As if we haven't had it up to here with team disunity in this still young NBA season—what with Dave Cowens threatening to eat the next Celtic who refuses to dive for a loose ball, and Coaches Gene Shue and Bob Hopkins getting the boot in Philadelphia and Seattle—now we are hearing cries of agony and shrieks of insanity from—where else?—New York City.
Last week the Knickerbockers were picking up the act, parlaying their potential for unmatched torrents of offense and junior high school defense into the latest hot property for a Mel Brooks comedy. They opened the week with an 18-point home win over Houston, lost by 17 to the same team in Texas the next night, followed that with a 120-116 loss at San Antonio and then returned to the supposedly friendly confines of Madison Square Garden on Saturday to put on a show of total ineptitude, losing 115-108 to the baby Milwaukee Bucks. By the end of the week the Knicks were 11-11, feuding and fussing, and their new coach, the 35-year-old former Knick superhero Willis Reed, was totally frustrated. As to where the Knicks were headed, Forward Spencer Haywood said, "You'll be coming to visit us all in Bellevue if this stuff continues."
That "this stuff" probably will continue should not be surprising to anyone who has followed the Knicks through the past two seasons of discontent. The team really has been preparing for its current dismal act ever since the end of the 1974 season, when Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas retired, leaving New York titillated by two NBA championships in four years and hungry for more.
No one is hungrier than Gulf & Western Industries, Inc., which owns the Knicks and Madison Square Garden and wants every one of the 19,694 seats filled on every one of the season's 41 home dates and again in the playoffs. Especially the playoffs, which make the difference between a profitable year and a fabulous one. And when Gulf & Western wants something, G & W buys it. G & W means No Nonsense (which happens to be a brand of panty hose G & W owns) and you can roll that up, NBA, and smoke it (G & W also owns the Consolidated Cigar Corp., Paramount Pictures Corp. and several zillion dollars worth of other properties).
So what did G & W do for the Knicks? Easy. Made 'em what they are today, which is a team thrown together put of panic, without regard for the basketball verities.
Consider the Knicks' offensive potential. It is downright awesome. No other team has five starters whose best-season records can match the aggregate of the Knicks. Earl Monroe, the herky-jerky, ever-so-classy guard, averaged 25.8 when he starred for Baltimore in 1968-69. Bob McAdoo, three times the NBA scoring leader in his five previous seasons, hit a high of 34.5 in 1974-75 with Buffalo. Haywood, once Seattle's only star, was an All-Star scoring 29.2 in 1972-73. Lonnie Shelton, the blazing-quick second-year man, is currently scoring 14.0, and even Jim Cleamons, the gritty playmaker and defensive guard, averaged 12.2 in 1975-76 with Cleveland. Throw in reserves Jim McMillian (18.9), Butch Beard (15.4) and Phil Jackson (11.1) and an extraordinary trio of rookies—Guard Ray Williams and Forwards Glen Gondrezick and Toby Knight—and you have the kind of team that looked so promising when it swamped Washington the second night of the season 141-115.
But, alas, today's Knick team is a two-headed monster. On one hand, you have Haywood and McAdoo, two players who through all of their pro lives have had to do little more than shoot and block shots, and who more truly represent G & W's desperate desire to keep the Garden's seats filled than any sort of patient and intelligent formula for developing a championship team. After watching these two try to play together last season, it did not take long for Red Holzman, one of the game's great coaches, to decide to take up his pipe and slippers and retire to his wife's cooking.
On the other hand, here is Reed, drawn out of a peaceful three years' retirement of hunting and fishing, because he was led to believe that he could mold the team to fit his own concepts. Reed could do only so much. He scoured the colleges for players to fill specific needs on the club and came up with an excellent draft. Williams has started eight games and made Walt Frazier expendable. Knight and Gondrezick have each had game-winning performances. But Gulf & Western is on Reed's back, and the coach is forced to try to make it both ways: win now, and develop for the future.
"Sure," says Reed, twirling strands of once jet-black hair now showing gray at the ends, "this is a lot different from the days when the Knickerbockers were a good team." Reed always says "Knickerbockers." Never " Knicks." "We just have to have patience. Bobby McAdoo has changed his game. Some nights he does everything we ask of him. But he is not a big center. I'm not sure people don't think that he is. They see he is 6'10", a big scorer and rebounder. But, no, he is no center."
But he is the Knicks' best scorer, so it is Haywood who has been given the task of adjusting his game toward defense and rebounding. In the road loss at Houston last week, Haywood constantly looked over his shoulder, sensing that his every mistake—and there were many that night—was being dissected on the spot by Reed. Having missed 51 games with leg injuries last season, Haywood came to training camp convinced that he would be the power forward, the perfect team player of his dreams. He worked out all during the summer, and posted a list of "17 rules" over his locker in the Garden, beginning with the simplest of fundamentals: box out, rebound, play pressure defense, make the transitions, etc., etc. and ending with CONCENTRATE, CONCENTRATE.