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New York gets a top team at last
Frank Deford
October 23, 1967
Did you see the news the other day? The President, the Times said, urged Republicans in Congress to put "nation above party." The Soviet foreign minister was reported "confident of accord" on new disarmament proposals. In New York the mayor was trying to cut off a strike by city employees. Tickets were on sale for Ingrid Bergman's first Broadway show in years. And the Knickerbockers lost their home opener at Madison Square Garden in overtime before 17,205 fans. All that happened just the other day—November 11, 1946.
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October 23, 1967

New York Gets A Top Team At Last

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Reed, from Bernice, La. ("two stop lights"), had averaged 26 points at Grambling, but both the pro scouts and the Olympic committee thought Luke Jackson of Pan American the best big man available. The Knicks, for their part, felt that Bad News Barnes of Texas Western was the best, and they made him their first pick in the '64 draft. (Barnes never did live up to his promise, and the Knicks unloaded him for Bellamy.) Ironically, the team that rated Reed highest was the Los Angeles Lakers, a franchise that had been looking for a top center since George Mikan retired. The Lakers' late general manager, Lou Mohs, had the '64 prospects ranked carefully on a numerical scale, with Reed at the top, but Owner Bob Short ordered Mohs to pick Walt Hazzard, the local ( UCLA) whiz. So Reed, amazingly, was available to the Knicks and they took him, leading off the second round. They also took Komives (in a deal) on this round, Crawford on the fourth, and Bryant on the seventh. There are only 17 players left in the league from that 1964 draft. The Knicks picked five.

They also made four good choices the next year, although one of them, Dave Stallworth, has since been retired by a heart attack. Last year the Knicks' first two choices made the league. This year Frazier and Jackson are two of the best rookies in the NBA. The Knicks now have the best and the most extensive scouting setup in the league, and the best individual scout in Red Holzman, and they are paying off. Holzman starts keeping tabs on prospects in high school and follows them through college. Jackson, for example, lost 20 pounds from his slim frame because of a blood virus last year, and many other scouts, unaware of this, wrote him off as too tired and skinny. Holzman knew better.

It hardly used to be this way. In the 11 years before the Reed draft, the Knicks made a succession of selections that defy logic, common sense, luck, credibility and, possibly, the law of averages. Even Pharaoh's Egyptians, stacked up against Jehovah, got out from under after seven years. The Knicks peaked in 1953 and 1954 with teams featuring Dick McGuire that were good enough to win the Eastern Division. But there were no able replacements, and they gradually deteriorated. Since 1953 only twice did the Knicks make intelligent first-round picks—in 1955 with Ken Sears and in 1959 with Johnny Green.

These aside, their decisions defy sympathetic understanding. Walter Dukes, drafted in '53, played one year with New-York, averaging 7.8, and then began his eccentric hegira about the league until he ran out of franchises. The next year the Knicks selected Jack Turner. You remember Jack Turner. He averaged 2.5 in his one year. In 1956 it was Ron Shavlik, who managed to play 72 minutes in the NBA. Brendan McCann was chosen in 1957 over Sam Jones. Brendan averaged 1.9. The following year the Knicks passed over such possibilities as Hal Greer, Wayne Embry and Dave Gambee in favor of Pete Brennan. Pete lasted two games.

Darrall Imhoff was picked in 1960 instead of Tom Sanders of NYU or Lee Shaffer. In 1961 Larry Siegfried, Ray Scott and Tom Meschery were available, but the Knicks took Tom Stith—Crawford's roommate at St. Bonaventure—and the poor Stith never had a chance to prove them right. His career was quickly ended by TB. The next year was a dilly. The Knicks passed over Zelmo Beaty, John Havlicek, Terry Dischinger, Chet Walker and two players from St. John's—LeRoy Ellis and Kevin Loughery—to settle on Paul Hogue. He staggered out of the league the following November. By then, in the 1963 draft, New York had chosen Art Heyman over Nate Thurmond and Gus Johnson. The team's record reached 21-69, worst in the league. The Knicks were lowest in shooting, rebounds, assists and points scored. They were a great opponent.

The ascendancy from this nadir has not been startling ( New York was not even .500 last year), but it has been a steady movement since ownership accepted the revolutionary notion that the basketball men should run the show. Holzman, for instance, has long been acknowledged as a fine judge of talent, but his recommendations often were overruled in favor of a player with a name that was owed to a college publicity man. "We were grabbing anyone and going nowhere," says General Manager Eddie Donovan, a friendly, warm man with a teen-age crew cut, five kids and a home where he was born, in Elizabeth, N.J. It is Donovan, working smoothly with McGuire and Holzman, who deserves much credit for the reconstruction.

Donovan's shift from coach to general manager, in 1964, was a smart move; he simply did not have the temperament for the job. On the other hand, McGuire loves it. "When Dick was out of coaching," says his wife, Terry, "there was just no life in him. He lost all interest. I'd rather have him coaching and ulcerated than relaxed and miserable."

McGuire succeeded Harry Gallatin in November 1965. The players were delighted; McGuire is a convivial, pleasant leader. "I still have trouble getting over the fact that I just can't go out and have a beer with the players," he says. He is going to have even more difficulty containing himself on the bench this season, because a new NBA rule prohibits coaches from smoking there. "Oh my God," he says, "I guess I'll just have to chew gum." In turn, this will create not only the psychological problems of withdrawal but even greater ones of communication. Listening to McGuire talk is trial enough; trying to understand what he says while he is chewing gum will require the players to achieve a new range of audio perception. McGuire speaks in slurred bursts, interspersed with quick breaths and scattered allusions to "whatdyacallit." The bursts roll off faster and faster until, like a light appearing at the end of a tunnel, the conclusion of a thought comes forth with comparative clarity. For instance: "We should be a good running club. The trouble we have had is that, what dya call it, the middleman, the middleman on the break, we've never had a good man in the middle. So we would come down and nobody would know what to do with it and, what dya call it, someone would end up taking a thirty foot jumper. But I think this year maybe we have the middleman. It could be Bradley or what dya call it Frazier. But when Bradley comes he will have to prove that he is better than the other guys."

McGuire laughs easily and graciously at references to his elocution or lack of it. At 41 he just accepts the fact that he is an incurable mumbler. "The kids are very good about it now," he says. "They just nod." Why not? They are on their way to bringing a new pride to the Garden, a strange, fresh winter experience for New York. Pretty soon—who knows?—maybe even a what dya call it, a championship.

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