The Knicks—Pro Basketball’s Next Dynasty

[Yesterday, the blog looked back at those “amazing” New York Knicks and their historic 1969-70 championship season. The blog took an unusual route down memory lane by running an old magazine article that dove into the team’s so-called “dark side” and the interpersonal ups and downs of 12 alpha-male athletes and their increasingly edgy coach. The article came from a young, bearded freelance journalist named Phil Berger, who had the guts (and audacity) to humanize a team that had been roundly lionized and later mythologized in the New York press.

Here, we transition to lionized, though with some good, old-fashioned New York cynicism sprinkled in between the lines. This article comes from Lenny Lewin, then the ultimate Knicks insider. Lewin, who started at the New York Daily Mirror in 1937, had covered the Knicks since their maiden 1946-47 season featuring guys named Hertzberg and Gottlieb. He literally had seen and heard it all in the old Madison Square Garden and now entertained hopeful visions of a modern Knicks dynasty christening their new multi-million-dollar home arena. Lewin will only briefly hop aboard Berger’s psychological train of 1960s thought about race and team building. The touchy-feely stuff isn’t Lewin’s strength. He’s a go-to guy for his institutional knowledge on all-things Knicks and the NBA. Be advised, though, Lewin’s not looking for trouble or audacity. He’s on a first-name basis with everyone in the Knicks front office and, in the early 1970s, would tag-team with Red Holzman to publish a book titled The Knicks and later Holzman’s Basketball: Winning Strategy and Tactics. In the 1990s, the two would team up again to publish My Unforgettable Season.

But in late 1969, when Lewin wrote this piece, the New York Knicks weren’t officially amazing. Neither were they NBA champions just yet. But Manhattan had begun to buzz about Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Barnett, and Frazier as a five-headed singular noun that was destined for something big. If you were around back then and out shopping for a turkey at Thanksgiving, your local grocery store or newsstand may have carried a basketball magazine called Basketball Stars of 1970, featuring rookie Lew Alcindor on the cover. Lewin’s article appeared on page 10, and, more than a half century later, it remains a gem.] 

Eddie Donovan

This was before the 1968-69 season opener and everyone was talking about the Knicks and how they were going to tear the NBA apart. “I can’t wait for the season to start to see how we make out,” wryly observed Dick Barnett, the old man at the squad at 32. 

Now here it is another season and they’re saying the same things and even more. “The Knicks are the team,” said Boston’s Sam Jones as he prepared to put his uniform away for the last time. Sam, now a college coach in Washington, D.C., had just struggled past New York in the Eastern Division playoff final and was looking to the future. 

Maybe Jones knew at the time that Bill Russell, his player-coach, was retiring with him and would be making the Knicks’ job that much easier. Truthfully, Sam had seen New York developing over the last few years and had watched the rebuilding process and had often said it was just a matter of time before the Knicks put it all together. 

It also had started rather unceremoniously one night back in 1965 in St. Louis, of all places. Ben Kerner, decided to release Harry Gallatin as his coach and replace him with Richie Guerin. Back in New York, the shock waves made Ned Irish jump. 

Ned called in Eddie Donovan, his coach. He called in Fred Podesta, his right arm. Irish had a brilliant idea. The Knicks were staggering , as usual, and Donovan was worrying himself sick on the bench. Why not hire Gallatin as coach and move Donovan into the front office?

Irish, who suggested the move, thought it was sensational and the perfect answer to a nagging problem involving Knick coaches and playoff failures. Ned, a Gallatin fan, liked the job Harry had done in St. Louis. 

So Gallatin was named the Knicks’ coach and Donovan went upstairs, all while the season was in progress: It would be nice to say New York improved and went on to make the playoffs for a change, but that didn’t happen. Only San Francisco, crippled by injuries and also moved to trade Wilt Chamberlain to Philadelphia at the All-Star break, finished with a worse record than the 1964-65 Knicks.

Gallatin, unfortunately, was not the savior Irish had figured he would be. But a strange thing happened and Ned was to benefit in a manner he had never contemplated. Donovan was to make his boss look like a genius in the next few years—his stroke of luck far beyond the comprehension of Ned and the people who run the Madison Square Garden conglomerate. 

Irish transferred drafting authority to Donovan, and that was the turning point for the Knicks. Ned decided to stop influencing the picks after the 1963-64 season. There is no need to discuss what had gone on in the past and wonder whatever became of Ralph Polson and Paul Hogue.

Whatever mistakes were made in the past, Irish atoned for them by indicating to Donovan that he and Red Holzman, the chief scout, would have everything to say in the 1964-65 draft. Mark that day down as the start of the Knicks’ climb back to NBA brilliance. Mark that draft down as the beginning of a series of selections that saw none wasted.    

In 1964-65, it was Bad News Barnes, Willis Reed, Butch Komives, and Emmette Bryant. The next year, it was Bill Bradley, Dave Stallworth, and Dick Van Arsdale. Then Cazzie Russell, then Walt Frazier, Phil Jackson, and Mike Riordan, then Bill Hosket and Don May. So, in effect, of last year’s team, which got off to a 6-13 start and finished off with 48-15, only Dave DeBusschere, Nate Bowman, and Barnett didn’t come from the draft. 

Needless to say, Donovan, with the help of Holzman, had done a remarkable job of stocking the Knicks with fine, young ballplayers. Eddie also made some other bright moves that aroused the admiration of Red Auerbach, a pretty shrewd operator in his own right. “I think Donovan has done one of the finest rebuilding jobs I’ve ever seen,” acknowledged the man who built the Boston Celtics’ dynasty. 

It could be that Donovan has laid the groundwork for a dynasty in New York. You can say all you want to about the great material the Knicks have, and how it is easy to win with that kind of talent, but the fact remains it would not have been there if not for Donovan. Outside the draft, he spent many hours building the necessary bridges with other teams that enabled him to trade for Walt Bellamy and DeBusschere and Barnett when he needed them. 

Donovan’s first big swap was Bob Boozer for Barnett prior to the 1965-66 season. Ed now had a cool shooting hand to help the backcourt. He soon realized the team needed a big man desperately, so he wrapped up a package of Barnes, Johnny Green, and Johnny Egan for Baltimore and got Bellamy. 

Big Bells, though never giving the Knicks the title they were seeking, nevertheless did his job well enough to improve the team. In the meantime, Donovan, having handed the coaching job to Dick McGuire as a replacement for Gallatin, faced another crisis soon after the 1967-68 season began. The team got off to a bad start and McGuire’s job was complicated even more with the arrival of Bradley, the messiah who was going to save the Knicks and was rumored to have walked across the Atlantic Ocean from Oxford to help get the job done. 

Bill Bradley (center) poses after signing his rookie contract. Madison Square Garden’s Irving Felt (left) and Knick president Ned Irish (right) join in the festivities.

A lot was expected of the Knicks before Bradley, and a miracle was expected after he showed up two years late. He came at a time when McGuire was struggling with the players he had. Dollar Bill, after a kickoff at a huge press conference in New York, stepped into an impossible situation for him and McGuire. The poor coach hardly could sit Bradley when so many people had paid to see him play and so much money had been paid by the Garden to have him play. 

No college player, even Wilt Chamberlain, had ever come into the league with so much publicity and such a load. In order to handle the excitement created by Bradley, the Knicks arranged for press conferences in every city the first time around the league for him. Bill fielded that problem like a pro, but basketball was another matter.

The only big splash made was when a girl driver knocked him down with a sports car while he was strolling to the Garden one rainy night. By the time Bradley came back, he had a new coach—Red Holzman. The team scout had switched jobs with McGuire, and it now was Red’s responsibility to take the fine talent that he and Donovan had gathered and turn it into a cohesive force in the NBA.

“If McGuire had been tough on them, I guess I would have been easy,” says Holzman. “And if he had been easy, I guess I would have had to be tough.” McGuire confessed that he had been too easy, so Red came on tough. Not mean tough but forceful and determined to work the Knicks hard and help them get the most out of their ability as a team. 

Thus, on his first day on the job, Holzman got lucky when Bellamy, Bradley, Komives, and Van Arsdale misunderstood the start of practice and were fined for reporting late. Red was able to convey the message very quickly that everything would be treated seriously and with importance. “Christmas will fall on the Fourth of July,” he told the players. It was his cute way of saying there were going to be no off days between games; only hard work. 

Holzman went back to fundamentals on offense and mainly defense. He worked hours and days and weeks and months on team defense. “To tell you the truth,” said Dick McGuire, watching the transformation that defense influenced, “I never really believed in defense that much. I was an offense guy. Now I can see it.”

So did everyone else. The Knicks came on swiftly under Holzman and might have created a big rumble in the 1967-68 playoffs if Frazier had not gotten hurt. Walt injured a tendon in his foot in the third game against the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Knicks finally succumbed, 4-2. They left such an indelible impression that many considered New York the team to beat when the 1968-69 season started. 

The Knicks had fundamentally the same, young team that had matured under Holzman’s patient, intelligent touch the year before. Everyone was talking about their defense, even the coach, who modestly credited Eddie Donovan for the successful philosophy. “Eddie’s one of the finest basketball minds in the game,” Red acknowledged, “and I don’t mind telling you I learned a lot from him.”

Learning is one thing, application is another. Holzman has that rare quality that separates the good ones from the routine—the ability to communicate. He not only knows what to tell his players but also gets them to listen and understand. He managed this only after a studied effort to establish mutual respect. 

Red, for example, criticized Reed unmercifully in the early days. The team captain was generally the target when Holzman screamed: “Don’t turn your head  . . . get back . . . pick up your man.” The Knick coach knew Willis had the temperament to handle the abuse while the other players learned the biggest and the smallest [players] would get the same treatment. 

Then there was Nate Bowman, a discard by some teams who had been picked up by Donovan for the $1,000 waiver price. Holzman gave the 6-10 relief man for Reed the star treatment on the road by allowing him to have a single room while the others doubled up. Red worked with Bradley and talked patiently with him but refused to baby him. 

Red Holzman

The pieces began falling into place after the Knicks had lost 13 of their first 19 last year. Progress had been slow because Frazier, unsure about his foot, had not come around quickly; Bellamy had been late reporting to camp; Van Arsdale and Bryant had been lost to Phoenix through expansion; Barnett was off to his worst start ever; and Bradley still was confused, though he had moved to forward. 

Things really clicked when Donovan, who spends more time on the telephone than most women, pulled another of his shrewd deals and obtained Dave DeBusschere. The Knicks had an 18-17 record that Dec. 20 night when Bellamy and Komives switched into Detroit uniforms. With Big Dave receiving standing ovations from his former fans, the Pistons were bombed, 135-87, and the Knicks were on their way to impressing everyone that they were a startling team.

What other team could survive the loss of Cazzie Russell and Phil Jackson for half a season? What other team could shake up a league with the use of mainly five players—Bradley, Reed, Barnett, DeBusschere, and Frazier? What other team could win 36 of 47 games after the DeBusschere trade with a bench of Bowman, Riordan, May, and Hosket, and he [Reed] with a tricky knee heavily taped at the expense of his mobility?

Holzman was the catalyst and guiding hand with his ability to get everyone involved. Even Riordan took his job of giving fouls seriously. The attitude was a winning one, and the rest was relatively easy—except that Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Barnett, and Frazier had to play 40 minutes or more of every game. 

Bradley once vomited three times in a game out in San Diego, yet put out for 37 minutes and had 11 assists and nine rebounds. Dollar Bill had no time to worry. The more he played, the more he relaxed and the more he contributed. DeBusschere, his roommate, helped and soon had the Ivy League Kid drinking beer in the dressing room and stashing cans in his team bag like the other players. 

DeBusschere also helped off the boards and on defense, which is where the Knicks excelled. Reed, turned loose at center, his natural position, was a devastating force under both boards. Willis and DeBusschere were the heart of the team defense, which was to hold opponents under 100 points more times than anyone. Barnett, suspected of possibly being finished early in the season, came on to have one of his finest years and open some eyes as to his all-around ability. 

“People think of him as a scorer and they’re making a mistake,” said Holzman. “He’s got one of the sharpest basketball minds in the game. He can read what’s going on quicker than anyone.” Barnett responded with some outstanding team defense and worked beautifully with Frazier in jamming the ballhandlers. 

Frazier, of course, was in a class by himself, stealing the ball and pressuring the ballhandler. “I don’t rate but one player over him,” Reed said about Walt, “and that’s Oscar Robertson. There’s no guard in the NBA I’d rather play with than Walt.” Clyde, as his teammates call him (Bonnie and Clyde, that is), holds the destiny of the team in his quick hands. 

Walt is the young man who brings the ball down and forces the defense to yield an open man. He is the young man who disturbs the rival offense and applies the pressure that often leads to him stealing the ball or forcing a pass that can be picked off by a teammate. He makes the Knicks go on attack and on defense. 

This is a young Knick team that stands out in a rugged division that includes Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, and Milwaukee with Lew Alcindor.

Behind Barnett, there is DeBusschere, next oldest at 29, Reed 27, Bradley 26, Russell 25, and Frazier and Jackson 24 each. They have a lot going for them besides youth. 

There is fine teamwork in the front office among Donovan, Holzman, and McGuire, all tuned in to each other. There is fine teamwork on the floor, which gained momentum coming down the stretch last season when there was no depth. Add Russell, Jackson, and, hopefully, Dave Stallworth, trying a comeback after a heart attack two years ago and you have the basis for something big. 

The NBA has known only two dynasties. Minneapolis ruled the early days with George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard, and Slater Martin. Then came the Boston Celtics and their fabulous run of 11 league titles in 13 years once Bill Russell joined the team.

Are the Knicks next? Could be. 

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