[When Willis Reed retired in 1973, he walked away on his gimpy knees as one of the most-beloved New York Knicks ever. He was considered the 6-foot-10, 235-pound heart and soul of the NBA champion 1969-70 Knicks. Mr. Dependable. The Captain. The Take-Charge Man.
When the 20-year-old Lonnie Shelton signed with the Knicks in 1976, New Yorkers took one long gaping look at his 6-foot-8, 240-pound, barrel-chested physique and relentless, willful play around the basket and anointed him (prematurely) the next Willis Reed. This brief article in the New York Daily News, shows what it was like to be considered the next Willis Reed in media-frenzied, Knick-crazed New York. It builds on an earlier New York Daily News piece that described the sudden demands on Shelton’s time:
If it isn’t the television people, it’s the radio guys. If it isn’t the radio guys, it’s the magazine writers. If it isn’t the magazine writers, it’s the newspapermen. There are two television interviews Wednesday, a half dozen radio spots, 20 reporters engulfing his locker.
What everyone suddenly wants to know is what Lonnie Shelton eats for breakfast and where he first saw a basketball and in what set of bullrushes was he found. And one final question, Lonnie: Are you really the incarnation of Willis Reed?
The questions didn’t last too terribly long. The Knicks management, anxious to return their franchise to NBA glory, traded for Bob McAdoo midway through the 1976-77 season. The trade jettisoned the team-first Holzman era to accommodate McAdoo as a then-freakish one-man scoring machine. When the Big Mac Attack didn’t translate into NBA glory, the frenetic front office kept searching and signed Seattle center-turned-free agent Marvin Webster following the 1977-78 season. In these early days of NBA free agency, Commissioner Larry O’Brien joined the majority of his owners in frowning on this legal theft. He compensated Seattle with New York’s 1979 first-round draft choice and Shelton.
Shelton would help Seattle win an NBA title. But let’s go ahead and hit the rewind button and return to Shelton’s arrival in New York. The Daily News’ John Vergara picks up the narrative in this story published on February 6, 1977.]
As a missed shot bounces high off the rim, Lonnie Shelton times his leap perfectly and grabs the ball as it begins its descent. Before his feet touch the ground, Shelton whips a pass to Walt Frazier as players from the Knicks and Phoenix Suns race toward the other end of the court. Frazier bounces a pass to Earl Monroe, who shoots and misses a 15-footer from the corner. Again, Shelton is there to rebound. This time, Lonnie fakes a shot, spots Monroe still open, but closer to the basket and passes off. The Pearl, who earns a very nice living from that range, pumps it through the hoop without touching the rim.
In a span of less than 10 seconds, rookie Lonnie Shelton has shown why he is the most talked-about Knick big man since the great Willis Reed broke in. Shelton is a strong, aggressive rebounder off both boards, runs extremely well for a man his size (6-foot-8 and 245 pounds), is a fine ballhandler, and an unselfish shooter. In addition, Lonnie has the fastest hands this side of Muhammad Ali, as the fact that he leads the Knicks in steals will attest.
The current Knick season has been divided into two parts—before and after the trade on December 9 which brought three-time NBA scoring champ Bob McAdoo and Tom McMillen to New York and sent John Gianelli and $3 million up north. The big deal delighted Knick fans, filled empty seats at the Garden, and made the team strong contenders to capture another NBA championship. It also lessened Shelton’s playing time, diminishing his chances of being named Rookie of the Year, an honor he was seemingly headed for based on his early-season heroics.
While McAdoo was fighting sub-zero temperatures and mountainous snowdrifts in the city that O. J. Simpson tried unsuccessfully to escape, Lonnie was battling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Bob Lanier and doing a very creditable job. In a two-week span in which he filled in for the injured Spencer Haywood and Gianelli, Shelton averaged 29 minutes of playing time a game. He responded with an impressive average of 14 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals per game.
Not bad for a young man who had been warming the bench and was being brought along slowly. Steady employment resulted in Shelton leading the Knicks in rebounding, blocked shots, and steals while maintaining a scoring average in double figures.
Once McAdoo (6-foot-10) and McMillen (6-foot-11) came to New York, it gave the Knicks two Big Macs guaranteed to give the rest of the league indigestion, particularly since they supplemented frontline power and height already on the club in Shelton and Haywood (6-foot-8).
The trade also took a great deal of pressure off Lonnie, although he had done a fine job of handling it. Suddenly, he had help in getting the big rebound, scoring the clutch basket, blocking that jumper from close in. Suddenly, the inevitable, but odious, comparisons to Willis Reed and Wes Unseld stopped, and he became Lonnie Shelton, super rookie with a tremendous future.
If there is one flaw in the makeup of this gentle (off-court, that is) giant, it is his tendency to get into early foul trouble, thereby reducing his efficiency and value to the team. “There are quite a few centers and forwards in this league taller than I am,” said the soft-spoken Shelton. “But I try to contest every shot they make when I’m close enough. You just can’t let them pop away. They’ll kill you. That’s how I draw some fouls.
“Also, I try to steal the ball a lot, maybe more than most big men do. Maybe that’s a bad habit, but it’s always been my style of play, and I don’t think I can change.”
It might interest Lonnie to know that Willis Reed fouled out of 45 games in his first five seasons with the Knicks. In his last five seasons (two shortened by injuries), Willis was disqualified only three times, not even once in his last three campaigns. Either Reed learned to foul more discreetly or the refs deferred to his superstar status. It could happen to Lonnie.
Shelton was born in Bakersfield, Calif., 21 years ago. He was a football, basketball, and track star at Foothill High School in Bakersfield and chose basketball because “you don’t have to practice and play in the snow, cold, and rain.”
At Oregon State, his career average of 16.2 points, eight rebounds, and three assists per game caught the eye of pro scouts. Perhaps even more important was his amazing quickness and ballhandling ability. It wasn’t unusual to see Shelton grab a rebound, dribble the entire length of the court, and pass off for an easy basket.
Lonnie, as a star in high school and in college, attracted a lot of attention. He did again as a rookie in the NBA. He is a big man, but he does not have a big head. When he was complimented on his 31-point, 19 rebound night against the Nets, he said, “I had several turnovers in the game, too. I was lucky they didn’t hurt us too much.”
Shelton is a low-key guy. He rarely shows emotion on the court. According to his wife, Paula, he’s the same at home. “Lonnie’s pretty quiet,” she said. “You don’t get too much out of him. I get to see just about all the games in New York, so I know how the team is doing. But you can’t tell by Lonnie. He doesn’t get too upset over the games. He’d rather win than lose, of course, but he’s pretty much the same when the game is over.
“He’s easy to get along with. I can cook just about anything for him. He’s not fussy. I’m the fussy one. I’ve known him since the third grade, because I was a friend of his sister. He also has two brothers, one older and one younger.
“Lonnie was always the star in school, but he was never conceited, never bragged. He was always quiet. He still is. I guess the most emotion I ever saw from him came while he was in the delivery room when our baby was born. When he found out he had a son, he actually clapped his hands.”
Lonnie, Jr. will be a year old next month. He’s a big one. He weighed 9 pounds, 5 ½ ounces, and has a healthy appetite. He’s built like an offensive tackle, which isn’t surprising considering the size of his father and mother (5-foot-9 ½).
While Lonnie has found a home with the Knicks, he’s not sure he wants to call New York his home. He lives in Floral Park, Long Island, but plans on returning to Bakersfield after the current season.
“I like New York,” he said. “I heard so much about it before I got here, and I wasn’t disappointed. We met a lot of nice people. Floral Park is nice, a little bit like Bakersfield. But I don’t know about wanting to settle in New York just yet.”
Maybe Shelton will learn to love the Big Apple, just as he’s learning to cope with the big centers in the NBA. “The most-important thing is to try to get position on them,” Lonnie explained. “Jabbar is unstoppable unless you can force him away from the basket a few feet. Walton is tough because he doesn’t make mistakes. Unseld is strong, much stronger than people think. You can’t move that man.
“I could name more, but, believe me, there isn’t one guy in the league who is easy to handle. On any given night, any one of them could give you a bad time and really embarrass you.”
Rival players have learned to respect Shelton. His teammates are also greatly impressed with his ability. Listen to Bill Bradley. “He is the quickest big man I’ve ever seen. Shelton has shot-blocking instincts I haven’t seen since Bill Russell was in the league.”
Who would dare dispute a Rhodes scholar?