Big men the Knicks got, but a team they ain't

Dec. 12, 1977
Dec. 12, 1977

Table of Contents
Dec. 12, 1977

The Other Hand
Ohio State
Old Comrades
College Basketball
Pro Football
Pro Basketball
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Big men the Knicks got, but a team they ain't

Beloved New York superhero Willis Reed was lured out of retirement by the idea that he could inspire his old club to play the way he did. It has not been easy

As if we haven't had it up to here with team disunity in this still young NBA season—what with Dave Cowens threatening to eat the next Celtic who refuses to dive for a loose ball, and Coaches Gene Shue and Bob Hopkins getting the boot in Philadelphia and Seattle—now we are hearing cries of agony and shrieks of insanity from—where else?—New York City.

This is an article from the Dec. 12, 1977 issue Original Layout

Last week the Knickerbockers were picking up the act, parlaying their potential for unmatched torrents of offense and junior high school defense into the latest hot property for a Mel Brooks comedy. They opened the week with an 18-point home win over Houston, lost by 17 to the same team in Texas the next night, followed that with a 120-116 loss at San Antonio and then returned to the supposedly friendly confines of Madison Square Garden on Saturday to put on a show of total ineptitude, losing 115-108 to the baby Milwaukee Bucks. By the end of the week the Knicks were 11-11, feuding and fussing, and their new coach, the 35-year-old former Knick superhero Willis Reed, was totally frustrated. As to where the Knicks were headed, Forward Spencer Haywood said, "You'll be coming to visit us all in Bellevue if this stuff continues."

That "this stuff" probably will continue should not be surprising to anyone who has followed the Knicks through the past two seasons of discontent. The team really has been preparing for its current dismal act ever since the end of the 1974 season, when Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas retired, leaving New York titillated by two NBA championships in four years and hungry for more.

So what did G & W do for the Knicks? Easy. Made 'em what they are today, which is a team thrown together put of panic, without regard for the basketball verities.

Consider the Knicks' offensive potential. It is downright awesome. No other team has five starters whose best-season records can match the aggregate of the Knicks. Earl Monroe, the herky-jerky, ever-so-classy guard, averaged 25.8 when he starred for Baltimore in 1968-69. Bob McAdoo, three times the NBA scoring leader in his five previous seasons, hit a high of 34.5 in 1974-75 with Buffalo. Haywood, once Seattle's only star, was an All-Star scoring 29.2 in 1972-73. Lonnie Shelton, the blazing-quick second-year man, is currently scoring 14.0, and even Jim Cleamons, the gritty playmaker and defensive guard, averaged 12.2 in 1975-76 with Cleveland. Throw in reserves Jim McMillian (18.9), Butch Beard (15.4) and Phil Jackson (11.1) and an extraordinary trio of rookies—Guard Ray Williams and Forwards Glen Gondrezick and Toby Knight—and you have the kind of team that looked so promising when it swamped Washington the second night of the season 141-115.

But, alas, today's Knick team is a two-headed monster. On one hand, you have Haywood and McAdoo, two players who through all of their pro lives have had to do little more than shoot and block shots, and who more truly represent G & W's desperate desire to keep the Garden's seats filled than any sort of patient and intelligent formula for developing a championship team. After watching these two try to play together last season, it did not take long for Red Holzman, one of the game's great coaches, to decide to take up his pipe and slippers and retire to his wife's cooking.

On the other hand, here is Reed, drawn out of a peaceful three years' retirement of hunting and fishing, because he was led to believe that he could mold the team to fit his own concepts. Reed could do only so much. He scoured the colleges for players to fill specific needs on the club and came up with an excellent draft. Williams has started eight games and made Walt Frazier expendable. Knight and Gondrezick have each had game-winning performances. But Gulf & Western is on Reed's back, and the coach is forced to try to make it both ways: win now, and develop for the future.

"Sure," says Reed, twirling strands of once jet-black hair now showing gray at the ends, "this is a lot different from the days when the Knickerbockers were a good team." Reed always says "Knickerbockers." Never "Knicks." "We just have to have patience. Bobby McAdoo has changed his game. Some nights he does everything we ask of him. But he is not a big center. I'm not sure people don't think that he is. They see he is 6'10", a big scorer and rebounder. But, no, he is no center."

But he is the Knicks' best scorer, so it is Haywood who has been given the task of adjusting his game toward defense and rebounding. In the road loss at Houston last week, Haywood constantly looked over his shoulder, sensing that his every mistake—and there were many that night—was being dissected on the spot by Reed. Having missed 51 games with leg injuries last season, Haywood came to training camp convinced that he would be the power forward, the perfect team player of his dreams. He worked out all during the summer, and posted a list of "17 rules" over his locker in the Garden, beginning with the simplest of fundamentals: box out, rebound, play pressure defense, make the transitions, etc., etc. and ending with CONCENTRATE, CONCENTRATE.

Arriving in San Antonio after the breakdown in Houston, Reed gathered the team immediately for a 3½-hour practice. He spent a full hour talking about things like boxing out, playing pressure defense, making the transition from offense to defense and back to offense. He was obviously singling out certain offenders, something that Red Holzman rarely did. One was Haywood.

Haywood spoke up. "Now, Willis, man, specifically now. What is it that you want us to do?"

Reed sensed a breakthrough. "O.K., Spence. Box out. Go to the boards. Play pressure defense. Make the transition."

"But, Willis," said Haywood. "I mean specifically."

Later Haywood said, "Sometimes I think we get carried away with this 'box out' stuff." McAdoo said, "Sometimes I think Willis wants us to play like robots."

That night Reed pitched camp in the hotel bar, talking basketball, searching for answers with anyone who sat down, including, through six hours, two groups of reporters, his closest friend, broadcaster Cal Ramsey, Assistant Coach Dick McGuire and Forward Phil Jackson, the lone remaining Knick from what Jackson wistfully calls "the old days," when the Knicks won their first championship.

Some of the optimists encouraged Reed, telling him that with the talent the Knicks have the big men will learn to do what he wants them to do. Reed was beginning to wonder. "I don't care what anybody says," he said. "No team can win in the NBA today without a big center. Now you add a guy like Bill Walton and you have a different club right off the bat. Man, now becomes to play, and he enjoys every minute of it. What I have are quarterhorses trying to run a thoroughbred's pace."

"The hardest thing for Willis," says Jackson, "is that all he can do now is verbalize. He used to lead by example, he would go out there and give 100% and that would be enough. He is still giving his 100%, but it's verbal and it's not getting through and it is eating him up."

Around 11 o'clock, Williams and Knight breezed through the bar and whisked Reed off to a Mexican restaurant. Reed is close to his rookies. They are, in a very real way, his children, the keys to Reed's and the Knicks' future. Over dinner, the coach continued to talk basketball until he nodded off midway through a plate of frijoles.

The next night the Knicks fumbled and fouled away a 120-116 game to the Spurs, making two unforgivable mistakes in the last two minutes. With the team down by four, McAdoo, who was double-teamed, took a low-percentage 25-foot jumper that missed and then failed to go after a loose ball that rolled by his feet.

The flight back to New York was a trip in every sense of the word. Reed pored through basketball literature. Monroe perused the script of a movie entitled The Fuzz and (he Fence in which he had been offered a role. "Got to find me a new line of work," he said. "I figure I'm only good in the game for seven more years. Quit when I'm 40. I think I like The Fence." Hurtling around the plane, changing seats every 10 minutes or so and making barnyard noises was Williams, who is called by his teammates "Crazy Eddie" after the "in-sane" stereo dealer who pitches on New York television. Williams was calm that night compared to his performance on the earlier flight to Houston, which had been a turbulent one, with lightning flashing all around the jet. And there was Haywood, wired into his cassette machine, listening to John Coltrane jazz, passing notes to his teammates written on cocktail napkins, saying that he would not talk to anyone for the rest of December.

After the loss to Milwaukee back at the Garden, in which the Knicks had 40 turnovers and reached their season's nadir, going down by 17 points in the third quarter and hearing boos all night, Monroe allowed that everything was really fouled up. Haywood, reacting to a reporter who was studying his "17 rules" and obviously having changed his mind about talking, said with a laugh, "That stuff doesn't mean anything anymore."

Frustration showed all over Reed's face as he told a questioner, "Hey, what goes on inside my team is off limits." He later huddled behind closed doors with Knicks President Michael Burke, Gulf & Western's man at the Garden. You could almost feel the heat. Reed wants his center. Gulf & Western wants its winner. Even if it has to buy up the entire NBA to get it.

TWO PHOTOSIn the heat of a losing game, Reed glowers on the sidelines, Haywood rides the bench and McAdoo does what he does best—go for the ball.