At last the NBA gave us that long-awaited confrontation between a picture and a thousand words. The picture was Lew Alcindor, thrust above the court (see cover), indelibly majestic. The thousand words were the New York Knicks, darlings of the national media, the all-purpose shield with which the nation's book publishing business is planning to protect itself against economic depression. Authors shadow the Knicks like groupies. The team, the scene, the coach and several of the players all will soon be between covers. At least five biographers stand panting in line for the chance to do Willis Reed.
It was, above all, a boon to the nation's mental health that the Knicks beat Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks four games to one to take their first Eastern Division title in 16 years, for if the entire literate population of America is obliged to read all these books about defeat in the next few months, that will surely set us back farther than the Tet offensive. The Knicks, love them or leave them.
Reed, done with muscling against Wes Unseld of Baltimore and reaching against Alcindor, now must face an older adversary. "Wilt," he mused, when that faced him at last. "Gee, I haven't seen him in a long time."
Chamberlain and the Lakers, finding themselves just in time against Phoenix, swept the last three in that series and four straight against Atlanta. The Hawks suddenly lost it all midway in the first game—when they were 16 ahead—and L.A. went on to make the finals for the seventh time in the last nine years.
New York moved into the championship bracket by winning at home Monday night. The series was, essentially, clinched the day before when the Knicks won in Milwaukee behind some nearly unbelievable outside shooting. They made 17 of 31 long shots in the first half, faltered when Milwaukee made an exciting run in the third quarter and then came back in the last period to hit on 10 out of 15 outside attempts.
Milwaukee, an abject failure in this department throughout the series, was never worse than in this game. Basketball is supposed to be a jump-shot game; it took the Bucks 19 minutes before they made anything longer than an Alcindor hook shot. Don't let anyone tell you there is no room today for a good little man in the pro league. After this series Calvin Murphy could have demanded Green Bay as a bonus.
The series opened in Madison Square Garden surrounded by the frenzy that always attends the Knicks now, so that the Ringling Brothers circus rigging that hung suspended above the court seemed in character. (The circus was playing the Garden between basketball games.) The Persian market air outside the building is fading, however, to the dismay of scalpers, who have had to unload tickets below cost at times recently. The Garden's cable TV arrangement is one factor. As in the old days, when guys started showing up at TV bars at 4 in the afternoon on Tuesdays to get a seat for Uncle Miltie, saloons with cable television are filling up well in advance of the games.
Also, in a city where the blood of Ratso Rizzo, from Midnight Cowboy, courses in every survivor, the straights are learning how to beat the scalpers at their own hustle. Like Civil War draftees, fans are hiring substitutes to stand in the long ticket lines for them. To obtain their tickets four Knick buffs—two lawyers, a furniture broker and a sometime playwright—called up an extra-help employment agency. The four stand-ins they hired come high in New York—around four bucks an hour—so the total waiting-in-line bill came to just over $100, $25 a fan. Since each customer is allowed two seats for the four home games in a Knick playoff series, at $12.50 tops, that adds up to $100, plus the $25 for the guy who stands in line. These fans make that easy (and a profit, too, if they want it) by unloading one or more of their eight seats for a $25 charge. That often takes only one phone call—to any stiff on an expense account. The next time seats for a Knick playoff go on sale, the only people in line may be scalpers and the friendly men from Manpower, Inc.
Buck fans have not attained such levels of sophistication. Milwaukee Arena is about half the size of the Garden, a polka beer hall by comparison, and the fans are loud and neighborly. They are not unruly or boisterous, but rah-rah—the type, who, if they were automobiles, would all be wearing STP stickers.
With this rabid support in both cities, it was no surprise that the series began with the home teams coming through. The opener was an easy win for New York, and if the results that followed were not always similar, certain patterns quickly became clear. Walt Frazier, concentrating on defense and play-making, checkmated Flynn Robinson. Robinson had made the All-Star team this year, was the second-leading scorer on the Bucks at 22 points per game and was the best outside threat the Bucks had to take the pressure off Alcindor. But Frazier managed to force Robinson down the right side. "He likes to spin back to the middle," Frazier said, "but he has trouble dribbling to his left." Robinson went scoreless from the floor in the first half of the opener. He sat out the last 18 minutes of the close second game that New York won 112-111, and after that he dropped clear out of the starting lineup. This was a logical move rather than one born of desperation, because Robinson had preceded the Knicks series with a spotty performance against Philadelphia. Besides, his replacement, Fred Crawford, is a longtime New York summer playground teammate of Alcindor's and works well with him. "All New Yorkers play together," Crawford says, smiling for a change. On the court he wears a perpetual look of dismay, as if he is trying to remember where he misplaced something.