Three Days in the Life of Walt Frazier, 1971

[The blog is back from the days-long grip of a technical difficulty. Let’s get things rolling again with an article on Walt Frazier that’s been in the queue for a while. It’s from the prolific New York Times reporter Sam Goldpaper writing about “Clyde” at the start of the 1971-72 season. As you’ll read, Goldaper thinks most highly of Frazier and that makes the article mildly saccharine in places. But Goldaper knows his stuff. As a Times’ reporter, Goldaper also had easy access to all the players, and that makes whatever he wrote worth a read. This read appeared in Complete Sports’ Winter 1971 Pro Basketball Special Edition. Frazier is on the cover.]


Midnight flights in seats too small for basketball players, fried chicken at 2 o’clock in the morning, one hotel room is like any other, three games in three days, and a grueling 82-game regular season. That’s what a pro basketball player’s life is all about from September through April. 

With all that, it’s difficult to believe that Walt Frazier, who took the long road from the Atlanta schoolyards to pro basketball’s Mr. Defense, could vividly recall three days better than any of the others. 

The big days included: making a decision whether to sign with the Knicks; the champagne “bath” after the 1969-70 championship; and the sadness he felt after New York’s elimination from the playoffs last season. 

The Knicks had made Frazier their No. 1 draft choice after he led Southern Illinois, a college division team, to the NIT title scoring 88 points, grabbing 52 rebounds, and contributing 19 assists in the four games. He was named tourney MVP. “I figured that year I’d be selected by Seattle,” said Walt, rubbing his neatly trimmed beard. “I didn’t like the idea too much. I don’t go for rain, and in Seattle, man, it’s like they have a leaky faucet. 

“When somebody ran in and said I had been drafted by the Knicks, my first reaction was, ‘What do they want me for? They’ve got five guards already.‘ My first thought was that they would use me as trade bait. When I found out that teams couldn’t trade their first-round draft choices until a year later, I felt that much better now that I look back at it. New York would have been the only city that I would have given up getting a college degree. It’s the place to be to earn fame and big money.”

The New York Knicks. Born 1946. Struggled 23 years. World champions 1970. That sounded and tasted almost as good as the champagne and the emotion that followed the Knicks, 113-99 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers to win their first NBA title in history, four games to three. 

The Knicks zipped around like inspired children in that title clincher. They harassed the Lakers on defense, getting 10 steals in the first half, four by Frazier. They hit on 58 percent of their shots in the first half, with Walt scoring 23 of his 36 points, while the Knicks built up a 69-42 halftime lead. 

“Top of the world” was Frazier’s first comment that Friday night, May 8, in a Knick dressing room where bedlam reigned. Next, he said, “I need a beer.” 

New York was ready to buy him an entire brewery after his performance. Frazier was 13-for-17 from the floor, a perfect 12-for-12 from the free-throw line, seven rebounds, 19 assists, and five of his team’s 15 steals. 

If nothing else, just watching his performance was worth the price of admission. In the Knicks’ vintage year, Frazier’s third pro season, Walt emerged as the chief sniper in the famous New York defense and the quarterback of the offense. Because of his ability to steal the ball, the ultra-fashionable clothes he wore, and the popularity of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, his teammates gave him the nickname Clyde. Actually, it was pinned on him by Danny Whelan, who triples as the team trainer, traveling secretary, and ambassador of good will for the Knicks.

But a more-revealing designation that circulated through the basketball world was that Walt was the closest thing to Oscar Robertson. Frazier likes nothing better than to be compared with Oscar Robertson. He often recalls the first meeting with the Big O. 

“Ever since you are a little kid, you hear about Oscar,” Frazier said. “You look forward to play against him.” That time came for Clyde on December 19, 1967. He played him head-to-head, not giving an inch. He moved with Robertson this way and that, often flicking the ball out of Oscar’s hands and throwing Robertson’s shooting line off. 

Stan Isaacs, in his Newsday sports column, conducted a poll among NBA players. He was speculating on the possibility of making up a football team comprised of pro basketball players and each player was asked which position he would like to play. 

“Quarterback,” Frazier said, but he was told that the quarterback position was reserved for Robertson and that he had been slotted for cornerback.

“All right,” Clyde said, “I’ll play cornerback, but can we have tryouts for quarterback first?”

Because his hands are never out of the game, Frazier has become the most-exciting player in the game. He brings a crowd to its feet. Dribbling and driving, dancing and defending, passing and penetrating, Frazier is the equal of any guard in the NBA. Stealing the ball, he has no equal. He has the fastest hands in the East . . . or in the West. 

Larry Merchant, in a New York Post column titled, “High Priest,” once made this appraisal of Frazier: “When Walt makes a move to the basket, hits a jump shot, dribbles behind his back, penetrates and passes to the open man, steals the ball and starts a fast break, knifes in to grab a rebound, ties his shoelaces, or scratches his pork-chop sideburns, Madison Square Garden becomes a tent of long-suffering believers.”

Walt was the top vote-getter for the second successive year on the NBA’s All-Defensive team, the year the Knicks won the championship. In addition, he averaged 20.9 points a game and had a norm of better than eight assists.

Last season, the Knicks were supposed to win the championship again, but they didn’t. Injuries slowed down Willis Reed, Cazzie Russell never recovered his shooting touch after breaking his wrist, the pressing defense that had set off the Knicks excitement was gone, and finally the impressive bench strength was less impressive. In the broadest terms, the Knicks could not maintain the inspired togetherness of that championship season. 

The official end for the next came last April 19 when Baltimore beat them, 93-91, in the Eastern Division final. The night Frazier calls his saddest. He sat in a hushed dressing room, his head bowed and a towel on his shoulders. “I’ve got a bad feeling,” he said. “I feel like crying, but there is nothing to cry for. I just wish it wasn’t over so soon.” He looked up and there were tears in the eyes of this young man who is so flip at times. 

Before the start of the 1971-72 season, Clyde drove up to training camp in a Cadillac. He came five days earlier then the veterans were supposed to report because, “I wanted to find out what kind of shape I’m in.” It didn’t take the classy guard long to find out that a summer of loafing and working various boys camps, had left him five pounds overweight (205 pounds) and in need of conditioning. 

He worked nicely with Dean Meminger, the Knicks’ top draft choice, and sweated through a scrimmage. During a rest period, as he marveled over the size of some of the rookies in camp, Clyde spoke about the Knicks this season. 

“If the captain is all right, it looks very good for us,” he said. “We can do it all.”

Clyde’s reference was to the operation Willis Reed underwent for tendonitis above his left knee after the season. “The addition of Jerry Lucas gives us a strong rebounder and a backup center for Willis. I think that if we had had a guy like him last season, we could have gotten into the finals against Milwaukee. 

“We were never a great rebounding team because we are not very big in the frontcourt. Do you realize that I was the club’s third-leading rebounder last season? Now, it’s going to be beautiful having a guy like Lucas around. He is big and strong and one of the great forwards of the game. He can play the big strong forwards, and Bill Bradley, the quicker forwards. And, then of course, Lucas can also back up ‘The Captain’ at center.”

Frazier said the Knicks also had good help in the backcourt with the signing of Meminger. “I played against that kid Meminger just for a few minutes,” said Frazier, “and I tell you, he’s going to be good. He looks small and skinny, but he’s a strong kid, very strong. Most important, he plays good defense, and that’s the big thing, defense. If you can do that, the offense will come. 

“Meminger is much the same type of college player that I was. At Southern Illinois, Coach Hartman stressed defense, and . . .  we played a slow-down offense. I brought the ball up real slowly. We worked it around until we got a good shot. My favorite spot was at the head of the key. 

“All that changed when I came to the Knicks. You have to bring the ball up quickly, and you still try to work for a good shot but you have to keep the 24-second clock in mind.  Take a look at the rookie camp we had before the start of the season. You had to feel you were in the land of the giants. I remember the previous Knick camps, they were always guard-oriented and hardly ever any big men. Oh, those big guys, they clog up the middle. With the Knicks, I found myself working from the corners and off to the side of the key more. This way, if I can’t get my shot away, I still have a chance to drive without going down the middle with all that congestion. 

“I remember my first pro start. It was October 28, 1967 against the Detroit Pistons at the Garden, and I started out great with some beautiful passes. But my shooting wasn’t there, and my timing was terrible. I was actually afraid to shoot, and I kept hoping nobody would give me the ball. But, I say again, if you can play defense, the shooting will come. It did for me.”

The conversation with Frazier then shifted to last season and what a difference a year made with the Knicks. Gene Shue, the coach of the Baltimore Bullets, once said how difficult it has become in recent years for a team to win even the division title for two successive seasons. “The attitude of the opposition,” Shue said, “gets wiser and tougher. If you get away with something new the first time, it’s hard to pull it off again.”

That was very much the way Frazier summed up the comparison between the Knicks who won the championship and the Knicks of last season. 

“They caught on to our press,” Clyde said. “You remember how effective it used to be and how important Phil Jackson was in making it work? It didn’t happen last year that way, because the opposition caught on to it, practiced against it, and countered it.

“Our opponents also spread out their defenses more against us. They became more aware that we are a team that helps out a lot, and they worked out ways to stop that. At times, they made it much harder for me, but then again, that helped me too. They didn’t penetrate as much. 

“When you were bringing the ball up, there are basically three things you can do. You can pass off to the left, you can pass off to the right, or you can take it in yourself. Before you make that decision, there are several things to consider. One, who has the hot hand, or who has the weak defender against him? If The Captain has made three jumpers in a row, you want to work the ball so that he ends up taking the shot. Finally, you have to mix it up a lot so that everybody gets involved.”

One word cannot describe what Frazier has meant to the Knicks. He is exciting, elegant, and easy-going. There is a wall in his three-room, 10th floor penthouse apartment on Manhattan’s East Side that is mirrored, and “Clyde” etched in letters almost a foot high near the top. 

Walt Frazier, the kid who grew up in Atlanta playing playground basketball for nickels and dimes has come a long way in the big city of New York. Clyde is a folk hero. 

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