[As the NBA’s 1976-77 regular-season wound to an end, the New York Knicks wound up with no postseason bid and big changes to come. Red Holzman, who had famously piloted the Knicks to two world championships, was retiring. So was forward Bill Bradley, one of the last fixtures from those two NBA teams. Newsday’s Pete Alfano was there for the last roadtrip. Here’s his vivid account of the final goodbyes, published on April 11, 1977. Enjoy!]
They stood at a baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport, watching the carousel going ‘round and ‘round and ‘round, bringing them their luggage for the last time. It was the end of a season, spanning seven months, encompassing 82 games, 24 roadtrips, with time spent in the hotels and motels and airports and coffee shops which are part of the carousel a team rides every year.
For Knicks coach Red Holzman, it was the end of the ride. For all seasons. So, too, for Bill Bradley, who already had departed. He had shaken hands with several teammates and walked quickly to the exit, a cranberry-color travel bag slung from his shoulder the way Santa Claus carries the toys in his sack. Bradley did not look back.
Holzman waited, his hands on his hips and a half-chewed, half-smoked cigar in his mouth. He joked as he had during the three-day roadtrip, displaying no sentimentality in his farewell as coach. He spotted his suitcase and snatched it from the carousel. Before he left, he repeated a request he had made earlier yesterday in the locker room at Detroit’s Cobo Arena. “Thank the fans for me,” Holzman said. “Dont forget to thank them.”
Red says thanks.
The Knicks had played their final home game at Madison Square Garden last Thursday night, then left for Buffalo, the first stop of the two-game trip that would bring an end to their season. It would be a trip similar to all their trips, everyone following familiar routines established after years on the road. They were in better spirits than usual, however, because the season was ending. When the plane landed, it was snowing. Welcome to Buffalo.
Friday afternoon, at 5 o’clock, team publicist Frankie Blauschild was watching an Easter movie starring Victor Mature. There was a stirring in the adjacent room of the suite, and Holzman emerged, dressed in a nightshirt and carrying a nail clipper. He sat in a chair and trimmed his nails.
He left to take a shower, then returned with a towel draped around his waist. “There’s no hot water,” he said. “See what happens when you don’t make the playoffs?”
He would return again, dressed in slacks and a pale blue shirt. He watched the movie and translated the Latin words inscribed on part of the scenery. “I wasn’t a good Latin student,” he said. “My teacher was Mrs. Henry at Franklin K. Lane. She looked old to me then, she must’ve been only in her 30s.”
The team bus was parked outside a side entrance of the Statler. Holzman spotted Bradley and asked, “Hey, Bill, anything I can do for you?” Bradley mumbled. Holzman said, “Earl (Monroe) isn’t on the trip. I’m making you captain.” Bradley grimaced.
As captain, it was Bradley’s responsibility to distribute the two complementary tickets that are given to each player. “How many ya’ need?” he would ask. He said for the longest time before undressing and putting on his uniform.” It ended for me in New York,” he said. “This is just a postscript. Not even an epilogue, just a postscript.”
The Knicks beat Buffalo by two points, and Bradley played an important part in the fourth quarter. Afterward, he elaborated on his role as a substitute this season. “You care just as much, but you get frustrated,” he said. “A lot of what you have to do is in relation to other people. That is tough to do in three-minute stints. A good relationship occurs on a team with clearly defined roles. There were no clearly defined roles on this team this year. That first Knicks championship team was unique.”
The locker room was noisy as former Knick John Gianelli and a couple of other Braves players visited. Mo Layton was in the shower, singing. “That’s not singing,” Holzman said. “He must be hurt.”
At 11:30 Friday night, Bradley and his roommate, Phil Jackson, went to dinner. The place they had in mind was Morgan’s, recommended by Tom McMillen. The taxi driver told him his name was Tony Carlucci. He talked them into eating at the Swiss Chalet. The place serves chicken, smothered in grease. Bradley loved it. Tony the taxi driver waited in this cab as promised. After dinner, he would drive them to Morgan’s.
On the way, Carlucci pointed out the sites and landmarks of Buffalo. Bradley and Jackson played the straight men. “That’s it, right?” Jackson asked, spotting Morgan’s. “Yeah, I’ll wait for you,” said Tony the taxi driver.
Morgan’s was a disco, with two separate bars and dance floors. The music was loud and continuous, encouraging dancing and drinking and a minimum of conversation. Bradley frowned when he walked in. He lifted his head and rolled his eyes when he heard one of the two managers of the place announce on a microphone, “Ladies and the gentlemen, let’s welcome Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson.” Bradley wanted to leave. Immediately. “Let’s sit down,” Jackson said.
McMillen spotted them and led them to the backroom where he had two dinners ordered. The main course was chicken.
Bradley sat, nursing a drink. Jackson ate. McMillen danced The Hustle. After a half-hour, Bradley turned to Jackson. “Let’s go,” he said. Tony the taxi driver was waiting. On the way to the hotel, he tutored Bradley and Jackson on how to beat the horses. “Bet big only in the stakes races,” he said. “What’s a stakes race?” Bradley asked. Then Bradley broke out in song. “Disco, disco duck. Disco, disco duck. Quack. Quack.”
Saturday morning was sunny and warm for Buffalo. McMillen was seated on the team bus when Bradley climbed aboard. Bradley spotted McMillen. “Tom Boog-a-loo,” he said. “What was that dance you were doing last night?”
“The Hustle,” McMillen said.
“Boog-a-loo,” said Bradley.
At the Buffalo airport, Holzman walked through the sliding doors into the terminal. “Here he goes, walking into the sunset,” Holzman said. “And nary a tear was shed.” He puffed on his cigar.
The flight to Detroit was smooth. Bradley read. When the plane landed, he was the last one off. “The last stop,” he said.
The Knicks stayed at the Detroit Plaza, an ultramodern hotel of a concrete-slab design that has been open for business only three weeks. It was crowded, and tour groups were everywhere. Armed guards manned the entrances to the banks of elevators, and a guest had to show them a key before being allowed to pass. The Knicks were like prisoners being led to their cells. “A zoo,” Bradley concluded.
Before the start of yesterday’s game, Holzman was in the locker room. Former Knick Cal Ramsey, the TV analyst, asked him to tape a halftime interview. The gift was a walkie-talkie set. “I can give it to Selma [his wife],” Holzman said.
Would she use it?
“Ah, she doesn’t need it,” Holzman said. “I wouldn’t say that if she were here. I’d say, ‘Yes, dear,’ and ‘No, dear.’ Mostly, ‘Yes, dear.’”
A man came into the locker room and showed Holzman a basketball program dated December 14, 1943. Holzman was on the Naval Training Station team in Virginia. That team played University of Richmond that day. The man had been a spectator the game. “We beat the $#!(%! out of ‘em,” Holzman said.
“How do you remember?” someone asked.
“The score is here on the program,” Holzman said.
Bradley played 33 minutes yesterday against the Pistons. He had 11 points. In the final minutes, with the Knicks comfortably ahead a fan walked behind the Knicks’ bench and said, “Put Bill back in, Red,”
Holzman asked Bradley if he wanted to return. Bradley balked, but finally said: “Put Phil in, too.”
With 1:48 remaining, Bradley and Jackson entered the game. With 1:35 to go, Bradley hit on a jumper from the left baseline. It was his last shot. Ten years ago, on a night in December against the Pistons at Madison Square Garden, he played in his first professional game. And he sank his first shot. “The same one,” he said. “From the left baseline.”
Trainer Danny Whelan added another fact. “We lost his first home game, and we lost his last one,” he said smiling.
With time running out, Bradley was taken out of the game. As the fans in Cobo Arena applauded, Holzman stood and walked a few steps to greet him. They smiled and shook hands.
They were the last to leave the locker room. There were no tears, no diversion from the customary banter. It had been a roadtrip like any other, with one exception—it was their last. S’long, Bill. See ya’, Red.