Luther Rackley: Reserve Power for the Knicks, 1972

[Heading into the 1969 draft, most scouts had soured on Xavier University’s senior center Luther Rackley of Xavier University and his seemingly sweet 17 points and 14 rebounds per game. As they liked to point out, the kid Rackley wasn’t featured in Xavier’s offense, a bad commentary on his undeveloped post play, and he looked stiff and could lost out there for long stretches of games.  

But Rackley stood a legit 6-foot-11, and as scouts then liked to repeat, “You can’t teach height.” The Cincinnati Royals took a chance and drafted the hometown collegian in the third round. Rackley made the team, but Royals’ coach Bob Cousy wanted to remake his rookie into a Bill Russell clone on defense. Rackley preferred to shoot.

And so, Cousy bid adieu to Rackley in the 1970 expansion draft. Cleveland grabbed him and his promising 6-foot-11 physique. But things never exactly clicked for Rackley, playing 20 minutes a night on a rotten Cavaliers club that was then the butt of many an NBA joke. 

In late 1971, the Knicks rescued Rackley from Cleveland, hoping—fingers crossed—he could provide a few quality minutes each night to ease the wear and tear on starting center Willis Reed. In this article, Augie Borgi of the Bergen (N.J.) Record welcomes the now third-year pro to town. Though I’ve plucked the article from a February 5, 1972 Knicks game program, Borgi keeps the cheerleading to a minimum. That wasn’t Borgi. In fact, let me leave you with a funny story about Borgi, who would later cover the Mets for the New York Daily News. It comes from the late Newsday reporter Marty Noble:

“Remember Augie Borgi? Augie was the Daily News’ Mets writer for years in . . . 1976. Augie was the cheapest man on the face of the earth. No one was remotely close. We were in the bus, coming out of LA into Chicago. [Tom] Seaver is on the same bus as [Mets manager Joe] Frazier, and the manager is a little loaded, and he got on him, calling him Seavers, saying, “I wouldn’t be saying too much if I was pitching like you’ve been pitching, Seavers.” We all wrote this story afterward that nobody had ever spoken about Seaver that way. Augie was right there but he didn’t write it. Why? Because he wanted to put in for a cab fare. Now that redefines cheap!”]

The cynics scoffed when the Knicks announced they had acquired Luther Rackley from the Cavaliers for next season’s second-round draft choice. Rackley, of course, reacted somewhat differently. 

“It was six o’clock Los Angeles time when Bill Fitch told me I was going to New York,” Rackley recalls now. “I was on a plane by eight-thirty, and I was in the hotel across the street from the Garden to get a good night’s rest so I could play the next night.”

Now even the cynics know Luther Rackley can play. They know Rackley has made contributions to help the Knicks and appreciate what he’s done. Sure, he isn’t a Willis Reed, but then who is?

“I don’t have the pressure on me to do everything myself,” Rackley says in explaining his duties for the Knicks. “In Cleveland, they wanted me to rebound, score, make passes, be the big defensive player . . . do everything.”

Red Holzman obtained Rackley because he felt the 6-foot-11 center could rebound and score and make passes and play good defense. A little here and a little there was all the Knicks needed. And the more Rackley contributed, the more the Knicks appreciated his ability. 

When the Knicks beat Kareem The Supreme, also known as the Milwaukee Bucks, the first week of the year, Rackley was the player Holzman needed at the end. Holzman figured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would take the last shot. So Rackley was ready to pressure the game’s leading scorer. He didn’t allow Kareem to swing his body into the lane. Rackley absorbed Kareem’s left elbow with his stomach and managed to pressure the hook shot that failed and preserved the Knick victory. 

“Sure, there was contact,” Rackley admitted, “but it could have been an offensive foul, too.” 

Never one not to tell the truth, Rackley found things tougher the next night in Milwaukee. He was battered by Kareem and was rewarded by a rasher of personal fouls. “I had read in the papers how Jabbar didn’t like the officiating in New York,” Rackley said, “but I have to make a living, too. I know he’s the leading scorer and all, but he didn’t have to do what he did. He has too much talent and skill.”

The press recognizes the talents and skills of super players every game. But rarely are the talents and skills of the spear carrier like Rackley recognized. Rackley gets most of his publicity when the unusual happens. Like Rackley stopping Kareem Jabbar in the clutch. Or like Rackley being arrested in Cleveland. 

Rackley was arrested the last time the Knicks were in Cleveland. It was 10:30 Sunday morning, Rackley having been given permission to spend the night at the apartment he maintained before being traded to the Knicks. 

The Knicks had played in New York on Saturday and taken a charter plane to Cleveland, arriving at 2. a.m. “I didn’t bother to answer the bell when I heard it ring that morning,” Rackley says. “Soon there was some knocking, so I went to the door and opened it. There were two policemen there.”

Informed he was being arrested for ignoring a moving traffic violation, Rackley was surprised. “With all the crime that went on in Cleveland, which has one of the highest crime rates in the country, they sent two policemen to arrest me. My lawyer said he’d take care of the ticket, but I guess he forgot.”

Rackley posted bail. Then he went to court. He pleaded guilty to making a turn the wrong way . Because he was late in paying the violation, he was fined $10 instead of $8. Two nights later, Luther saw his sun-tanned lawyer at the Garden. He’d just returned from Puerto Rico and apologized for forgetting the traffic-violation summons that had made good reading in the Cleveland newspapers. 

The New York area papers are more concerned with what Rackley those on the floor than what he does behind the wheel. “He’s helping us, and he’s doing everything I’ve asked of him,” says Holzman these days. 

Luther has been the defensive player the Knicks needed while Willis Reed rested his aching left knee on the injured list. He’s given the Knicks some mobility in the middle and provided Holzman some mobility with the substitution patterns. And, of course, Luther Rackley has enjoyed playing in the Big Apple, if only that he knows Reed won’t be breaking his nose in a game.

“I know I’m no Willis Reed, but I know I can play in this league,” Rackley says. “And now I’m happy I got the chance to play in New York.”

The Xavier (Ohio) University graduate is also aware that everything is different in New York. “What’s the difference between sitting on the bench in Cleveland and sitting on the bench in New York,” he was asked. 

“About four superstars,” was Rackley’s concise answer. 

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