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Appropriately for a season that began in the Year of the Child, 1979-80 was preordained as the Year of the Rookie in the NBA—the season in which the league would place its future in the hands of babes, namely, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But while Johnson and Bird were the subject of a lot of youth-movement hype, it was one of their contemporaries, 22-year-old Bill Cartwright of the Knicks, who quietly provided the ultimate proof that the kids weren't kidding by playing the game's toughest position every night—and playing it well enough to become an All-Star. Along the way he clearly established that he belongs right up there with Bird and Johnson at the head of the freshman class.
Cartwright leads the league's rookies—and most of its veterans—in scoring (22.4 points a game, 11th in the league), field-goal shooting (.545, eighth) and minutes played (2,730, second). To find comparable first-year stats for a center, one has to look back to the days when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still Lew Alcindor. In 1969-70 Alcindor scored 28.8, shot .518% and was named Rookie of the Year. In just about any other season Cartwright would have gotten that award, too, but in a year featuring Bird and Johnson—whose performances on the floor have more than measured up to expectations—Cartwright may have to settle for No. 3, which is fine with the Knicks. Aided by a horde of other good newcomers and the emergence of second-year Guard Michael Ray Richardson, Cartwright has led a New York renaissance. The Knicks, the league's second-youngest club, are a fairly good bet to make the playoffs this season and seem to have the makings of a team that could be strong for years to come.
The core of that club, Cartwright, should be known as the Music Man. In his apartment in Guttenberg, N.J., a huge stereo forever plays the old Detroit sound: James Brown, the Shirelles, the Platters. On trips, he sits plugged into a gigantic cassette deck, quietly humming everything from jazz to disco, Sly Stone to the Beatles. His favorites are the vocalists of the '50s and the '60s—the Supremes, The Coasters, Sam Cooke—who are not often heard on the stereos of Cartwright's generation. But he is a connoisseur of sorts. "This music's really the roots of what's heard today," he says. "The singers now are all imitators." Cartwright once even took up the guitar, but when calluses began to form on the tips of the fingers of his strumming hand, he quit. It also happened to be his shooting hand.
When Cartwright tires of the music, there's chess, which he taught himself while on road trips with the University of San Francisco. His teammates can rarely challenge him on this board, so he relies on opposition from a computerized game. "Most of the guys think backgammon is such a great game," he says. "But as long as you have to roll the dice, then you're less a part of it. Chess is still one on one. You're thinking three and four moves ahead and considering all the possibilities. If a guy beats me one time, I'll challenge him to do it again. He won't beat me twice."
In the past few years, when Cartwright was being scouted for the pros, reports came back saying that he was "a very nice person." Right away coaches wondered: Can he take the pounding and still get off a shot in the foul lane? Can he set a pick on a gigantic forward who only wants him out of the way? Even during contract negotiations, Cartwright's agent, Bob Woolf, says Knick management was concerned whether their first draft pick would be a rah-rah guy. Cartwright wound up getting a five-year contract worth $1.2 million, and he immediately became a starter when last season's regular center, Marvin Webster, failed to recover from a knee injury. Now Webster is back, and, as a result of Cartwright's success, is expendable, if the right trade opportunity comes along for the Knicks.
"Bill plays like a gentleman, but not a nice guy," says Knick Assistant Coach Hal Fischer. Forward Toby Knight found that out right away. During the Knicks' first preseason scrimmage, he tried to get by a Cartwright screen, but, he says, "I ran into his fist." San Diego Center Swen Nater, the league's second-leading re-bounder, has found out, too. When asked if Cartwright left any impression on him, he answered, "Yeah, all up and down my back."
Cartwright is quiet, almost unemotional about his staggering task of challenging the NBA's best big men. "You have to learn to read him," says teammate Mike Glenn. "When he's happy, there isn't much to see, but when he's mad because he didn't do his job, you can definitely see it in his eyes."
When his job is done, Cartwright's silence—in a locker room filled with accusations and excuses on a bad night and laughter on a good one—is deafening. He chooses each word carefully, so when he speaks, people listen. "Basketball is a thinking man's game," he says. "Every player in this league is good. If he wasn't he wouldn't be here. But to be better, you've got to plan, anticipate and execute. And you've got to be ready to learn."
An attitude like this, especially among the swelled heads of the NBA, reaps respect, something Cartwright has commanded since, as a 6'9" lOth-grader, he put Elk Grove, Calif. (12 miles south of Sacramento) on the map by discovering he could shoot. Dan Risley, his high school coach, says, "Lord, could he! He'd just throw that sucker up and it'd go in." Success also put Cartwright on the map, which isn't exactly what he wanted.
Elk Grove (pop. 3,721) is less than 10% black, and Cartwright suddenly found himself coming under pressure from his peers to be one of the leaders of the black groups that had formed in his school in the aftermath of the '60s. But he wouldn't hear of it. "I'd never belonged to groups," he says. "I was just Bill Cartwright, not black, white or whatever. I just wanted to be myself and make the most out of that."