At last the NBA gave us that long-awaited confrontation between a picture and a thousand words. The picture was Lew Alcindor, thrust above the court (see cover), indelibly majestic. The thousand words were the New York Knicks, darlings of the national media, the all-purpose shield with which the nation's book publishing business is planning to protect itself against economic depression. Authors shadow the Knicks like groupies. The team, the scene, the coach and several of the players all will soon be between covers. At least five biographers stand panting in line for the chance to do Willis Reed.
It was, above all, a boon to the nation's mental health that the Knicks beat Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks four games to one to take their first Eastern Division title in 16 years, for if the entire literate population of America is obliged to read all these books about defeat in the next few months, that will surely set us back farther than the Tet offensive. The Knicks, love them or leave them.
Reed, done with muscling against Wes Unseld of Baltimore and reaching against Alcindor, now must face an older adversary. "Wilt," he mused, when that faced him at last. "Gee, I haven't seen him in a long time."
Chamberlain and the Lakers, finding themselves just in time against Phoenix, swept the last three in that series and four straight against Atlanta. The Hawks suddenly lost it all midway in the first game—when they were 16 ahead—and L.A. went on to make the finals for the seventh time in the last nine years.
New York moved into the championship bracket by winning at home Monday night. The series was, essentially, clinched the day before when the Knicks won in Milwaukee behind some nearly unbelievable outside shooting. They made 17 of 31 long shots in the first half, faltered when Milwaukee made an exciting run in the third quarter and then came back in the last period to hit on 10 out of 15 outside attempts.
Milwaukee, an abject failure in this department throughout the series, was never worse than in this game. Basketball is supposed to be a jump-shot game; it took the Bucks 19 minutes before they made anything longer than an Alcindor hook shot. Don't let anyone tell you there is no room today for a good little man in the pro league. After this series Calvin Murphy could have demanded Green Bay as a bonus.
The series opened in Madison Square Garden surrounded by the frenzy that always attends the Knicks now, so that the Ringling Brothers circus rigging that hung suspended above the court seemed in character. (The circus was playing the Garden between basketball games.) The Persian market air outside the building is fading, however, to the dismay of scalpers, who have had to unload tickets below cost at times recently. The Garden's cable TV arrangement is one factor. As in the old days, when guys started showing up at TV bars at 4 in the afternoon on Tuesdays to get a seat for Uncle Miltie, saloons with cable television are filling up well in advance of the games.
Also, in a city where the blood of Ratso Rizzo, from Midnight Cowboy, courses in every survivor, the straights are learning how to beat the scalpers at their own hustle. Like Civil War draftees, fans are hiring substitutes to stand in the long ticket lines for them. To obtain their tickets four Knick buffs—two lawyers, a furniture broker and a sometime playwright—called up an extra-help employment agency. The four stand-ins they hired come high in New York—around four bucks an hour—so the total waiting-in-line bill came to just over $100, $25 a fan. Since each customer is allowed two seats for the four home games in a Knick playoff series, at $12.50 tops, that adds up to $100, plus the $25 for the guy who stands in line. These fans make that easy (and a profit, too, if they want it) by unloading one or more of their eight seats for a $25 charge. That often takes only one phone call—to any stiff on an expense account. The next time seats for a Knick playoff go on sale, the only people in line may be scalpers and the friendly men from Manpower, Inc.
Buck fans have not attained such levels of sophistication. Milwaukee Arena is about half the size of the Garden, a polka beer hall by comparison, and the fans are loud and neighborly. They are not unruly or boisterous, but rah-rah—the type, who, if they were automobiles, would all be wearing STP stickers.
With this rabid support in both cities, it was no surprise that the series began with the home teams coming through. The opener was an easy win for New York, and if the results that followed were not always similar, certain patterns quickly became clear. Walt Frazier, concentrating on defense and play-making, checkmated Flynn Robinson. Robinson had made the All-Star team this year, was the second-leading scorer on the Bucks at 22 points per game and was the best outside threat the Bucks had to take the pressure off Alcindor. But Frazier managed to force Robinson down the right side. "He likes to spin back to the middle," Frazier said, "but he has trouble dribbling to his left." Robinson went scoreless from the floor in the first half of the opener. He sat out the last 18 minutes of the close second game that New York won 112-111, and after that he dropped clear out of the starting lineup. This was a logical move rather than one born of desperation, because Robinson had preceded the Knicks series with a spotty performance against Philadelphia. Besides, his replacement, Fred Crawford, is a longtime New York summer playground teammate of Alcindor's and works well with him. "All New Yorkers play together," Crawford says, smiling for a change. On the court he wears a perpetual look of dismay, as if he is trying to remember where he misplaced something.
It was a courageous shift by Milwaukee Coach Larry Costello, nevertheless, and historically rare. With Crawford in the game even more of the Bucks' offensive burden fell upon Alcindor, because Crawford does not have Robinson's long-range accuracy. However, the action did not turn on a simple duel of Reed vs. Alcindor, although certain members of the New York press put out so much David and Goliath stuff that reprints of I Samuel 17 in the press room would have been more valuable than statistical summaries. There is still a disposition to deny Alcindor his due. It is only occasionally malicious; mostly it is just a yearning to believe that he cannot possibly be so overpowering. To some he destroys the well-ordered faith in this carefully constructed game. It is simply not right, they seem to be saying, that this one man—a rookie at that—can often render powerless Willis Reed, the league's MVP, and his entire, magnificent New York basketball machine. But it is so.
The real duel was Knicks vs. Alcindor. Reed, as superb a player as he is, was only the front line. The whole New York team was able to help out on Alcindor, because Robinson was not the only scapegoat. Of all the Bucks only Bob Dandridge—occasionally—hit from outside. In the first game Milwaukee was stale and immobile as well. Alcindor foolishly persisted in trying to dribble the ball, and literally all five Knicks would swoop down on him. He made 35, his teammates 67, the Knicks 110.
By contrast, the second game was a strongly competitive affair, the Knicks winning mostly because Alcindor missed two free throws with 52 seconds left. And the young Bucks unaccountably allowed the Knicks to hold on to the ball for the last 22 seconds without making a serious effort to foul to get it back.
The Knicks bombed gloriously from outside. Inside, Reed was a master, every bit as effective with the ball as his bigger rival. A powerful man, with a build that belies his quickness, Reed varied his moves every time he came down the court. "As a freshman he was a great mental ballplayer," said his Grambling College coach, Fred Hobdy, after the game. "He had that and the shot then, and now he has learned how to adjust." Reed has developed a shot against Alcindor that seems to clear the tall man's fingertips each time by the exact same impossible amount, perhaps the breadth of a shadow.
On defense Reed was tireless at working to block Alcindor out, to negate him in any way so that the Knick advantages at all other positions would pay off. "Willis is as tough as he is smart," said Hobdy. "I used to turn discipline on the team over to him. He won the NAIA national title when he was a freshman center. He believes in being tough. He'd hit people when they came down the middle." Forcing Alcindor away from the hoop with his body, Reed opened the way in the first game for Dave DeBusschere to sneak in from the side and take down 16 rebounds. Then, in the close second game, Frazier crashed down the lane from the top of the key to pick off 12. Frazier was helped further in this regard by the fact that the Bucks had to depend on one of their fast forwards—Dandridge or Greg Smith—to guard him, and thus their usual rebounding alignment was out of whack.
This is merely one of the many things Frazier accomplished that were out of the ordinary. His presence on defense caused all sorts of other subtle accommodations, even though, at the behest of Coach Red Holzman, several weeks ago he stopped concentrating on gambling to steal the ball. "His defense is still there," Reed says. "They've all seen it. Now they have to worry just as much about his reputation." This was, of course, the same telling psychological advantage that Bill Russell once enjoyed. In working to shut off the pesky Robinson and set up the Knick offense, Frazier necessarily took much of his game out of the scoring column. Even more was removed by the relentless guarding of Smith or Dandridge—who, Frazier says, "plays me as well as anyone"—but Frazier also found he was conning himself into shooting less. "It's all in the philosophy," he said. "I do think I've passed up shots. I've been trying to figure it out myself." By the third game he was down to trying only seven shots, which was especially low since he had effectively rid himself of having to worry about Robinson and also because the teammates he was feeding suddenly went cold. The other outside starters, DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett, went nine for 32.
The Bucks won by only 101-96, but they coasted home with a big early lead. Crawford took it to Alcindor from the opening tap, and, perhaps even more important, at last the big man got some outside offensive help. It came from Dandridge, who shot 10 for 15, and it showed how just one single alternative Buck scoring threat could change the drift of the series. "I don't mind Dandridge being as active as that," said DeBusschere, who guards him. "I don't mind myself, but then I can't help Willis out."
To illustrate this point Alcindor got 31 rebounds, while all the Knicks managed 42. He never grabbed that many before in an NBA game, nor did he in three years at UCLA. By the third game the lines were drawn: not even Alcindor could beat such a finely tuned team as the Knicks by himself.
If there was one single pivotal shot in the series, it came with five minutes left in the third period of the fourth game. The Bucks had come back from being 20 down at the half and were within a basket at 69-67. For once the Knicks appeared to be in disarray. Milwaukee even had a chance to tie, but Robinson forced a bad shot off a drive. New York rushed downcourt, Cazzie Russell sprinting down the left side. At the baseline he cut right. Frazier hit him with a pass and Cazzie tossed it in without a moment's doubt or hesitation. Characteristically, he slapped his hands together, and, he said later, only one thought had crossed his mind: "That's what you're supposed to do." Within seconds and with virtually the same moves, Russell did it again. This time Alcindor had spotted him, but arrived an instant too late. Milwaukee never caught up; the final score was 117-105.
The Western semifinal series was an entirely different affair, Los Angeles taking Atlanta rather easily. If the Lakers were a bit more lovable they might awaken all the motherly affection of American sports fans, just as the Mets did last year. Twice this season, and against the odds, the team has refused to play dead. First there was the regeneration after the loss of Wilt Chamberlain and a chain reaction of injuries to other players. Then, only a fortnight ago, the Lakers were down three games to one to Phoenix in the quarterfinal series. Seven straight victories later they were ready to play for the NBA title.
Against Atlanta, Wilt seemed to recover full confidence in his newly repaired knee. He rebounded effectively, made second and third efforts to block shots and powered his way to the basket on offense. Undoubtedly, the Hawks felt the loss of Walt Hazzard when the series moved to Los Angeles—he broke a bone in his wrist—but by then they had already lost twice, at home. The Lakers were no longer patsies before the Atlanta fast break because of Wilt's rebounding and a more alert defense, and in a deliberate game they were the better team.