These days Chris Childs is a loving grandpa, far from the on-court persona—he was one of the grittiest on-ball defenders in the NBA—he displayed when he was a player in the ’90s that, for better or worse, represented Knicks basketball in their hey day era.
When you ask his former teammates about the type of teammate he was, descriptors like loyal, tough and hard-nosed will be repeated. If you speak to players that played against him they’ll say things like a pest, no-nonsense, willing to die with every defensive possession.
Childs played during a bygone era of the NBA, when hand-checking and jersey tugs, and not flopping was standard defensive protocol. Few players today display such defensive intensity—Patrick Beverly comes to mind as an exception—and fewer do it as fearlessly, even against the top dogs in the League. Childs didn’t back down from anybody—just ask Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
We recently sat down with Childs and spoke about his journey through basketball minor leagues, making an impact as one of the grittiest Knicks of his time, and the current state of affairs in New York.
You were an undrafted player out of Boise State. Did going that route better prepare you for long-term NBA success?
It was better for me to go that route because I wasn’t mature physically or mentally to play at the NBA level, so I had gone down to The CBA to sharpen my mental skills as along with my physical skills.
Today’s NBA is completely different from when you played in the ’90s. What was the mindset you needed to have to be to play and have longevity in that era?
Back then it was no blood, no foul. Growing up, watching how physical the Lakers played the Celtics in the ’80s; I remember Isiah Thomas got hit by Karl Malone and received 40 stitches. Now it’s just a different game, everything evolves, so it’s just the evolution of the game. So in that era, you had to be mentally and physically tough.
To me, the ’90s Knicks represented what it meant to be a New Yorker. How would you assess how the city gravitated and accepted toward those players?
The era before us, in the ’70s with Clyde Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, and Dave Barnett, all those guys who won a championship set the blueprint for us and we just tried to follow it using our own style of play, which was play as hard as you could. We knew what the Knicks stood for and what the city of New York stood for. We wanted to make people proud when they came out to watch us and go out there and play harder than anyone else.
During your time in New York, you most famously played for Jeff Van Gundy. Today, people view him as the funny announcer on ABC, but how intense was he as a coach?
He was a Pat Riley disciple, and that was reflected in his coaching style. He preached a lot of Riley’s philosophy. Our practices were tougher than the game. He was a fiery coach. Most coaches have a lot of their assistants doing most of the work, but he would work with you on your game throw the ball to you and try to guard you.
You played with some of the roughest people to ever wear a Knicks uniform. What was it like having John Starks and Charles Oakley as teammates?
They were guys who came from smaller schools like myself. Guys like that understand the meaning of hard work, so It was easy for me to fall into my role. I just came out and played harder than the guard I was guarding. There might’ve been more talented players than us, but we weren’t going to let anyone outwork us. Seeing those guys and the amount of work they put in during practice made it easy for me to assimilate myself with the team.
The ’90s were filled with lots of playoff intensity and fights. On a 30 For 30, Greg Anthony said about those Knicks teams: “We’re either going to win the game or the fight.” If you can form your own all-back-alley team, who you going with?
It would be Oakley, Starks, Charlie Ward—you might not think that about Charlie because he has a choir boy face, but he’s as tough as they come. You have to add Anthony Mason and Xavier McDaniel. I would go in the back alley with those guys any day.
Those Knicks teams had physical and memorable playoff battles with Heat. What do you remember about the Knicks-Heat rivalry?
We mirrored each other. Riley left and went to Miami. We played the same type of ball, but it was an extra incentive to beat him because of the way he left us. We played them so much, four times in the regular season and then we played four straight years in the playoffs. It was a natural dislike. They didn’t like us and we didn’t like them. To me, that’s how the game is supposed to be played. We went to their arena and they booed us and they came to our arena and our fans booed them. It inspired them to play well down here and it inspired us to play well in Miami. It was a great rivalry. I cherished and looked forward to it—and we got the best of them.
Do you think the Knicks-Heat rivalry superseded the rivalry you guys had with the Pacers?
Indiana was a great rivalry because of Reggie Miller and the way he played in the Garden. Once I got there it continued because we ended up facing them in a crucial series in 1999. I don’t think anything would beat that rivalry we had with Miami.
Many people remember the fights that you guys had with the Heat, particularly one infamous one that involved Van Gundy comically hanging off Alonzo Mourning’s leg. Can you walk us through that moment?
Initially I saw Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson square off. They both started to swing, but none of them connected with any shots. Then I looked down and saw Jeff grab Alonzo’s leg. My natural reaction was to go in and grab Coach and pull him off, but now thinking back he probably didn’t want any ejections and he was trying to break it up because we had a history of altercations and guys getting suspended.
What was the most intense playoff battle that you have been a part of?
Any series we played against Miami and Indiana. Miami and our entire 1999 run to the Finals were some of the most intense playoff series that I’ve been a part of.
You made a reputation for yourself as one of the top on-ball defenders in the NBA. Who were some of the toughest players that you had to guard?
They were all a challenge because everyone in the NBA were great players, but you had Michael Jordan, he was big strong he had all the skills; Allen Iverson, who was quick and crafty; Stephon Marbury, Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond…Terrell Brandon was underrated, he was a great player that didn’t the praise that he deserved, he was big and strong.
Before the 1999 season started, Starks was traded to Golden State for Latrell Sprewell. How did Sprewell help the team go to the next level in the midst of having an aging and declining roster?
I think John was getting older. I know he wasn’t happy about the trade, but Sprewell gave us another slasher and a quick guard. He can play and guard multiple positions and he got to the rim whenever he wanted. Sprewell was coming off suspension [Ed note: Sprewell was suspended 68 games for choking his head coach, P.J. Carlesimo.] so he was ready to prove everyone wrong because he played with a chip on his shoulder
What were some of the early season challenges that the team went through?
We had new teammates and we had to implement them into the system. It took us a while to get our groove, but the last 20 games or so we went 15-5 that propelled us to get that eighth seed. We didn’t care what seed we were, we just wanted to get in, and once we got in, we liked our chances.
What was the locker room vibe after Allan Houston hit the game-winner in Game 5 against the Heat?
We’ve seen Allan hit shots like that his entire career. When the play was drawn up, we expected Miami to do something different defensively. Allan got a good look and hit the back of the rim. They teach you that when your shot hits the back of the rim your shot is on target, so when it hit the back of the rim, and the shot went down. We were extremely lucky, extremely happy to get that game and move on. After that series, we knew that we couldn’t be stopped.
Patrick Ewing was a big part of the team, but looking back, do you feel that his injury was a blessing in disguise because it forced Van Gundy to go small, which in turn helped the Knicks surge?
Patrick was an integral part of the team. He was one of many leaders on the team that played in many big games, but it gave other guys opportunities to play. When we played smaller and quicker, it ended up hurting us in the Finals when we had to face San Antonio—they had David Robinson and Tim Duncan. So it helped us to get there, but it hurt us when we got totThe Finals because we couldn’t match up up with them on the boards and Patrick would’ve helped us in that area.
Walk me through the four-point that immortalized Larry Johnson as a legend in New York?
The play wasn’t designed for Larry. They denied Allen Houston the ball. When you set screens, you’re taught to come to the ball and Larry got it and did his famous jab right, dribble left shot and it went in. I was excited, he was excited, the whole New York was excited. As a point guard, my mind was still set on the score of the game and that bucket only tied the game, so I had to run to Larry and calm him down to tell him you need to hit this free throw. We only tied the game. He gave it a look like he always does. Luckily he got himself together and knocked down the free-throw to help us win the game.
How did it feel to finally get the Knicks back to the Finals and give the fans one last thrill to close out the century?
You can’t really describe it. Not to make any excuses, but I wish we were healthier. It was just great to be there, but I wish we could’ve performed better. With Patrick, I would’ve liked our chances a whole lot better. But to get to the Finals with that team, after everything we’ve been through that whole entire year, was an experience I would never forget.
Are you surprised that the Knicks have not experienced much success since that moment?
It’s sad to watch, it’s disappointing because I would always be a Knick at heart,.It doesn’t seem that they have an understanding of the style that they want to play—one game they one way, another game they do something completely different—so once they figure out what style they want to play night-in-and-night out and everyone has a defined role, then I think they’ll be able to make some waves in the playoffs.
You are famous for getting into a dust-up with Kobe Bryant. What led up to that?
It was an incident where he was throwing elbows throughout the game. We crossed matched a few times and he still continued to throw an elbow. I went down court and looked at the ref who was Monty McCutchen and told him about it. He just shrugged and put his hands up, so I told him I’ll take care of it. and I let [Kobe] know if he did it again that ”I’ll take off you.” I guess he didn’t know what that meant because he still did it, he hit me with a little chicken elbow, so I pushed him, and he walked on me. I gave him a little nudge to get him off of me, he’s 6-6 and I’m only 6-3. So he did it again, and the rest was history.
Do you think punching Kobe Bryant enhanced your reputation?
I didn’t do it for reputation purposes. I just played the game a certain way. Things like that happen. You have to stand up for yourself. I didn’t go out being intimidated by people. I just went out trying to outwork the next guy and if it came to something like that, I was always prepared
Did he say anything to you the next time you shared a court with him?
We haven’t really crossed paths over the years. He’s one of the best two guards to ever play the game. He’s done a lot of the League and the Lakers. I have no ill will towards that man. He’s a Hall of Famer. It was just an incident that occurred that happened a lot back then.
You also got into a scuffle with Micheal Jordan. Do you think you gained a measure of respect by standing up to him?
It’s the same thing as Kobe. He was playing dirty and I don’t play that way. I had to let him know don’t do that. I don’t care who you are, he almost got it that night. It was just how the game was played back then regardless of their status. I know I didn’t.
How do you want people to remember you as a player?
A great teammate, a dependable guy that gave it his all every time he stepped on the floor.
What do you think about the current state of the Knicks?
It’s sad, the fans and this city deserve more. They deserve a winning team. Hopefully, they get somebody good in the draft and free agents, and turn this thing around. New York has always been The Mecca of Basketball.
What type of potential do you see in some of their young guys like Allonzo Trier, Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson?
Those guys are talented. They wouldn’t be in the position in this league if they weren’t talented. They’re just finding their identity. Once they figure that out and once they’re surrounded with a core that has veterans, I think they’ll find a lot of success.
Would you accept an invitation to come back to MSG for a team reunion?
They already had one celebration and they didn’t invite me, so now the only way I’ll go back if my good friend Charles Oakley is by my side.