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Knicks look to regain magic of 1999 team

No matter where he travels in the world, Allan Houston is pretty much reminded by someone about his game-winning shot against the Miami Heat.

The former New York Knicks guard has heard countless times about where fans were when Houston eluded Dan Majerle and launched a runner that bounced in to eliminate Miami in the first round of the 1999 playoffs. He has listened to countless entertaining details of how some delirious Knicks fans broke their hands slamming it against something and how televisions fell off stands and broke due to wild celebrations in homes everywhere.

"The most memorable story is a lady from the Bronx said she just ran outside and people in the Bronx were going crazy in the street," Houston recalled recently. "To think that you can just have a ball and live a dream for so many people, it is amazing.

"I can only think what it will be like when the Knicks win a championship again."

The Knicks haven't won a championship since 1973. But it has also been 15 long –- sometimes painful and tumultuous -- years since the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals during their magical run that was propelled in part by Houston's unforgettable shot.

This season, the odds are against the Knicks ending their Finals drought, let alone their title dry spell. But with a new regime in place, there's more hope entering a season than there has been in a long time with the Knicks.

The Phil Jackson-Derek Fisher era begins on Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls. And even though the Knicks' new team president may not be able to add significant talent around Carmelo Anthony until next summer, these current Knicks can learn something from an unlikely collection of Knicks who won the hearts and minds of New York City in 1999.

No matter how rocky things get, despite how off the chemistry may be or how many crushing injuries there are, a team can still overcome drama and turn things around in a blink of an eye to make an inspired run to the Finals like the 1998-99 Knicks did.

Three members from that team -– Jeff Van Gundy, Larry Johnson and Houston –- recently shared their memories with ESPNNewYork.com of that topsy-turvy season and what it will take for the Knicks to get back to the Finals.

"That year will always bind us together," said Van Gundy, head coach of those Knicks and now a television analyst for ESPN. "Tom Thibodeau was an assistant at that time, and he said it about our point guards -- Charlie [Ward] and [Chris] Childs -- but he also said it about our team: may be beaten but never outcompeted.

"I think that really summarized who that group of guys were."

Belief and togetherness

The 1998-99 season was turbulent before the first game even tipped off. It was a lockout-shortened season. Michael Jordan had retired and teams were jockeying for the throne with the king gone.

The Knicks made two chemistry-altering deals by jettisoning longtime Knicks and beloved veterans Charles Oakley and John Starks in separate trades for Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell.

Van Gundy, who loved Oakley and Starks and everything they stood for, had to incorporate the athletic Sprewell and Camby into the rotation around an aging Patrick Ewing. And Van Gundy had to figure everything out in 50 games due to the work stoppage.

The Knicks struggled to a 21-21 start with injuries to Sprewell and Ewing. They also were New York tabloid fodder as then-GM Ernie Grunfeld wanted to see Camby and Sprewell play more and the uneasy relationship between Van Gundy and Grunfeld spilled over onto the back pages before Grunfeld was fired late in the season.

"Sprewell got hurt two games into the season and then was maybe out 12-14 games, which in a lockout season and 50-game season is quite a setback," Van Gundy recalled. "Patrick had his own health issues. We were sort of fudging along, beating ourselves. No one was very happy."

With their season hanging in the balance, the Knicks won their next two games against the Hornets and Heat. The 82-80 win at Miami was a turning point with the Knicks overcoming a 20-point deficit.

"We were disjointed for a lot of the year," Van Gundy said. "We really weren't frankly playing very hard or very well. We weren't tied together like our past teams where we had great trust and belief. From that Miami win, I think we gained a lot of confidence and sense of sacrifice.

"It still wasn't perfect, but the choppiness of the waters receded greatly."

The Knicks had somehow navigated their way into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the East, winning what they felt were playoff-like games. They were dangerous and growing confident by the game. Facing their bitter rival -– the Heat –- for the third consecutive postseason only added fuel to a perfect storm for the Knicks.

"Belief and togetherness," Houston said of what made the '99 Knicks. "We had a high level of confidence, we were so tied into each other and we were such a unit. We were different personalities, different skill sets, different talents. But we all sacrificed for each other.

"For us just to get into the playoffs brought us so far together that we were fighting for our lives," continued Houston, now the Knicks' assistant general manager. "Every possession was a fight for your life. By the time we got to the playoffs, we had so much momentum because we didn't care about [anything other than] just win and every possession."

The Knicks shocked the Heat as only the second 8-seed to upset a top seed thanks to Houston's runner that bounced off the front rim, off the glass and in with .8 second left on the clock.

The biggest shot of Houston's life not only sank the Heat but it altered the future of the Knicks and many lives. Van Gundy's job was likely on the line in that first round and if Houston's runner had bounced the wrong way, the Knicks would have made changes after that season.

Then-Knicks president Dave Checketts had admitted to reaching out to Jackson and eventually meeting with the former Bulls coach when the Knicks were 21-21.

"You never know, but certainly I think everyone had a sense that the Knicks would have changed coaches," Van Gundy said. "Obviously, [if Houston missed the shot it] would have altered my career and certainly I think the team would have changed dramatically as well."

"I think Latrell signed a contract extension the next year," Van Gundy added. "You just don't know. Losing impacts everybody. Usually it is the coach first and in this case it was because of the bounce of the ball. It didn't impact me but certainly if it rolled out, it would have."

Instead, the Knicks were on a roll. Sprewell and Houston blitzed the Hawks to a 4-0 sweep in the second round before outlasting Indiana, 4-2.

The Eastern Conference finals were Camby's coming-out party. Showing why Grunfeld traded Oakley for him, the athletic forward averaged 14.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.2 steals to make the Indiana Pacers' front line look old.

Camby's play helped the Knicks offset the loss of Ewing, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon after the first two games. But what everyone remembers from that series was yet another unforgettable Knicks shot.

Tied at a game apiece, Johnson won Game 3 with what became one of the greatest shots in NBA history –- the four-point play.

Johnson's 3-pointer with the foul on Antonio Davis with 5.7 seconds left set off an explosion of delirium at Madison Square Garden as the Knicks went on to win Game 3, 92-91, and eventually the series.

"It was the loudest I have ever heard the Garden," Houston said. "I remember the floor kind of lifting off the ground, it was almost like everybody jumped at the same time so you felt the whole building kind of feel like it elevated."

Like Houston, Johnson authored one of the Knicks' greatest moments in franchise history in the same postseason.

"I got three big memories," said Johnson, who works for the Knicks as a basketball and business operations representative. "People still want to call me 'Grandmama' every now and then, right? But other than that, it was winning the championship with Vegas [UNLV] of course and the four-point play at the Garden.

"I walk around New York now and I may get it 10 times a day, guys throwing up the 'Big L' and talking about how the four-point play was their greatest experience."

But the Knicks' improbable postseason run came to a screeching halt at the hands of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. The Knicks didn't have Jordan to worry about anymore but they had the unfortunate distinction of being there at the start of the Duncan-Spurs dynasty.

Without Ewing, Van Gundy's team had no chance against Duncan's greatness as the Spurs' big man averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks in the five-game NBA Finals series against New York.

Getting back to the Finals

All these years later, the Knicks, and the rest of the league, still find themselves looking up at Duncan and the Spurs. San Antonio enters the season as the reigning champs.

Meanwhile, the Knicks are just hoping to make the playoffs again after losing 45 games last season.

"The first focus is just building a culture," Houston said of the Knicks getting back to the playoffs and Finals. "And Coach Fisher has done an amazing job so far of just building a culture of teamwork and togetherness."

Johnson echoed that sentiment, saying that what made the Spurs the champs again was their ability to share the ball with so much trust.

"When I look how they beat up on Miami ... it makes me reflect on my team in '99," Johnson said. "We didn't care who shot the ball, we didn't care who got the accolades. All we wanted to do was win."

"The ball moved to the open guy. There was no selfishness. You say it a lot, you hear it a lot about having camaraderie and having everybody on the same page. That's why San Antonio made Miami and the best player in the world look like they looked."

During an ESPN conference call last week, Van Gundy said the Knicks will make the postseason.

Getting back to the Finals for the first time in 15 years, though, will be no easy task. The Zen Master has work to do.

"It's hard to get the right best player to build around and then supplement that with the right guys," Van Gundy said when asked if he is surprised that it has been 15 years since the Knicks reached the Finals. "It is not surprising because it is very, very difficult.

"We were spoiled with Ewing for so long. Those guys just don't come along. They are hard to find. When you get them, you got to surround them with the right players. And it is hard to do. It's really hard to do."