The Old Knicks Made Basketball Games the ‘Hippest Place’ in New York

An adage cracking wise on New York’s half-century love affair with the only championship teams in the Knicks’ history goes like this: So many books, so few titles.

It wouldn’t be surprising, or unreasonable, if this literary cynicism originated in Boston, where the Celtics’ mega-dynasty of the 1950s and 1960s concluded with an 11th N.B.A. championship in 13 years — just before the Knicks turned the 1969-70 season into basketball Camelot under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

As the author of one of the more recent tomes celebrating the two-title team, I can attest that the Knicks of Coach Red Holzman, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and company own a competitive legacy that is a virtual pamphlet compared with Boston’s encyclopedic run during the Bill Russell era.

That said, within the purview of the modest N.B.A. of that time, those Knicks were an attraction and a revelation that Red Auerbach’s Celtics could never be. Big Apple baby boomers lovingly refer to them as the Old Knicks. Time mattered. Place mattered. In those still-formative days, and unlike now, having a magnificent basketball spring in the heart of New York City mattered.

Through those Knicks, most dramatically on the championship-clinching night of May 8, 1970, powerful shapers of American culture acquainted themselves with a sport still hearing echoes from wintry game-night outposts like Fort Wayne, Ind., and Rochester, N.Y. In those courtside Garden seats, where Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand and Elliott Gould and Dustin Hoffman were dutifully ensconced, savvy executives — the mad men of Madison Avenue — also discovered highly attractive athletes on the rise. Their synergy in business and friendship began to blur the lines between entertainment and sports.

“It really hit me when I realized that the movie stars were there as much to be seen as they were for the games — and that was because a basketball game was the hippest place in the whole damn city,” said George Lois, a renowned advertising executive.

In 1999, Robert Lipsyte wrote in The New York Times that Lois was “ahead of his time in sensing the edgy eroticism of the game and its potential to transcend the hardwood.” Best known for pithy commercial slogans like “I want my Maypo” and “I want my MTV,” Lois used many athletes — especially basketball players, Frazier included — for his ad campaigns and evocative Esquire magazine covers.

ImageFrazier being defended by the Lakers’ Johnny Egan in Game 7 of the 1970 finals. Frazier had 36 points and 19 assists that night.
Credit…Dave Pickoff/Associated Press

“When the biggest media town in the country gets hot for a sport, that sends a message to the rest of the country,” Lois said in a recent telephone interview.

Los Angeles had its share of Hollywood glitterati at the Great Western Forum to bond with the Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Courtside at Pistons games in Detroit could be a Motown sight to behold. But David Stern, whose run of 30 years as N.B.A. commissioner ended in 2014, always said that only the Knicks of that time were uniquely structured and situated to make a difference — though mainly in their own market.

“We’ve built up that Knicks era over the decades to be something like the Jordan phenomenon, but it was so New York,” Stern, who died on Jan. 1, told me in 2009. “What that Knicks team did create was a personality on and off the court and connected with a city in a way that professional basketball really hadn’t seen before.”

In Boston, as the dynasty rolled on and the Celtics became a prominent black team in a still-mostly white sport, they had to navigate the forbidding boundaries of a segregated city. They were often the third-most popular team there, behind baseball’s Red Sox and hockey’s Bruins.

By the Knicks’ first championship season, inside the Garden in Midtown Manhattan beat the heart of a united city otherwise divided by intra-town rivalries in baseball and football. The Knicks love affair transcended divisions of religion, race and economic class, stretching from Harlem to Wall Street, the Bronx to Staten Island, and to the most distant suburban stops on commuter lines.

If the Knicks were a mere regional phenomenon, they did provide glimpses of personalized branding to come, from the irresistibly cool Frazier alter ego named Clyde to the politician-in-training Bill Bradley to the stunning union of Frazier and Earl Monroe for the second title team in 1973 — a distant preview of the contemporary buddy-up craze.

Jerry Lucas arrived in 1971 and was soon appearing on late-night talk shows to showcase his mnemonic memory skills. Frazier became a footwear trendsetter, the first player with a shoe of his own. The Puma Clyde was a brand primarily sold in New York’s tristate area, much like the countless Knicks books written by a host of players, professional writers and even Holzman, as tight-lipped a company man as ever there was.

Credit…Associated Press

Approached a little more than a decade ago to add to the voluminous Knicks history, I could think of no reason to do so — until I stumbled upon a two-paragraph reference to an early-season confrontation between Reed and Cazzie Russell, dropped innocently into a diary of the 1969-70 season by Dave DeBusschere.

Fuming that he had been racially profiled, pulled from his car at gunpoint on his way to a team practice in Detroit, Russell proceeded to beat on white teammates until Reed intervened, asking, “What the hell are you doing?”

Be quiet, Uncle Tom,” Russell snapped at his captain, a child of the Jim Crow South, who a few years earlier had pummeled half the Lakers team on one memorable Garden night.

Outside the arena, America was roiled by racial tensions and much more. But Reed knew that an injection of such strife into the locker room could derail the season.

Two paragraphs? This sounded to me like Camelot cracking, worth a whole chapter as arguably the magical season’s pivotal moment.

Watching it all unfold was Stern, a young general counsel to the league, who understood that what the Celtics had done competitively in Boston would probably never be matched, nor would the social advancements of Auerbach’s playing five African-Americans in the 1960s and appointing Bill Russell as player-coach.

But this harmonic and racially balanced Knicks team was a near-theatrical declaration, or plea, for hope over hate. While a war-weary country was tearing itself apart — the Kent State shootings occurred on the very day Reed took an infamous fall in Game 5 of the 1970 finals — the Knicks recommitted to the cause, against fast-fraying odds.

Reed, in the midst of that confrontation in Detroit, knew the Knicks needed Cazzie Russell, an explosive bench scorer — never more so than in the fourth quarter of Game 7 in the first-round war with Monroe’s Baltimore Bullets. Without Russell’s clutch scoring, there might have been no May 8, no Reed limping heroically onto the floor with his leg numbed by drugs to stare down Chamberlain, and no 36-point, 19-assist evisceration of West and the Lakers by Frazier.

“Bill Bradley from Princeton and Willis Reed from Grambling being part of a championship team has something to teach the rest of society,” Stern said upon departing the commissioner’s office.

True, Stern had been a Knicks fan, a homer, ascribing something historic to what Boston, in particular, had already made routine. Again, time and place mattered. Two championships — and especially that first one — had brought the very best of basketball to the bright lights of Broadway, illuminating the possibility of one day electrifying the world.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top