The Ladies Who Love the Knicks, 1971

[In the 1971 book Alcindor, the Big O & The Champion Bucks, author John Devaney paints this vivid portrait of attending an NBA game in New York’s Madison Square Garden back then:

“The Garden filled slowly. I walked down the aisles and saw it was the usual New York basketball crowd: teenagers in sloppy clothes and long hair and wearing sneakers; 30ish swingers in mod suits, their ladies glittering in pantsuits and thick furs; balding men off 7th Ave and Broadway with thick cigars stuck in their mouths.”

The article below, pulled from a 1971 edition of McCall’s Magazine, takes up the ladies in pantsuits and thick furs and folds in the many other types of women who were smitten with the Amazing Knicks of Reed, Frazier, Bradley, DeBusschere, Barnett, and even Red Holzman grumping on the sidelines. The excellent Peter Bonventre captures this vivid moment in time with finely crafted prose. If you like what you read, Bonventre just published a novel that sounds really cool. Give it a look.]  

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The New York Knickerbockers are down by one point, and, in the smoky haze of Madison Square Garden, the rival team is dribbling with lightning speed toward the basket at the far end of the court. Mrs. Dustin Hoffman is on the edge of her front-row seat, clutching nervously at her husband’s arm, straining to watch the players as they desperately jockey for position around the moving ball. Suddenly, the Knicks’ Walt Frazier has snatched the ball away and is madly dribbling back up the court, as the crowd screams its delight. Anne Hoffman is on her feet, shouting, cheering, laughing.

Beneath the hoop, the players are now scrambling, pivoting, reaching, each Knick seeking an unguarded teammate who can drive for the hoop. Without warning, Willis Reed’s large hands shoot up to receive a pass. Majestically, he leaps above the gaggle of wildly flailing arms and jostling bodies and rams the ball downward through the hoop. 

“You’re beautiful, Willis!” screams Anne Hoffman, clapping her hands together wildly. “You’re beautiful!”

“There’s nothing like it,” Anne babbles enthusiastically as she and her husband file out of the Garden. “There is nothing like watching the Knicks win a close one in the last seconds.” A look at the multitude of women crowding out the exits, their faces flushed with excitement, their voices animated, clearly indicates that many other New York women share Anne’s enthusiasm.

And in the dressing room, an exhausted Walt Frazier sprawls on a bench and smiles broadly. “When I hear those foxes squealing, I get all jiggly inside,” he says. “It makes me feel like I can do anything I want on the court.” 

“Those foxes” are a growing breed of New York women who have involved themselves in the fortunes of the New York Knickerbockers—Anne Hoffman is just one of them. The Knicks, considered the finest team in professional basketball today, play with a grace and guile that delights a legion of bright, sophisticated female fans—heretofore a largely untapped source of admiration. 

“When we were uptown, we got a lot of fat broads who, when they got tired of beating up their husbands, came to the Garden looking for a fight,” a Knick official observed recently. “Or we got West Side hookers on the make. No class.” He shook his head sadly, then brightened immediately. “But it’s a whole new ball game now. There are a lot of great dames who come to the games now from all over the city.”

The “Uptown” referred to was Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, where Madison Square Garden once sat in an area of grimy bars and hotdog stands, where gamblers compared notes before the games and ladies of questionable reputation drummed up business. 

But two years ago, the Garden moved from its crumbling confines to 34th Street and Eighth Avenue. Now an impressive glass-incased polygon perched atop Pennsylvania Station, the shiny new Garden is one of the easiest places in town to reach. With its cushioned seats and unobstructed spaciousness, it is an ideal arena for the spectator. 

With New Yorkers seeking new pleasures to fill their ever-increasing leisure time, and with the blossoming of the Knicks as Invincibles, the gleaming new Garden became a center of attention. “Let’s face it,” one female sophisticate said, “attending a Knick game is the ‘In Thing’ to do.” 

Indeed, any self-respecting male couldn’t help but notice the transformation in the decor and clientele of the Garden. “Get a load of those broads,” an inveterate gambler was overheard to say. “They’re gorgeous.”

If a gambler’s gaze can be shaken from the action on the court, then you know something is happening. A look around before a Saturday night game proves it. “These broads” come in all shapes and sizes. They wear their hair tumbling in tendrils or swinging long and straight. They come in midi-culottes and miniskirts and dungarees, in ski parkas and maxi coats. Some slither in in their Puccis; some in mink and low-cut gowns. They are young swingers, chic career girls and attractive middle-aged suburban housewives. They all became curious about an attraction that could inspire the exuberant loyalty of boyfriend or husband—and now they can’t stay away. 

“I thought basketball was such a crummy sport,” said an attractive young New York Times reporter. “When I was at Radcliffe, I went to a few Harvard basketball games, and I couldn’t understand how anybody could enjoy watching a bunch of guys running around in undershirts. But last winter, a date asked me to get tickets for him, and I just went crazy over the Knicks. Now I go every chance I get—even if I have to go alone.”

Ilene Goldman, wife of William Goldman, author and screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, puts it even more emphatically: “It’s such an exciting game that I’d go even if I were pregnant with triplets.”

The late Betty Friedan in 1970

Betty Friedan, president of the National Organization for Women, feels there’s a specific force at work luring women to the games. “This attraction is a symptom of the fantastic unused energy potential of women—it’s being expressed vicariously,” says Miss Friedan. “Women are beginning to express their own need to be part of the action, since for so long they have been denied the right to participate.” (Indeed, only last spring, the San Francisco Warriors drafted Denise Long, a 5-foot-11 high school graduate from Whitten, Iowa. But the National Basketball Association hierarchy said the draft made “a travesty” of the league, so she never got to play.) 

Dr. Paul Weiss, a professor of philosophy at Yale and author of Sport: A Philosophic Inquiry, has another theory. “Teamplay does not have much of an appeal to most women,” says Dr. Weiss. “Women are evidently more individualistic in temper, more self-contained than men. Women do not normally assume a role that is carried out in the light of the way in which others carry out their roles.”

Women, then, seem simply more apt to appreciate the skill of a single player than the exploits of a team that functions as a unit. And even though five men are in action on the court, the basketball team is really sparked by each individual talent. 

True enough, when discussing the Knicks, women invariably speak in terms of their favorite players. They marvel at Willis Reed’s persistence, Bill Bradley’s ingenuity. Dick Barnett’s skill, Dave DeBusschere’s alertness. 

And the female mind is charmed by each idiosyncrasy. “It’s marvelous the way Dick Barnett curtsies when he shoots,” gushes Joan Simon, the girlishly attractive wife of playwright Neil Simon. “Mike Riordan is right out of a ballet class, and Bill Bradley is a great backward runner.” 

Of all the players, though, the overwhelming favorite is Walt Frazier, a slender, muscular athlete whose presence on the court is dramatized by his quickness and agility. An immensely exciting performer, he has been nicknamed “Clyde” because he wears the wide-rim hats and broad lapels so popular in Clyde Barrow’s day—and because he steals a basketball with the same cool, crowd-pleasing flair that Clyde Barrow used to steal a bankroll. Frazier doesn’t mind at all—”Clyde was a swinger in pinstripe suits. He had class.”

Women frankly comment on the sexuality that Frazier exudes on the court. “He’s terribly attractive to watch,” says Ellie Azenberg, the articulate wife of Emanuel Azenberg, co-producer of The Lion in Winter. “All those men, beautifully developed and coordinated, playing in shorts—it’s quite appealing.”

To be sure, the Knick players are very aware of such feminine adulation. “When I steal the ball, I can see them cheering for The Man,” says Frazier, grinning. “I know the chicks come to see me do my stuff.”

Significantly, there are few sports that require the skill and grace which Frazier possesses and basketball demands. Women, according to Dr. Weiss, tend to “emphasize gracefulness and coordination . . . to treat their sports as developments and extensions of the dance. Part of the reason for this, undoubtedly, is our socially inherited view of women’s capacity and function, the firm conviction that women should be graceful rather than strong or swift.”

On a less aesthetic level, basketball is simply an easy game to understand. There are no fly patterns, sacrifice plays, or earned run averages to fathom. “Football is too complex, with all those crazy formations like slot left and split right,” a female Knick fan remarked. “And baseball is much too boring. But basketball is so dramatic—and the Knicks are sexier than anything.”

Of course, there are still those other ladies at the Garden who could articulate no such reasons for their presence—bitchy Berthas and abusive Gertrudes, shouting their insults at referees, players, and coaches. But the fact remains that a vast number of women at the Garden today are theatergoers, museum visitors, and discotheque veterans who have discovered that the East Side is not the only chic playground of New York. The newly discovered charm of the Knicks is undeniable, and as Ilene Goldman puts it, “For many of us, the game has become a very personal experience.”

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