Being Walt Frazier, 1974

[I have a few books on my shelf that tackle the NBA’s rise from American “bush league” to its current iteration as a multi-billion-dollar global entertainment juggernaut. Most start with a perfunctory mention of the usual old-school subjects: Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

It’s absolutely stunning to me how infrequently the name Walt Frazier appears. Or, just “Clyde” to millions of adoring fans through the 1970s. With his All-Pro credentials and celebrated Manhattan flair and sophistication—not to mention the relentless promotional efforts of his agent Irwin Weiner—Clyde broke through as the first mass-marketed Black NBA star who was, well, “cool” on his own terms. Heck, Frazier even published a book about being cool. 

Of course, Clyde never came close to the mass-marketed Air Jordan craze to come. But before there could be an Air Jordan, there had to be a Clyde to erode racial barriers and help the nation celebrate Black culture on its own terms. In this brief clip, pulled from the February 1974 issue of SPORT Magazine, writer Marty Bell gets to spend a day with Frazier and recounts what it’s like to be like Clyde. If Bell’s name sounds familiar, he published the 1975 gem of a book, The Legend of Dr. J.] 

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It isn’t every man who can walk through a row of Rolls-Royces and steal the spotlight from the cars. But Walt Frazier isn’t every man, and as he moved through the Rolls showroom on Manhattan’s East Side one afternoon recently, tall and black and regal, he dominated the cars. Even his coat—a dark brown mink—outshone the polished chrome of the limousines.

Walt Frazier was looking to buy. He needed a second car. His first was also a Rolls, plum-colored, but he wanted a second, to keep in Atlanta, outside the house he bought for his mother, seven sisters and brother. He spends a few weeks every year in Atlanta, and he feels he needs to have a car there. He doesn’t have to keep one of his five mink coats in Atlanta. He never goes there in cold weather, except to play against the Hawks.

Frazier grew up in Atlanta, then went west to Southern Illinois University. In 1967, Southern Illinois went to and won the National Invitational Tournament, and Frazier saw New York for the first time. A few months later, he joined the Knicks and became a New Yorker. He couldn’t live his kind of life anywhere else.

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In his early years as a Knick, Frazier’s plentiful skills ran second to his daring. His hands—so quick, some semi-racist once said, he could steal a hub cap off a moving car—got him steals and got him in trouble. He could look spectacular—or silly. Now he gambles less, wastes no movement or energy. He leans on his man and waits for the right moment. Then his hands dart in, slap the ball away, and he is off, sprinting downcourt, driving toward the basket, perhaps laying the ball in or slipping it, behind the back, to a driving teammate. He is so smooth that his behind-the-back passes are not showy; they are part of the standard equipment, like his arms or his legs.

****

As usual, Frazier was the last man to leave the Knick locker room after a recent game. He pulled on his high-waisted, canary-yellow pants and matching shirt with “Clyde” stitched in burgundy thread on the cuffs. (Trainer Danny Whelan nicknamed Frazier after seeing Bonnie and Clyde; it is a tribute both to his style and his steals.) Frazier covered the shirt with a burgundy-and-yellow-plaid sport jacket.

“I don’t dress as wild as I once did,” he said. “Now I’m more interested in the material and the cut than the colors.”

He quickly poked his head into Harry M’s tavern on the street level of Madison Square Garden, saw no one he wanted to visit, then walked outside where his friend and chauffeur, David Benson, was waiting with the Rolls.

The Rolls stopped at one East Side bar after another. People came up to Clyde to show they recognized him. He handled it well. He treated everyone courteously.

Up to the edge of Harlem. Rust Brown’s, The Cellar. The night got later, the places darker, the music louder, the wine flowed quicker, and the girls looked prettier.

Then back downtown to Hippopotamus, the plushest and loudest of the clubs. Clyde dances with a pretty blonde, and people stole glances at him, knowing that here, too, he had all the moves. 

Frazier left the girl with her friends. “I don’t have to bring someone home with me every time I go  out,” he said. “I used to feel that way. But now I can have a good time just talking, drinking white wine, and listening to music.”

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Frazier lives in a penthouse apartment high above the East Side bars. His living room has charcoal-gray walls and black-and-red furniture and decoration. “I like the dark atmosphere,” he says. “I guess that’s from hanging around in clubs so much.” The bedroom is white with purple trim. The bedspread is white mink. Mirrors decorate the ceiling and the wall.

This is the life Clyde has bought with the $275,000 to $300,000 salary he gets from the Knicks and the money he earns through endorsements. He endorses furs for Ben Kahn, clothes for Ripley, shoes for Blacksmith, sneakers for Puma, toothpaste for Colgate, and basketballs for Seamless. He has a basketball camp in New Jersey and a liquor store in Harlem.

In three years or so,” says Frazier, “there’ll be another Clyde. I’m just taking it all in.”

****

Two young Black kids, about 13 or 14, pressed their noses against the show window, then walked into the Rolls showroom. They both wore high heels under midi-length coats and wide-brimmed hats. They walked confidently, pretending to be potential customers.

Frazier smiled. “That was me just a short time ago,” he said.

The boys spotted Frazier, and their façade faded. They were kids again, full of excitement. “Hey, man, isn’t that Clyde?” one said.

“Yeah, Yeah,” said his friend. “That’s gonna be me some day.”

They slapped hands and walked back onto the New York Streets.

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