Frazier, by the way, was never once assessed a technical foul during his entire career. (He said he had better uses for his money.) And the “Clyde” image was just that – the reputation as a man about town was contrived, a business decision concocted by his agent. His college teammates were shocked that the introvert they had played with even dabbled with such a persona – and he was a stickler for healthy eating, sleep, practice and success, rather than club hopping.
Frazier and Reed both extolled the benefits of growing up in the South, despite the rampant discrimination. In Reed’s small Louisiana town, blacks and whites commingled freely and socially. But Frazier articulated his conclusions that the discrimination brought people together and gave them greater incentive to persevere and succeed. “Unlike the North, in a way, we were raised by a village. If you were doing something wrong, everybody in the neighborhood had carte blanche to make it their business. We were always taught to have a tenacious work ethic, to get an education. Because no matter what names they called you, once you had that, no one could take that away.”
That changed in the 1960s, and government assumed the paternalistic role that has devastated the black community. But the self-reliance of those Knicks players led to lifelong success. Reed became a coach and basketball executive, Frazier a colorful broadcaster and real estate investor and developer (his real passion), DeBusschere a team president and later businessman (he died young), Barnett – who was thought to be a slow-witted dullard – earned a doctorate, Bradley became a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Jerry Lucas markets his incredible memory techniques, Phil Jackson coached more NBA champions than any other person, etc.
All were held together by the taciturn, reticent, unpretentious Jewish coach Red Holzman, whose retirement number hanging from the Garden rafters bears the number of his regular season victories, 613 (Araton: “the same as the number of commandments in the Torah”). Holzman was a simple man of simple tastes, a reluctant coach who dwelled in a modest home in Cedarhurst with his wife and daughter.
The Knicks’ first NBA title punctuated “championship season” in New York, with the Jets and Mets having won in football and baseball earlier that year. In retrospect, the Knicks proved a respite from the strife of the times – the civil rights marches, the Vietnam War protests (in both cases, some players participated, others not), the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich and finally Watergate, which unfolded during the second championship season.
It is something more than nostalgia at play. It is a vivid reminder of how commonality of purpose and the harmony of dissimilar elements can engender the success of the group. When the Garden was Eden is a great book – marred only at the very end by Araton’s manufactured attempt to wrap Barack Obama in the mantle of the Old Knicks – and rewarding for all those who were young and innocent during those halcyon, almost mythical, days.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.