Pitino’s Bomb Squad Revitalized Knicks

It wasn’t going to work. It almost never worked.

College coaches jumped at the riches and lure of the NBA only to realize the difference between the two jobs was as different as hip-hop is to opera.

Some succeeded, but the majority found more losses than wins and ultimately returned to college campuses. Consider this list of esteemed college coaches – Lon Kruger, John Calipari, Tim Floyd, Mike Montgomery, P.J. Carlesimo, Reggie Theus, Leonard Hamilton.

In 22 seasons, they compiled an NBA record of 457-754.

Prior to those disappointments, the Knicks turned the NBA on its head in 1987 when they hired Rick Pitino.

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Pitino hadn’t even found success at an elite program. He had taken Providence College, led by a feisty guard named Billy Donovan, to the Final Four – a remarkable accomplishment.

But he had never coached a college basketball factory. Boston University, Providence College and a stint as the interim head coach at Hawaii were the only head coaching jobs on his resume.

He had been an assistant coach with the Knicks from 1983-85, but New York was not the place to cut your teeth as an NBA head coach.

The conventional wisdom spoke loud: It wasn’t going to work.

“I remember before the press conference, I was talking to some friends and they told me that people were laughing about the hire,’’ Pitino told MSGNetworks.com. “They didn’t think I was ready. They didn’t think my style would work.’’

Pitino’s ‘style,’ had gotten Providence to the Promised Land. He didn’t embrace the three-point shot. Pitino held a shotgun wedding with the long ball.

Certainly, he wasn’t going to try that in the NBA.

“What people didn’t know was that I had two clauses in my contract,’’ Pitino said. “I had a wins clause and I had an attendance clause. I had to fill The Garden. And the best way to do that was to play an entertaining style that would produce wins.

“That’s exactly what the three-point shot brought to the game. Suddenly, kids were taking outside shots in the schoolyards instead of going to the basket. It revolutionized the game. I loved it and I believed in it because inside of every player is a shooter or a guy that thinks he’s a shooter.’’

By the 1988-89 season, the Knicks had mastered a deadly style of play and acquired the moniker of The Bomb Squad.

The Bomb Squad attempted 1,147 three-pointers, an increase of more than 400 from the previous league-high. They made 386, which shattered the previous record of 271.

“I knew things were going to be crazy when Coach Pitino came up to me the first day and said, ‘You’re going to be a three-point shooter,’’’ Rod Strickland recalled. “I was a rookie. I had never been a three-point shooter. But he said I was going to be a shooter and, for one season, I was a shooter.’’

Strickland, Mark Jackson, Johnny Newman, Trent Tucker and Gerald Wilkins were the snipers. Center Patrick Ewing was the heavy artillery that kept defenses honest.

“The three-point shot was the weapon and we were doing it, but we had a big man: Patrick Ewing,” Wilkins said. “He was pretty good.”

Just Hall of Fame good.

The thrilling style of play made The Garden the place to be. 

The Knicks went 52-30. They swept the Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round playoff series, literally sweeping The Spectrum floor with a broom.

The Knicks then took the Chicago Bulls to six games before falling in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

“That was the most fun I ever had playing basketball and Coach Pitino was the greatest coach I ever played for,’’ Jackson said. “The practices were the most grueling, competitive practices I ever went through. There were times we wanted to kill each other, kill him.

Knicks Rick Pitino GettyImages 031717

“But it all paid off in games. Some teams were truly baffled by what we were doing. I remember in the second half of the season, there was a feeling around the league that we would revert to more conventional play. Just the opposite because now we were confident in what we were doing. We were a dangerous animal.’’

The Bomb Squad held a reunion on Feb. 4 at The Garden. Pitino, now the coach at Louisville, was unable to attend. He sent a video message.

“Congratulations, Bombinos. It was great watching all those three-point shots.”

The anecdotes flew like three-pointers in practice.

Strickland said that Jackson wanted to fight him in one practice. At first, Strickland, The Bronx native, thought Jackson, the Brooklyn native, was joking until they had to be separated.

They revealed that Pitino had two hard and fast rules:

  1. You had to play defense with a ferocity.

  2. You could take any three at almost any time, but never, ever take a long two.

“Rick told me, ‘I will never take you out of the game for shooting, but if you don’t take the next shot that Mark Jackson passes you the ball, you will be sitting beside me,’” Tucker said.

What basketball player wouldn’t respond positively to having the ultimate green light from his coach? The Bomb Squad was the Golden State Warriors before the Golden State Warriors.

“Obviously, we’ll be remembered for our style of play,’’ Newman said. “But I will remember the camaraderie on that team. We had a group of great guys that just like being together. It was one of those magical teams you never forget.’’