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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New York hasn't had a World Series, much less a Super Bowl, to savor for a long time—almost eight weeks. This is a deprivation that becomes evident whenever the home-town Knickerbockers are playing at Madison Square Garden. The 19,500-odd people who attend Knick games these days have taken to stomping their feet to that happy organ music and yelling, in lusty union, "Let's go Knicks," just like October all over again. But perhaps New Yorkers should be allowed their little excesses in basketball, too—after nearly a quarter of a century of shooting baskets, the Knicks right now are running exactly one world championship behind the Mets.

The idea that the Knicks might help themselves to the NBA championship this year had taken hold even before the season began, but public demonstrations to that effect reached a crescendo while the New Yorkers were brushing aside the champion Boston Celtics 113-98 recently at the Garden. The crowd was percolated mostly by a furious fourth-quarter rush during which the Knicks outscored Boston 17-5, a splurge that received its main impetus from the ball hawking and ball handling of Walt Frazier (see cover), the Knicks' spidery backcourt man, and some mayhem on the part of Center Willis Reed, who, in the space of 37 seconds hit a 15-foot jumper, blocked two shots and slammed in a reverse stuff that might have registered a tremor or two on the nearest seismograph.

By the time Coach Red Holzman mercifully removed Reed, Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley from the game—leaving goateed Dick Barnett as the only New York starter on the floor—the fans were reeling giddily, in part, no doubt, from the effects of repeatedly having to get up and sit down for all those standing ovations. With 2:59 to play and fully persuaded by the evidence at hand that they were witnessing two basketball dynasties passing each other in opposite directions, the spectators began to chant insistently, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1...."

Eagerly, if not quite accurately, the Garden's $250,000 scoreboard echoed the sentiment by flashing a message across its screen. "We're No. 9," the communication read.

What the Knicks have in common with their scoreboard is that they, too, are a machine and they, too, are capable of making an occasional mistake, which more or less accounts for the team's three-point loss Oct. 23 to the San Francisco Warriors and the defeat by erratic Detroit on Saturday. Counting those lapses, as of last weekend the Knicks had won 23 of their 25 games, including 18 in a row—the longest winning streak in NBA history. The one that gave them the record, No. 18, was a stunning 106-105 victory Friday night over the Cincinnati Royals. With the Knicks behind 105-100 and just 16 seconds to go, Reed sank a pair of foul shots to keep them alive. Then DeBusschere stole an inbounds pass at midcourt and went in for a layup. Finally, after Reed tipped another pass toward Frazier, Walt was fouled while shooting and, with two seconds left, sank both free throws to wrap it up.

Such accomplishments have stirred some people who do not ordinarily fall into the category of Knick fans—rival coaches, for example—to come forward and say that the Knicks are the best basketball team in the world, an accolade heretofore reserved for Bill Russell.

The Knicks generally have been winning both early and easy. They are beating rivals by an average point spread of 13.7 points, far ahead of the Baltimore Bullets' second-best 3.2. Their utter domination of the NBA has given them a legitimacy already that both the Jets and Mets lacked until the very end. Everybody knows that the Mets won their championship only because Gil Hodges sold his soul to the devil and that the Jets did so because Joe Namath is the devil. Well, the Knicks look like the genuine article, a team that can shoot and play racehorse, sure, but can also bring breathless excitement to all those esoteric things—picking and rolling, giving and going, moving without the ball—that one usually has to remind himself to watch for when the game is on.

The Knicks draw much of their fire from Reed and Frazier, who are rated by Coach Dick Motta of the Chicago Bulls as "the two best players in the league, the two I'd want if I were starting a new team." With Russell retired, Chamberlain injured and Alcindor still requiring a bit of seasoning before he goes out and reinvents the game of basketball as he is destined to do, Reed is the best center extant, the special meaning of which lies in the fact that there has never been a great professional team, from George Mikan's Lakers to Russell's Celtics, that did not have an outstanding pivotman.

Reed shoots exceptionally well, but so do all the Knicks right down to Trainer Danny Whelan. The thing about Willis is that he actually seems to make all the Knicks quicker, and we're talking now about somebody who goes 6'10" and 240 pounds. Like Russell, he has remarkable mobility that enables him to get the ball off the defensive board and downcourt in a hurry. And when the play becomes more deliberate, he fits smoothly into his team's hot-potato passing game. The object of all the passing the Knicks do is to spring one of those gunners—anybody will do—for an open shot, which they succeed in well enough to lead the NBA in assists, to say nothing of many other important team statistic. The man who keeps the ball moving, the one with the handsome face framed by the mossy sideburns is Frazier, a pensive 24-year-old who says in quiet wonderment, "We're playing great ball now, but you know something? We're in the process of learning to play together, just in the process."

Frazier's teammates call him Clyde, a nickname derived from his penchant for the kind of wide-brimmed hats and pinstripes Warren Beatty wore in that movie. As his team's triggerman, Clyde penetrates the opposition's perimeter with the tempo of a soft-shoe man, full of hitches and hesitations, working to win the precious half-step advantage he needs in order to unbalance the defense and force it into retreat. If somebody converges to double-team him, it only means that another Knick is already free somewhere, and Clyde may be even better than that other Frazier, the one who fights out of Philadelphia, when it comes to hitting the open man.

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