The current disappearance of professional basketball due to the ongoing
labor dispute leaves me indifferent. It has been many years since I watched an
entire game, even more since I actually attended one in person. There are
simply better and more enjoyable ways to utilize my time, not to mention that,
realistically, “professional” basketball has unfortunately not been played in
the metropolitan area for some time. An avid Knick fan in my youth, reared on
the glories of the Knick championship teams now almost four decades gone, much of professional basketball has become unwatchable – a parade of dunking, jumping and individual efforts more suitable to TV highlights than to success in a team sport.
That is why I read with great delight Harvey Araton’s recently-released “When the Garden was Eden,” a chronicle of those glorious Knicks teams of Reed and Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere, Barnett and Monroe, Phil Jackson and Red Holzman. It is an account not only of their victories and struggles, but especially of their disparate backgrounds and personalities that meshed to form what might be the greatest team in NBA history, even if it was never composed of the greatest players in NBA history or even of that era. There is heart,
self-sacrifice, unselfishness and determination, a microcosm (as Araton notes
in a running subtext) of what America could have been like with racial harmony
and mutual respect.
The team revolved around Willis Reed, and the narrative of Game 5 (1970
Finals, Reed injured, team trailing, but somehow miraculously defeat the Laker
behemoths of Chamberlain, Baylor and West) makes as riveting and inspiring reading today as it was listening to that game. And Game 7 – Reed emerging through the runway and limping onto the court shortly before the game began, having taken shots of painkillers to ease the throbbing in his torn hip muscle – is the stuff of legends and clichés. DeBusschere turned, saw the Lakers mesmerized – frozen – by the sight of the injured Captain, and said to himself “We got ‘em.” They did, in a rout.
I missed that game – May 8, 1970, a Friday night. Not yet Bar Mitzva, I declined the invitation of friends in holy Monsey to come and listen to the radios they had left on from before Shabbat. Shabbat was Shabbat, a decision I did not regret then or now. Having seen the game in subsequent years on film, it remains enthralling entertainment and a slice of life. Walt Frazier, who had
one of the greatest Game 7’s ever – 36 points, 19 assists – resented that Reed
received the MVP award, having played barely five games in the series. But
watching the game again with Araton – for his first time ever, Frazier said –
he retracted and apologized for his earlier sentiments. It was Reed’s presence
alone that intimidated the Lakers, and he deserved the MVP status.
The backgrounds of the major players were as diverse as America. Reed
from the rural deep South, Frazier from urban Atlanta, DeBusschere from working class Detroit, and Bradley from upper middle class Republican bankers in Missouri – but all bonding through an understanding and appreciation of their diversity. There was some underlying racial tension on the team – specifically the resentments of the talented Cazzie Russell who was the sixth man behind the slow-footed, cerebral Bill Bradley (my personal favorite player). Russell chafed in his role – even called Reed an “Uncle Tom” once for rebuking him, to which Reed essentially glared him into an apology and greater deference – but most basketball pundits saw Bradley’s genius, outside the numbers of the box score, in running the floor, passing, setting up teammates, disrupting the opposition, and creating offensive harmony. It was a joy to behold – the team game – the movement without the ball, the shot going to the open man, the helping out on defense. It will surprise no one who watched those teams that Bradley was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, despite a career average of 12 points a game, with his season high topping out at 16 points a game. Indeed, seven other players from those teams are also Hall of Famers, and yet they succeeded in keeping their egos in check. Even the magical performer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, a 1971 addition, learned to sublimate his skills for the good of the team –for example, insisting when he arrived on the team that he not take Dick Barnett’s starting position.
It was a different era. Most players did not earn great amounts of money
from professional sports, held off-season jobs and actually needed the playoff
money. The morning after the 1970 championship – the morning after,
Saturday morning – Reed, Holzman and Marv Albert showed up at previously
scheduled autograph signings at a chain of toy stores in Queens and Long
Island. Thousands of children were present. Only Bradley had signed the big contract after college, his career delayed by studies in Oxford and then service in the Air Force – another relic of a bygone era. Reed, the NBA MVP Willis Reed, lived, for goodness sake, in Rego Park, of all places, a far cry from Derek Jeter’s penthouse in Trump Tower, and not far from where my own great aunt lived. It was a middle class existence, to which the average fan could easily relate.
Frazier, and Reed, both extolled the benefits of growing up in the
South, despite the rampant discrimination. In Reed’s small Louisiana town, blacks and whites commingled freely and socially. But Frazier articulated his conclusions that the discrimination brought people together and gave them greater incentive to persevere and succeed. “Unlike the North, in a way, we were raised by a village. If you were doing something wrong, everybody in the neighborhood had carte blanche to make it their business. We were always taught to have a tenacious work ethic, to get an education. Because no matter what names they called you, once you had that, no one could take that away.”
In the 1960s, that changed, and government assumed the paternalistic role
that has devastated the black community. But self-reliance elicited not only
hard work but also lifelong success, and these Knicks were all over-achievers even after their playing careers ended (or perhaps just, simply, natural achievers). Reed became a coach and basketball executive, Frazier became a colorful broadcaster and real estate investor and developer (his real passion),
DeBusschere a team president and later businessman (he died young), Barnett – who was thought to be a slow-witted dullard – earned a doctorate, Bradley
became a US Senator and Presidential candidate, Jerry Lucas markets his incredible memory techniques, Phil Jackson coached more NBA champions than any other person, etc.
All were held together by the taciturn, reticent, unpretentious Jewish
coach Red Holzman, whose retirement number hanging from the Garden rafters bears the number of his regular season victories, 613 (Araton: “the same as the number of commandments in the Torah”). Holzman was a simple man of simple tastes, a reluctant coach who dwelled in a modest home in Cedarhurst with his wife and daughter – the street, off West Broadway, connoted today by the sign “Red Holzman Way,” and something he would have eschewed during his lifetime. He drilled in his team minimal rules – see the ball, hit the open man – and would regularly solicit the players’ advice in time outs and at half-time, democratic to a fault and eschewing all personal honor and credit. Winning was everything, and praise from others was worth less than a shot of Scotch. There was one trainer and one scout, and almost no other staff.
The book is filled with vignettes that recall a different, and vanished,
time. Frazier was never once assessed a technical foul during his entire
career. (He said he had better uses for his money.) The great Oscar Robertson
never once dunked during his career, considering it an “inelegant” way to
score. The book notes the long-running anguish of the great Jerry West, a
perennial loser in the Finals until finally prevailing in 1971. There were so few
teams that only the very best players competed, leading to hard competition but
also mutual respect. Frazier, in fact, hated playing against his college teammates, fearing the friendship would be a distraction, and cultivated no friends on other teams throughout his playing days. And the “Clyde” image was just that – the reputation as a man-about-town was contrived, a business decision concocted by his agent. His college teammates were shocked that the introvert they had played with even dabbled with such a persona – and he was a stickler for healthy eating, sleep, practice and success, rather than club hopping. I hadn’t remembered that Bradley led the team in scoring in the 1973 championship finals, again against the Lakers.
Such a book blurs memory and reality. I had forgotten that the shootings
at Kent State occurred on the morning of “Game Five.” I could have sworn I attended the game in November 1972 when the Knicks scored the last 19 points to defeat the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Bucks by one point on basket by Earl Monroe. Now, I am not so sure, as I recalled Bradley taking the last shot. Then again, some of the players misdated some of their games and series by two years. The first championship punctuated “championship season” in New York, with the Jets and Mets having won in football and baseball earlier that year. Those were the days. In retrospect, the Knicks proved a respite from the strife of the times – the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War protests (in both cases, some players participated, others not), the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich and finally Watergate, which unfolded during the second championship season. The nation’s sour mood was leavened by the triumphs on the hardwood floor of Madison Square Garden.
It is something more than nostalgia at play. It is a vivid reminder of how
commonality of purpose and the harmony of dissimilar elements can engender the success of the group that then shapes their lives forever. It is a great book –
marred only at the very end by Araton’s manufactured attempt to wrap Barack
Obama in the mantle of the Old Knicks – and rewarding for all those who were
young and innocent during those halcyon, almost mythical, days.