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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Walt Frazier: The Embodiment of Seventies Style

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Hoop

Clyde and the Pearl

Walt Frazier was the soul and the spirit of the New York Knicks in the early 1970s—unflappable, unselfish, versatile and smooth, he embodied the essence of what made those teams special. In game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, Willis Reed famously overcame a painful leg injury and nailed his first two shots, inspiring his teammates—but Frazier provided impact, producing 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds in the Knicks’ 113-99 victory over the Chamberlain-West-Baylor L.A. Lakers.

When Frazier entered the NBA in 1967 few would have predicted that he would have such an epic Finals performance en route to a Hall of Fame career. Frazier’s solid numbers (9.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.1 apg) earned him a spot on the All-Rookie Team but he did not take the league by storm. Meanwhile, Baltimore Bullets guard Earl Monroe became an instant star, averaging 24.3 ppg and winning the Rookie of the Year award.

The next season kicked off one of the great rivalries in sports history, marking the first of six straight times that the Knicks met the Bullets in the playoffs. These showdowns featured dueling Hall of Famers at several positions—Reed confronted Wes Unseld in the pivot, Dave DeBusschere wrestled with Gus Johnson at power forward and Frazier tried to contain the wondrous Monroe in the backcourt.

Frazier describes the intensity of the DeBusschere-Johnson matchup: “Dave was a tenacious player, a good rebounder and defender who could also shoot the ball well from the perimeter. I remember vividly those matchups with Gus Johnson, another powerful man--he had an Adonis body, powerfully built. They used to go to war. They asked no quarter and they gave no quarter. After the game I always remember that DeBusschere was sitting over in the corner resting because he had given it all that he had. Most of the time he came out on top. Gus was a very flamboyant player, one of the first ones to break a backboard with his powerful dunks. Their whole team was flamboyant—we had a more stable team and we knew that defense was our catalyst. We knew that if we could stay close to a team we could pull it out down the stretch and most of the time we did.”

Asked who in today’s game plays power forward like DeBusschere or Johnson, Frazier replies, “They were Karl Malone types—dominant low post guys. There are very few of those guys around anymore. They had the omnipotence of a Karl Malone—very powerful inside, rebounding, versatile. I don’t think that they make too many like that anymore.”

While the DeBusschere-Johnson and Reed-Unseld battles often came down to strength and will, the Frazier-Monroe matchup featured contrasting styles--Frazier’s defensive skills and on-court cool versus Monroe’s offensive brilliance and flashy moves. Each player had a great nickname: Frazier was known as Clyde because his wardrobe brought to mind the styles featured in the movie Bonnie and Clyde, while Monroe was called Pearl ever since a newspaper article listed some of his high scoring games in college under the heading "Earl's Pearls."

The Frazier-Monroe rivalry blossomed during the first three playoff encounters between their teams. In 1969, Monroe scored 28.3 ppg versus New York in the playoffs but Frazier hounded him into .386 field goal shooting, a dramatic decline from the Pearl’s .440 accuracy in the regular season. New York swept the Bullets but lost to Boston in the Eastern Finals; the Celtics went on to capture their 11th title in 13 seasons to cap off Bill Russell’s final year.

Baltimore pushed New York to seven games in 1970. Monroe averaged 28.0 ppg, including a 39 point outburst in game one; New York pulled out a 120-117 double overtime win in that contest, keyed by several steals that Frazier made from Monroe down the stretch. Of course, that season culminated in the Knicks’ first championship, forever remembered for Reed’s aforementioned uplifting return to action for game seven after being unable to play in a lopsided game six loss.

The Bullets only won 42 games in 1971, but outlasted the Knicks 93-91 in game seven of the Eastern Finals. The Milwaukee Bucks swept the Bullets in the NBA Finals and only a few months after that the Frazier-Monroe rivalry came to a sudden and shocking end--New York acquired Monroe for Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan. The pairing of two of the NBA’s top guards in the same backcourt did not immediately garner rave reviews on Broadway. Monroe was hobbled by a heel injury and Reed missed the entire postseason due to a knee problem. The Knicks returned to the NBA Finals, but fell 4-1 to the powerful 69-13 Lakers.

In 1972-73 the “Rolls-Royce” backcourt drove the Knicks to their second championship. Fully healthy and without Frazier hounding him on defense, Monroe shot .526 from the field in the playoffs and ranked second on the Knicks in playoff scoring (16.1 ppg), while Frazier led the team in playoff scoring (21.9 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg). More than 30 years later Frazier vividly recalls going to battle against—and then with—Monroe: “Earl was my biggest nemesis. I used to say, ‘Earl doesn’t know what he’s going to do, so how could I know?’ He was just very creative and would make up shots as he goes. But I loved defense and I relished the opportunity to try to stop him. Playing with him was also very exciting. I think that we were the best backcourt ever. People thought that we wouldn’t be able to play together, that we would need two basketballs, but we proved them wrong because we won a championship together.” Frazier and Monroe were teammates with the Knicks for nearly six full seasons. Monroe actually finished his career in New York, while Frazier spent his last three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Dee-Fense!”

“Clyde could strip a car while it’s going 40 miles an hour.”—Bill Hosket, reserve forward-center on the Knicks’ 1970 championship team

Frazier authored an all-around game matched by very few guards in pro basketball history, but his impact was particularly felt on the defensive end of the court. During the Knicks’ glory years in the 1970s fans rocked Madison Square Garden with the rhythmic chant “Dee-Fense!” and Frazier often responded with a key steal followed by a timely hoop. He made the All-Defensive First Team in 1969, the first year the NBA selected such a squad, and earned that distinction in each of the next six seasons; among guards only Michael Jordan and Gary Payton have more All-Defensive First Team selections than Frazier. It is unfortunate that the NBA did not officially keep track of steals until 1973-74, Frazier’s seventh season. Frazier ranked eighth that year with 2.01 spg and placed second in 1974-75 with 2.44 spg, but players often have their best seasons in this category early in their careers. We will never have official documentation of how many steals Frazier had during the Knicks’ championship seasons (this also applies to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, who retired before blocked shots became an officially recorded statistic).

Frazier’s defensive philosophy emphasized quality over quantity in terms of steals. He says, “Everyone has a cadence, a rhythm. Like in life there is a rhythm. The motion of the ocean has a rhythm. So normally if you were right handed, I’d force you to the left. That way I could reach around you. Most of the time a guy is vulnerable going to his weak side and he does not protect the ball like he should. So there is an opening there. During the course of a game I would set a guy up for that. He’s been comfortable with that particular move the entire game and now I go for the steal when it will have an impact on the outcome of the game.” Like a cheetah hiding until just the right moment, Frazier did not pounce until he knew that he could snare his prey.

Frazier notes that defense has changed in the NBA since the 1970s: “The biggest difference is that you can no longer put your hands on guys. When we played you could put your hands on guys and literally push and shove them around. They took that out and it’s much easier today because of that. My biggest adjustment to the NBA as a rookie was adjusting to having someone always pushing me and having their hands on me. That was like carrying an extra five to ten pounds around. The defense then was more physical. With pick and roll plays (then) you had to be very physical to get over the pick. They have actually taken that type of tenacity away from the defense today. You can no longer hand check and do the things that we used to do, especially in the playoffs. That was like Kung Fu fighting; it was just war—very aggressive defense and they let us play that way.”

Frazier says that the hand check was not an important tool in his defensive arsenal: “Most of the guys used it. Almost everybody did it. I didn’t do it because I used deception on defense. I didn’t like guys to know where I was so I never put my hands on them.”

There is a lot of emphasis today on advanced scouting and video preparation for specific opponents, but Frazier did not rely very much on those things during his career and is skeptical of their importance: “I had the focus in my head. If you mention a guy, I could tell you what he was going to do: Oscar Robertson is going to try to take you down low; Jerry West is going to stop and pop; Earl the Pearl is going to shake and bake. Everyone who I guarded I knew what they were going to do. The coach did not have to tell me; I knew. The coach might emphasize certain things that a player likes to do, but from your experience in the league you know what everybody likes to do. (The importance of) scouting is exaggerated. Everyone knows what you are running and they know the names of your plays and everything. It’s all about execution.”

Thriving in Life’s Transition Game

An athlete’s adjustment to life after playing professional sports is often difficult psychologically and financially. Any problems in these areas may be compounded by physical ailments resulting from years of wear and tear. However, several of the players from the Knicks’ championship teams have done well in their post-playing careers—most famously, Bill Bradley became a U.S. Senator and Phil Jackson won nine championships as an NBA coach. Frazier has thrived in life’s transition game. He has several successful businesses, including a bed-and-breakfast in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. In 1996, he founded the Walt Frazier Youth Foundation to help high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds obtain internships and job opportunities. Frazier even co-wrote a book with Alex Sachare, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Basketball.

Frazier provided color commentary on WFAN 660’s radio broadcasts of Knicks games from 1989-1998 before joining MSG Network as a color commentator for the 1998-99 season. He has worked there ever since, dispensing insights with uniquely melodious diction and colorful adjectives. Frazier would never be satisfied using pedestrian words such as good or bad to describe the action on the court—it is either scintillating and sensational or deplorable and disastrous. Frazier studies the dictionary and thesaurus like he used to study opposing players and spices his comments with rhymes and alliteration the way he used to stuff boxscores with points, rebounds, assists and steals.

Business, broadcasting and philanthropy—Frazier is as well rounded in his current endeavors as he was during his Hall of Fame playing career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:39 AM

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At Saturday, June 20, 2009 1:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! I remember reading his book, "Rockin' Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool" as a kid.

 

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