When the Knicks Were Legend
When the Knicks Were Legend
Now it’s the Knicks’ and New York’s turn.
Friday marks 50 years since the Knicks won their first championship, and it is a memory to savor and celebrate.
It is an anniversary worthy of pressing pause on the typical disappointment-filled, James L. Dolan-dominated Knicks discourse of the past two decades.
Spike Lee, the Oscar-winning filmmaker synonymous with Knicks fandom, called the first championship “one of the great moments of my life.” Lee was at Madison Square Garden that night as a 13-year-old, having snubbed one of his father Bill’s jazz concerts to attend what became a Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers — with a ticket supplied by his father’s lawyer.
“You have a decision to make,” Lee’s mother, Jacquelyn, told him.
“OK, Mom, I’m going to the game,” he replied.
“The first counts extra, you know?” Lee said in a phone interview on Saturday.
Marv Albert was there, too. In just his third season as the Knicks’ full-time radio voice on WHN, Albert worked games in those nascent days with no color analyst and from a perch high above the Madison Square Garden floor.
“They used to call it a gondola,” Albert said. As for his “crew,” which consisted of just a statistician and an engineer, Albert said: “When there would be a lull, I would be having conversations with myself.”
On the unforgettable evening of May 8, 1970, Albert did succeed in snagging a pregame interview with Willis Reed during which the Knicks’ gimpy center vowed to play on the right thigh muscle that he tore in Game 5, causing him to miss Game 6. Albert relayed the news to his WHN listeners before tipoff.
ABC’s Howard Cosell received the same information from Knicks Coach Red Holzman, and Albert suspects that Reed shared the same vow with other reporters in the building. Because they had nothing resembling the tools of the social media age to dispense such coveted news, Albert remembered zero fuss being made about which audience found out first.
“You can’t even compare it to now,” Albert said. “There was not much you could do with an early story.”
Better than anyone, Albert can imagine how hysterically the moment — and the pregame buildup surrounding Reed’s availability — might have played out today. At 78, Albert is still doing marquee games on TV for Turner Sports.
Yet he insisted that the advances of modern journalism could not have made the experience any more momentous. Albert wasn’t too far removed from his high school years, when he worked as a Knicks ball boy and Philadelphia’s Wilt Chamberlain once sent him off to “get him four hot dogs from the concession stand at halftime.” He could scarcely believe that he was working a deciding game in the N.B.A. finals before his 30th birthday, let alone having the privilege of ushering Reed out of the tunnel with the indelible call of “Here comes Willis.”
The Knicks’ title in 1970 will always carry a magic for Albert that even a subsequent championship in 1973 couldn’t approach. Because the Knicks clinched that 1973 crown on the road, Albert described it as “like anticlimactic.”
“There were maybe two writers and me in the locker room after the game,” he said.
In 1970, mind you, Albert didn’t even get to call the road games. His assignments were at home only — and Game 7 took on considerably more importance than usual because of the broadcast restrictions.
ABC’s national broadcast of Game 7 was blacked out in New York until 11:30 p.m. Unless you were among the fortunate 19,500 at M.S.G., like Lee, there were essentially only two other options: finding a bar that offered a closed-circuit broadcast or listening to Albert on the radio.
When Reed ambled onto the floor a few minutes before tipoff, Albert began doing play-by-play of his warm-up jumpers. Bill Bradley’s first game as a Knick in 1967, according to Albert, was the only other one in his career to merit such extravagance.
Basketball has sadly never succeeded in transmitting the depths of its rich history as well as baseball has, so I hesitate to take the liberty of assuming that younger fans know most of what happened next. Reed hit his first two jumpers, Walt Frazier assembled one of the most spectacular (and overlooked) Game 7s ever, and the Knicks rolled up a 69-42 halftime lead over the shellshocked Lakers on the way to a comfortable 113-99 victory.
“Clyde had run into the safe haven of the locker room with four seconds left,” Albert said of Frazier, who totaled 36 points, 19 assists and 7 rebounds. “He anticipated that the crowd would swarm the court at the final buzzer.”
A celebration had been planned for March 21 this year to honor the 1969-70 squad in conjunction with a Knicks game against Golden State, but the ceremony was canceled before the N.B.A.’s season was abruptly suspended March 11 in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The New York Post reported in February that Albert was not invited to the reunion, presumably an offshoot of his 2004 dismissal from the Knicks because Dolan thought his on-air commentary had become too critical.
“I expected it,” Albert told me. “Dolan and I disagreed, let’s say, on the philosophy of broadcasting.”
He left it there, preferring to keep the focus on the 1970s. Lee, who had his own messy clash with Dolan in early March about which arena entrance he was allowed to use, likewise showed no interest in rehashing a flap that prompted him to describe the Knicks as “the laughingstock of the league.”
Lee delighted instead in recounting a recent encounter with Jerry West, who starred on that losing 1969-70 Lakers team, alongside Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
“When Willis Reed came out on the court, I thought my ears were going to explode,” Lee said, echoing Albert’s view that the crowd was the loudest in Garden history — to that point and since. “Both teams were on the court doing their layup lines, and when Willis came out, the entire Los Angeles Laker team stopped and turned around.”
West, according to Lee, disputed that he was among the gawking Lakers. “I love Jerry,” Lee said, “but I trust my 13-year-old eyes. The whole Laker team stopped.”
Lee was laughing throughout our 20-minute chat on Saturday, and it was good to hear. Dismayed as he was with his “orange and blue” when we last heard from him in March, shortly before his 63rd birthday and after months of the team’s usual dysfunction, the onset of such a fond Knicks remembrance has him dreaming anew.
“I just hope I’m able to see another banner raised to the world’s most famous arena’s roof,” Lee said. “If it’s not me, it better happen with my son, who’s 25.”
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Why did Michael Jordan not push to help get Scottie Pippen more money or to force Jerry Reinsdorf to renegotiate Pippen’s contract? And why did Reinsdorf allow Jerry Krause to alienate everyone in the organization? — Barry Flax (Potomac, Md.)
Stein: Two excellent questions that, just by being asked, make strong points on behalf of the very small lobby of support Krause has received through the first six episodes of “The Last Dance.”
Make no mistake: Krause undermined much of his own brilliance as a team-builder with his constant quest for credit, his inexplicable infatuation with Tim Floyd and how quickly he was prone to turn on his own uncovered gems, such as Pippen, Doug Collins and especially Phil Jackson.
I’m not sure which was more egregious: Krause’s very public pronouncement before the 1997-98 season that Jackson would be out at season’s end no matter what, or the fact that Krause felt the need to reiterate his stance on the record in February 1998, after the Bulls had finally begun to recover from a tumultuous start to the season.
But, yes, Reinsdorf is hugely culpable for not doing more to hold this team together after Jordan said on numerous occasions that he felt the Bulls deserved to keep defending their titles until they were dethroned. Ditto for Jordan himself, albeit not to the same degree as the owner.
The Bulls had a window after the 1994-95 season to give Pippen a contract extension. They knew how unhappy he was by then — and how vital Jordan considered him to the team’s success — and yet they let Pippen’s unhappiness fester instead of trying to get in front of it the way a smart organization would. Given the historic nature of the Bulls’ first three-peat team and knowing how married Jordan was to Pippen by that point, it’s still hard to believe — even 25 years later — that Reinsdorf didn’t address the incongruity of their contracts in the off-season right after M.J. returned from his baseball experiment.
Players didn’t wield the personnel power that they have now, but M.J. gets no pass here, either. He surely could have influenced matters in Pippen’s favor had he gotten more involved.
I know plenty of Bulls fans who have been deeply disillusioned with Reinsdorf, especially given the limited success that Chicago has managed since the breakup of its Last Dance team. But he has clearly been insulated from a good measure of the constant criticism and unrelenting attention Krause attracted as the franchise’s No. 1 villain.
Few will feel sorry for Krause after his portrayal in the documentary series, since the beloved Jordan himself still can’t let go of contempt for the general manager. But Krause made countless shrewd moves to build and rebuild the roster around His Airness and died, sadly, just days before he was announced as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s class of 2017.
Q: Why are you calling it Fullerton State? It’s Cal State Fullerton, my man! — @paydawg2 from Twitter
Ceballos and I were both enrolled at Cal State Fullerton in the late 1980s. My reference to “Fullerton State” was a playful nod to the way the school was often referred to, even in The Associated Press stylebook, when Ceballos was making his rise from community college transfer to the first (and only) N.B.A. All-Star in school history.
Some Fullerton alumni of more recent vintage have been brainwashed into thinking “Fullerton State” is some sort of evil term. It most certainly is not. Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State and (my forever nemesis) Long Beach State have all flourished with that sort of construction.
There are many Fullerton alumni from my age bracket and older who prefer the “Fullerton State” reference and are envious of the various California schools that never had to apologize for going that simple-but-elegant route.
You can disagree, but trust me: As my pal Adam Rank of the NFL Network recently tweeted, “Fullerton State” or just plain “Cal State” appeals to a lot of us old-timers. (A beautiful orange hat with Cal State in navy lettering, for the record, is always near the desk in my home office.)
I am also prone to call my school Titan Tech in tribute to the first person I ever heard use that term: Mark Warkentien of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Warkentien is a Thunder consultant, a Fullerton graduate and former assistant coach and the N.B.A.’s Executive of the Year Award winner from 2008-09 with the Denver Nuggets.
Q: Check out the new “Game of Zones” episode! You’re in it! — @mfflhunter from Twitter
Stein: I watched it. I saw what you saw. But I still can’t believe it or explain it.
It’s an honor of peak surreal-ness that has left the word guy pretty much speechless.
If N.B.A. practice facilities indeed open Friday in states where shelter-in-place restrictions have eased, teams will be asked to clean and disinfect basketballs by following these specific instructions from Spalding and the league office: Mix a ¼-teaspoon of dish detergent with each gallon of water, use that liquid and a clean cloth or towel to wipe down each ball, then rinse the balls with water. Once a ball air dries, teams are to spray it with a disinfectant approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hard to believe, especially given the mounting praise for his talents throughout “The Last Dance” documentary series, but Pippen never won the N.B.A.’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Jordan won it once (1987-88) and Dennis Rodman won it in consecutive seasons (1989-90 and 1990-91) with the Detroit Pistons before teaming up with Jordan and Pippen for three seasons in Chicago.
Another surprise from that era: the absence of an N.B.A. Coach of the Year Award in Rudy Tomjanovich’s trophy case, all the more so considering his recent selection to the Basketball Hall of Fame. The 1994-95 Houston Rockets, under Tomjanovich, remain the lowest seed (No. 6) to win the championship since the N.B.A. adopted a 16-team playoff format in 1983-84.
One more zero: I’m still trying to process the fact that Jordan didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer in his 63-point playoff game at Boston Garden in 1986, as noted during the opening weekend of “The Last Dance.” Jordan shot 22-for-41 from the field and 19-for-21 from the line over 53 minutes in Chicago’s overtime loss to the Celtics.
Three N.B.A. coaches are at least 65 years old: New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry (65), Houston’s Mike D’Antoni (who turns 69 on Friday) and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (71). This is one of the many variables for the league to weigh as it explores the possibility of resuming the 2019-20 season, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said adults over 65 are at an elevated risk of severe illness or death from coronavirus.