Most know about the time Ernie Grunfeld spent in the New York Knicks front office. And many probably have an idea that Madison Square Garden was Grunfeld’s home court for the final four seasons of his nine year NBA playing career. But did you know that Big Ern was on the floor the night Patrick Ewing made his NBA debut?
After playing his first two seasons in Milwaukee, and his next three with the Kansas City Kings, Grunfeld began his tenure in NYC in ’82-83 with the likes of Bill Cartwright, Bernard King (Grunfeld’s teammate at Tennessee), Paul Westphal, and one of my all-time favorite NBA names, Rory Sparrow. Grunfeld was 10th in minutes per game on a Hubie Brown led, 44-win Knicks team that made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals. But the Philadelphia 76ers, with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, and Mo Cheeks, swept the Knicks, advanced to beat Sidney Moncrief‘s Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals, and swept the LA Lakers to win the ’83 NBA title.
Grunfeld and the 47-win Knicks fell short in the ’84 playoffs as well. This time going down in seven games to the Boston Celtics led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and the Chief Robert Parrish. Just as the 76ers did the previous season, the Celtics subsequently beat the Bucks in the East finals, and won the ’84 NBA championship, taking the Lakers in seven.
Tough times found the Knickerbockers in ’84-85. Cartwright missed the entire season and King only played 55 games. Not even Darrell Walker, in his second season and averaging a career-high 13.5 ppg, could help. A mere 24 wins and a frozen envelope later, Patrick Ewing magically landed in the Big Apple.
Fast forward to the night of October 26, 1985, the official arrival of the John Thompson-groomed Georgetown product in New York. I just happened to be watching NBA TV the other day and caught a replay of Ewing’s first game ever. The Knicks were up against the familiar 76ers, featuring Malone, Cheeks, a stout Charles Barkley, Dr. J, and one of my favorites, Sedale Threatt.
All of a sudden, Ernie Grunfeld, the young, frazzled ‘tuff’ you see in the screen shot above, popped onto my TV screen. Barely into his 30s, (which, back then was one of the worst things in the whole wide world, not so in modern times) Grunfeld was a husky fellow, in the kindest sense of the word.
Big 6’6″ Ern was all over the court. One minute he was blocking out for rebounds, pushing around in the scrum, mixing it up in the paint, and the next moment he was sticking his hip/butt out on an offensive screen. Grunfeld displayed a very rough-n-tumble style of play … known in those tymes for ‘D’efense of all things.
Of course, the Knicks only won 23 games in ’85-86, after which Grunfeld pulled the retirement card. Grandpa Hubie Brown was relieved of his coaching duties 16 games and 12 losses into the following season, with Bob Hill left to steer the ship. In ’87-88, Rick Pitino took over, leading Ewing and the Knicks to the playoffs where the team would stay through and past ’99-00, when Chewing‘s time ended in NYC. It’s all history documented elsewhere, not here.
Back to the Wizards President of Basketball Operations …
I wonder if any of the current Wizards have knowledge of Grunfeld the player. If not, they should. The Wiz kids could learn a lot from Grunfeld playing defense with veteran savvy and intelligence, instead of an overabundance of athletics and nonsense.
For Grunfeld in action during Ewing’s debut, check the video below.
Keep an eye out for:
- Barkley setting a wide pick at the 3:45 mark.
- Grunfeld comes in at 4:04, announcers talk of:
- Dick Stockton: “They’re going to count on Grunfeld’s stability.”
- Tommy Heinsohn: “Grunfeld is an excellent press defensive player. He gets out there in the passing lanes, and has good anticipation. He’s kind of a streaky offensive player, but he does have the experience.”
- Dick Stockton: “Grunfeld is particularly effective on the defense, even though he doesn’t have the foot speed, he plays the passing lanes well.”
- A white teammate with a blue marker filling in what looks to be the ‘N’ of Gerald Wilkins’ all white New Balance shoe at the 7:05 mark
- Grunfeld being victim of a B.S. call favoring Moses Malone at the 9:10
Grunfeld’s Career Stats
After a career best fifth season in ’81-82 with the K.C. Kings, Grunfeld signed with the Knicks in September of ’82. His numbers dipped almost across the board during his final four seasons in New York compared to his first five in the league.
One thing I did notice (when looking at his full stats at Basketball-Reference.com) was that Grunfeld shot 42.6% from long distance in his final year, attempting 61 and making 26. In his previous eight seasons, he shot a combined 7-37 from deep (18.9%). Wonder what sparked the change.
Next, I wanted to take Grunfeld’s best season and compare it to someone who had a similar season at any age.
There have been only two players between 6’5″ and 6’7″, in a single season, to:
- Play more than 800 minutes and 40 games
- Have a PER between 16.7 and 17.7
- Average more than 11 ppg and less than 13 ppg
- Have a Usage % greater than 23
- Average more than 2 rebounds and 2 assists per game
There you have it, a 26-year old Grunfeld equals a 32-year old Jerry Stackhouse.
That’s my Ernie Grunfeld/Patrick Ewing story, and I’m sticking to it.
To get an idea of Pat Ewing’s NBA beginnings, here’s an excerpt from the LA Times:
Even before he played his first regular-season game, Patrick Ewing became the first National Basketball Assn. player ever to appear on the cover of Business Week.
Considering Ewing’s record, some people might have expected that. In seven exhibition games, he fouled out three times, was ejected from a fourth and got into three fights. He was fined $1,500 by the league last week for provoking a fight with Indiana’s Steve Stipanovich.
Ewing suffered a hyperextended elbow in that incident, and was wearing a pad on his left elbow for protection Saturday.
“He was sleepwalking through seven pre-season games,” [Hubie] Brown said. “Then, the season starts, and he’s on national television, and all of a sudden, he comes out of his shell.”