Appropriately for a season that began in the Year of the Child, 1979-80 was preordained as the Year of the Rookie in the NBA—the season in which the league would place its future in the hands of babes, namely, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But while Johnson and Bird were the subject of a lot of youth-movement hype, it was one of their contemporaries, 22-year-old Bill Cartwright of the Knicks, who quietly provided the ultimate proof that the kids weren't kidding by playing the game's toughest position every night—and playing it well enough to become an All-Star. Along the way he clearly established that he belongs right up there with Bird and Johnson at the head of the freshman class.
Cartwright leads the league's rookies—and most of its veterans—in scoring (22.4 points a game, 11th in the league), field-goal shooting (.545, eighth) and minutes played (2,730, second). To find comparable first-year stats for a center, one has to look back to the days when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor. In 1969-70 Alcindor scored 28.8, shot .518% and was named Rookie of the Year. In just about any other season Cartwright would have gotten that award, too, but in a year featuring Bird and Johnson—whose performances on the floor have more than measured up to expectations—Cartwright may have to settle for No. 3, which is fine with the Knicks. Aided by a horde of other good newcomers and the emergence of second-year Guard Michael Ray Richardson, Cartwright has led a New York renaissance. The Knicks, the league's second-youngest club, are a fairly good bet to make the playoffs this season and seem to have the makings of a team that could be strong for years to come.
The core of that club, Cartwright, should be known as the Music Man. In his apartment in Guttenberg, N.J., a huge stereo forever plays the old Detroit sound: James Brown, the Shirelles, the Platters. On trips, he sits plugged into a gigantic cassette deck, quietly humming everything from jazz to disco, Sly Stone to the Beatles. His favorites are the vocalists of the '50s and the '60s—the Supremes, The Coasters, Sam Cooke—who are not often heard on the stereos of Cartwright's generation. But he is a connoisseur of sorts. "This music's really the roots of what's heard today," he says. "The singers now are all imitators." Cartwright once even took up the guitar, but when calluses began to form on the tips of the fingers of his strumming hand, he quit. It also happened to be his shooting hand.
When Cartwright tires of the music, there's chess, which he taught himself while on road trips with the University of San Francisco. His teammates can rarely challenge him on this board, so he relies on opposition from a computerized game. "Most of the guys think backgammon is such a great game," he says. "But as long as you have to roll the dice, then you're less a part of it. Chess is still one on one. You're thinking three and four moves ahead and considering all the possibilities. If a guy beats me one time, I'll challenge him to do it again. He won't beat me twice."
In the past few years, when Cartwright was being scouted for the pros, reports came back saying that he was "a very nice person." Right away coaches wondered: Can he take the pounding and still get off a shot in the foul lane? Can he set a pick on a gigantic forward who only wants him out of the way? Even during contract negotiations, Cartwright's agent, Bob Woolf, says Knick management was concerned whether their first draft pick would be a rah-rah guy. Cartwright wound up getting a five-year contract worth $1.2 million, and he immediately became a starter when last season's regular center, Marvin Webster, failed to recover from a knee injury. Now Webster is back, and, as a result of Cartwright's success, is expendable, if the right trade opportunity comes along for the Knicks.
"Bill plays like a gentleman, but not a nice guy," says Knick Assistant Coach Hal Fischer. Forward Toby Knight found that out right away. During the Knicks' first preseason scrimmage, he tried to get by a Cartwright screen, but, he says, "I ran into his fist." San Diego Center Swen Nater, the league's second-leading re-bounder, has found out, too. When asked if Cartwright left any impression on him, he answered, "Yeah, all up and down my back."
Cartwright is quiet, almost unemotional about his staggering task of challenging the NBA's best big men. "You have to learn to read him," says teammate Mike Glenn. "When he's happy, there isn't much to see, but when he's mad because he didn't do his job, you can definitely see it in his eyes."
When his job is done, Cartwright's silence—in a locker room filled with accusations and excuses on a bad night and laughter on a good one—is deafening. He chooses each word carefully, so when he speaks, people listen. "Basketball is a thinking man's game," he says. "Every player in this league is good. If he wasn't he wouldn't be here. But to be better, you've got to plan, anticipate and execute. And you've got to be ready to learn."
An attitude like this, especially among the swelled heads of the NBA, reaps respect, something Cartwright has commanded since, as a 6'9" lOth-grader, he put Elk Grove, Calif. (12 miles south of Sacramento) on the map by discovering he could shoot. Dan Risley, his high school coach, says, "Lord, could he! He'd just throw that sucker up and it'd go in." Success also put Cartwright on the map, which isn't exactly what he wanted.
Elk Grove (pop. 3,721) is less than 10% black, and Cartwright suddenly found himself coming under pressure from his peers to be one of the leaders of the black groups that had formed in his school in the aftermath of the '60s. But he wouldn't hear of it. "I'd never belonged to groups," he says. "I was just Bill Cartwright, not black, white or whatever. I just wanted to be myself and make the most out of that."
His independent streak was inbred, inherited from James and Marie Cartwright, who met in California after James left South Texas in the 1950s seeking farm work, eventually finding that work in Elk Grove, where their closest neighbor was more than 10 miles away. Except for his six sisters, with whom he shared a room, Cartwright had few friends. Then in junior high he met Sheri Johnson. By Cartwright's standards, her parents were "big people." Sheri's father was the vice-principal of the high school, while Mrs. Johnson taught third grade. Heads turned when Bill and Sheri began spending time together, not because Cartwright is tall but because Sheri is white. Nonetheless, they dated through high school, were married last May and are expecting their first child soon. Looking back, they didn't see themselves as unusual or as crusaders. "We had very little trouble," Sheri says. "At least people didn't say much to our faces. I guess if we hadn't been 'somebody,' things might have been a little bit different."
There's no doubt that Cartwright was somebody. Junior high baseball pitchers well over six feet usually are. Ah, baseball, his first sports love. Even today he can't resist bragging about his prowess. "Oh, they always began by saying, 'He's big, put him on first,' " Cartwright says. "But when I got to pitch, yeah, that's when the fun started. Nobody ever got more than one good hit off me, 'cause if someone did, next time I'd brush him back, get two strikes, then throw him the curve and sit down. After that he'd know better."
As a senior Cartwright was a full seven-footer who took five career and single-season state and northern California records with him from Elk Grove as he contemplated what would have been a premature jump to the the pros. He knew the NBA was a risk, and so did the pros. Jack McMahon, the Philadelphia 76ers' director of player personnel, scouted Cartwright and another high school phenom, Darryl Dawkins, that year. "They were from similar backgrounds and were the offense of their teams, but Cartwright had a lot of baby fat on him," says McMahon. "We wanted to choose a kid who could help us immediately." Dawkins became Philly's first-round pick and eventually the 76ers' starting center.
So Cartwright went down the road to USF as a member of the most heralded bunch of freshman recruits in the country. Oklahoma's Player of the Year, Winford Boynes (now with the Nets), Long Beach, Calif. star James Hardy (now with Utah) and Cartwright had USF fans drooling as they anticipated a return to the glories of 1955 and 1956, when Bill Russell and K. C. Jones took the Dons to two consecutive NCAA championships. While at USF, Cartwright majored in sociology, which, he says, allowed him to study how people coped with their surroundings. "Country folks have their problems for sure," says country boy Cartwright. "Like their tendency toward complacency when they have big problems. City people, on the other hand, are too competitive. They're uptight and sometimes blinded by their competitiveness. Yeah, I'll take that country life."
These are strange words coming from the man who will have a lot to say about the future success of the league's most important franchise, based in the nation's largest city. Deep inside, Cartwright admits he's highly competitive. Which is why he stood fast when the too-many-stars syndrome hit USF in his junior season. At the end of that season, Coach Bob Gaillard quit. And Hardy and Boynes went hardship, leaving only Cartwright and the national titles that never were. Yet when USF retired his No. 24 last spring—putting it alongside Russell's six and Jones' four—Cartwright was the Dons' alltime leading scorer.
As was the case at USF, Cartwright is surrounded by capable scorers on the Knicks. In fact, for most of the season New York has been the NBA's second-most explosive club. Though Cart-wright's critics charge that his rebounding isn't as good as it might be—his board work ranks ninth among NBA centers—his proficiency as a shooter is prompting opponents to double-team him, at the expense of taking the pressure off other New York players.
"I've never had to worry about scoring. I do what we have to do to win," Cartwright says. "If that means getting the ball to the open man, then that's what I try to do first. Everyone out there can score. But if I have to shoot, then I do it." Perhaps much better than Knick management dared hope and Knick opponents expected. His turnaround jumper is quick, smooth and, most of the time, on target. Billy Paultz, then a San Antonio Spur, sat stunned in a postgame locker room after being ripped for 27 points by Cartwright earlier this season. "He doesn't have that many great offensive moves," Paultz said, "but he sure knows how to use the ones he has."
As Cartwright uses those moves more effectively, the Knicks usually win. But when he doesn't make the moves, New York goes right down the tubes. In short, he has become The Franchise. Maybe even more so than his prestigious classmates, Bird and Johnson, each of whom has turned out to be exactly what his respective team needed to make it championship caliber. But when Johnson missed three games early in the season with a sprained knee and two later on with a groin injury, the Lakers still won, though just barely. Bird, a much more important factor to the Celtics, has played in every Boston game and made key plays in most of those. With him, Boston could win it all. Without him, they're merely good. Without Cartwright, the Knicks aren't even that. New York's Coach Red Holzman says, "The things people criticize when they talk about Bill's game are things they oughtn't worry about. He's done everything we've asked him to do."
He even lost weight last summer, which has always been difficult for him. Fischer was assigned the duty of trimming the 265-pound Cartwright down to a sleek 250. First, there was a five-mile run in the morning. Then weightlifting to build up his relatively small upper body. Shooting and wind sprints in the afternoon. Cartwright got down to 240, but baby fat is baby fat. You don't lose it, you outgrow it. And it doesn't necessarily reflect conditioning—especially after averaging 39 minutes in 70 NBA games.
"He's already played his freshman and sophomore seasons for us. Now he's going into his junior year," says Butch Beard, a Knick assistant coach. "There's no way he's out of shape."
During the off-season, Cartwright, Sheri and Justin William (if it's a boy) or Samantha (if it's a girl) will return to California, where Cartwright will once again be on the run. This time, with basketball clinics and a little tennis. "But only after I rest a while," he says. No doubt Cartwright still remembers last summer's sprints. "After eight times up and down the court, Hal Would begin throwing me the ball at the end of each sprint. After 10 more, I couldn't catch it, couldn't run and couldn't breathe," he says.
Maybe so. But he sure has put new breath into the Knicks.