Two months ago, college basketball guru Dick Vitale lobbied on his Twitter account for Rick Pitino to land the Knicks job.
Iona got there first. Despite Pitino’s baggage from an NCAA-related FBI investigation, a Knicks redux wouldn’t have been such an oddball choice.
After all, Pitino was ahead of his time in the NBA when guiding the Knicks for two seasons from 1987-89.
Pitino’s Knicks were a backcourt-pressing, 3-point crazy club at a time when the long ball was not trumpeted by the analytics cognoscenti, because they predated it. Pitino’s Knicks made the playoffs each season.
“It was an exciting time, a chance to play a different style,’’ said NBA’s disciplinarian chief, Kiki Vandeweghe, who was traded to the Knicks during Pitino’s second Garden season. “At that point it was different from anyone else. It was a pressing style. That was hard to play against because nobody was prepared for it and we shot a lot of 3-point shots. Everyone had the green light. It was a physically demanding, but exciting style.”
And it was a style that won games — which the Knicks have done little of the past 20 years.
Pitino, the New York native who was hired by Iona on March 14, broke a four-year Knicks playoff drought by winning 22 of the team’s final 37 games in 1988 to squeak by into the playoffs.
In Pitino’s second season, the Knicks amassed 52 wins, including 26 straight at home. Pitino’s record stood at 90-74 (.549) before a falling-out with former general manager Al Bianchi led him to flee for Kentucky.
Stu Jackson, now a Big East executive, was Pitino’s top assistant, coming to the Knicks with him from Providence.
“Rick changed the culture and more importantly the style of play,’’ Jackson told The Post. “For all the things that are Rick, I always felt that one of his best qualities was as an innovator. I go back to Providence — one of the first collegiate teams to take advantage of volume 3-point shooting. When he came to the Knicks he brought that style. At that time, it was unheard of in the NBA, as well as pressing for 48 minutes.’’
The Knicks still had a young low-post center on the roster in Patrick Ewing, but he was surrounded by what became known as “The Bomb Squad” featuring Johnny Newman, Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, Trent Tucker and Gerald Wilkins.
The “Bomb Squad’’ even posed for a promotional poster alongside an old military plane.
“I remember vividly when we were at Providence — a staff meeting in the sauna at Alumni Hall at Providence,’’ Jackson added. “Rick let the staff know we were going to lead the country in 3-point shooting attempts. We mapped out the mathematics on a magnetic board during our meeting. Fast forward to the Knicks. There wasn’t a question we were going to employ that type of offensive style in attempt to be more efficient than other teams in the NBA.”
The Knicks launched 567 3-pointers in Pitino’s first season, breaking the franchise record by nearly 200 attempts. In his second season, Pitino’s 52-win club doubled down, hurling up 1,147 3-point attempts.
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“It fell under some criticism,’’ Stu Jackson said. “As most new things are, a lot of teams were slow to react defensively to what we were doing.’’
Getting rugged bigs Ewing and Charles Oakley, who was obtained for Pitino’s second season, to buy into the frenetic style was another achievement for the graduate of St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, L.I.
Pitino didn’t ignore Ewing. The Knicks played inside-out, with Jackson pushing the pace. They took the first available open shot either from behind the line or after getting it into the paint for easy Ewing buckets.
“If innovation is Rick’s best quality as a basketball tactician, his ability to motivate young men is his close second quality,’’ Jackson said.
The family feeling was prevalent. Pitino’s kids were Knicks ballboys. The practices were college-like. Vandeweghe joined the club two months into the season and they were still going through intense practices as if it were training camp.
“Our practices were more like college,’’ said Vandeweghe, a two-time All-Star when Portland traded him to New York. “When I was at UCLA, we spent a lot of time on drills and fundamentals, breaking down the game no matter what. It was reminiscent of that. The type of instruction and practice. When I joined in-season, December is when most teams are easing back on practices with all the games, toning it down. College coaches teach more because of younger players. He was certainly more than that way than pro coaches I had.”
Pitino’s Knicks knocked off the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs in 1989, then lost to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in Round 2.
Instead of the start of something sustainable, the relationship between Pitino and Bianchi, always strained, became untenable. The theory was Bianchi never wanted to hire Pitino and had been strong-armed into it by Garden chief Jack Diller.
“We were keenly aware of the rift that had developed,’’ Jackson said. “A rift between two highly successful people. Bianchi’s long-storied, successful history in the NBA. Al was very much a traditionalist. Rick was somewhat a newbie. Those two people [and] personalities don’t necessarily mix. And some friction developed.’’
“The players knew,’’ Vandeweghe said. “It wasn’t a perfect relationship — we didn’t know the extent.’’
Pitino moved onto Kentucky, returned to the NBA with the Celtics, then went back to college at Louisville before winding up in Greece after the NCAA falling-out.
Now he’s back in the metro area. All the while, he kept his Knicks season tickets.
“I don’t think there’s any question he’ll create more interest around the program,’’ said Jackson, who took over for Pitino after he resigned. “By virtue of who he is, but more important he’ll do a great job of recruiting, the schedule and coaching that basketball team, keeping them in the NCAA tournament for years to come.’’
Rick Pitino’s Knicks teams embraced the 3-pointer almost two decades before it revolutionized the game. Here’s a look at some of those sharpshooting Knicks teams’ achievements:
- The 1988-89 Knicks recorded 386 3-pointers made — an NBA record by 115. It stood until broken in 1993 by the Suns.
- That club launched 1,147 3-point attempts — also an NBA record at the time.
- Prior to 1988-89, no NBA team ever had three players with 50-plus 3-pointers made. The Pitino Knicks had four — Trent Tucker (118), Johnny Newman (97), Mark Jackson (81) and Gerald Wilkins (51).
- On Dec. 8 of that season, the Knicks nailed a then-NBA record 11 3-pointers versus Milwaukee.
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