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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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.
So not much seems to have happened—with the Knicks or otherwise—since that day 21 years ago when they played their first game in Madison Square Garden. A few days before the Knicks had opened in the very first game in the history of the league that is now the National Basketball Association. They beat the never-to-be-forgotten Toronto Huskies 68-66 in Toronto. Leo Gottlieb led the Knicks with 14, and Stan Stutz, who still plays against the Globetrotters, went for nine. The Knicks should have quit then, in Toronto, when they were ahead. They never did as well in this country. As the NBA begins its 22nd season, only the Knicks and the Boston franchise are still around. Boston has won the title nine times; Philadelphia has won it, and St. Louis and Baltimore and Minneapolis and Syracuse and Rochester. New York is 0 for 21. If you had bet an even dollar on the Knicks to win the title that first year, and you had doubled the bet every year, you would now be $2,097,151 in the hole.
So what, you say, monkeying with those phony figures. Well, "so what" is about the attitude that the Madison Square Garden Corp.—which owns the Knicks—has taken toward the team's ineptitude over the years, while prospering from New York's love for the game. Twenty-one years the Knickerbockers have been losers, but they have kept bringing in the money. A total of 430,448 watched the Knicks play in the Garden last year, and just about every cent the 430,448 paid to get in, and for hot dogs and beer, went to the Knicks, because the NBA still has the quaint little rule that the home team gets it all. One day soon the magnificent new Garden atop Penn Station will be completed; it will hold 19,500 for the baskets and, win or lose, the Knicks will be even more of a bonanza. Last year the Knicks sold hardly 200 season tickets—not that that bothered them—but this year the figure will exceed 3,000.
New York is a pro town and a basketball town (see cover). The Rangers—also owned by the Garden—pack them in, too, but hockey draws from only one small loyal segment of the population. In New York the bar talk is basketball. The kids play it year round. Their fathers bet it. The newspapers—what is left of them—feature the Knicks more. The TV ratings for basketball beat those for hockey. And if, occasionally, there are not enough of the vocal locals to fill up the Garden, there are always the tourists, stumbling along, gaping at the tall buildings, weighted down by the vacation money in their pockets, desperate to spend it.
"Give us two downstairs in the center for Mame tonight," Short Brown Socks says to the man in the little ticket agency just off Broadway.
"Look, Mac, I can't get you into Mame till next July 16," the ticket man says. "What dya say, a basketball game instead? Got two good ones right in the side loge at the Garden. Russell and the Celts are in town." Or Wilt is there, or Baylor and West, or Oscar, or Nate Thurmond, or Gus Johnson and the Baltimores, or somebody. For 21 years the Knicks have thrived as an opponent, as they say in boxing.
Now, at last, they are coming into their own. Already they have brought within range every team in the league except Philadelphia, and they will almost surely be the most exciting team in any sport in the Big Town. Whenever Bill Bradley is separated from the Air Force for real and the new Garden is opened (late January? February? Don't know? No opinion?) the vastly improved Knicks will be a product that, by itself, should carry the whole NBA to a bright new level.
Bradley's decision to turn pro merely iced the cake, for Coach Dick McGuire's team (page 39) is brimming with exciting talent, much of it new—Cazzie Russell, coming up to his collegiate brilliance; Walt Frazier, a smaller Elgin Baylor; Phil Jackson, from Deer Lodge, Mont. with his arms and legs dangling from his shoulders like a mobile; Freddie Crawford, a bona fide Comeback Kid; Captain Willis Reed, the stolid All-Star; Dick "Fall Back Baby" Barnett, the sloe-eyed sharpshooter; Dick Van Arsdale, the strawberry blond with the who-me? innocence; Emmette Bryant, a little dervish; Walt Bellamy, the saturnine center; and Butch Komives, who averaged 15.7 points last year but will have trouble making the second team this time.
Reed, a powerful, deceptively soft-tempered man who powders a baby for Johnson & Johnson in one of their commercials, was made captain this year. "We've got so much talent," he says, "that to improve all we have to learn is to utilize each individual's special strength. That's what we've never done on the Knicks before. For instance, coming down the stretch, we've got to forget ourselves and look for Barnett. He's the best shot, so look for him. That's the way we've never learned to play before."
Reed plays the pivotal role in the history of the Knicks. At the moment he was chosen in the 1964 draft the entire fortunes of the team began to change. Before that draft the Knicks had suffered from bad judgment, bad luck and a haughty attitude that was the child of self-delusion. For a time, for instance, the Knicks operated smugly with a general manager who lived in Denver.