced accountant, but, of course, he could always be fired later.

That was in the cards three seasons later when they were coming in No. 8 in the East. But Van Gundy, the little Ratso Rizzo, hung in with the support of the archloyal Ewing. So, instead, Checketts fired General Manager Ernie Grunfeld.

Now Checketts and Grunfeld and their wives and children were even closer than Checketts and Riley had been. Checketts took Grunfeld out to dinner to break the bad news. Grunfeld almost fell face-first into the dessert.

Of course, Van Gundy and Grunfeld were at an impasse. Someone had to go. Checketts intended to ax Van Gundy next, except that he then took the Knicks on their improbable march to the ’99 NBA finals.

No one ever saw anything like that spring, when everyone in town had a side. Checketts talked through Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News. Grunfeld had the Post’s Peter Vecsey. Van Gundy was close to Frank Isola of the Daily News and the New York Times’ Mike Wise.

Even the PR department split. Grunfeld had his guy, who was dumped that summer. Van Gundy had his, who still works there.

Of course, the New York market was a little big for hand-feeding. The media who weren’t adopted by anyone hated everyone and blasted everything.

Every season, the situation would become more desperate . . . and the Knicks would appear to be out of moves . . . and Checketts would think of something.

But you can’t cheat the process forever. The old players became ancient. Gambles, such as acquiring Larry Johnson, capped them even farther into the future, and this spring the miracles ran out.

Privately, Checketts was known to express his dismay at what he had become.

“Look, I exist in a world that’s pretty gruesome,” he told the New York Times’ Wise last year. “All I can tell you is this: I’m trying to keep my balance.

“Some people who know me might say, ‘He’s not a great example of a nice person. He’s a malicious, tough and ruthless guy.’ But when the day is done, as long as I’ve held to my values and been true to my family and my God, it won’t matter what anyone thinks.”

The day is done.

He gave them a run for their money--six years after Riley left, there hasn’t been an empty seat at a Knick game--but 10 years at the Garden isn’t a tenure, it’s a lifetime.

The Knick front office is stunned and in disarray. Checketts was one of them. Dolan is a complete unknown, who ducked reporters and sat among bodyguards, to keep people away.

Scott Layden was a Checketts hire.

Allan Houston, signed by Checketts, is a free agent.

Cashiering Checketts won’t help them recruit Chris Webber, who gets a reminder of what happens when Gotham is disappointed.

Alonzo Mourning is coming back in Miami and Grant Hill in Orlando.

It took something close to genius to keep the Knicks respectable in the face of advancing decrepitude, while raising ticket prices and hyping expectations. Whoever follows Checketts will find that out soon enough.

Faces and Figures

Shootout Sunday: As far as the NBA is concerned, the Toronto-Philadelphia series could go forever, but it ends today in a last showdown between Allen Iverson and Vince Carter. . . . Iverson outscored Carter, 52-16 in Game 5, making eight of 14 three-point shots. Carter took only 11 shots and was roundly criticized by, among others, TNT’s rambunctious Charles Barkley, for disappearing again. . . . What I’d pay to see: Barkley in a room with Michelle Carter. . . . In Game 6, Carter outscored Iverson, 39-20. “Same old story,” Iverson, a 43% career shooter, said wearily. “If they go in, they go in. If they don’t, they don’t.”. . . Today, Carter will play in Game 7 in Philadelphia--after flying in from Chapel Hill, N.C., where he will attend his graduation ceremony in the morning. . . . I’d pay double to see Barkley and Mrs. Carter discussing that one.

Then there’s Milwaukee’s courageous comeback, after leading Charlotte, two games to none, then falling behind, three games to two, as Coach George Karl went into one of his spring spasms. One of his Seattle players once said Karl was so tight during the playoffs, only dogs could hear when he spoke. . . . Facing elimination and trailing by 15 at Charlotte, the Bucks rallied as Glenn Robinson, heretofore known as Puppy Dog or Complete Dog, scored 29 points--the third time he’d reach his season average in 10 playoff games. Showing whose team it really was, Sam Cassell, slowed by sore ribs and Baron Davis until then, took over at the end and scored 33. . . . Between games, Karl, who has decided the worse the situation, the more he’s supposed to talk trash, moaned about not being coach of the year and instructed Charlotte’s Paul Silas in the use of one’s reserves. “I’m not going to throw my bench away,” Karl said. “I think Paul has thrown his bench away. I still think my bench has got to be incorporated into how I coach and how I manage the game.” . . . Said Silas, failing to recognize this as constructive criticism: “He can coach his team. I’ll coach mine.”

The King is dead (cont.): Webber is expected to leave, but General Manager Geoff Petrie vows he won’t do a sign-and-trade. Webber will probably drop out of sight, as he did when he was traded to Sacramento, hoping to force Petrie’s hand. . . . Webber’s closest friend on the Kings, Jason Williams, wants out too. “I don’t know if being here is best for me,” he said. “You get told two different things sometimes. It’s just a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. It’s a bunch of BS around here, that’s all I think. Write that.” . . . In a sign of mental health, Mike Dunleavy turned down the going-nowhere Cleveland Cavalier job, opting to sit out and watch his son play at Duke, while collecting his $2.5 million from the Portland Trail Blazers. . . . Meanwhile, Dallas assistant and ex-Laker Coach Del Harris, always desperate to work, is now considered the frontrunner in Cleveland. Good luck, Delmer. . . . Kings’ player personnel director Jerry Reynolds, on the Sacramento Bee scenario, in which Shaquille O’Neal turns pro out of high school in 1992 and the Kings, who have the first pick, draft him instead of Pervis Ellison: “Heck, if we drafted Shaq, I’d still be coaching. I’d be like Phil Jackson. I’d be talking a lot of smack.”