Expectations were high and the results were dismal, so the Knicks decided to chase after the best available coach and gave him the richest contract in the league to transform an underachieving team into a winner.
Among the many leaps of faith taken in franchise history, the one that brought Pat Riley to Madison Square Garden in 1991 ranked with the best of them.
The Knicks were coming off a 39-43 season. But Riley fashioned them into instant contenders, taking them to the Eastern Conference semifinals the next four seasons, with two trips to the conference finals and another, in 1994, to the NBA finals.
It is one of the brighter chapters in Knicks lore, and a relevant reference point with the imminent introduction of Larry Brown as the team's new coach and savior. Eager optimists will surely draw parallels because Brown inherits a team that won 33 games last season and has not won a playoff series since 2000.
But the reclamation project placed in Brown's hands is in worse shape than the team Riley inherited 14 years ago. And the road ahead promises to be much tougher than the coming pomp and circumstance would suggest.
Brown will be introduced as the Knicks' 22nd head coach at noon Thursday at Madison Square Garden. It took two solid days of negotiations -- which were completed Wednesday night -- a week of heavy lobbying and a contract that will pay more than US$10 million a year to land Brown. That will prove to have been the easy part.
When Riley stepped in -- for what was then a league-high US$1.5 million a season -- he was immediately able to work with a solid roster. The Knicks had one of the best centers in the game, Patrick Ewing, and they had hard-nosed role players with All-Star abilities -- guards Mark Jackson and John Starks and forwards Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and Xavier McDaniel.
The Knicks as currently constructed are expensive and flawed, and it will require much more than Brown's coaching genius to revive their winning spirit.
The Knicks' best player, Stephon Marbury, might need to change positions or, at a minimum, change his approach to the game.
Their trigger-happy shooters -- Marbury, Jamal Crawford, Quentin Richardson and Maurice Taylor -- will have to tame their scoring lust and add a defensive edge.
Their young players -- Mike Sweetney, Trevor Ariza and the rookies Channing Frye, Nate Robinson and David Lee -- will have to grow up quickly and develop thick skins, or get used to sitting on the bench.
Their new center, Jerome James, will have to develop an NBA work ethic. But then, that particular requirement might apply to most of the roster now that Brown is in charge.
"If you know the locker room the way I do, sometimes basketball is not the No. 1 priority until you step on the floor at 7:30," forward Jerome Williams said Wednesday.
From that 7:30PM tip-off until the final buzzer, Williams said, the Knicks do work hard. It is the hours between games that have been an issue.
"And one thing that he's going to stress," Williams said of Brown, "is he's going to get some of those fill-in hours as being the most important thing. And that's the difference. Don't get me wrong, everybody's here to be a professional, everybody's here to play, to work hard and do the things that they think are going to win games. With Larry Brown, the difference is the mind-set of the players will have to go up a few notches.
"They might have thought they were trying to be about the game during those other hours, but now they'll reach a new level of understanding," Williams said. "That only comes with a coach like a Larry Brown."
Asked whether the Knicks would respond well to Brown's demanding style, Williams said, "There might be a lot of soul-searching."
But some of the Knicks already fit the Brown mold.
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