The night brought back memories. The 19,694 in Madison Square Garden, the first capacity crowd since the Knicks' championship year of 1973, worked itself into a lather as the game seesawed through the fourth quarter and into overtime. Then, right on cue, Walt Frazier—"Clyde"—did his patented last-minute clutch number, just as he so often had. When his team's six-point lead suddenly shrank to three with 1:50 left, Frazier took the ball upcourt and went straight for the basket, spinning in a layup, drawing a foul and coverting the free throw for a three-point play. Then, just to make certain, he leaped up on defense and deflected a pass to a teammate, and as the final seconds ticked away, raised his fists in triumph and grinned broadly. The crowd went wild. Another classic Frazier finish.
Except that for the first time in 11 seasons at the Garden, Frazier was dressed in an enemy uniform, and his vintage game—28 points, eight rebounds, five steals, four assists—produced a 117-112 victory for his new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, over the New York Knicks, whom he had helped win NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. Seventeen days earlier the Knicks had sent the quintessential New Yorker off to Cleveland as compensation for signing 28-year-old free-agent Guard Jim Cleamons.
Before the game Frazier admitted having butterflies—uncharacteristic for the original Mr. Cool. "I never thought to check when I'd be coming back to play in New York," he said. "I had no idea it would be this soon until I got a letter from a friend that said 'See you next week.' I thought, 'Wow, I'm not ready for that yet.' " The seven-time All-Star, once the cynosure of all New York, or so it seemed, had heard boos in the Garden in the past two non-winning, non-playoff seasons, and he was not sure how the crowd would greet him. But even before his name was called in the introductions, the cheers swelled to a deafening pitch, and Frazier got a three-minute standing ovation. The cheers, the attention and then the game left Frazier ecstatic.
"I thought the ovation would go on all night," he said afterward. "Tonight I was the greatest. They still love me."
After the game Clyde's fans and friends filled his old haunts—Harry M's, P. J. Clarke's, Maxwell's Plum—waiting for Clyde to come celebrating, as he always had after a triumphant night. But this night Frazier was no more than a visitor to the city. After talking to reporters for nearly two hours he went straight to the apartment he still keeps on East 57th Street and—exhausted and alone—went to bed.
The next morning, as he was sauntering through LaGuardia Airport to catch the plane back to Cleveland, a man approached him and asked facetiously. "Aren't you Reggie Jackson?"
Frazier laughed. "Today I am." Then he caught himself. "But I'm not a New Yorker. I'm a Clevelander."
He had with him half a dozen pieces of luggage, filled with whatever items from his legendary wardrobe he had been able to stuff into them. "Just casual things," he said. "Leathers, slacks, shirts, some shoes. No suits. And two furs, for when it snows. I want to be ready."
Left behind in New York: the burgundy-and-beige 1965 Rolls-Royce, which was being overhauled ("I wasn't sure how good the service would be out there," he said), the famous round bed with the $3,500 mink spread, the pool table, the closetsful of clothes, not to mention the $150,000 seven-room, five-bath 45th-floor co-op apartment.
Until he finds something to replace that layout, Frazier is living with Cavalier Center Jim Chones, his wife Elores and their 16-month-old daughter Kareeda in a four-bedroom split level in suburban Beachwood, 25 minutes from the Coliseum, which itself is some 25 miles southeast of Cleveland in the town of Richfield. Chones, who barely knew Frazier, rescued him after three nights in a Holiday Inn.