SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
December 08, 1969
It's been two months since the city had a world champion and it never had one in basketball—but here are the Knicks tearing up the NBA with their team play
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December 08, 1969

Overdue Winner In New York

It's been two months since the city had a world champion and it never had one in basketball—but here are the Knicks tearing up the NBA with their team play

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A moment later Holzman assembles his players under one basket. "You're making screens like you don't know what the hell you're doing," he advises them, then starts the second team off on offense against the first. After a play or two he stops them again and addresses Bowman. "That screen's no good, Nate," he says. "You know why it's no good? It's no good because you're not in position. And you know what happens when you're not in position? You're moving when you shouldn't, and that's why you get into foul trouble."

The players run through it again, but Holzman is still not satisfied. "Watch the old man do it," he says. Bowman steps aside. As the play unfolds, Cazzie has the ball, and Holzman, playing on the same team, shuffles toward him and positions himself solidly, like a football blocking back. Cazzie drives toward the basket, and the man guarding him, Bradley, has to dance to get past Holzman, a detour—the purpose of the screen—that allows Cazzie to score. Holzman turns to Bowman. "If I were as big as you he'd really have to go some to get around me," he says, and the team runs through more screens.

Holzman, now 49, has grown up with the NBA. He played for the Rochester Royals (now Cincinnati) and coached for Ben Kerner's teams in Milwaukee and St. Louis before becoming New York's chief scout in 1958. Always regarded as an excellent teacher who could turn half-coached collegians into complete players, he only began to win acceptance as a leader of men when he took over the floundering Knicks early in the 1967-68 season. While obviously a tribute to Holzman, New York's success also helps dispel the persistent notion that the All-Americas in the NBA do not require teaching, that all a coach has to do is get them to the airport on time.

Frazier recalls some help he received at a critical period: "I was starting to doubt myself. I was wondering if I could really make it in this league. I wasn't playing much, and when I did get in I was blowing opportunities. Coming back from Philadelphia—on the bus, I think it was—Red said, 'C'mon over here, Clyde.' I sat down and he said, 'I know you're better than you're showing out there, because I scouted you in college myself.' We had a man-to-man talk, and it gave me the shot of confidence that I needed."

Then Holzman told Frazier he was slowing down the offense by dribbling too much from side to side. "Red said that if I was going to do all that dribbling I should at least head for the basket. Try to penetrate. It's a simple thing when you think about it, but it took Red to spot it and make me aware of it."

As the Knicks were continuing to reduce the rest of the NBA's Eastern Division to six teams in search of the three remaining playoff berths, Cincinnati's Cousy said, "They won't lose 15 games all year," a showing that would put them right alongside the best-ever 68-13 record of the Philadelphia 76ers three seasons back. In the playoffs, however, it is entirely possible that a squad with some muscle—Milwaukee, Baltimore, San Francisco—could defeat New York in a short series. A man of many maxims, one of which is, "Never worry about things you can't control," Holzman says about that possibility, "If we lose a game we'll go home, eat something, have a few whiskies and think it over." His no-sweat approach has its advantages. Says Frazier, "When you're out there in a tight situation and you look over at the bench and you see Red sitting there looking relaxed the way he does, it can calm you down." But let's just imagine, for the sake of starting something, that somebody important on the Knicks, say Willis Reed, gets sidelined by one of those injuries that seem to be crippling everybody else in the NBA. Holzman refuses to be led by the question. "I'm not going to worry about Willis falling into a manhole until it happens," he says. "Don't talk to me about things like that. Talk to me about disasters and I'll listen."

"What's a disaster?"

"A disaster is when you get home and you're out of Scotch."

Those New York fans may be harder to please these days than Holzman. Against the Phoenix Suns the other night Reed scored 37 points, and you actually heard moans and groans when he missed two free throws. DeBusschere hit 25 but he caused some grumbling when he allowed himself to get into foul trouble, and he was only guarding Connie Hawkins. Instead of having their usual hot shooting nights, Barnett contented himself with a dozen assists, which was a new career high, and Frazier had four steals, which wasn't. The Knicks won 128-114. But for many in the Garden this was the night that Phoenix succeeded in narrowing the gap to seven points in the fourth quarter, the night that the Minutemen missed nine shots and the night that the only Knick who played up to par—didn't make a single mistake, that is—was Bill Bradley. It was not, in sum, the kind of performance that people who pay $5, $6 and $7 for their seats have come to expect from their amazin' Knicks.

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