The Secret Behind the Amazing Knicks, 1970

[If the Amazing Knicks were your team, you’re going to like this article from the great Milton Gross. He looks in on the Knicks in the midst of their breathtaking rise to the top of the NBA standings during the 1969-70 regular season. Back then, publishing being a grindingly slow process from initial draft to blue line, this article written in December 1969 appeared in the May 1970 issue of the sports magazine Score. A little late, but New York was still abuzz over its basketball team. In fact, while Gross’ article graced the newsstands that May, Willis Reed famously limped out of the Knicks locker room before game seven of the NBA Finals. You know the rest. But you may not know some of the details memorialized in Gross’ informed look at the Amazing Knicks, an NBA team for the ages.]

****

The Knicks are a team in a hurry. When the bus transporting them to the airport en route to their National Basketball Association record win was late, they fidgeted in the rain. Walt Frazier shifted from foot to foot as though he was feinting his way through the raindrops. 

“Come on, Captain,” somebody said to Willis Reed, “hustle us up some transportation.”

Reed, sometimes known as Cap’n Chump, feigned indignation. “Not me,” said Willis. “I’m not in charge of that detail.” He turned to Frazier, known to his teammates as Clyde, and said, “Mr. Frazier will steal us a bus.”

“You ought to know better than that,” countered Frazier. “I only steal small, round objects.”

Small ones. Round ones. Basketballs that bounce and can be picked off in the air by Frazier’s hands, which move with the speed of a frog’s tongue snapping at an insect, to be converted into two points for the Knicks. 

As Cap’n Chump puts it: “On our team, the ball belongs to Frazier. He just lets us play with it once in a while.”  

The way the Knicks have played with it during most of the season has been unprecedented. They seem to have materialized out of nowhere in becoming potential title-holders. There is no better illustration of it than their come-from-behind, 106-105 victory over the Cincinnati Royals in the final two seconds of their 18th straight triumph, which broke the 24-year-old league record last November 28th. 

Naturally, it was Frazier on the foul line with the Knicks behind by one point. Naturally, the ball had been stolen and, just as naturally, Clyde was there to grab it as Reed pressured it away from the Royals’ Tom Van Arsdale. The latter had fouled Walt as he leaped for a shot after a rebound had come back to him as though magnetized. Frazier sank the first. Frazier sank the second.

“They never touched the net,” said Clyde. “I’ve got ice water in my veins.”

Frazier wasn’t all wet because he does appear to have four hands, eight legs, eyes in the back of his head, and a sense of anticipation that seems to incorporate ESP. In the Knicks’ case, this does not mean extra sensory perception, but Everything Seems Possible, because they have managed to achieve the impossible so regularly.

In their record-breaking game, for example, the Knicks were down by five points with 16 seconds remaining when Reed sank two foul shots. One minute and thirty-three seconds earlier, 41-year-old Bob Cousy, the player-coach who is said to have invented peripheral vision, had put himself into the game to handle the ball and save the situation. It can’t be said that Cousy lost it, but he didn’t prevent the Knicks from winning what, at the time, seemed impossible. 

Cousy called a time out, which enabled the Royals to put the ball into play at midcourt, after he found himself unable to put it into play from the endline. It was a percentage tactic, but the Knicks have a way of scrambling the percentages. On the inbounds pass, there was Dave DeBusschere leaving Van Arsdale with egg all over his face as he swept in front of him, swiped the pass-in, took a couple of dribbles, and scored. It had taken three seconds.

To many, who had become accustomed to the Knicks being have-nots unable to make the playoffs for seven straight seasons (1960-1966), their “instant success” seemed almost unreal. Moreover, until the 1967-68 season, they had been a sub-.500 team for eight straight years. In that time, they had gone through five coaches: Fuzzy Levane, Carl Braun, Eddie Donovan, Harry Gallatin, and Dick McGuire. If the Knicks had any reputation when Red Holzman became their latest coach, it was their peculiar affinity for attaining mediocrity. 

What, then, suddenly brought about this rather sudden alteration? Was it Willis Reed emerging as the powerful force that he is? Frazier becoming what Cousy used to be? DeBusschere contributing the solidity which the Knicks always lacked until they got him in a trade with Detroit for Walt Bellamy and Butch Komives? Bill Bradley making the transition from Rhodes scholar to hard-nosed pro? Dick Barnett approximating a 33-year-old geriatric wonder with his trick jump shot? The development of the bench, which has four men—Cazzie Russell, Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth, and Nate Bowman—who give away little as substitutes for the starting five?

It is all of those, but it is more. It is Ned Irish, who contributed more to the growth of basketball than the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, suddenly appreciating that he could not run Madison Square Garden as well as its basketball team and relinquishing supreme authority to Donovan, who became general manager in 1964-65. It is Holzman’s scouting job when he was the Knicks’ talent hunter, and McGuire’s scouting job when he traded positions with Holzman. It is the practical application of the fact that not only is basketball a five-man game, but it is played at both ends of the court. 

The Knicks not only have an appreciation of what the game is all about, but they have the unselfishness that is essential to its refinement as an art. Consider, for instance, their 138-108 rout of the Atlanta Hawks, which tied the record of 17 straight victories set by the Washington Caps of 1946 and the dynastic Boston Celtics of 1959. Consider, too, that the Hawks were leading the NBA’s Western Division, but were ball-hawked as clean as a plucked chicken. The Knicks stole 27 passes, and, in the third quarter, outscored Atlanta 32-5 during one hot period.  

“It was the most embarrassing 12 minutes I have ever spent as a coach or player,” said Atlanta’s Richie Guerin, who has spent 14 years as a pro. “The Knicks showed me the best team performance I have ever seen. Frazier stole everything but our sneakers. Every time we tried a pass, one of them seemed to pop out of the floor, get a hand on it, and turn it into a basket.”

“It was the greatest thing I have ever seen,” admitted Holzman. “You dream about basketball being played that way and maybe once in your life you see it.”

This was not Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a game or pulling down 55 rebounds. Nor was it Cousy getting 28 assists. It was a kind of ballet with a ball, which basketball at its best actually is. 

There is no other sport in which so many huge men are confined to a smaller area, yet run faster, are able to pass to each other with some accuracy, and shoot with such marksmanship, while exerting such tremendous and exhausting effort. 

“We have a good team, a real good one,” says DeBusschere, who can shoot, defend, and rebound, “and spell it out: T-E-A-M. That’s what we are.”

“We don’t have superstars,” says Reed, who may be downgrading himself and Frazier, “but we have guys of all-star caliber. It’s something we never had before. Any night it could be anybody, not only one of the five starters. Cazzie can come off the bench and give us the quick shot we need. Or Stalls. Or Riordan. You don’t know who is next. One guy can pick another up. A guy makes a mistake, you pat him on the fanny and say, ‘Forget it. We’ll make it up.’ They play to win. They hustle.”

Holzman calls a play from the sideline.

Technically, what the Knicks displayed as they ran up their winning streak isn’t hard to define. They are a physical team, but a court-wise one. With Reed and DeBusschere working the backboards, they were able to get the ball. With Frazier, Bradley, Barnett, and Riordan, they are able to pick your pocket quicker than a dip in a New Year’s Eve crowd at Times Square. Bradley can move without the ball and can guard the best of them at forward, although he gives away inches in height to most opponents. 

On defense, which is actually the Knicks’ strongest suit, they’ll play eyeball to eyeball, forcing an opponent to the sides and corners with a protective alignment that can roughly be equated with a funnel. The narrow end of the funnel is just inside midcourt, so that the man with the ball is forced to go wide, as opposed to the Celtics’ type of defense when Bill Russell was stationed under the basket. The Celtics wanted their opponents to come down the middle, with everybody getting a whack at the ballhandler. If he survived the sniping, there was Russell waiting to block the shot—if his mere presence didn’t psych the man into taking a bad shot or not taking one at all. 

The Knicks leave an open alley through which a man caught in the corner can pass. But they’re cute. They over-play four men and under-play the logical receiver, and when the ball goes to him, they are there with arms waving like a demented octopus. Hence, the inordinate amount of steals, which rapidly moves them from defense at one end of the floor to a fastbreak offense at the other.  

If the fastbreak doesn’t result in a quick basket, the ball usually goes back to Frazier to start an offensive pattern. And then, of course, there is the way they can pass. Sometimes it seems that Bradley and Frazier have played together all their lives and communicate on the same wavelength. They sense each other’s movements, Bradley maneuvering without the ball for position or Clyde working a give-and-go, feinting one way toward the ball, and then going the other through, what he calls, the backdoor. 

It is a beautiful thing to see, but so much for the technical aspects. What may be even more beautiful are the people involved. There is Russell, who got a money-belt full of bonus bucks to sign with the Knicks as their top draft choice in 1966. Cazzie was a star, but last season he broke an ankle and, while he was out, Bradley worked into the starting lineup and has kept his hold on the forward position. Russell is still a star, at least when he has the ball in his hands. But he is content to come off the bench, which is a comedown of a kind, but not within the framework of the way the Knicks think and play. 

Stallworth is another story. On March 7, 1967, he suffered a heart attack. Yet here he is playing again when nobody ever expected him to lace on a pair of sneakers in earnest. 

Riordan is a third. Last season, he was the substitute injected to “give away” a foul. It was a nothing assignment, but Mike didn’t look at it that way. For one thing, he knew he could play defense. For another, he knew we could shoot, and this season he proved it as the Knicks’ first replacement in their backline. 

These, then, are the Knicks, who follow naturally enough in the succession of impossible dreams begun by the Jets and kept alive by the Mets and Rangers, in what can be described as a sports championship festival in Fun City.

“This has been the greatest fun thing I’ve ever experienced,” says Bradley, who more than any of the Knicks may reflect the remarkable metamorphosis in what has long been a dull and drab team. 

Dollar Bill was drafted by New York in 1965, although it was known that he would go to Oxford from Princeton and subsequently would have to serve in the armed forces. When he signed, Bradley received a four-year contract for something like $450,000, and he didn’t join the Knicks until well after the 1967-68 season had begun. 

In his second game in a pro uniform, Bradley let loose a shot that he should not have taken, as the Knicks blew a game in overtime to the Hawks. From that point until the end of the season, everything went sour for Bill. He could hit baskets in practice, but he could not hit them in a game. He was even hit by a sports car one night while crossing the street in the rain. The myth seemed well on his way to becoming a miss. 

However, Bradley was slowly learning the difference between college and pro ball. He had been a big wheel in college, coming through in the clutch. As a pro, he discovered that all the parts had to fit perfectly if there was any chance of success. 

The major reason for the Knicks’ success has been Reed, the rebounder, the scorer, the strong man on a team on which he originally had to play out of position alongside Walt Bellamy. Willis could not play forward as effectively as he can play center, and when the club was finally able to make the trade of Bellamy and Komives for DeBusschere, the wheels began to turn. 

Willis is the indispensable man, but the Knicks started to become what they are when Frazier began to appreciate how truly effective that he can be penetrating with the ball on offense and employing the fastest hands in the NBA on defense. He is so squirmy, so quick, so deceptive handling the ball that he not only figuratively runs out of his own shoes, but can literally fake an opposing guard out of his sneakers. 

Three games in a row during the Knicks’ winning streak, Frazier wore a new pair of basketball shoes at the start, but by the final buzzer of each, all the quick starts and stops had actually torn the seams loose. That’s understandable, but the night the Knicks won No. 16, Clyde stole the ball from Willie McCarter of the Los Angeles Lakers, feinted him, and McCarter, attempting to recover, lost his shoe. As Frazier went in for a driving layup down the middle of the floor, McCarter was not only barefaced but barefooted. 

“If he were really quick,” somebody said at the scorer’s table in Madison Square Garden, “Frazier would not only have come up with the ball in one hand, but McCarter’s shoe in the other.”

Someday he may. Frazier is capable of that kind of legerdemain, and there is no question any longer that Clyde has taken over as the foremost quarterback in a game which has seen such as Cousy, Oscar Robertson, and Dick McGuire handle a basketball superbly. 

“I’ve never seen anybody do it the way Frazier can,” says Dick McGuire. “What he actually does with some of the people he’s playing against is get them so tight worrying about him getting a hand on the ball that they’re afraid to pass it. He sees so much of the court, and he’s so disruptive.”

So there it is. Forwards such as DeBusschere, Bradley, and Russell, who can handle the ball and move with it. A guard like Barnett, who claims that so long as he can see the basket, nobody—no matter how tall—can stop him from getting off his shots. A center who may be the strongest man in the league, can shoot inside and out, and can run on a fastbreak to make such as Lew Alcindor look as though he’s mired in mud. 

It led to a kind of reign of terror in the league, which this season saw the Knicks get off to a faster start than even the Philadelphia 76ers of 1966-67, who finished with a fantastic 68-13 record. “All I could see was those guys going by me all night— Frazier, DeBusschere, Reed, and Stallworth,” said talented Connie Hawkins after his Phoenix Suns had been bombed.

“Man, they never let up, do they?” asked Baltimore’s Earl (The Pearl) Monroe, after the Knicks overwhelmed the Bullets by 37 points last December 20. 

“They murder you under their board. They murder you under yours. And in between, they drive you crazy,” said Guerin after the Hawks had been beaten by the Knicks early in their streak. 

After a game in which he had scored 42 points, Jerry West of the Lakers told an interviewer that his teammates had been urging him to get through the Knicks’ screens. “I couldn’t have gotten through them if I held a gun on them,” replied West. 

It remained for Cincinnati’s Tom Van Arsdale to put the whole thing in its proper perspective the night the Knicks set the record with their 18th straight victory over the Royals. “It’s like the gods are with them,” said Tom. He searched his vocabulary for a more adequate description. 

“You want to know what it’s like? Well, it’s like a nightmare.” 

One man’s nightmare is another’s impossible dream. The Knicks do have a secret. Sock it to ‘em.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: