Unsung Knick History – How Greg Anthony Killed the Knicks’ 1996-97 Season
This is the twenty-seventh in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
John Lennon once said that “Instant Karma’s gonna get you, gonna knock you right on the head.” However, in the case of the Knicks and their infamous 1993 brawl against the Phoenix Suns, the karma was not instant. Instead, it knocked the Knicks right in the head over four years later, when the Knicks fell victim to a series of reactions set off by Greg Anthony’s actions on March 23, 1993.
Let’s find out how it all happened!
The Knicks’ 64th game of the 1992-93 season was a statement game. Not just for the Knicks, but for the team that they were playing, the Phoenix Suns. For the Knicks, it was a chance to show that they could win on the road against a formidable opponent (the 1992-93 Suns were a 4th Quarter collapse away from going to a Game 7 in the 1993 NBA Finals) and separate themselves from the Chicago Bulls, who the Knicks were vying with for the best record in the Eastern Conference. For the Suns, it was an opportunity to show that they were physical enough to handle the “tough” teams from the Eastern Conference. You see, at the time of the March 23 game, the Suns had played four games against the prototypical “tough” Eastern Conference teams – the Knicks, the Cavaliers and the Bulls. The Suns lost all four games, including back-to-back losses on January 18th and 20th against the Cavs and the Knicks (the Suns only lost consecutive games four times all season – twice the losing “streak” involved the Cavs). The Suns won the game easily, 121-92, but the 29-point blowout was not the story. The story was the brawl that took place at the end of the first half.
Suns point guard Kevin Johnson and Knicks point guard Doc Rivers had been jawing each other throughout the first half and, naturally, this being a Knick game, there was also a ton of hand-checking. It was only in the last 25 seconds of the game, though, that things took a turn for the worse. Johnson stole an inbounds pass from Rivers and the two got tangled up with each other and had some more words for each other. They almost came to blows right there. Both players were called for technical fouls, as were John Starks and the Suns’ Danny Ainge. The Suns now had possession, but Rivers drew a charge from Johnson. Again, neither player was thrilled. So on the last possession of the first half (Knicks down six), with Rivers setting a pick to get John Starks open for an attempt at a buzzer-beating shot, Johnson tried to get in front of Rivers to draw the charge to return the favor of the last possession. Instead, Johnson ended up delivering a strong forearm to Rivers’ jaw. No foul was called, but Rivers took exception to this and chased after Johnson and punches were thrown by both players. Both players were ejected but things seemed to have calmed down. The Knicks’ Bo Kimble had Johnson basically restrained. Well, the scene did not please the Knicks’ back-up point guard, Greg Anthony, who was in street clothes that day due to an ankle injury. He felt that Johnson had not properly answered for his “crime.” So about 20 seconds after the fight (and the half) seemed over, Anthony raced up to Johnson and got in his face. After some shouting between each other, Anthony proceeded to punch Johnson in the face.
Naturally, the brawl re-commenced. By the end of the brawl, Starks, Anthony, Anthony Mason, Danny Ainge (and the previously ejected Rivers and Johnson) were ejected from the game. Now without their starting backcourt and a key member of their frontcourt, the Knicks were destroyed by the Suns in the second half.
After the game, the Suns were livid at Anthony. Danny Ainge laid a verbal beatdown on Anthony (choosing, of course, to gloss over the fact that Johnson threw the first blow in the fight):
“It was between K. J. and Doc. You see that type of thing in tense games. Anthony is when it got out of hand. I don’t consider the Knicks thugs. The way John Starks and Anthony Mason and Doc Rivers play, I’d love to have them on my team. We have nothing personal. The only thing some have personal — I know our whole team is not fond of Greg Anthony. The other stuff happens. But a guy coming off the bench in street clothes and throwing a cheap shot on the star of our team? I’m told as Anthony was walking off, he said, ‘I got him good.’ K. J. was so angry with Greg Anthony. He wanted to talk to the official and ask why he’d been ejected for being punched by Greg Anthony and he wanted to go after Greg Anthony. Like I said, I love the way Starks, Mason and Rivers play. But Greg Anthony goes overboard. He’s not that good a player, either.”
I love the extra shot at Anthony at the end.
So anyways, the NBA suspended Rivers and Johnson for two games apiece and Anthony five games. The Suns had been pushing for Anthony to be suspended for the rest of the season.
Knicks coach Pat Riley responded to the punishment by complaining, ” Greg was wrong, we have voiced that to him, he knows he was wrong. But if Anthony Mason did to Dan Majerle what Kevin Johnson did to Doc, he would’ve been throw out of the game. That’s the double standard. The forearm smash in the face by Johnson was unconscionable. He should’ve been suspended more than that because he was the instigator. For them to cry for a year’s suspension for our guy is bull.” Interestingly enough, a month or so later, Anthony Mason leveling Dan Majerle a couple of minutes before the fight was cited as provocation by Rod Thorn, the league’s vice president of operations, for the fight itself, stating “After that, you could see the change in the way that game was played.”
For his part, Anthony issued a statement:
“It was a very immature act on my part. I got involved emotionally. It was really unfortunate. I want to give apologies to the Phoenix Suns’ organization, to fans and to Kevin Johnson. Emotionally, I just got caught up in what I saw happen, but that’s still no excuse for my actions.”
Clearly, the NBA felt that the worst aspect of the fight was the injured Anthony coming off of the bench. In addition, besides Anthony, fourteen players left the bench during the brawl, receiving $500 fines. They were Charles Smith, Rolando Blackman, Charles Oakley, Herb Williams, Hubert Davis, Eric Anderson and Bo Kimble of the Knicks; Cedric Ceballos, Tom Chambers, Frank Johnson, Tim Kempton, Negele Knight, Mark West and Richard Dumas of the Suns.
In a bold move, before the 1993 NBA Playoffs began, the NBA changed their rules regarding fighting:
Any player who throws a punch now immediately ejected from the game, suspended for at least one game, and fined an appropriate dollar amount. Any player throwing a punch that connects with another player will be ejected from the game, suspended for a minimum of one to five games, and fined an appropriate dollar amount. Teams will also be fined an amount equal to the total sum of their players’ fines. Any player leaving the bench area during a fight will be fined $2,500, up from $500, and that player’s team will be fined $5,000 for each of its players who leave the bench area.
Clearly concerned with giving players a disincentive to not leave the bench, in 1994-95, the NBA makes another change:
Any player who leaves the bench during a fight automatically suspended for a minimum of one game and fined a maximum of $20,000; in addition to losing 1/82nd of his salary for each game, he is suspended.
On May 14, 1997, over four years after the Knicks/Suns brawl, the Knicks were about to lose Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to the #2 seeded Miami Heat. The #3 seeded Knicks were about to be headed back to New York up 3 games to 2, with a chance to close the series out in New York (and get their last, perhaps best, chance at defeating their rivals, the Chicago Bulls, in the Eastern Conference Finals). Instead, a fight breaks out between the Heat’s PJ Brown and the Knicks’ Charlie Ward, leading to multiple Knick players leaving the bench and multiple Knicks being suspended for Games 6 and 7 of the series, including Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks and Charlie Ward. The Knicks lost the final two games of the series, killing their season.
And if it had not been for the PR black eye of the Knicks/Suns brawl (and Greg Anthony’s street clothed symphony of violence), that rule likely would not have been instituted yet.
Let’s all go thank Greg Anthony!
Thanks to Clifton Brown, Tom Friend and Harvey Araton for their reporting work during this incident, including the great quotes!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!