Red Holzman: A Humpty-Dumpty Situation, 1968

[During the 1969-70 season, Walt Frazier was asked what it was like playing for the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. “You make a few steals or work a few plays, and you have the feeling that it’s going to be one of those nights,” answered Frazier. “The whole team gets into it, and then the crowd picks it up, and you come to the sidelines for a timeout and listen to that standing ovation, it just makes you Jingle inside.”

Frazier and the Knicks would jingle to a title for the NBA ages. As the great Harvey Araton recalled this magical season about 40 years later in his book When the Garden Was Eden, “Only the Knicks could unite the metropolis. Only the Knicks, with their home games limited to the earliest cable subscribers, could create their own buzz in bars all over Manhattan. Only they could link the lunch-pail commuters of the outer boroughs with downtown’s wealthiest power brokers, the denizens of Harlem with those made famous by Hollywood.” 

And yet, sometimes forgotten today in all the nostalgia for Frazier, Barnett, Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, the Amazing Knicks were the Dismal Knicks just two season earlier. In this brief article from the January 6, 1968 issue of the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, journalist and NBA insider Phil Elderkin expertly frames just how bad things were in the Garden when Red Holzman, then the team’s low-key talent scout, accepted the unenviable job as head coach of the Knicks. Here’s the story.] 

With the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association, it always seems to be an impossible situation. The worm of discontent got its first free lunch off the Knicks back in 1956 when Joe Lapchick quit as coach. 

In the nine years Lapchick handled the club, the Knicks never had a losing season. But the constant front-office pressure and the second-guessing eventually got Joe the same way it later was responsible for the firing of Fuzzy Levane, Carl Braun, Eddie Donovan, Harry Gallatin, and Dick McGuire. 

Vince Boryla, the coach prior to Levane, was cut loose for a different reason. But the ax still belonged to the front office. Donovan was lucky. He wound up as general manager. 

McGuire had to go because he had lost control of his ballclub. His instructions were being ignored on the floor and only the walls listened to his words in the locker room. What loosened Dick’s grip were the daily orders from the Knicks’ hierarchy ordering him to play this man or that man or second guessing his substitutions. 

This is the kind of information which a coach might be able to keep from his players for 24 hours. But pretty soon they, too, know the situation and play that way. 

The man who has been asked to pick up the pieces, in what has to be a Humpty-Dumpty situation, is Red Holzman, who hasn’t coached since 1957, when he ran the St. Louis Hawks. For the past eight years, Holzman has been New York’s No. 1 scout, and he has been a good one. It would be easy to attribute part of his success as an ivory hunter to the fact that the Knicks, by finishing last so many times, always got an early pick in the draft. How could they miss getting something worthwhile?

But Holzman has also turned up enough unknown talent from small colleges and out-of-the-way conferences to suggest that he knows a future pro when he sees one. His opinions also accompanied New York brass whenever it ventures into the trade market. 

The problems on the Knicks are twofold—mechanical and personal. Let’s take them in order. New York’s biggest weakness is on defense. You don’t ho-hum in front of people like Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain when they have the ball and not pay a heavy price on the scoreboard. 

Instead, you play them up close, belt them, take the foul occasionally if you have to, and never give less than 100 percent in the hustle department. The Knicks are guilty of laxity on all three counts. 

Nevertheless, the talent is there. Walter Bellamy, when he feels like playing, is one of the best centers in the league. Willis Reed is an all-star in one corner, and Cazzie Russell’s a bust-out type scorer in the other. 

The starting guards for most of the season have been Dick Barnett, a great off-balance shooter, and rookie Walt Frazier, a fine ballhandler and feeder. The bench is impressive, too, from swing forward Dick Van Arsdale through a covey of guards, which include Howie Komives, Fred Crawford, and Emmette Bryant.

The piece de resistance is Bill Bradley, whose leadership may someday be the catalyst which will change losing into winning for the Knicks. To be sure, there have been times when Bradley played as though he had not yet shaken the athletic rust that he accumulated during two years as a Rhodes scholar and six months as Air Force major. But there were also times when his potential greatness made your eyes blink. 

Holzman calls a play from the sideline.

Bill was just starting to put it all together when a big girl in a small sports car, during a recent snow squall outside Madison Square Garden, used Bradley for a parking lot. Bill is scheduled to come off New York’s injured reserve list on January 10 and will rejoin the Knicks in Los Angeles on that date. 

The personal problems on the ballclub stem from management’s fantastic bonus payments in the last two years to Russell, Frazier, and Bradley. Some of the veterans on the club think they are being shortchanged, especially since they have already proved their worth. Their worth, by the way, has been one finish above last place since 1960 and nothing higher. 

Holzman knows the game of basketball. And he probably knows it better now than back in 1957, when St. Louis fired him after a losing record. The point is Red is being asked to do more than coach. He also must motivate a bunch of players who haven’t the foggiest notion that there is no “I” in team. 

Maybe Holzman can do the job under those conditions. But five previous coaches couldn’t. The only way a coach can win in any pro sport is to be the absolute boss, with no interference from the front office. It’s the way the great ones have always operated. 

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