Saturday, May 8, 2010

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

Yet another reminder of life’s brevity. It’s already been forty years since the National Basketball Association’s New York Knicks won its first ever championship. On May 8, 1970, the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 113-99, winning the best of seven series four games to three. Three years later New York repeated the accomplishment, beating LA, four games to one. They’ve had no championships since.

For the first 23 years of its existence the NBA had great teams and great players but garnered attention only from a relatively small segment of the sports minded American public. Even college basketball was much more popular. The 1969-70 New York Knicks helped to change that, sparking a surge of interest in pro basketball that continues to this day. How? Well for one, the team got off to a sensational start, winning 23 of its first 24 games, including 18 in a row, a record at the time. There was (premature) talk of the Knicks being the best team ever. Its success and celebrity were derived from its style of play – unselfishness, crisp passing, good shooting and tough defense. At their best, which that year was often, the Knicks were a joy to watch. And, of course, being a New York team, there was abundant media attention. There had been good Knick teams in the early 50s but not this good. Or this visible. Televised pro games were rare in the 50s, less so in 1969.

The teamwork part was important, but the Knicks were also composed of very talented players. Cazzie Russell – (a personal favorite of mine and my brother's), a flashy small forward, former all-American from Michigan. (Crisler arena in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines play, is known as the house that Cazzie built); Mike Riordan, a hard working defensive specialist; Dave Stallworth - a lanky, athletic forward who had rejoined the team after suffering a heart attack; Dick Barnett – a veteran shooting guard and former Laker, who had a most unique jump shooting style; Bill Bradley – a celebrated college player and Rhodes scholar, he became a vital cog in the Knick machine (and later a U.S. Senator from New Jersey); Dave DeBusschere – a tough defensive forward and rebounder who could also score; Walt (“Clyde") Frazier, a stylish (on the court and off) superstar guard who made stealing the ball an art form; And Willis Reed, the team leader and for a time, arguably the league’s best player. (A description that could have applied to Frazier as well). Individually, all of them were good. But together they were better than the sum of their parts.

Some history. The Knicks had a 22-58 record in the 1963-64 season. They drafted Reed in 1964 and gradually improved to become a championship caliber team over the next five years. Aside from the continuous upgrading of talent, two events figured prominently in propelling the team to elite status. One was the 1967 replacement of Dick McGuire as coach with Red Holzman. That year, under McGuire, the Knicks were 15-22 and headed for its ninth consecutive sub .500 season. After Holzman took over, the team went 28-17, finishing at 43-39. Holzman's insistence on tough defense and disciplined play made all the difference. In his early games as coach, before the Knicks had gotten the message, his loud, raspy voice could be heard in the background of radio broadcasts, "See the ball! See the ball!"

The other key event in the Knicks ascendancy was the December, 1968 trade which sent Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives to Detroit for DeBusschere. Bellamy, a 6'11" center, was a very good scorer and rebounder. Komives was a good jumpshooter and a decent defensive player despite his small (6'1") size. On its face, the transaction appeared, if anything, to marginally favor Detroit. But, not obvious, except to those in the know, like Holzman and GM Eddie Donovan, the trade would profoundly restructure New York's lineup for the better. With DeBusschere, it had gotten one of the two best defensive forwards in the league. (Gus Johnson of the Baltimore Bullets was the other). At 6'6", he could score from inside or outside, and he was a good rebounder, passer and ball handler. In addition, he had coached the Pistons for a time while playing with them and his teaching specialty was offense.* Much of the Knicks' offensive strategy was developed by DeBusschere. In this way he complemented Holzman's genius for defense.
As for the periferal effects of the trade, the removal of Bellamy allowed Reed to return to his natural position at center. Willis had never been comfortable with his move to forward after the Knicks had obtained Bellamy in a trade. The quality of his play had suffered as a result. Back at center, Reed became one of the league's top players. As did Frazier, who was the beneficiary of increased playing time with Komives gone.
So, to sum up the ramifications of the trade - DeBusschere was a better forward than Reed, Reed was a better center than Bellamy and Frazier was a (much) better guard than Komives. The Knicks went from good to great.
(*Aside from playing in the NBA, DeBusschere had been a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. As an inducement to concentrate on basketball, the Pistons offered him the coaching job though he was only 24 at the time).

The 1970 final series was memorable. It matched the two best teams in the league from the two biggest cities in the country. The Lakers boasted three of the greatest players who ever lived – Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West and a solid supporting cast. Some felt that West should have received the league’s MVP award which instead went to Reed.

The Knicks, after compiling the league’s best record of 60-22, barely survived the first round playoffs against the Baltimore Bullets, winning four games to three. The up and coming Milwaukee Bucks with rookie Lew Alcindor, (soon to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), were then dispatched four games to one.

In those days, Madison Square Garden sold playoff tickets in four game sets. By waiting in line on the day the second set went on sale, I (along with my brother) were lucky enough to procure two of these sets at $5 per ticket. So, for $40 we watched from the blue (cheap) seats, all three home games against the Bucks and then the first game of the Laker series, all victories. Without my brother and me in the crowd the Knicks lost the second game of the final series by two points.

Game three of the series was famous for West’s 60 foot shot at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. In the movie, “Three Men and a Baby”, the Tom Selleck character calls the shot the greatest in basketball history. Given the dramatic situation, and the shot’s distance, he had a good argument. Had the three point rule been in effect at the time, the Lakers would have won the game. But West’s shot shouldn’t have counted at all as the replay showed that Chamberlain had not stepped out of bounds before “inbounding” the ball. No matter. The Knicks won the game in overtime.

There are a couple of other interesting things to note about that sequence. Dave DeBusschere had hit a very tough eighteen footer to put the Knicks ahead by two points with three seconds to go. Instead of standing around celebrating what appeared to be the game winning shot, he raced down the court and was standing under the basket as West’s shot went in. DeBusschere collapsed to the floor in disbelief. West himself was coolly nonchalant after he made the shot. Basketball then was blessedly free of the chest thumping and trash talking infesting today’s game.

The Lakers won the fourth game, needing another overtime to do it. After four hard fought games, including two that had gone into overtime, the series was tied 2-2. Then the real drama began.

Early in Game 5 with the Knicks already down by ten points, their best player and league MVP, Willis Reed, tore a hip muscle while driving to the basket. Things went from bad to worse as the Knicks fell behind by as much as 16 points (51-35) just before the end of the first half. In the second half they staged a remarkable, scintillating comeback. Playing without Reed, New York went with a small, quick lineup – three forwards and two guards. Utilizing their trademark strengths - tight defense, superior outside shooting, and great passing and backed by a frenzied home crowd, the Knicks won going away, 107-100. Bench players Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth made critically important contributions. Bill Bradley made two crucial shots, the one that tied the game and the one that put the Knicks ahead. The Lakers were hurt by their inability to adjust to the Knicks altered style of play, its sagging defense around Chamberlain. The next day, a reporter, noting that West had previously said that his team wasn’t the smartest he’d ever played on, quipped, “they couldn’t have passed a test on Sesame Street last night.”

As Reed sat out Game 6, the Lakers regrouped on their home court and demolished the Knicks by 22 points. Chamberlain, facing minimal resistance, scored 45 points and grabbed 27 rebounds. Questionable was whether Reed would play in Game 7, whether he would be at all effective if he did, and whether it all would matter anyway if Chamberlain was going to be the same dominant force he was in Game 6.

Game 7 is famous for Reed’s delayed entrance onto the court just before game time. The team doctor was waiting as long as possible before giving him a cortisone shot in his hip. The crowd roared as Reed came out and hit his warm up shots. It went berserk as he hit his first two shots once the game began. Those were the only baskets he made, but his real value to the team was his physical presence defending against Chamberlain. By all rights, Reed’s injury should have kept him bed-ridden, but instead he was going up against the greatest scorer in NBA history (at that time).

The other Knicks played well in Game 7 – especially DeBusschere, Bradley, and Barnett, but the real star of the game was Frazier who tallied 36 points, passed for 19 assists (a playoff record at the time) and pulled down 7 rebounds. A great clutch performance. New York totally dominated as the final margin of 14 points wasn’t indicative of the lopsidedness of the game. At halftime the Knicks led by 27 points and their lead was greater than 20 points for most of the second half.

We are (at least I am) indebted to someone who calls himself WiltatKansas for uploading on You Tube literally hundreds of classic old basketball videos. (Kansas was Wilt's alma mater). Some of the videos date back to the 1940s. The entire 1970 NBA Finals Game 7 is available, albeit with the dreary ABC announcing duo of Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman. The site has highlights from Game 5 and the DeBusschere-West shot sequence in Game 3. I would really like to see uploaded the entire Game 5 and Game 7 with the Marv Albert play by play substituted for ABC’s. Albert was the long time radio voice of the Knicks before he became just another NBA TV announcer. To truly appreciate just how great Albert is, it’s necessary to hear him doing radio broadcasts.

I'll stop here for now. I could go on at book length. Which, maybe someday I will.

Here are links to just some of the many old Knicks videos available on You Tube.

The final couple of minutes of the Knicks’ 18th consecutive victory against the Cincinnati Royals, a game in which they trailed by 5 points with 16 seconds to play. At the end of the game, Willis Reed makes an uncharacteristically stupid play, taking an unnecessary shot while charging into a Royals player. Fortunately, time had run out. Reed must have lost track of the score.

1970 NBA Final Game 3 DeBusschere-West shot sequence

1970 NBA Final Game 5 Highlights (2 parts)

1970 NBA Final Complete Game 7 (In 12 parts – Part 1 link is below. Link to the others from there.)

A couple of other classic Knick games featured on You Tube.

A gem, if there ever was one - Bill Bradley’s professional debut, December 9, 1967 vs. the Pistons, a game which the Knicks lost. Played at the old Madison Square Garden at 8th Avenue and 50th Street, much of the game is shown (there are 5 parts) and it's accompanied by the Marv Albert radio broadcast. The video is fun to watch as rookies Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson get playing time. (Yes, that Phil Jackson. Jackson was technically a member of the 69-70 team but he missed the entire season with a broken foot. He's in the team picture above, number 18). A Piston star at the time, Dave Bing, is now mayor of Detroit. The principals of the big trade made the next season, are also in the game - Dave DeBusschere playing for the Pistons and Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives playing for the Knicks. Part 1 link below.

An incredible comeback. The Knicks trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by 18 points with 5:50 left in this November, 1972 game and scored the final 19 points to win. The Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson had been the 1970-71 NBA champs. The Knicks went on to win their only other championship in this, the 1972-73 season. The video picks up the game with the Knicks down by 11. The rally is led by Earl (The Pearl) Monroe, obtained in a trade for Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan the previous season. Democrats will enjoy the included brief segment on the Watergate scandal, featuring an unflattering scene of a very nervous President Nixon.

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