Did you see the news the other day? The President, the Times said, urged Republicans in Congress to put "nation above party." The Soviet foreign minister was reported "confident of accord" on new disarmament proposals. In New York the mayor was trying to cut off a strike by city employees. Tickets were on sale for Ingrid Bergman's first Broadway show in years. And the Knickerbockers lost their home opener at Madison Square Garden in overtime before 17,205 fans. All that happened just the other day—November 11, 1946.
So not much seems to have happened—with the Knicks or otherwise—since that day 21 years ago when they played their first game in Madison Square Garden. A few days before the Knicks had opened in the very first game in the history of the league that is now the National Basketball Association. They beat the never-to-be-forgotten Toronto Huskies 68-66 in Toronto. Leo Gottlieb led the Knicks with 14, and Stan Stutz, who still plays against the Globetrotters, went for nine. The Knicks should have quit then, in Toronto, when they were ahead. They never did as well in this country. As the NBA begins its 22nd season, only the Knicks and the Boston franchise are still around. Boston has won the title nine times; Philadelphia has won it, and St. Louis and Baltimore and Minneapolis and Syracuse and Rochester. New York is 0 for 21. If you had bet an even dollar on the Knicks to win the title that first year, and you had doubled the bet every year, you would now be $2,097,151 in the hole.
So what, you say, monkeying with those phony figures. Well, "so what" is about the attitude that the Madison Square Garden Corp.—which owns the Knicks—has taken toward the team's ineptitude over the years, while prospering from New York's love for the game. Twenty-one years the Knickerbockers have been losers, but they have kept bringing in the money. A total of 430,448 watched the Knicks play in the Garden last year, and just about every cent the 430,448 paid to get in, and for hot dogs and beer, went to the Knicks, because the NBA still has the quaint little rule that the home team gets it all. One day soon the magnificent new Garden atop Penn Station will be completed; it will hold 19,500 for the baskets and, win or lose, the Knicks will be even more of a bonanza. Last year the Knicks sold hardly 200 season tickets—not that that bothered them—but this year the figure will exceed 3,000.
New York is a pro town and a basketball town (see cover). The Rangers—also owned by the Garden—pack them in, too, but hockey draws from only one small loyal segment of the population. In New York the bar talk is basketball. The kids play it year round. Their fathers bet it. The newspapers—what is left of them—feature the Knicks more. The TV ratings for basketball beat those for hockey. And if, occasionally, there are not enough of the vocal locals to fill up the Garden, there are always the tourists, stumbling along, gaping at the tall buildings, weighted down by the vacation money in their pockets, desperate to spend it.
"Give us two downstairs in the center for Mame tonight," Short Brown Socks says to the man in the little ticket agency just off Broadway.
"Look, Mac, I can't get you into Mame till next July 16," the ticket man says. "What dya say, a basketball game instead? Got two good ones right in the side loge at the Garden. Russell and the Celts are in town." Or Wilt is there, or Baylor and West, or Oscar, or Nate Thurmond, or Gus Johnson and the Baltimores, or somebody. For 21 years the Knicks have thrived as an opponent, as they say in boxing.
Now, at last, they are coming into their own. Already they have brought within range every team in the league except Philadelphia, and they will almost surely be the most exciting team in any sport in the Big Town. Whenever Bill Bradley is separated from the Air Force for real and the new Garden is opened (late January? February? Don't know? No opinion?) the vastly improved Knicks will be a product that, by itself, should carry the whole NBA to a bright new level.
Bradley's decision to turn pro merely iced the cake, for Coach Dick McGuire's team (page 39) is brimming with exciting talent, much of it new—Cazzie Russell, coming up to his collegiate brilliance; Walt Frazier, a smaller Elgin Baylor; Phil Jackson, from Deer Lodge, Mont. with his arms and legs dangling from his shoulders like a mobile; Freddie Crawford, a bona fide Comeback Kid; Captain Willis Reed, the stolid All-Star; Dick "Fall Back Baby" Barnett, the sloe-eyed sharpshooter; Dick Van Arsdale, the strawberry blond with the who-me? innocence; Emmette Bryant, a little dervish; Walt Bellamy, the saturnine center; and Butch Komives, who averaged 15.7 points last year but will have trouble making the second team this time.
Reed, a powerful, deceptively soft-tempered man who powders a baby for Johnson & Johnson in one of their commercials, was made captain this year. "We've got so much talent," he says, "that to improve all we have to learn is to utilize each individual's special strength. That's what we've never done on the Knicks before. For instance, coming down the stretch, we've got to forget ourselves and look for Barnett. He's the best shot, so look for him. That's the way we've never learned to play before."
Reed plays the pivotal role in the history of the Knicks. At the moment he was chosen in the 1964 draft the entire fortunes of the team began to change. Before that draft the Knicks had suffered from bad judgment, bad luck and a haughty attitude that was the child of self-delusion. For a time, for instance, the Knicks operated smugly with a general manager who lived in Denver.
Reed, from Bernice, La. ("two stop lights"), had averaged 26 points at Grambling, but both the pro scouts and the Olympic committee thought Luke Jackson of Pan American the best big man available. The Knicks, for their part, felt that Bad News Barnes of Texas Western was the best, and they made him their first pick in the '64 draft. (Barnes never did live up to his promise, and the Knicks unloaded him for Bellamy.) Ironically, the team that rated Reed highest was the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that had been looking for a top center since George Mikan retired. The Lakers' late general manager, Lou Mohs, had the '64 prospects ranked carefully on a numerical scale, with Reed at the top, but Owner Bob Short ordered Mohs to pick Walt Hazzard, the local (UCLA) whiz. So Reed, amazingly, was available to the Knicks and they took him, leading off the second round. They also took Komives (in a deal) on this round, Crawford on the fourth, and Bryant on the seventh. There are only 17 players left in the league from that 1964 draft. The Knicks picked five.
They also made four good choices the next year, although one of them, Dave Stallworth, has since been retired by a heart attack. Last year the Knicks' first two choices made the league. This year Frazier and Jackson are two of the best rookies in the NBA. The Knicks now have the best and the most extensive scouting setup in the league, and the best individual scout in Red Holzman, and they are paying off. Holzman starts keeping tabs on prospects in high school and follows them through college. Jackson, for example, lost 20 pounds from his slim frame because of a blood virus last year, and many other scouts, unaware of this, wrote him off as too tired and skinny. Holzman knew better.
It hardly used to be this way. In the 11 years before the Reed draft, the Knicks made a succession of selections that defy logic, common sense, luck, credibility and, possibly, the law of averages. Even Pharaoh's Egyptians, stacked up against Jehovah, got out from under after seven years. The Knicks peaked in 1953 and 1954 with teams featuring Dick McGuire that were good enough to win the Eastern Division. But there were no able replacements, and they gradually deteriorated. Since 1953 only twice did the Knicks make intelligent first-round picks—in 1955 with Ken Sears and in 1959 with Johnny Green.
These aside, their decisions defy sympathetic understanding. Walter Dukes, drafted in '53, played one year with New-York, averaging 7.8, and then began his eccentric hegira about the league until he ran out of franchises. The next year the Knicks selected Jack Turner. You remember Jack Turner. He averaged 2.5 in his one year. In 1956 it was Ron Shavlik, who managed to play 72 minutes in the NBA. Brendan McCann was chosen in 1957 over Sam Jones. Brendan averaged 1.9. The following year the Knicks passed over such possibilities as Hal Greer, Wayne Embry and Dave Gambee in favor of Pete Brennan. Pete lasted two games.
Darrall Imhoff was picked in 1960 instead of Tom Sanders of NYU or Lee Shaffer. In 1961 Larry Siegfried, Ray Scott and Tom Meschery were available, but the Knicks took Tom Stith—Crawford's roommate at St. Bonaventure—and the poor Stith never had a chance to prove them right. His career was quickly ended by TB. The next year was a dilly. The Knicks passed over Zelmo Beaty, John Havlicek, Terry Dischinger, Chet Walker and two players from St. John's—LeRoy Ellis and Kevin Loughery—to settle on Paul Hogue. He staggered out of the league the following November. By then, in the 1963 draft, New York had chosen Art Heyman over Nate Thurmond and Gus Johnson. The team's record reached 21-69, worst in the league. The Knicks were lowest in shooting, rebounds, assists and points scored. They were a great opponent.
The ascendancy from this nadir has not been startling (New York was not even .500 last year), but it has been a steady movement since ownership accepted the revolutionary notion that the basketball men should run the show. Holzman, for instance, has long been acknowledged as a fine judge of talent, but his recommendations often were overruled in favor of a player with a name that was owed to a college publicity man. "We were grabbing anyone and going nowhere," says General Manager Eddie Donovan, a friendly, warm man with a teen-age crew cut, five kids and a home where he was born, in Elizabeth, N.J. It is Donovan, working smoothly with McGuire and Holzman, who deserves much credit for the reconstruction.
Donovan's shift from coach to general manager, in 1964, was a smart move; he simply did not have the temperament for the job. On the other hand, McGuire loves it. "When Dick was out of coaching," says his wife, Terry, "there was just no life in him. He lost all interest. I'd rather have him coaching and ulcerated than relaxed and miserable."
McGuire succeeded Harry Gallatin in November 1965. The players were delighted; McGuire is a convivial, pleasant leader. "I still have trouble getting over the fact that I just can't go out and have a beer with the players," he says. He is going to have even more difficulty containing himself on the bench this season, because a new NBA rule prohibits coaches from smoking there. "Oh my God," he says, "I guess I'll just have to chew gum." In turn, this will create not only the psychological problems of withdrawal but even greater ones of communication. Listening to McGuire talk is trial enough; trying to understand what he says while he is chewing gum will require the players to achieve a new range of audio perception. McGuire speaks in slurred bursts, interspersed with quick breaths and scattered allusions to "whatdyacallit." The bursts roll off faster and faster until, like a light appearing at the end of a tunnel, the conclusion of a thought comes forth with comparative clarity. For instance: "We should be a good running club. The trouble we have had is that, what dya call it, the middleman, the middleman on the break, we've never had a good man in the middle. So we would come down and nobody would know what to do with it and, what dya call it, someone would end up taking a thirty foot jumper. But I think this year maybe we have the middleman. It could be Bradley or what dya call it Frazier. But when Bradley comes he will have to prove that he is better than the other guys."
McGuire laughs easily and graciously at references to his elocution or lack of it. At 41 he just accepts the fact that he is an incurable mumbler. "The kids are very good about it now," he says. "They just nod." Why not? They are on their way to bringing a new pride to the Garden, a strange, fresh winter experience for New York. Pretty soon—who knows?—maybe even a what dya call it, a championship.