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Monday, November 21, 2011

When the Garden was Eden: A Nostalgic Trip Through the Golden Age of New York Hoops

New York professional sports experienced a golden age from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, with the Jets, Mets, Nets and Knicks each winning at least one league title. Joe Namath's Jets and Tom Seaver's Mets are fondly remembered to this day even though they were each basically one year wonders. Julius Erving's Nets won ABA championships in 1974 and 1976 but they never quite captured the imagination of New York, let alone the rest of the country; Erving eventually became recognized as an all-time great but his years in New York are still shrouded in obscurity because the Nets specifically and their league in general did not receive much national media coverage.

The Knicks were the crown jewel of that brief golden age of New York sports. The Knicks not only won the 1970 and 1973 NBA championships but they reached the Division (later Conference) Finals six straight years while having a memorable rivalry with the Baltimore Bullets that produced many classic individual battles, including Dave DeBusschere versus Gus Johnson and Walt Frazier versus Earl Monroe (the Knicks later acquired Monroe, pairing him with Frazier to form the "Rolls Royce" backcourt). The early 1970s Knicks featured five of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players (Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe and Willis Reed).

The Knicks have not won an NBA championship since 1973 and--even if the lockout "nuclear winter" ends soon--it is exceedingly unlikely that the Knicks will win the NBA championship in the near future. Memories, nostalgia and hope are all that sustain Knicks' fans today; whether or not the hope is well founded is a subject for another day but plenty of wonderful memories and nostalgic glimpses back to the golden age can be found in Harvey Araton's When the Garden was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks. Araton rooted for the Knicks as a teenager and he has covered the New York sports scene for more than three decades, starting just after the golden age ended.

Araton begins his story with a brief prologue that poignantly contrasts the beautiful, teamwork-oriented game played by the 1970s Knicks with the disjointed and lifeless efforts of the 2010 Knicks, a patchwork group of players assembled not to win but to serve as placeholders until the franchise made its ultimately fruitless run at wooing LeBron James, who later infamously decided to take his talents to South Beach--a narcissistic and solipsistic phrase that represents the antithesis of how the golden age Knicks thought about and played basketball: when Monroe joined the Knicks he did not take his talents to Madison Square Garden in a self-aggrandizing manner but rather sacrificed individual glory to achieve team success. Monroe made a choice that would be almost unthinkable for a modern superstar: he willingly sacrificed his numbers (and even, for a time, his starting role) for a chance to win a title. Monroe took it as a challenge to prove that he could fit in with the Knicks' team concept, while far too many modern superstars would only view such a situation as a disrespectful challenge to their egos (and their paychecks). Frazier--now a Knicks' broadcaster--confided to Araton that, although he tries to keep his feelings in check as he provides commentary about the bumbling Knicks, "Man, sometimes it's like watching a different sport."

Araton does not limit himself to describing the details of the Knicks' glory days but instead takes a leisurely stroll through the nooks and crannies of Knicks' history, exploring diverse topics ranging from Willis Reed's Louisiana roots to the reason that Madison Square Garden is known as the "Mecca" of basketball (Araton reports that the "Mecca" designation for a New York sports venue originated with the Shriners' Mecca Temple, an old boxing arena). Much of this territory has been explored before both in first person accounts by the participants as well as recollections by various sports writers but Araton's account is neither a straight history of the team nor strictly a personal memoir; Araton writes in the first person and interjects himself--appropriately, not excessively--into the narrative, creating a text that is both intimate and informative.

Red Holzman played for the Rochester Royals' 1951 NBA championship team before serving the Knicks as a scout and a front office executive--but he made his biggest mark as a Hall of Fame coach, compiling a 696-604 record in 18 seasons on the bench while leading the Knicks to the franchise's only two championships. Holzman's daughter Gail granted Araton exclusive access to Holzman's old scouting reports, the only proviso being that Araton not directly mention any critical comments that Holzman made about various players; Araton explains that Gail, like her father, was "unwilling under any conditions to publicly share anything that might be construed as negative...Her father would not have approved." One gem from those files is Holzman's comment after seeing Cazzie Russell's Michigan Wolverines defeat Bill Bradley's Princeton Tigers on a last second jumper by Russell: "Guts to take the last shot." The willingness to take a clutch shot is not something that can be quantified but, as Araton puts it, Holzman knew that a championship team cannot be built around guys who are "conscientious objectors" when the game is on the line.

Holzman's teams achieved a rare harmonious balance: the roster was stacked with Hall of Fame talent but each great player kept his ego in check and the group worked together to achieve a collective goal without fussing over who would receive the credit and the glory. Sure, Frazier may have griped at times that he, not Reed, should have been awarded the 1970 Finals MVP, and Monroe no doubt wonders what his individual career numbers would have looked like had he finished his career as a Bullet; such thoughts are only natural but they never interfered with the team's performance on the court and they pale in comparison to the ego explosions that have undermined so many other squads that contained multiple superstars.

Not surprisingly, the book's longest chapter focuses on game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals--known to most casual basketball fans as the Willis Reed game but remembered by students of basketball history as the game in which Walt Frazier produced one of the greatest clutch performances ever (36 points, 19 assists, seven rebounds) as the Knicks defeated the L.A. Lakers 113-99. Araton deftly weaves together his personal impressions of that 1970 Knicks team with the thoughts and recollections of various players, broadcasters (most notably Marv Albert) and fans (including Spike Lee, who attended game seven at Madison Square Garden as a 13 year old).

Although the Knicks' victory is commonly viewed as the triumph of an underdog over the star-studded trio of Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West--an impression that Araton neither aggressively propagates nor definitively rejects--in the interest of historical accuracy I will briefly share the nuanced description of that series that I wrote a few years ago:

It is true that by the conclusion of the 1970 playoffs West (3708 points, 30.9 points per game) Baylor (3623 points, 27.0 points per game), and Chamberlain (2990 points, 25.8 points per game) were the three leading scorers in NBA playoff history. That is impressive and unprecedented, but it also reflects the fact that all three players were past their primes. Baylor's chronically bad knees would soon force him to retire and, as noted above, Chamberlain had not completely recovered from his early season knee injury. West still had plenty of great games left, but his body was also battered and bruised from so many years of battling deep into the playoffs. The Knicks were hardly an underdog team without a chance; there is a reason that they had homecourt advantage for game seven. None of these facts diminish Reed's courage, Frazier's clutch game seven performance and the overall greatness of the 1970 New York Knicks. Quite the opposite: the 1970 Knicks should be remembered as a great team, not as an underdog.

Placing that matchup in proper historical context does not diminish the unquestioned impact that the Knicks' victory had on the franchise, the city and pro sports history; the images of Willis Reed walking out of the tunnel prior to the game and then hitting his first two jumpers are an indelible part of American popular culture. Hall of Fame forward Bill Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar before becoming a Knick and a U.S. Senator after his Knicks' career ended, told Araton why the Knicks' 1970 championship resonated so deeply at that time and still has a special place in fans' hearts decades later:

In life, it's very difficult to get to the mountaintop, because one day leads to another day and leads to another day. There are small wins and losses in the process. You win an election or lose an election. You can close a deal or not close a deal. But in sports, what you can do as a team, and with your fans feeling part of it, is show what's possible for human beings to achieve if they work together, if they care about each other. Winning the title gave resolution to people who didn't have much resolution in their lives, at a time when resolution was something they really needed.

The Knicks lost to the Bullets in seven games in the 1971 Eastern Conference Finals and then fell in five games to the Lakers in the 1972 NBA Finals. By 1973, Reed was not just temporarily hobbled but rather permanently limited by an accumulation of ailments; he was two years removed from his final All-Star selection and a shadow of his former self, averaging just 11.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg. Frazier was at the top of his game and he was clearly the Knicks' best player. The Boston Celtics cruised to the NBA's best record (68-14) but after a shoulder injury restricted John Havlicek the Knicks took out the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals to earn their third NBA Finals appearance in four seasons, the final chapter in their trilogy of battles against the Lakers. The Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games but, as Reed mentioned to Araton, it sometimes seems like people do not even remember that the Knicks won a second title; the 1970 team has been elevated to legendary status, while the 1973 squad has receded somewhat into the mist.

The flipside of Bradley's poetic rendering of what the 1970s Knicks mean to their fans is that the camaraderie the players felt for one another did not necessarily extend to how the franchise treated them as their respective careers wound down: the Knicks banished Frazier to Cleveland, fired Reed after barely more than one season as Holzman's successor and informed Monroe of the end of his tenure with the team via a newspaper article written by none other than Araton himself. The Celtics and Lakers historically have taken care of their great players--bringing them back as coaches, scouts or front office members--but that is not always the case with other NBA teams (Julius Erving, who usually measures his public words quite carefully, noted during his Farewell Tour that this tribute was an exception for the Philadelphia 76ers and that many of his former teammates had just been unceremoniously cut or had drifted away without much fanfare or recognition from the team). Monroe told Araton, "The history of what's been here: that should be what every organization is about. If you don't honor your history, then how can you plot your future? If you history has been clouded, it sends a bad message. You haven't won the championship in almost 40 years; karma-wise, that may be the reason why. I mean, how long did it take to retire Dick Barnett's number?" Barnett, the third leading scorer on the 1970 championship team behind only Reed and Frazier, played the last nine seasons of his 14 year career with the Knicks and made the All-Star team as a Knick just prior to the beginning of the Knicks' golden age.

Ironically, a role player for those Knicks teams eventually won five of his record 11 championships coaching the Lakers; Phil Jackson sat out the 1970 season because of a back injury and he averaged just 8.1 ppg for the 1973 NBA champions but his later success in Chicago and L.A. can very much be traced back to his time in New York, specifically the mentoring he received from Holzman; Jackson's description of Holzman's demeanor indicates the genesis of Jackson's laid-back coaching style: "Kind words when they were needed, but mostly a matter-of-fact guy. It was the middle of the road--not too high, not too low." Jackson told Araton that Holzman offered Jackson some simple advice about coaching winning basketball: "It's not rocket science. It's see the ball on defense, hit the open man on offense." Araton commented, "Zen philosophy stripped away, Jackson was much like Holzman: he allowed his players to succeed through self-discovery."

When the Garden was Eden mostly hits the right notes, though the concluding passages comparing the character traits of various golden age Knicks to President Obama are a bit discordant; America is a country consisting of roughly 40% Democrats, 40% Republicans and 20% swing voters, so an extended love letter dedicated to one side of the political spectrum is sure to seem odd--if not completely misplaced--to at least nearly half of the readership of the book (it could also be safely argued that the Knicks' place in history is a lot more secure than President Obama's, as the reputations of politicians are apt to rise or fall very swiftly). Despite the odd ending, When the Garden was Eden makes a positive impression overall: it is an easy and enjoyable book to read, a heartfelt and personal portrait of the golden age Knicks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:55 PM

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