There are certain moments in New York sports lore that everyone remembers where they were when it occurred. Iconic moments — Willis Reed’s Game 7 trot, Derek Jeter’s flip play, and Ali vs. Frazier are often cited as some. For me, I’ll never forget where I was on Monday April 21st, 2014: the moment I heard the news of Herb William’s dismissal.
At my cubicle and in the middle of some standard bad office coffee, I nearly fell out of my seat when I read the tweets. “Effective immediately, Knicks coaching staff relieved of duties.” We all knew Mike Woodson was a dead man walking, but the obvious follow-up question every Knicks fan thought of was: “What about Herb?”
The tweets would continue to pour in with different variations but all the same message: “Yes, that means Herb, too.” It really goes to show you how large of a figurehead Herb is for Knicks fans that his status was larger news than guys like Woodson, Todd, and Walker. He’s not just an assistant coach, he’s an institution. So if you are wondering why Herb Williams was trending on Twitter yesterday, let me try and explain what he meant to New York.
Herb Williams’s Knicks career began as far back as 1992- over 20 years ago back before the “90s Knicks” even meant anything. Back then my dad was giving me my first lesson of being a Knick fan by describing Patrick Ewing as the “Team Captain” and Herb as his “Back-up” for when he gets tired, which for some reason made him endearing to me as a kid.
Before the Knicks, Herb actually had a pretty decent career with the Indiana Pacers and Dallas Mavericks by averaging 13.5 points, 7.2 boards, and 1.7 blocks per game up to that point. With the Knicks, he would go on to never average more than about three points and rebounds a game. It didn’t matter, though, because his calm demeanor would go on to ingratiate himself to blood thirsty Knick fans that were overly riled up from Ewing’s warrior-like battle cries during skirmishes against teams like the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
While Herb had his serviceable moments, he would largely serve as a reprieve from the intensity of Pat Riley’s Knicks, and his appearance would typically signal a Knicks victory since his minutes would be limited to garbage time. Herb was a cue that can best be described as Pavlovian: 1) Crazed Knick fan sees Herb. 2) Knick fan calms down knowing game is over. Rinse and repeat. Herb knew he wasn’t a major part of the game but his presence was always respected, so the Knicks kept him around.
This wasn’t even the first time he was fired if you really think about it. In February of 1996 Williams was traded to the Toronto Raptors. After one game, the Raptors waived Herb, and he dutifully reported right back to Madison Square Garden like a like lost pup that found his way back home. The Knicks promptly re-signed him, presumably apologizing and telling him “no hard feelings.”
After three more years Herb would retire in 1999 but once again make his return in the form of an Assistant Coach under Don Chaney. This would be quite a milestone moment for Herb because now his epic story of survival through a bevy of failed head coaches would begin.
After Lenny Wilkens was fired, Herb would get his first taste of head coaching experience in 2005. It didn’t go particularly well (16-27) but James Dolan felt compelled to reward Herb for his service by keeping him aboard the Knicks coaching staff in 2006 when Larry Brown took the helm. I still remember the clumsy Knicks press conference that announced Larry’s arrival and found it a bit strange how much Brown, and MSG commentators kept talking up the importance of Williams. At the time it seemed a bit forced, and I thought it must have come from the top to ensure Herb would remain a part of what the Knicks were doing.
He was described as a “big man” coach that would work with guys like Eddy Curry, Jackie Butler, and Qyntel Woods, none of which remain employed by a current NBA team.
We all know what happened next. Despite a carousel of different Knick coaching staffs, Herb would remain safe from any real scrutiny. It was at this point I started to wonder on Knick message boards why Herb was so untouchable and found out it wasn’t just me that wondered. It wasn’t clear to me what Herb’s purpose was, and it also didn’t help to see other long time assistant coaches around the league move onto head coaching positions with different teams (guys like Tom Thibodeau for example).
I wondered if Herb even had any ambition to become a coach again, or if he was perfectly fine doing whatever it was he did. Being older now, when I asked my dad what Herb’s job was he would shoot back without missing a beat “official clip board holder.”
While Herb was a common thread of the Knicks epic futility of the 2000’s, I’ve never heard of anyone actually blaming the Knicks woes on Herb. Instead, as off the court stories got darker and more personal between Dolan, the team’s work atmosphere, the media, and players; many fans started describing Herb as a sort of “mole” for Dolan. When thinking about the bizarre media policies and toxic stories around MSG, it’s easy to see why people would think that. Knick fans would begin to accept that if someone was a Dolan favorite, they would be handsomely rewarded. After all, we saw this with Alan Houston, Isiah Thomas, and more recently with JR & Chris Smith.
Flash forward to March 2014.
In Phil Jackson’s press conference he declared that change was needed in the Knicks’ culture and relationship to both fans and the media. While he said he had full autonomy of the Knicks, many fans didn’t believe it. That is until now though because Herb’s removal, along with the rest of the Knicks coaching staff, is a clear sign that Phil truly is the one calling all the shots around the Knicks these days.
Its important to understand that the gleeful hysteria surrounding news of Herb’s removal isn’t to celebrate his firing, its more about believing that Phil is in total control of the Knicks because under Dolan’s grip its doubtful Herb would have never been removed, or even reassigned. This is why Herb’s removal is major news for the Knicks.
No one wants to see someone fired but Knick fans do want to know that Phil’s title as President isn’t just window dressing.
Personally, I myself have been rather dismissive of Herb. I once described him and Steve Mills as “Garden lawn furniture.” However, I also understand the value of having a calm and experienced professional presence on your management team. There aren’t any stories of dustups with Herb or rude interactions. In fact one of the most depressing experiences I personally ever had with the Knicks was back during my childhood when my dad took me to the Knicks old practice facility in Purchase, NY.
The day after a big win against the Orlando Magic, thanks to a last second shot by Team Captain Ewing, I was overwhelmingly excited to wish the big guy well and get his autograph on his way to the team bus. In typical Ewing fashion, he shouted at me and other kids to get out of the way and scolded us for asking for things like pictures and autographs. My dad saw what was going on and told me “he’s just tired from the big game” I was crushed but tried not to take it personal since I even saw my own father nearly get brushed aside from Pat Riley, until my dad furnished his book “The Winner Within” to Coach and convinced him to sign it. The afternoon didn’t go as planned but it was redeemed by at least one player: Herb Williams.
Perhaps sensing my disappointment, Herb came out and asked for me and my little sister’s name. He didn’t mind chatting with us and waiting patiently while my dad quickly fumbled around with a camera trying to snap a photo. “Take your time, but are you sure you wanna take a picture of me?” asked Herb in a self-deprecating manner.
Of course we did! Herb was a Knick and that made him my hero. It was one of those brief moments that end up staying with you for a lifetime, and it always reminded me that the players we see on television aren’t nearly as accessible as the NBA commercials make them out to be.
Some players don’t care about the lines that separate fans from athletes and treat everyone with the utmost respect. That’s Herb though, and despite all the different narratives surrounding Herb, this is what I’m choosing to be my take away from his two decade long Knick career.