The Team That Never Went Away

published May 6, 2010

Saturday marks the fortieth anniversary of an epic night in New York sports.  On May 8, 1970, Willis Reed came stiffly out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel, joined his Knicks teammates on the floor, and generated a buzz and a roar that can still be heard equally by those who were there and those who weren’t.

It was the seventh game of the NBA Finals against the Lakers.  Reed had strained two muscles in his right leg in the first quarter of game five, and hadn’t played since.  The Knicks somehow got a win that night with 6-7 forward Dave Stallworth matched up against the Lakers’ 7-1 center Wilt Chamberlain – the greatest offensive force the game has ever known – but Reed’s absence let Chamberlain explode for 45 points in the sixth game, forcing the series back to New York for one last night.

Reed had tested his leg in the early pre-game warm-up, then lingered in the locker room so he could get his shots of carbocaine and cortisone – pain-reliever and steroidal anti-inflammatory – as close to game time as possible.  When he emerged, a minute before the scheduled player introductions, the Garden crowd rose and greeted the team captain with a joyful noise.

Every New Yorker of a certain age can tell you where he was when Willis came onto the floor.  For most of them, it was not in front of a television; in its wisdom of the day, the NBA did not allow ABC to show a home game live in a team’s market, not even a sellout in the Finals.  All those in the building would agree with Bill Bradley, Knicks forward, Rhodes Scholar, and future U.S. Senator, who got chills during “The Star Spangled Banner” and thought, as he told Frank Deford, “I cannot imagine anyplace else on earth that I would rather be.”

Reed hit the first two field goals of the game for the Knicks; they were his only points, but after that start New York was not going to lose. Reed kept his strong, wide body on Wilt; in the first twenty-one minutes of the game, Chamberlain got the ball down low seventeen times and made two baskets on nine attempts.  Walt Frazier played one of the great seventh games in NBA history, scoring 23 in the first half, finishing the game with 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds.  It was 69-42 at halftime, and the Knicks cruised to their first championship by a comfortable 113-99 margin.

New York being New York, the team was instantly hailed as the epitome of smart, selfless basketball: they moved the ball, they moved without the ball, they found the open man.  Basketball was the city game, and New York – from the Rucker games in Harlem to the ballers on West Fourth – was the home of heady players and sophisticated fans who at last had a pro team worthy of their attention.

They played beautiful basketball.  But they didn’t invent it.

Consider the team they followed, the Boston Celtics – winners of eleven of the previous thirteen titles, a team that perfected the fast break and excelled at every aspect of the game.  What were they, chopped liver?  Did anyone on those Celtics teams ever play selfishly?  (OK, maybe Tommy Heinsohn.)  Imagine being Bill Russell, or Bob Cousy,  or K.C./Sam Jones or John Havlicek, watching the media capital of the world anoint a first-time champion as basketball gods.

The Knicks won their title – and another three years later – at the best possible time.  The video revolution was coming; a sports explosion was underway.  The Knicks completed the New York trifecta, after the Jets won Super Bowl III and the Mets took the 1969 World Series.  Two years later, Roger Kahn published The Boys of Summer, about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s – and from that moment on, newspapers and magazines and sportswriters and -casters of every stripe were determined to exploit every bit of nostalgia they could find.  Hardly a month went by in the last forty years without some update on those Knicks of not-yet-old: Walt “Clyde” Frazier, cool as ever, rhymin’ and chiming in on Knicks broadcasts;  the late Dave DeBusschere, general manager of the New York Nets and ABA commissioner before becoming Knicks GM and drafting Patrick Ewing; Bill Bradley, smart and principled, a three-term Senator but too wonkish and dull a speaker for higher office; Cazzie Russell, Dick Barnett, Dave Stallworth – wherever they went, whatever they did, the New York papers took note.

And what about Reed, the captain?  He coached the Knicks, Creighton University, and the New Jersey Nets, then held front office positions with the Nets, Knicks, and New Orleans Hornets.  And whenever the Knicks of the ‘80s, or ‘90s, or ‘00s wanted to inspire the crowd, the video department was sure to drag out the footage that so few of their fans saw live: Willis, in his warm-ups, coming down the tunnel and out onto the floor.

Again.  And again.  And again.  Until the chills became less a pleasurable memory than a Pavlovian response.  It’s been forty years of remembering forty years ago.

“There isn’t a day in my life that people don’t remind me of that game,” Reed said in 1990.

I know how he feels.

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