Basketball is the game of the city in these times, for it is cramped and fast and vertical, and everyone is very close and vulnerable. By these measures it is appropriate, even symbolic, that New York is at last basketball champion of the world. On the day, last Friday, when the Knickerbockers finally won their first title since the NBA was started 24 years ago, mobs of workers roamed the streets pummeling longhaired students and unfortunate bystanders. It had been almost seven months since the Mets won their championship and, it was said, united New York in everlasting common cause. By last Friday, if there was a common cause left in town, it was the Knicks; after all, with Willis Reed hurt, there was no point spread and no one to bet against.
Jerry West stood that afternoon at the intersection of 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting for the light to change. Obviously, this stamped him as an out-of-towner. He squinted against the sun. It had gone from winter blizzards to summer since the playoffs began.
"Hey, West," a little guy said, spotting him. "Hey, West." Jerry turned to him and the man started chuckling. "You know what I almost done?" he said. "I seen you, and before I knew it I almost wished you good luck." He chuckled again, aghast that anyone in this frightened stockade town would dare even think so benevolently. West nodded.
"Well, look, West," the little guy said. "Look at it this way. Suppose I was a guy from L.A., and I seen Reed, just like this. What would I say to him?"
"You would probably say, 'Good luck,' " West said, smiling, stepping off the curb. As he entered the Garden across the street, a jovial fellow in the crowd suggested to a neighbor, "Break his leg."
A bit later, at three minutes past 6, Willis Reed moved onto the court. It was the first time he had been there since eight minutes into the fifth game the previous Monday night. At that point, turning to drive down the lane for a layup, he had strained two muscles in his right thigh and fallen in distress. "Oh my God," cried Dave DeBusschere, his colleague under the boards. Down 25-15 at that point, the Knicks came back to win and go ahead 3-2 in the series. But the spell had been broken Wednesday night in Los Angeles when Reed could not play. He watched while Wilt Chamberlain muscled his way to 45 points and the Lakers won in a smooth rout. Reed was flown back to New York that night, with the Knicks' physician and trainer, so that he could return to rehabilitation work on his leg first thing in the morning.
Now, at 6:03 p.m. Friday, with Don May going after his rebounds, Reed began to move about the court, not gingerly but slowly, deliberately. He worked around his range, throwing up his quiet one-handers. It was apparent that he could at least try to play. Chamberlain could see that for himself, since he had come in and stood watching, dispassionately, from the side of the stands. "He shoots fouls better than me," Wilt observed to a friend. A few minutes later, Reed paused by his taller opponent. "I can't go to my right that well," he told Wilt. The big man laughed cynically, for, of course, Reed has never gone to his right very well.
Following his overwhelming performance in the previous game, when Reed was not in uniform, Chamberlain had gone out of his way to praise the league MVP. "Willis has played better basketball against me than any center I've ever faced in playoff competition," Wilt declared unequivocally. This appraisal served to diminish Bill Russell, who had previewed his retirement last summer with some rather stout knocks at Chamberlain. Now Wilt was playing catchup.
Then, entirely on his own initiative, Wilt launched into a detailed and lengthy polemic, the essence of which was that his countrymen placed too much emphasis on winning and that, specifically, just reaching the NBA finals seemed to him to be the major achievement. What curious kind of punch could he be telegraphing? Some of his teammates fell to discussing it in the locker room before the final game. "You play the whole season to win, don't you?" asked one. "Isn't that what competition is all about?"
Reed returned to his locker room with the definite word every one of the Knicks expected—he would be on the court with them. "It's like getting your left arm sewed back on," Cazzie Russell said. Reed's teammates rested about him. The Knicks are not a great team. They are a good team, a solid team, a fine team, a smart team, but there really hasn't been a great team in the NBA since the 76ers of 1966-67. However, Red Holzman's Knicks may be the most perfectly formed team ever. All the parts fit together, with very little waste left over. "Everybody puts his in the pot. We're one big beef stew," Cazzie said, explaining it most succulently.