When the Knicks Were the Best Team in Town
Only the Knicks Can Make Us Respectable Now
by Joe Flaherty and Ross Wetzsteon
After years of false pregnancies, the New York sporting crowd may at last father a legitimate champion. For a long time now, our sporting offspring have been a disappointment to us -- indeed, some have proved themselves ungrateful bastards.
The Dodgers deserted to the square, sunny clime of Southern California, and the Giants dropped out in San Francisco. The Yankees raise as much passion as Nixon's cabinet, and the football Giants under Allie Sherman, the gridiron's Robert McNamara, still talk but do not wage the best warfare in town. The Jets' championship was a surprise, even a shock -- a sleazy one-night stand, conceived in Miami, produced the AFL bastard we consistently and disdainfully ignored but are belatedly trying to adopt since he turned out to be a bouncing beauty. So it is now up to the Knicks to restore our respectability.
At the first home playoff game against the Baltimore Bullets on Saturday afternoon in the pastel reaches of Madison Square Garden, the capacity crowd was asked to stand in silent tribute to General Eisenhower. But Knick fans, held back for too many noiseless years, could contain themselves for only a 12-second "minute of silence," after which they erupted into hysterical cheers at the introduction of the players, frenetic screaming for the tap-off, and wild, minute-long standing ovations for the easiest lay-ups.
After a mediocre first quarter (Willis Reed didn't grab hi first rebound until several minutes into the second period), the Knicks began to pull slowly away at a steady AT&T pace of about a point a quarter. Then they surged and opened up the margin of victory by defensively incorporating a "West Side Story" choreography of rumbling body contact and ball stealing. Changing tempo of offense, they employed the classical dancer's agility which seems to have become the province of professional basketball, with leaps and pirouettes and floating, graceful, astronautic, in-flight twists and counter-twists that would have brought a thin smile to the lips of Nijinsky himself.
The difference between the two teams was apparent: the Bullets favor a monarchy (Earl "the Pearl" Monroe), while the Knicks opt for a cohesive democracy. Monroe's problem is that he seems to think he is the heir apparent to Oscar Robertson. A little humility on Monroe's part might prove invaluable to his team. While there is no denying his many talents (a keen eye, an aggressive playing style, dribbling as if his hands were made of alum), Monroe's deficiency is that, unlike Robertson, he doesn't know when he is dealing a cold hand. The Monroe doctrine is a simple one: when Earl has the ball, Earl shoots; or, as they used to say in the schoolyards, "He'd throw his mother at the basket if she bounced."
A look at the composite box score for the four-game Bullet series highlights some imitation pearl in Earl. He and Knick center Willis Reed were high scorers for the series, each netting 113 points. It took Monroe 114 attempts from the floor to score 44 field goals, while Reed hit on 45 of 88 attempts, giving Monroe a field goal percentage of 38 against Reed's 51.
But perhaps a match-up between a guard and a center is unfair, so one should look at the performance of Monroe's counterpart on the Knicks, Walt Frazier. Over the four-game series, Frazier scored 82 points, 32 for 57 from the floor or about 52 per cent, cleared 27 rebounds, and was credited with an astonishing 51 assists. (Kevin Loughery of the Bullets was runner-up in this department at a distant 21.) Monroe got 21 rebounds and 16 assists. So it might be fair to suggest that if anyone is going to fill the circle of the "Big O" as the complete ballplayer, it will be New York's own Walt Frazier.
The fourth and final game on Wednesday night was the best sporting event that has taken place in New York in memory, both because of the Knicks' fans and the nature of the sport itself. Basketball still is the most democratic of all sports -- it belongs to the streets and the poor. To be good at it, one doesn't need the array of equipment and structures that are so necessary to baseball and football. The only essentials are a hoop, a ball, a pair of sneakers, and another kid who can go "one on one" with you.
And it was these kids that made the evening so beautiful. There were the Jewish kids from the yeshivas and Erasmus Hall, the reedy blacks with jaunty skies topping their natural hair styles from Boys High, and the Irish from the Rockaways, the white canvas of their faces speckled with freckles and pugnacious noses that hint of tough substance, if not respectability. Their young voices were devoid of the boredom one encounters at so many New York sporting events. They not only lustily booed the enemy Bullets, but also the electronic scoreboard when it mistakenly tabulated a point in Baltimore's favor.
But for the first three minutes and 55 seconds, they had little to cheer about. The Knicks were tight and ineffective. Frazier, their great field technician, was inexplicably rattled, throwing bad passes and handling the ball like a novice. But then it happened. Reed scored and was fouled in the process, and the Knicks registered their first points. The kids exploded. And from then on, the whole story was Reed.
Indeed, it was like a morality play. The great black giant battling a coordinated army of five. He rebounded with awesome strength, spread his 6'10" bulk defensively across the key like a radar system, and scored from everywhere on the floor with unstoppable accuracy. At the end of the half, it was the Lilliputians 51, Gulliver 50.
The hip kids in the balconies were confident their giant was going to get help sooner or later, and the night would be theirs. Dick Barnett, whose jump shot is as convoluted and as tortured as a Faulkner sentence, started to hit from his favorite spot on the side. Dave DeBusschere, the best swap this city's made since we bilked the Indians, began clearing the boards and sinking driving lay-ups on sheer strength, if not finesse. Bill Bradley, a boarding house gentleman to the end, waited his turn and politely handled what was left. And Frazier, whose shooting remained off, found his court magic and wove a gossamer web of passes.
With 9.20 left in the final quarter, the kids shouted their disrespect for solemn burials, vibrating the Garden rafters with shouts of "We're Number-one." But the "extras" that occured in the closing seconds were what really made the evening beautiful.
With 14 seconds left on the clock, the Knicks were leading 113-108. A win to be sure, but not enough to cover the favored Knicks' 6 1/2-point spread for the bettors, though hope was still high in the hustler's hearts, since the Knicks had two foul shots coming. And who was to shoot for their money but Bill Bradley, via Princeton and Oxford, with his Republican belief in modest superiority and his corporate conviction of the ungentlemanliness of heroism. As the ball twice whispered through the net, drinkers applauded the humanization of Bill Bradley.
As the final buzzer sounded, there was Frazier, their court magician, rightfully dribbling out the clock. And there was Reed himself with 43 points, outplaying Wes Unseld, who had been named the league's MVP over Reed. And there was the Garden announcer asking for a nice hand for the Bullets, the same Bullets who might have cost the Knicks second place by playing their subs against the Philadelphia 76ers. The kids responded with a lovely "fuck you and your parlor manners," booing the Bullets off the court.
But the biggest "extra" was seeing the kids from Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, and Rockaway, filing out of the good seats they were able to obtain only by standing on lines for nine hours on those fine legs they developed playing "one on one" one concrete courts, and for the first time in memory beating out the businessmen with their varicose veins for a top ticket in New York. That was the best of all.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]