The 1997 Eastern Conference semifinal series between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat turned in the final minutes of Game 5, when Heat forward P.J. Brown flipped Knicks guard Charlie Ward into a row of photographers seated along the baseline.

Miami Heat’s Alonzo Mourning, right, and New York Knicks’ Charles Oakley grapple as Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy holds on to Mourning’s leg during a fight in the closing seconds of Game 4 of a first-round NBA playoff series at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 30, 1998. Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The incident, which began with the two players jostling for position during a free throw and Miami’s win no longer in doubt, sparked a melee that resulted in six suspensions, including four for Knicks players leaving the bench. The Heat went on to win Games 6 and 7, becoming the sixth team in NBA history to erase a 3-1 series deficit.

Ahead of the teams’ rematch in the first round of the 1998 playoffs — the second of four consecutive postseason meetings between the new rivals, who are rekindling their dislike for each other in a second-round playoff series that continued Tuesday night — Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy was asked whether he told his players not to leave the bench should another brawl erupt during the series.

“We’d have to be real morons to leave the bench again,” Van Gundy replied. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to play with the poise you need to play with. I’m more worried about the poise. People say, ‘Are you guys going to leave the bench again?’ We already did that disaster. We might do another disaster, but it ain’t going to be the same one.”

Van Gundy’s words were prescient.

Twenty-five years ago this week, he was at the center of another on-court incident that threatened to derail the Knicks’ season. New York managed to overcome it, but Van Gundy, who was left clinging to Alonzo Mourning’s left leg in an attempt to break up a fight between the Heat center and Knicks power forward Larry Johnson, may never live it down.


In Game 4 of their 1998 showdown, Mourning and Johnson exchanged punches after getting tangled up battling for a rebound with 1.4 seconds to play. Mourning threw the first punch, which didn’t land, and Johnson responded with a right hand that caught nothing but air.

“Fortunately for these guys,” TNT analyst Doc Rivers said after a few more whiffed haymakers, “they are both awful fighters.”

Mourning was fined $20,000 and suspended for two games, while Johnson was fined $10,000 and also suspended for two games. Knicks forward Chris Mills was fined $2,500 and suspended for one game for leaving the bench.

“I should have been a punk and walked away,” Johnson told reporters after the Knicks’ 90-85 win at Madison Square Garden, which evened the best-of-five series 2-2. “I’ve never been one to let a guy swing at me, especially when it’s a punk like that. There’s 1.4 (seconds) left. That’s cold. That’s cold.”

“The whole game, there were a lot of cheap shots,” said Mourning, whose relationship with Johnson had soured since they were teammates with the Charlotte Hornets from 1992 to 1995. “After a while, you got to take a stand. L.J. crossed the line at the end. He threw the last cheap shot. He threw like an elbow at me. I should have thought about Game 5 before I reacted like that. I made a mistake. I let my teammates down.”

During the fray, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Van Gundy ran onto the court to defuse the situation.


That questionable decision produced one of the more ridiculous scenes in NBA playoff history: Van Gundy on the ground, holding on to the 6-10, 260-pound Mourning’s left calf as other players, including Knicks power forward Charles Oakley, intervened.

“I am not an idiot. I wasn’t attacking nobody. I was trying to get between the two guys so there weren’t any punches thrown,” Van Gundy told reporters. “Then I ended up grabbing Zo’s leg, trying to pull him off. I wasn’t trying to attack anybody. That’s foolish.”

Knicks guard Chris Childs said Van Gundy “looked like a jockey who fell off a horse and didn’t know how to stop hanging on.” On the game broadcast, WFAN’s Gus Johnson said Van Gundy looked like a “little warrior.”

In South Florida, where they referred to the Knicks coach as Jeff Van Poodle, Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard wrote that “Mourning looked like he was trying to get gum off the bottom of his shoe.”

Childs added: “I know when they look at that tape, they’re going to laugh their butts off. I’ll bet everything I own when (NBA Commissioner) David Stern and those guys look at that, even though they’re going to fine some people, they’ll see Jeff and they’ll get a good laugh out of it.”

Miami coach Pat Riley, who abruptly resigned as coach of the Knicks via fax after the 1994-95 season to become the coach and president of the Heat, wasn’t laughing, especially after Van Gundy, his former assistant, said Mourning deserved a harsher penalty.


“The only (expletive) thing I’m disappointed in is that Zo didn’t connect when he tried to punch that (expletive) in the face,” Riley told reporters. “I would have done the same (expletive) thing Zo did.”

Riley suggested the Knicks were cheap-shot artists and were targeting Mourning’s face; Game 4 was the first game Mourning didn’t wear a protective face mask since fracturing his left cheekbone in March.

“As a coach, I can tell him to walk away from that fight,” Riley said. “As a man, I can’t tell him to do that. As a man, I support him, even though it may cost us, even though his action has consequences. He stood up for not only himself, finally, after being abused, but he also made a statement for this team. It’s easy to be academic and intellectual and say this was dumb. But this is about territory. It’s a primal thing — about going to a very innocent place and making a stand for this team. We’re not going to allow it.”

“I look at the tape and I look like I’m overmatched,” Van Gundy told the New York Times a few days after the incident. “Obviously, I was. But I don’t regret what I did.”

Ahead of the deciding Game 5, Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote referred to Van Gundy as “the national poster boy for nerds.”

“If Van Gundy’s style of peacemaking were de rigeur, Jimmy Carter might have tried to hammer out the Arab-Israeli peace accords by rabbit-punching Menachem Begin,” Cote wrote. “Dear Van Gumby: You wanna make peace, Fifi? Control your own players, don’t latch onto the leg (the one that had been surgically repaired) of your opponent’s star player.”


Led by Allan Houston’s 30 points, the Knicks routed the Heat, 98-81, at Miami Arena to win the series.

“Coach Riley has done a lot for me and my family,” Van Gundy told reporters after the Knicks advanced. “I respect him greatly. His opinion has obviously changed of me. But that won’t change my opinion of him.”

Mourning took the blame for the Heat’s first-round exit and issued an apology to the Heat’s fans. Asked about Van Gundy grabbing his leg at the end of Game 4, Mourning grinned.

“Watching it, it’s kind of comical to tell you the truth,” he said.

The Knicks went on to lose to the Indiana Pacers in the 1998 Eastern Conference semifinals. The following year, they upset top-seeded Miami in the first round on Houston’s last-second shot in Game 5. In 2000, New York eliminated the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Miami defeated the Knicks in the 2012 first round, which was the teams’ only other playoff meeting before this year’s Eastern Conference semifinal series, which the Heat lead 1-0 entering Tuesday.

Last week, Van Gundy, now an NBA analyst for ESPN, told Newsday he didn’t remember much about the 1998 leg-grabbing incident, and claimed “temporary insanity” caused him to run onto the court.

“What I do remember is the next year, I was coaching Alonzo in the All-Star Game,” Van Gundy said. “He came up behind me and just grabbed me to break the ice. He could have been bitter and held a grudge and would have every reason to do that. I always appreciated that.”

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