The delayed start of the professional basketball season due to a labor dispute has left me indifferent. It has been many years since I watched an entire game, even more since I actually attended one in person. There are simply better and more enjoyable ways to utilize my time, not to mention that, realistically, “professional” basketball has unfortunately not been played in the metropolitan area for some time.
To someone who was an avid Knicks fan in his youth, reared on the glories of the Knick championship teams now almost four decades gone, much of professional basketball has become unwatchable – a parade of dunking, jumping and individual efforts more suitable to TV highlights than to success in a team sport.
That is why I read with great delight Harvey Araton’s recently-released When the Garden was Eden, a chronicle of those glorious Knicks teams of Reed and Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere, Barnett and Monroe, Phil Jackson and Red Holzman. It is an account not only of their victories and struggles, but especially of their disparate backgrounds and personalities that meshed to form what might be the greatest team in NBA history, even if it was never composed of the greatest players in NBA history or even of that era. There is heart, self-sacrifice, unselfishness and determination, a microcosm (as Araton notes in a running subtext) of what America could have been like with racial harmony and mutual respect.
The team revolved around Willis Reed, and the narrative of Game 5 (1970 Finals – Reed injured, team trailing, but somehow miraculously defeat the Laker behemoths of Chamberlain, Baylor and West) makes as riveting and inspiring reading today as it was listening to that game. And Game 7 – Reed emerging through the runway and limping onto the court shortly before the game began, having taken shots of painkillers to ease the throbbing in his torn hip muscle – is the stuff of legends and clichés. DeBusschere turned, saw the Lakers mesmerized – frozen – by the sight of the injured Captain, and said to himself, “We got ‘em.” They did, in a rout.
I missed that game – May 8, 1970, a Friday night. Having seen the game in subsequent years on film, it remains enthralling entertainment and a slice of life. Walt Frazier, who had one of the greatest Game 7’s ever – 36 points, 19 assists – resented that Reed received the MVP award after having played barely five games in the series. But watching the game again with Araton – for his first time ever, Frazier said – he retracted and apologized for his earlier sentiments. It was Reed’s presence alone that intimidated the Lakers, and he deserved the MVP status.
The backgrounds of the major players were as diverse as America. Reed from the deep South, Frazier from urban Atlanta, DeBusschere from working class Detroit, and Bradley from upper middle class Republican bankers in Missouri – but all bonding through an understanding and appreciation of their diversity.
There was some underlying racial tension on the team – specifically the resentments of the talented Cazzie Russell who was the sixth man behind the slow-footed, cerebral Bill Bradley (my personal favorite player). Russell chafed in his role – even called Reed an “Uncle Tom” once for rebuking him, to which Reed essentially glared him into an apology and greater deference – but most basketball pundits saw Bradley’s genius, outside the numbers of the box score, in running the floor, passing, setting up teammates, disrupting the opposition, and creating offensive harmony.
It was a joy to behold – the team game, the movement without the ball, the shot going to the open man, the helping out on defense. It will surprise no one who watched those teams that Bradley was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, despite a career average of 12 points a game, with his season high topping out at 16 points a game. Indeed, seven other players from those teams are also Hall of Famers, and yet they succeeded in keeping their egos in check. Even the magical performer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, a 1971 addition, learned to sublimate his skills for the good of the team –for example, insisting when he arrived on the team that he not take Dick Barnett’s starting position.
It was a different era. Most players did not earn great amounts of money from professional sports, held off-season jobs and actually needed the playoff money. Only Bradley had signed the big contract after college, his career delayed by studies in Oxford and then service in the Air Force – another relic of a bygone era. Willis Reed lived in Rego Park, a far cry from Derek Jeter’s penthouse in Trump Tower, and not far from where my own great aunt lived. It was a middle class existence, to which the average fan could easily relate.