Team Captain Reed, sticking almost exclusively to his left-handed jump shot in the key, leads the Knicks in rebounding and scoring. Forward Bill Bradley and Guard Dick Barnett are two of the NBA's finest shooters, but the chief challenger to Reed for supremacy among the Knicks is the second-year guard, Frazier, who leads the team in assists, averages 16 points a game, brings the ball upcourt and usually defends against the opposition's toughest backcourt man.
"Right now," says Reed,' I don't rate but one player over him, and that's Oscar Robertson. There's no guard in the NBA I'd rather play with than Walt."
Frazier played probably his finest game as a pro Saturday night against San Francisco. He stole the ball eight times, scored 24 points, took 14 rebounds and had 13 assists. In the third quarter, when New York went from four points behind to 11 points ahead, he stole the ball three times, blocked a shot and scored nine of his team's 15 points.
Winning so often, the Knicks are a loose, happy team of diverse parts. Frazier is probably the NBA's champion sleeper and when he is not in pajamas he sports clothes from the Bonnie and Clydeera, including a wide-brimmed hat. Reed runs a basketball camp in the off season and gives promising black kids a free ride, always trying to influence them to get a college education. Bradley, the recipient of a big bonus after his scholarly Rhodes days, has been tagged Dollar Bill, without any apparent animosity intended. And Mike Riordan, whose main job is to go into the game at strategic times and foul somebody, is the "scum coach." This title derives from his practice of polling players after the game to decide who made the most atrocious shot. The winner receives the mythical "scum ball," the antithesis of pro football's cherished game-ball award.
"The most important factors concerning New York are their momentum and their attitude," says Detroit Coach Paul Seymour. "Take Bradley, for instance. A few days ago he was so sick he was throwing up all over the place, but he stayed in the game. When you're losing, the first little bump and everybody wants to get out, to rest, to save himself for something else. The Knicks have not only got some fine talent, they've got a great attitude."
Since injuries have taken away Forwards Cazzie Russell and Phil Jackson, they need that proper frame of mind. The frighteningly thin bench consists of three rookies, two of whom do not play much, and Center Nate Bowman, an expansion-team castoff. When they work out at Lost Battalion Recreation Center in Queens, they do not even have the 10 men necessary for a scrimmage. It follows that if any starter, and particularly Reed, gets into foul trouble the Knicks will be lucky to win. So far everybody has managed to keep his fouling at a minimum and his playing time at a maximum. But under the extra strain of the playoffs the Knicks might not be so fortunate.
Philadelphia really has no business being in the race. The 76ers traded Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest scorer and second-best rebounder in the history of the game, to the Lakers, and their fine coach, Alex Hannum, switched over to the ABA. Then in December 6'9" Lucious Jackson, Chamberlain's burly replacement, went out with an Achilles' tendon injury and it seemed time to deflate the basketballs and disband. Yet, there stands Philadelphia right up near the head of the class and attendance at the Spectrum is running about 2,000 a game ahead of last season. If high winds do not damage the Spectrum's roof again, the lid might be blown off by sheer fan enthusiasm.
"After Wilt was traded, the best the papers could say was we'd be a more exciting team without him," says Billy Cunningham. "That's like somebody fixing you up with an ugly blind date and then trying to hide what a loser she is by saying she's a great dancer."
The main reason for the 76ers' surprise success is Cunningham, the brash forward from Brooklyn who is known as The Kangaroo Kid or just Kang. He is only 6'6", a sapling in a courtful of redwoods, but he is the team leader in rebounds and 10th in the NBA. That, he says, is what, comes of growing up practicing on playgrounds with guys nicknamed Airplane, Helicopter and The Elevator Man.
Operating last season as one of the league's best sixth men, Cunningham scored 19 points a game. Now, as a starter (and an All-Star pick), he is averaging almost 25, some baskets coming on the long jump shot he has perfected since his college days at North Carolina but most coming in heavy traffic close to the hoop. He loves to free-lance and is much more effective now that Chamberlain is not clogging up the key.