Walt Frazier: The Meaning of Defense, 1970

[Here’s a little Walt Frazier from the magazine Pro Basketball Almanac 1970. No byline on this article, but it’s a good one on a topic that is a Frazier favorite.]


New York Knick coach Red Holzman has a couple of running jokes with his young backcourtman, Walt Frazier. One of them involves Red’s slipping hotel keys into the unsuspecting Frazier’s pockets, and laughing about how Frazier is “my key man.” Another gag is often played out before a game, with Red conducting a team meeting and holding up four pages of notes about that night’s opponent and saying, “Walt, these first three are for you.”

Okay, the act wouldn’t play very well on the old vaudeville circuit, but the point of it all is well taken by Frazier and his teammates. Even though the Knicks are a team of many talented parts, they won’t bloom into the dynasty everyone now expects them to be unless Frazier takes them there. The reason is simple: No one in pro basketball plays a more complete game, and the Knicks depend on Frazier for superstar performances at both ends of the court. For Frazier these days, an ineffective game translates into eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals, and 15 points. And if his average creeps over 20 this season, don’t be surprised; he was consistently in the mid-20s late last season.  

The 6-foot-4, 204-pound Frazier is so exciting and busy on offense—handling the ball on nearly every Knick play—that he inspires superlatives from almost everyone. Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs, a man who doesn’t impress easily, wrote of Walt last season: “Frazier is an artiste of body control . . . he floats in the air like a wisp of smoke when he contorts his body to get into position to put up a jump shot some 25 feet from the basket.” And says Knicks’ captain and center Willis Reed: “The ball belongs to Walt. He lets us play with it. Sometimes.”

Frazier’s passing is usually unerring, and his behind-the-back dribble has become a proven means for him to escape a harassing opponent. Yet, despite all the offensive razzle-dazzle, it is his defense that provides special meaning—both to himself and to the Knicks. Walt has not always been the offensive threat he is today, but he’s always been tough on defense. And it is one phase of the game he enjoys most of all, making him almost unique among basketball players. 

The importance of Frazier’s defense to the Knicks was never better illustrated than in the first and last games of the playoffs last year. In the first game, the Knicks shocked the Bullets, who had finished first in the East during the regular season (three more shocks were to follow as the Knicks swept the series). In that first game, Frazier took on Earl (The Pearl) Monroe and outdueled him in everything: minutes played (47-40); shooting percentage (61-37); points (32-26); rebounds (7-3); and assists (11-3). 

Perhaps most importantly, Frazier squelched Monroe at a moment when the hometown Baltimore fans sensed the beginning of a comeback for the Bullets, who had trailed the whole game. With the Knicks leading, 101-94, and 5:45 remaining, Monroe tried to take command. But Frazier stopped him cold—and didn’t allow him a point the rest of the way. 

“What I try to do is work him hard on defense,” Walt explained later, “don’t give him a chance to rest. The pace was too much for him.”   

Up in the broadcasting booth, former coach and referee Charlie Eckman couldn’t believe what he just witnessed. “You might have seen the best guard in the league tonight,” Charlie told his Baltimore audience. “What didn’t he do? He passed, he saw, he shot, he stole the ball, he played defense, and he refereed. He did everything but serve lunch. He’s the best guard I’ve seen since Oscar.”

That was Walt Frazier at his physical and playing peak. Unfortunately for the Knicks, Frazier’s second NBA season ended just as his first one did—with an injury in the playoffs. And both times, the Knicks hopes for getting into the championship series against the West were at an end. Frazier’s injury last season came against the Celtics in the Eastern finals. Boston had taken a 3-2 lead in games as the two teams met for the sixth game. Frazier entered the game with a pulled groin muscle and, despite being a doubtful starter, played most of the way. (“We need him at least 40 minutes,” Holzman said afterward.) He obviously was below par, yet at one point made seven straight shots. 

The big hindrance to Walt came on defense, when he couldn’t get back quickly enough to pick off balls, which, says Holzman, “it’s a big part of our whole structure.” As it was, the Celtics won, 106-105, only because John Havlicek made an off-balance shot with nine seconds left. With a healthy Frazier on defense, a Knick victory would have been almost a certainty. 

For Frazier, defense is a blend of many things. It’s proper background and training, which he got in high school in Atlanta and in college at Southern Illinois under coach Jack Hartman. “Most guys play defense straight up,” says Walt, “but you got to get down in a crouch. Hartman drilled on this all the time.”

Defense for Frazier also is quick hands, and perhaps no one’s are quicker. In a game against San Francisco last year, Walt stole the ball eight times. “Walt,” says teammate Dave DeBusschere, “could strip a car with the engine running.”

Most of all for Frazier, defense is the calculated gamble—knowing the weaknesses of his opponents and waiting for the right moment to make his move. “If he is a good outside shooter,” says Walt, “I try to force him to drive on me rather than letting him set up for a shot. If he is a good layup man, then I try to make him take the outside shot. I also feel the concentrated stare into his eyes is better than my doing a lot of jumping around.”

Walt is a student of applied psychology when it comes to stealing. “I wait for a guy to get careless—like on the pass-in, when a guy is mad because his man has just scored. Then, if I steal off him, he’ll tend to tighten up and then you can really put the pressure on him.”

All these tricks help Frazier overcome the fact that he is by no means the fastest guard in the league. He gets by on finesse and pacing, which is a good thing or he would never survive the Herculean tasks assigned him each and every game. Running one of the league’s more high-powered offenses and then turning around and guarding the Wests, Robertsons, Monroes, and Bings is a job for two people, but so far Frazier has proven he can do it all by himself. ed

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