Holman was Nat Holman, the kid from a Lower East Side tenement who's thought to have been basketball's first playmaking guard. Holman played for the Original Celtics, the New York-based barnstorming professional team of the 1920s and '30s that predated the Boston Celtics by some 24 years. The Original Celtics' offense featured what the players called meshing, continuously run figure-eights. Holman's gift was picking just the right teammate out of all this dervishing and passing to him for a layup.
If you're wondering how St. John's and the Royals came to field, in Levane and Garfinkel, two playmakers at the same time, recall that for most of its early history, basketball made no distinction between a one guard and a two guard. By mid-century, however, coaches had begun to entrust offenses to a single maestro. Dick McGuire of Rockaway, Queens, was one of the first, a master of the pass while moving to the basket during his days at St. John's in the late 1940s. "Dick was so good that Harry Gallatin [ McGuire's teammate with the New York Knicks] got in the Hall of Fame making nothing but layups," says Levane. Frank McGuire, Dick's coach at St. John's and no relation, used to say that he had no set plays because Dick could invent better ones than Frank could draw up.
After lunch, a phone call finds Cousy at his home in Worcester, Mass. "Our style emanated from the schoolyard," he says. "The pick-and-roll, the backdoor, three-man movement where you pass and pick away." Growing up in St. Albans, Queens, Cousy admired McGuire's style and then took his idol's half-court game to the open floor—"Creativity at speed," he calls it—and led Holy Cross to the eight-team NCAA tournament in 1947, '48 and '50.
In the 1950s and early '60s Tommy Kearns, who starred at St. Ann's Academy in Manhattan, before playing at North Carolina, and Lenny Wilkens, who starred at Providence after graduating from Boys High in Brooklyn, began to strike more of a balance between passing and scoring. They read defenses—and scored themselves if mat's what the defenses conceded. Bronx-born Nate (Tiny) Archibald, the prototypical scoring point guard, took things a step further in the early '70s and is still the only player to lead the NBA in both scoring and assists in the same season.
Since Archibald, the attributes of the New York guard have settled into a portfolio of essentials. One is the all-court consciousness that Cousy sees in 13-year NBA vet Mark Jackson, who, like Cousy, grew up in St. Albans, Queens: "He works his way in, with his head up, and sees the floor well without ever being out of control." Cousy points to other New Yorkers—Washington at Syracuse and, more recently, Anderson and Marbury at Georgia Tech—who took the ball to the hoop but still kept everyone else involved.
Over the past century few of the city's finest playmakers have been great shooters. Cousy considers that a blessing. "You only have to shoot well enough to keep the defense honest," he says. An honest defender must play up on his man and thus becomes vulnerable to a quick first step, which gets a playmaker into the lane, where plays are made. A New York City guard once squeezed off a dozen or more passes before finding a cutter for a layup; today his most valuable asset isn't his hands but his feet.
For every guard whose reputation spread beyond the boroughs, however, New York has produced another who, though he could bring dazzling order to any court, couldn't tame the disorderly terrain of his own life. Longtime Archbishop Molloy coach Jack Cur-ran says that Danny Power (St. Ann's, 1953) was "better than Cousy." Pee Wee Kirkland (Charles Evans Hughes High in Manhattan, '64, then Norfolk State, '68) was a schoolyard legend who simply walked out of the Chicago Bulls' camp one day in '68. SI cover boy and playground star Edward (Booger) Smith was kicked off the basketball team at Westinghouse High in Brooklyn in 1993, during his junior year, for shooting dice in school. Billy Lawrence (Molloy, '61) once scored 21 points in the fourth quarter against a box-and-one, only to flail for a semester at North Carolina and two more at St. John's, whereupon he became...a transit cop.
Jab Step and cross over to Manhattan—to Boys' Harbor, a rooftop court in East Harlem that overlooks the Central Park treetops. It's a summer Saturday, and the three Big East-bound freshmen are here with their families. So too is a human time line of New York point guards, from Kearns through Archibald, Dean Meminger, Sam Worthen, Washington, Smith, Rod Strickland, Anderson, Derrick Phelps and Shaheen Holloway to Tinsley and Mapp. The pretext is a photo shoot, but it quickly turns into a hoops block party.
The players gather in knots of two and three, munching on sandwiches and catching up. Listen and you hear buzz about Marbury's cousin, Sebastian Telfair, who'll be a freshman at Lincoln High in Brooklyn this season. (Telfair was only 5'8" and had just turned 15, but in the Rumble in the Bronx tournament a year ago, he led Brooklyn USA to the 16-and-under title.) You hear Curran, who coached Smith and Anderson at Molloy, forswear credit for what those two became. "All these kids are developed by the time we get them," he says. "We just polish them up at bit, teach them discipline." You hear Anderson marvel at the precocious physique of Brown. "When I was in high school, I was little," Anderson says. "These kids develop much more quickly."
Meminger, natty in a coat and tie, moves among the guests collecting phone numbers and talking about his playing days at Marquette in the late 1960s. Someone points out Kearns—the floor leader of North Carolina's 1957 NCAA champions, who looks a bit out of place in his golf shirt and slacks—to Taliek Brown and then asks Brown if he thinks he could take him. "I don't know," Brown says. "He won a title."