[The 1969-70 New York Knicks went down in NBA history as one its all-time great championship teams. A veritable sea of ink has confirmed this appraisal, then and through the 50-plus years since. There is one notable exception. It is the 1970 book Miracle on 33rd Street written by the late Phil Berger This excerpt and dark, heavy dose of realism from Berger’s book ran in the October 12, 1970 issue of New York Magazine. It reminds us all these years later that champions are only human, too.]
The collaborative magic that the world champion basketball team, the New York Knicks, showed over the course of last season suggested an uncommon togetherness among men. As in any business, though, the affinity that existed was more professional than personal. The Knicks’ season had all the bickering and backbiting that inevitably attend a team: not only were there predictable petty antagonisms, there were also racial incidents among players and running quarrels with the coach, Red Holzman. “The feeling here,” the team’s star substitute, Cazzie Russell, said during the season, “is that other than basketball, I don’t particularly care about you, and I think Red is probably the cause of some of it because that’s basically how he feels.”
Holzman’s tactical genius with the defense helped the Knicks overcome a tradition of defeat, but in contrast to his self-effacing public image, he was no prince to his players. He did not mind personalizing losses. “Like I remember when we had Walt Bellamy with us,” reserve center Nate Bowman once recalled. On road trips, Bowman said, Bellamy had his own room rather than doubling up with a teammate, the common accommodations. “Until we started losing a lot of games. Then Red told him, ‘Well, you don’t get any special privileges, because you’re not doing anything special.’ So he took the room away from him.”
Before games Red wandered about the locker room throwing scraps of tape at players and kibbitzing: “Clyde, Clyde, come on now, get ready.” He treated all-star guard Walt (Clyde) Frazier the cozy way fathers do their youngest. “Dave the Rave, Dave the Rave,” Holzman would say, and forward Dave Stallworth would smile and expose a gold star in a front tooth. “Nate, Nate sheet-it,” “Clyde,” “The Rave,” “The Cap’n,” “Nate”—there was a pattern to his pep-ups. “He has particular guys [he jives],” said forward Phil Jackson, “and it’s never with a white ballplayer. It’s always with a colored ballplayer, not that it makes any difference.” His highest-salaried player he called Bradley.
“What he doesn’t realize,” said another Knick, “is that to the blacks this is getting sickening, although they don’t say it. It’s like Red feels he’s putting something over on them.”
Blacks and whites on the Knicks went their own ways. “There are so many forces,” guard Dick Barnett said. “You have the environmental force, you have the forces of culture, you know, you got so many things. Like I want to see Sly and the Family Stone. Like, the white players aren’t hip to that. That’s not in their world, you know, they’re apart from it. They might go see Johnny Cash. I can’t dig him. There are so many things. Like, most white ballplayers don’t dance, they don’t know how to dance. In our world, they’re considered squares and maybe they’d feel inadequate in our world if they did try to hang out with us, and maybe we would feel the same. They just can’t relate. We had a couple of dances where a couple of [white] guys tried to dance. They just . . . they were out of their class, let’s put it like that. I mean, like, it’s what do you have in common except playing basketball?”
The only thing most of the blacks and whites appeared to share off-court was a simmering discontent with one another. At one point in the championship season, substitute Don May was talking about Cazzie Russell and other black teammates. “Cazzie,” said May, “seems to instigate a lot of noise and yowling and screaming on the team bus. Cazzie, he won’t be talking, he just yells, he’ll go blooo-wooo-ooo; it’s just nonsense. Willis doesn’t participate in any of this. Nor John Warren, and Clyde very rarely. The rest of the black players try to see who can laugh the loudest and the weirdest, just trying for attention apparently.”
The blacks, particularly Cazzie Russell, had their own gripes. “Like Mike Riordan, I had to straighten him out,” said Russell one day, “because sometimes in practice or a game he has missed passing to Stallworth or Bowman. Now, I had to make sure that he wasn’t doing this because they were black. See, he has turned right around and caught his white teammates, Hosket and May, on the same play. But basically, you can’t tell Mike anything, it’s as if he’s in a daze or something.”
Russell even complained about forward Bill Bradley, regarded by black Knicks as the white player most sensitive to them.
“Look, there’s just not the rapport a lot of people think there is on this team. Like why would my teammate [Bradley] get mad at me because I’m coming in for him, when he’s worked in Harlem, and knows the problem?”
“Like DeBusschere comes in for him, I detect no reaction, none whatsoever. When I come in for Bradley, he gives me this frown when he passes me and I see a muttering and all this as he goes to the bench. So I asked him about it, so he says, ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘Bill, don’t give me a long song and dance,’ I said. ‘You can continue to do it but I want you to know that I’m aware of it. With you working in Harlem, you seem to know the problem but yet still you do nothing about it. At least tell me who you’re guarding and go to the bench and don’t let me see you putting on a big front!’”
Bradley acknowledged that he and Russell had discussed the problem, but Bill thought it had been resolved. “I imagine it’s difficult for any black person . . . to be sure of a white man’s motive,” Bradley said . . . “But I can’t believe that Cazzie thinks I’m anti-black or that I don’t like him. I think you got him at a bad personal moment.”
“I’d be curious to see what would happen with team therapy,” Phil Jackson said one day. “I think athletes kind of consider themselves manly, insensitive, without personal hurts or feelings, or that their personalities are so strong they can’t be hurt. I think this is incorrect. The biggest thing would be to try and make ballplayers realize that these are sensitive humans that they’re working with. Now, there’s some ballplayers—and I don’t care what team you have— they can’t admit a wrong, and they always blame it off on somebody else. I’ve seen it on this team, ballplayers who won’t take the blame and we’ll end up arguing. This is something that is childish, naïve, and can be avoided. Like DeBusschere makes a mistake, he’s the first one to admit it: ‘I made a mistake, I’m sorry.’ And the guys really liked that. If all players are honest with one another, I think it’ll develop a unity or other ballplayers will care about somebody else.
“I can remember one of the ballplayers at practice one time was going to give four guys a ride home, and it so happened he locked his keys in the trunk. Well, you know, no one stayed around to help him, they just jumped in a car with somebody else and he had to stand out there and try to get his keys out for half an hour . . . And it seemed like the kind of thing where, you know, somebody else is using somebody else.
“Eventually maybe we can get beyond this, can get to where guys will be able to trust each other with their feelings. Now, I really like Bradley. I think he’s really a nice guy, but he doesn’t let himself really be himself. Bradley is the kind of guy, you sit down and talk to him and you ask him a question and he asks you why you asked the question, instead of answering it. Or he’ll come back at you with some rhetorical kind of stuff. ‘Why do you think I don’t open up?’ He just doesn’t like to commit himself on what he really thinks. I’m not going to go back and blackmail him if he runs for senator. But that’s the way he is, he’s just a non-revealing-type person.”
Those times Bradley tried to authenticate himself with teammates in excursions some Knickerbockers affectionately referred to as “binges,” he often came off wooden or strange. Willis Reed recalled a scene on the road: “Bradley tells Bill Hosket: ‘Be a man, be a man, pull my shirt pocket off.’
“’What?’ says Hosket.
“’Be a man, be a man, pull my shirt pocket off,’ Bradley says.” Reed grinned. “Hosket grabs Bradley’s shirt pocket and tries to pull it off . . . and he ripped the whole shirt, y’ know—like the shirt came apart right across and made a big L.”
Asked why Bradley wanted his pocket ripped off, Reed said, “You know how Bradley is . . . he’s so funny. He just does that kind of thing sometimes.”
“Anytime you see a guy in a turban at an airport,” said Hosket, “Bradley will be sitting next to him.”
Basketball, the game that Bradley termed “sensuous,” gave him a sanctioned outlet for wild blood, and so, on court, a perturbed Bradley shouted, Move the goddam ball—and worse—or, when miffed by a referee’s decision, wandered downcourt like a sulky child in the peculiar stiff-legged walk of his, muttering side-of-mouth words he never would use elsewhere.
“He does funny things on the court,” said Jackson. “One time, he was running into people, knocking people down, losing the ball. He did it about three times in a row, and Barnett said, ‘Hey, Bradley, what time is your appointment with your psychiatrist?’”
Where Bradley likes camaraderie but had no gift for it, Dick Barnett had no interest in camaraderie but a rare gift for the funny line. In his monotone Uncle Remus voice, Barnett could bring smiles with remarks on anything from Reed’s fickle regard for a lady around the training camp (“Back in New York you act like you don’t know her—out there like she was Hedy Lee-mar or something”) to an ill-fitting mackintosh of DeBusschere’s (“London Fog? That sucker cover all of London”). But Barnett attached no particular significance to his comedy. “Outwardly I’m laughing and grinning, but I still don’t have many friends,” he says. “I got a lot of acquaintances in basketball, but not too many I can talk to.” Dick’s life had been a scuffle and from the scuffle had emerged the loner’s detachment from the predicaments of others and an ironic feeling about his own. “Sportswriters can make a monster out of you or they can make crap out of you. As long as I’m rewarded financially, that’s the main thing. I’m past caring.”
“Clyde” Frazier was another loner, but his isolation did not spring so organically from experience as Barnett’s; it had a more eerie psychic source. Clyde was often content to stay in his narrow room on the 29th floor of the Hotel New Yorker and let humping soul rhythms or mere silence surround him. “Like I could stay in this room a whole day,” he said, “and I’ll never be bored.” The pleasure of being Clyde was enough for Frazier.
Frazier was an unabashed hedonist, but his satisfactions were private. “Like when I go out, I don’t like to take a chick,” he said. “I just like to go out and meet people, at random, just travel alone.” But even out socially, Clyde kept his distance. “Like I go to parties with guys, right away I’ll go sit down and I’ll survey the premises and if I don’t see nothing I like, I just fade in and get lost.”
Cazzie Russell, on the other hand, had the need not only to be seen but heard. He was always launching into an impromptu sportscast, an old habit of his. “I’d come on,” he remembered of boyhood days, “’Good afternoon, this is Cazzie Russell, we’ll be back with our program, but first let’s hear this message.’ And if it was on radio, I’d pretend that I was pouring a cold glass of Pepsi-Cola . . . cla-cla-cla . . . and guys would fall out, they would just die, you know. It would knock me out, too. This is something that I always wanted to do, be a sportscaster. Like I’d be walking down the street on my way to school, announcing a make-believe baseball game, you know, like, ‘a smash to so and so, second for one, to first for two, got it by an eyelash.’ And guys would come up, ‘Say man, watcha talking about?’ ‘I’m just recapping the game.’”
In Knickerbocker locker rooms, Cazzie remained on the airwaves. “Well, we going to be talking with Willie Reed, but first we gotta pause and we’ll be right back.” Or, to Nate Bowman: “Why are you using the word y’ know,’ when you’re telling me something? If you take your time, you don’t have to use y’ know.’ You try it sometimes, and then I’ll put you on my program.’”
As Russell gave, he sometimes got. His lifestyle made him an outcast. “All I know is that I’ve been taught to live by the Bible, and I think that the way I’ve been taught has conditioned my life. With the guys compelling me to be a loner because I didn’t drink or smoke or run with the in-crowd, I was sort of a castoff and considered a square. I’ll go out now to banquets and clinics, and I’ll talk to young people about my experiences and about what the Lord said in the Bible.”
That zeal was not exactly infectious with the Knickerbockers. “We just call him Reverend Cazzie,” said Bowman. “Y’ know, because when he first came to the team, he used to kind of preach to us about changing our ways and stuff like that,” Certain teammates thought Russell fraudulent. “He is a big showman, that’s all he is,” said one Knick. “Like he’ll talk to a reporter and he’ll pronounce every word distinctly like he’s brilliant, and then he’ll get with other guys and his language will change: he bloo-woos it again.”
Even kindred spirits who regularly abided each other sometimes lost patience through the championship season. Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman, college roommates at Wichita State, were as close as any players on the Knicks. Yet one day Stallworth said, “Sometimes Nate has a tendency to be a little overbearing. I could be in here listening to my record player over there, he’ll come in and change the record, right in the middle of the song. I’m not lying, he’ll walk right through the door, walk straight to the box and change it. I want you to notice Nate on road trips. He might stick his finger down your ear, grab you by the chin, and say, “Look at me,’ this type of thing. Overall, I think Nate is one of the greatest guys.”
Reserves Hosket and Riordan, close as they were, had their disillusioning moments, too. “Like Hos and Mike talk a lot,” said May, “and a lot of times I don’t want to talk. Mike, if he wants to say something, he’ll just interrupt you more or less. So one day he was reading a book, and I was saying something to him and he said, ‘What?’ and I repeated it, and he still didn’t hear me. I said, “What’s the matter, can’t you hear?’ he said, ‘Well, stop interrupting me while I’m reading,’ like he never interrupted me. He was reading the book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is like 8,000 pages and him missing one sentence to listen to me was really going to set him back.
That kind of ticked me off so, I guess, I’ve been leaving him alone, that’s where he gets to calling me the Phantom, he thinks I’m not really talking. It’s kind of funny, like when Hos wants to watch a TV show and Mike wants to watch a conflicting show, Mike’s always got ten reasons why they should watch his, why Hos doesn’t really want to watch the one he originally wanted to. Hos told me, he once said to Mike that he liked snow, that he thought it was pretty, and Mike right away jumped all over him and told him how messy it was and how bad it is to drive in and cold and just nasty and said, ‘You don’t like the snow, Hos, it’s terrible.”
Reed and DeBusschere both were used to responsibility. At 24, with the Detroit Pistons, DeBusschere had become the youngest NBA coach ever, and later had helped change the toxic atmosphere at New York. “I can remember,” said Hosket, “saying I’m going to talk to the coach because I was upset with Red for not putting me in at all this one game. But Dave says, ‘Hey, now listen, Hos, I’ve been at this thing a long time and I’ve never been on a championship team and I don’t want anything to mess it up.’ And I realized what the guy was trying to tell me and came to my senses. Here’s a guy, he busts his guts out there 35-40 minutes a night. Like me getting in for three minutes and scoring four points doesn’t mean very much in the long run.”
At Grambling College, Reed had been the team captain. Fred Hobdy, the coach there, remembers walking into the locker rooms with Grambling losing and finding Reed giving the halftime pep talk Hobdy had intended. As captain of the Knickerbockers, Reed was the liaison between coach and team, a position that put him on stickier grounds as the season progressed.
Through October in November, the Knicks ran up a record-breaking winning streak and as Bowman said, “Everything is groovy as long as you’re winning.” But when the Knicks began to lose more regularly in December, Holzman became querulous with his players. “Yeah,” said Frazier, “I’ve had run-ins with him . . . Bradley has . . . Willis too. Like he was telling me this one game in Chicago about getting up on defense, you know, and I thought the other guys weren’t really helping me out . . . So it got to a point where I told him, ‘Fine me or something or even take me out if I’m not doing what you want. It’s like I get tired of you always calling me [out], like I’m always screwing up the defense.’ Well, he got heated too, told me to shut up, stuff like that.”
That was only part of the trouble that arose in Chicago on December 19, the unexpurgated version of which was related by another player: “Bill [Bradley] and Dick [Barnett] got confused as to whether they were going to stay with their men or switch on this one play that Chicago was running for Bob Love. So Love hits three straight field goals, and Red yanks Bill and gives him some stuff about his defense. Bill wheeled on him, said ‘bullshit,’ and sat down on the bench. Then Red spent the whole time-out screaming at Bradley, saying I don’t give a blank who you are, and I don’t care how smart you are—all these things he’d never mentioned, you know. It just came to the top and he couldn’t keep his cool.
“And in the fourth quarter in the same ball game, Clyde got yelled at about three times. Now Clyde is a lot like Cazzie in this respect, he doesn’t take coaching too well; they both read the paper a lot about how good they are and they don’t want to hear criticism. Anyway, it was a simple thing about Clyde’s man drifting out to the corner and Clyde not covering him. So Red got on him, and Clyde kind of popped off and made an excuse the first time-out. And then went back on the floor and there were like 2 minutes left in the game, we’re 15 up and it happened again. So Red called a timeout and goy after Clyde again.
“I saw Clyde eye the bench right as he came in for the timeout, as if he thought, ‘What the hell, he’s called timeout just to holler at me about this, what is this?’ And Clyde came over, and that’s what happened. Red exploded at him. Clyde yelled back and Red said to shut up and Clyde said, ‘Go ahead and fine me if you want.’ I think we won the ball game by 10 or so points [108-99] and I was walking down to the dressing room and I said to Barnett, ‘I think we better get some earplugs.’ We all had a feeling that something was due to bust out. So Barnett said, ‘You think this is the night, huh?’
“So we got into the locker room and I was hoping that Red would either discuss it calmly or talk to the two of them alone. But it was so obvious what was going to happen that we beat Red to the locker room, and Nate starts clapping his hands, ‘Hell of a win, hell of a win,’ So we all picked it up right away, although it was a bad victory, a game that we should have won by 35. We were doing it just kind of to pimp [unnerve] Red when he came in trying to say that we’re together on this thing.
“Red came in and said, ‘All right, we won the ball game but everybody just sit down.’ Then he pointed a finger at Walt and he started hollering, ‘Clyde, the reason you’re screwing up is because nobody can talk to you anymore.’ He said we were getting cocky and uncoachable.
“True, Bill shouldn’t have said ‘bullshit’ and Clyde should have kept his mouth shut, but at the same time Red’s attitude toward the thing was, he’s not going to give the ballplayer an inch, you know. Then he wheeled around and said, ‘The same goes for you, Bradley,’ and he pointed to one of the other guys; Bradley was a few stalls over. And the other guy just looked at Red like, what the hell? And then Red had to kind of get his balance and go on. ‘Not you,’ he said. ‘You,’ and he pointed at Bill.
“It was coming to a head, it didn’t surprise me. We’d had the streak, and we were kind of cocky and somebody had to knock us down a little bit. But the way he knocked us down, it was the kind of things he said that made it like it was more personal with him. I think he thought he was losing control of the team, that the guys were just playing basketball and then getting all this publicity and kind of leaving him out, like he was the unknown thing.’”
For Knick coach and players, it was an irreversible event; the charade between them was blown “Like two nights later,” said another player, “Red tried to come back with the old stuff. Clyde, you’re my main man, and throw a piece of tape at him. Then Red went into the other room, and Clyde just shook his head like who is this goofy (bleep) trying to fool?’”
“Once something like Chicago happens,” said a Knick, “I think deep in the guys’ minds, they realize it’ll never be the same. I know I’ll never feel the same about the man.” The Knicks tailed off to a 10-8 record following the winning streak, and dissension grew. During a disturbing road trip in January, even Reed and Holzman got into it. The captaincy didn’t privilege Reed. Holzman once remarked to him during the year, “I get the first and last words—and all the words between.”
Against San Diego on that trip, getting the last word cost the coach Reed’s services in the second half. As Frazier recalled, “Willis had stomach trouble and Red asked didn’t Willis feel like playing and Willis said, ‘Yeah.’ Then Red asked why he didn’t get back on defense. ‘Well,’ Willis said, ‘if that’s the way you feel, then I don’t feel like playing.’”
Theories abounded as to why the team was losing and who were the culprits, each Knickerbocker casting aspersions on another. “You get tired of hearing it all the time,” said May. “Hos and I don’t go in the games, but Mike gets in and he’ll start criticizing when he comes out—and everybody on the bench does it when they come out. Bradley, DeBusschere, other guys. Of course, they’re always pulling for the team to win, but there’s so much criticism, maybe I just can’t understand why it is and that kind of irks me a bit. It just makes me feel insecure.”
In Detroit toward the end of that January road trip, Russell and May struck up fighting stances at a team practice. When Reed told Russell to save his anger for games, Cazzie exploded, and called Reed an Uncle Tom. Reed advised his fellows that if he heard any more of that kind of talk, Uncle was gonna whup some ass.
Three days later, at the midpoint of the season, the road trip ended in Boston. There was a return to normalcy—an almost brotherly love—through the second half of the season. This ode largely to a providential schedule and the medial ligament in Bill Bradley’s left ankle. The easy schedule helped New York win nine straight games and regain its sanity. What the torn ligament in Bradley’s ankle did was to increase the playing time—and prolong the spiritual welfare—of Russell and Stallworth as well as, not coincidentally, the team. The aural sensitivities among Knickerbockers found a decline in locker-room decibels.
Only Holzman didn’t let up. “There’s something in psychology called parallel play” said a player. “You can see it in little kids in a sandbox, the way they’re both talking about different things at the same time and not listening to each other. That’s the feeling I get when I talk to Red.”
DeBusschere had designed many of the team’s plays on offense, but since the Chicago incident, Red had stopped taking advice from him. “It’s bugging Dave,” one of the players said in February. “Dave says, ‘I can’t talk to that man anymore.’ It’s just got to a point where Red thinks some of his authority is slipping.”
The Knicks continued winning, finished the regular season with the best record in the league and moved into the playoff championships. Holzman continued to resist the sporting pages’ romance with footwork that would have dazzled a choreographer; he let it be known that his idea of a fit reward would be to find his name in the crossword puzzle of the Sunday New York Times and conferred with the paper’s basketball reporter, Tom Rogers, to see if he could accomplish it. But around the team, coexistence between players and coach was touchier than ever.
But then Reed was injured in the fifth game of the championship finals against Los Angeles, and the season was on a new basis. When Bradley proposed a 1-3-1 college offense to compensate for Reed’s absence, and it worked an amazing upset, there was no quibbling about the credits. Fortunately for the Knicks, Reed came back for the seventh and final game against the Lakers, producing one of the more inspiring moments in NBA history. And when it was over, when the Knicks were world champions, players stood around the locker room, slightly numb. Then the whoops and yells began. The brandished fists. Posed ecstasy for photographers. Showers of beer and champagne.
Later, as the locker room emptied of press and well-wishers, Willis Reed struggled at his locker to lift his leg and get his trousers on. Seeing him, Cazzie Russell wordlessly moved over and helped. Minutes later, in another corner of the room, DeBusschere, Riordan, and May huddled and, faces lit with conspiratorial smiles, whispered and nodded to each other. Seizing bottles of champagne, they stalked into the coach’s office and doused Red Holzman with the bubbly.