New York hasn't had a World Series, much less a Super Bowl, to savor for a long time—almost eight weeks. This is a deprivation that becomes evident whenever the home-town Knickerbockers are playing at Madison Square Garden. The 19,500-odd people who attend Knick games these days have taken to stomping their feet to that happy organ music and yelling, in lusty union, "Let's go Knicks," just like October all over again. But perhaps New Yorkers should be allowed their little excesses in basketball, too—after nearly a quarter of a century of shooting baskets, the Knicks right now are running exactly one world championship behind the Mets.
The idea that the Knicks might help themselves to the NBA championship this year had taken hold even before the season began, but public demonstrations to that effect reached a crescendo while the New Yorkers were brushing aside the champion Boston Celtics 113-98 recently at the Garden. The crowd was percolated mostly by a furious fourth-quarter rush during which the Knicks outscored Boston 17-5, a splurge that received its main impetus from the ball hawking and ball handling of Walt Frazier (see cover), the Knicks' spidery backcourt man, and some mayhem on the part of Center Willis Reed, who, in the space of 37 seconds hit a 15-foot jumper, blocked two shots and slammed in a reverse stuff that might have registered a tremor or two on the nearest seismograph.
By the time Coach Red Holzman mercifully removed Reed, Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley from the game—leaving goateed Dick Barnett as the only New York starter on the floor—the fans were reeling giddily, in part, no doubt, from the effects of repeatedly having to get up and sit down for all those standing ovations. With 2:59 to play and fully persuaded by the evidence at hand that they were witnessing two basketball dynasties passing each other in opposite directions, the spectators began to chant insistently, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1...."
Eagerly, if not quite accurately, the Garden's $250,000 scoreboard echoed the sentiment by flashing a message across its screen. "We're No. 9," the communication read.
December 8, 1969
What the Knicks have in common with their scoreboard is that they, too, are a machine and they, too, are capable of making an occasional mistake, which more or less accounts for the team's three-point loss Oct. 23 to the San Francisco Warriors and the defeat by erratic Detroit on Saturday. Counting those lapses, as of last weekend the Knicks had won 23 of their 25 games, including 18 in a row—the longest winning streak in NBA history. The one that gave them the record, No. 18, was a stunning 106-105 victory Friday night over the Cincinnati Royals. With the Knicks behind 105-100 and just 16 seconds to go, Reed sank a pair of foul shots to keep them alive. Then DeBusschere stole an inbounds pass at midcourt and went in for a layup. Finally, after Reed tipped another pass toward Frazier, Walt was fouled while shooting and, with two seconds left, sank both free throws to wrap it up.
Such accomplishments have stirred some people who do not ordinarily fall into the category of Knick fans—rival coaches, for example—to come forward and say that the Knicks are the best basketball team in the world, an accolade heretofore reserved for Bill Russell.
The Knicks generally have been winning both early and easy. They are beating rivals by an average point spread of 13.7 points, far ahead of the Baltimore Bullets' second-best 3.2. Their utter domination of the NBA has given them a legitimacy already that both the Jets and Mets lacked until the very end. Everybody knows that the Mets won their championship only because Gil Hodges sold his soul to the devil and that the Jets did so because Joe Namath is the devil. Well, the Knicks look like the genuine article, a team that can shoot and play racehorse, sure, but can also bring breathless excitement to all those esoteric things—picking and rolling, giving and going, moving without the ball—that one usually has to remind himself to watch for when the game is on.
The Knicks draw much of their fire from Reed and Frazier, who are rated by Coach Dick Motta of the Chicago Bulls as "the two best players in the league, the two I'd want if I were starting a new team." With Russell retired, Chamberlain injured and Alcindor still requiring a bit of seasoning before he goes out and reinvents the game of basketball as he is destined to do, Reed is the best center extant, the special meaning of which lies in the fact that there has never been a great professional team, from George Mikan's Lakers to Russell's Celtics, that did not have an outstanding pivotman.
Reed shoots exceptionally well, but so do all the Knicks right down to Trainer Danny Whelan. The thing about Willis is that he actually seems to make all the Knicks quicker, and we're talking now about somebody who goes 6'10" and 240 pounds. Like Russell, he has remarkable mobility that enables him to get the ball off the defensive board and downcourt in a hurry. And when the play becomes more deliberate, he fits smoothly into his team's hot-potato passing game. The object of all the passing the Knicks do is to spring one of those gunners—anybody will do—for an open shot, which they succeed in well enough to lead the NBA in assists, to say nothing of many other important team statistic. The man who keeps the ball moving, the one with the handsome face framed by the mossy sideburns is Frazier, a pensive 24-year-old who says in quiet wonderment, "We're playing great ball now, but you know something? We're in the process of learning to play together, just in the process."
Frazier's teammates call him Clyde, a nickname derived from his penchant for the kind of wide-brimmed hats and pinstripes Warren Beatty wore in that movie. As his team's triggerman, Clyde penetrates the opposition's perimeter with the tempo of a soft-shoe man, full of hitches and hesitations, working to win the precious half-step advantage he needs in order to unbalance the defense and force it into retreat. If somebody converges to double-team him, it only means that another Knick is already free somewhere, and Clyde may be even better than that other Frazier, the one who fights out of Philadelphia, when it comes to hitting the open man.
But it is on defense that Frazier, endowed with hands "quicker than a lizard's tongue," as a rival once described them, really excels—and that goes for the Knicks in general. When Frazier or Bradley or Barnett steals the ball and suddenly breaks into the clear, it is seldom the result of one man playing showboat or taking unnecessary risks. "Sometimes we gamble, but usually we calculate," says Holzman, whose emphasis on team defense has his players constantly prepared to help each other on guarding assignments. No aspect of a team's play more accurately reflects the coach's philosophy and ability to teach and inspire than its defense. Holzman's players try, at all times, to maintain specific positions in relation to their own teammates as well as to the men they are guarding. "It was your steal," Frazier was telling Mike Riordan, the Knicks' scrappy substitute guard, in the dressing room after the Boston game. "You should have kept going. You should have gone for it."
During the game Boston's John Havlicek, guarded by Frazier, had the ball when Riordan made a tentative move to steal it away, only to back off and return to his own man, Larry Siegfried.
"I probably could have gotten the ball," Riordan said, "but I was afraid of losing Siegfried."
"I would have picked him up," said Frazier. "I was leaning that way and I could have kept on going. It was your steal."
The Knicks wear down the other team, and they do it, above all, with their defense. "They're especially tough on the man who has the ball," says Jack Ramsay, the Philadelphia 76er coach. "They're always in a position to prevent him from making his first pass. They're aggressive, they're tough individually and they have an excellent concept of team responsibility."
The talk of toughness might have a hollow ring to it except that the Knicks are overpowering their competition with personnel that, apart from Reed, has no real size to speak of. As NBA forwards go, DeBusschere and Bradley, at 6'6" and 6'5", are both quite small. Even so, their introduction into the starting lineup last year—DeBusschere's after he came from Detroit in the Bellamy-Komives deal, and Bradley's after Cazzie Russell was sidelined with a broken ankle—certainly enhanced New York's tenacity on defense and sharpness at handling the ball. Despite their size, or possibly to compensate for it, the Knicks are playing very physical basketball, something that is often obscured by their quickness. DeBusschere, underrated throughout his NBA career, excels at establishing eminent domain under the backboards. Bradley, the gentlemanly Rhodes scholar, moves extremely well with or without the ball, not the least of the motion involving his elbows. Even the spindly Barnett, whose unorthodox left-handed jump shots make him look like a spinning top about to topple over, gets into the act with some of those clinging-vine tactics he has picked up in 10 years in the league. Personal fouls, it happens, are something else the Knicks are close to leading the league in.
If their fouling has caused a minimum of damage so far, the reason can be found on the New York bench, which time and again has given the Knicks the lift they have needed. In last Friday's game with Cincinnati the first five fell seven points behind in the first quarter before Riordan and the team's two other top substitutes—Dave Stall-worth and Cazzie Russell—combined to put New York back on the beam, hitting 19 points within four minutes. Known as the Minutemen, Riordan, Stallworth and Russell took 20 shots against Cincinnati and made 15 of them. There have been suggestions that the Minutemen may all quit and get their own NBA franchise, but they are probably far better off in their present roles. Russell is a crowd-pleasing one-man gang with the ball, but he tends to be undisciplined, especially on defense. The streak-shooting Stallworth, recovered from the heart attack that sidelined him in 1967, also needs the ball to be effective, while Riordan, who has graduated from last year's assignment as the Knicks' strategic-foul specialist, is just learning what else he can do besides startling the opposition with pell-mell drives through heavy traffic. Enter Nate Bowman, all arms and legs, who spells Reed, and the confusion may turn to chaos, yet the Minutemen score baskets, and their madcap play, in counterpoint to the cohesive style of the first five, seems to unhinge the other team. "When I block a shot or something, it's expected," says Reed, the team captain, who speaks with a quiet authority that makes his words sound as if they're coming from a mountaintop—which, in a sense, they are. "When a second-line guy like Nate does it, it's inspiring."
That the Knicks are only approaching their potential is perfectly clear to Holzman, a trim man who favors rep ties and button-down shirts, keeps his desk unburdened and likes his basketball just so. As he presides over practice at the Garden, his rubber-soled shoes easy on the floor, there is even something slightly fastidious about the way Holzman efficiently scoops up a loose ball, pivots smartly and, snapping his wrists for the desired underspin, lets fly with a hoary two-handed set shot. The ball drops through the basket 20 feet away.
"Awriiiight," squeals Stallworth, who was watching the shot.
"Dave the Rave," the coach says, almost to himself. "Dave the Rave."
A moment later Holzman assembles his players under one basket. "You're making screens like you don't know what the hell you're doing," he advises them, then starts the second team off on offense against the first. After a play or two he stops them again and addresses Bowman. "That screen's no good, Nate," he says. "You know why it's no good? It's no good because you're not in position. And you know what happens when you're not in position? You're moving when you shouldn't, and that's why you get into foul trouble."
The players run through it again, but Holzman is still not satisfied. "Watch the old man do it," he says. Bowman steps aside. As the play unfolds, Cazzie has the ball, and Holzman, playing on the same team, shuffles toward him and positions himself solidly, like a football blocking back. Cazzie drives toward the basket, and the man guarding him, Bradley, has to dance to get past Holzman, a detour—the purpose of the screen—that allows Cazzie to score. Holzman turns to Bowman. "If I were as big as you he'd really have to go some to get around me," he says, and the team runs through more screens.
Holzman, now 49, has grown up with the NBA. He played for the Rochester Royals (now Cincinnati) and coached for Ben Kerner's teams in Milwaukee and St. Louis before becoming New York's chief scout in 1958. Always regarded as an excellent teacher who could turn half-coached collegians into complete players, he only began to win acceptance as a leader of men when he took over the floundering Knicks early in the 1967-68 season. While obviously a tribute to Holzman, New York's success also helps dispel the persistent notion that the All-Americas in the NBA do not require teaching, that all a coach has to do is get them to the airport on time.
Frazier recalls some help he received at a critical period: "I was starting to doubt myself. I was wondering if I could really make it in this league. I wasn't playing much, and when I did get in I was blowing opportunities. Coming back from Philadelphia—on the bus, I think it was—Red said, 'C'mon over here, Clyde.' I sat down and he said, 'I know you're better than you're showing out there, because I scouted you in college myself.' We had a man-to-man talk, and it gave me the shot of confidence that I needed."
Then Holzman told Frazier he was slowing down the offense by dribbling too much from side to side. "Red said that if I was going to do all that dribbling I should at least head for the basket. Try to penetrate. It's a simple thing when you think about it, but it took Red to spot it and make me aware of it."
As the Knicks were continuing to reduce the rest of the NBA's Eastern Division to six teams in search of the three remaining playoff berths, Cincinnati's Cousy said, "They won't lose 15 games all year," a showing that would put them right alongside the best-ever 68-13 record of the Philadelphia 76ers three seasons back. In the playoffs, however, it is entirely possible that a squad with some muscle—Milwaukee, Baltimore, San Francisco—could defeat New York in a short series. A man of many maxims, one of which is, "Never worry about things you can't control," Holzman says about that possibility, "If we lose a game we'll go home, eat something, have a few whiskies and think it over." His no-sweat approach has its advantages. Says Frazier, "When you're out there in a tight situation and you look over at the bench and you see Red sitting there looking relaxed the way he does, it can calm you down." But let's just imagine, for the sake of starting something, that somebody important on the Knicks, say Willis Reed, gets sidelined by one of those injuries that seem to be crippling everybody else in the NBA. Holzman refuses to be led by the question. "I'm not going to worry about Willis falling into a manhole until it happens," he says. "Don't talk to me about things like that. Talk to me about disasters and I'll listen."
"What's a disaster?"
"A disaster is when you get home and you're out of Scotch."
Those New York fans may be harder to please these days than Holzman. Against the Phoenix Suns the other night Reed scored 37 points, and you actually heard moans and groans when he missed two free throws. DeBusschere hit 25 but he caused some grumbling when he allowed himself to get into foul trouble, and he was only guarding Connie Hawkins. Instead of having their usual hot shooting nights, Barnett contented himself with a dozen assists, which was a new career high, and Frazier had four steals, which wasn't. The Knicks won 128-114. But for many in the Garden this was the night that Phoenix succeeded in narrowing the gap to seven points in the fourth quarter, the night that the Minutemen missed nine shots and the night that the only Knick who played up to par—didn't make a single mistake, that is—was Bill Bradley. It was not, in sum, the kind of performance that people who pay $5, $6 and $7 for their seats have come to expect from their amazin' Knicks.
HOW THE KNICKS GOT TOGETHER
Tennessee A&I, 1959, Little All-America, 1959
First draft choice, Syracuse, 1959
Jumped to Cleveland, ABL, 1961
Jumped back to Lakers, 1962
Traded to Knicks for Bob Boozer, 1965
University of Detroit, 1962, third team All-America, 1962
First draft choice, Pistons, 1962
Pitched in White Sox chain, 1962-65
Traded to Knicks for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives, 1968
Grambling College, 1964, NAIA All-America, 1964
Second draft choice, Knicks, 1964
Princeton, 1965, All-America, 1964-65
U.S. Olympic team, 1964
Co-first draft choice, Knicks, 1965
Rhodes scholar, Oxford, 1965-67
Joined Knicks during 1967-68
Wichita State, 1965, All-America, 1965
Co-first draft choice, Knicks, 1965
Suffered heart attack, March 1967
Returned to Knicks for 1969-70 season
Wichita State, 1965
First draft choice, Cincinnati, 1965
Eastern League, 1965-66
Picked by Chicago in expansion draft, May 1966
Sold to Philadelphia, December 1966
Picked by Seattle in expansion draft, May 1967
Sold to Knicks, September 1967
Michigan, 1966, All-America, 1966
First draft choice, Knicks, 1966
Southern Illinois, 1967, Little All-America, 1967
First draft choice, Knicks, 1967
Providence College, 1967
Eastern League, 1967-68
Signed by Knicks as free agent, 1968
North Dakota, 1967, Little All-America, 1966-67
Second draft choice, Knicks, 1967
Sidelined by back ailment, 1969-70
Dayton, 1968, All-America, 1968
Second draft choice, Knicks, 1968
Ohio State, 1968, All-America, 1968
U.S. Olympic team, 1968
First draft choice, Knicks, 1968
St. John's, 1969
First draft choice, Knicks, 1969