The New York Knickerbockers exacted sweet revenge for their loss to the Los Angeles Lakers the prior year by defeating their opponents,102-93, in the fifth and deciding game for the National Basketball Association on May 10, 1973. The championship, New York’s second in four years, was the exact reverse of the results in 1972, when the injury-plagued Knicks lost by four games to one in the finals to the Lakers.
The Knicks’ 1970 title—especially the decisive Game 7, when a gimpy Willis Reed ignited the Madison Square Garden crowd and his teammates to triumph—made me (and, I suspect, more than a few others) fans for life of Coach Red Holzman’s squad. But the 1973 team may have been better balanced, and its championship run had its own moments of drama.
I am completing this post two days after the Knicks have completed another season without rings—their 40th since their last magical year. Oh, the Carmelo Anthony-led crew had their moments of competitiveness and excitement this year (and even last season, in the midst of “Linsanity”).
Indeed, guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, now an announcer for his old team, said several weeks ago that he saw in the current squad some similarities to the ’73 crew in its resilience in the face of injury. I will not rehash the physical calamities that have beset this year’s group, but in 1972—and through much of 1973—the team suffered critical injuries.
In the 1972 finals against the Lakers, for instance, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe lost much of his effectiveness because of a bone spur. And, while Jerry Lucas, expected only to help Reed rest his knees, performed far beyond expectations when the Knick captain was lost for much of the ’72 season, he still was at a critical height disadvantage against Wilt Chamberlain in the finals. (Incidentally, Lucas was a great player not simply because of his shooting, passing and rebounding skills, but because of his considerable intelligence. He had memorized the plays of every team in the league. As you might expect, after his playing days were over, he enjoyed additional business success as a memory maven.)
Players continued to spend long spells on the disabled list in the 1972-73 season, and the team’s undistinguished 6-7 run as the regular season concluded left many feeling that their time in the playoffs would be limited. That feeling hardened into certainty in the semi-finals, when the Knicks, having blown Game 6, were forced to travel to Boston for the deciding contest. Even history seemed to be against the Knicks, as the Celtics had never lost a Game 7 on their home turf.
What the critics forgot, though, was their league-best 98.2 points-per-game allowed per opponent and burning desire for their first championship of Lucas and Monroe. (In the case of the defense, the grit was supplied by Dave DeBusschere, who frustrated Celtic center and league MVP Dave Cowens—a repeat of his similarly tenacious performance in Game 5 of the ’70 championship series, when he helped contain Chamberlain.)
Despite that gutty performance, many observers still gave the Knicks little chance of winning it all. The Lakers were the reigning NBA champs, after all. These naysayers were out in full force when the Knicks lost the first game. But the Lakers lost the home-court advantage in the second game, and by the end of the fourth they stood on the brink of elimination.
And now, off the court, the Knicks faced drama as significant in its way as Game 7 three years before. It involved Monroe, and, had matters turned out differently, the Knicks would have had not simply a major distraction but a tragedy on their hands.
Having forced a trade from the Baltimore Bullets when they would not yield to his salary demands, Monroe had worked hard and well to show critics that he could subordinate his one-on-one style by working in conjunction with Frazier. But after the Knicks’ Game 4 heroics, three unregenerate white racists showed they were beyond persuasion.
Monroe related what happened next in his recently published memoir, Earl the Pearl: My Story. As the guard and his girlfriend walked toward his Rolls-Royce, one white man pushed him and called him the “n” word. After the Knick reached his car, he dug out the gun he had left there and went looking for his tormenters.
We know, from what happened to the New York Giants’ Plaxico Burress a few years ago, how a team can lose its way when a key player carries a gun around with him, and ends up in an accident or outright killing. Fortunately, a firearm-bearing Monroe never caught up with his tormenters.
Instead, the shaken Knick guard channeled his anger toward the Lakers. In Game 5, he torched the defending champs for a team-high 23 points, including eight points in the fourth quarter, as the Knicks gradually put distance between themselves and their opponents.
Who would have thought after the game that the two teams would experience such varying fortunes in the 40 years since? That was Chamberlain’s last contest, and Jerry West—who had strained both hamstrings in the finals—would only play one more year. Yet, in the four decades that have elapsed since the Knicks’ glorious Game 5, they have won no NBA championship, while the Lakers have won 10.
Right now, I’m afraid, Knick fans are in a position analogous to New York Ranger fans in the barren years between 1940 and 1994. I never thought there’d be such a long interval between championships when Pat Riley towered courtside. Who knew that, because of a horrid John Starks shooting streak, we’d be looking at nearly another 20 years of nothing?
Indeed, that last game in L.A., six Knicks would make the Basketball Hall of Fame as players: Reed, Frazier, Monroe, DeBusschere, Lucas and Bill Bradley. A reserve, Phil Jackson, entered the Hall because of his accomplishments as coach rather than player.
Jackson’s counterpart on the L.A. bench was Riley. Two decades later, in the few years when he brought his style and authority as a winning coach to the Knicks, he recalled, during an appearance at one of my company’s meetings, the time when, during a close game in his playing days, finding himself open, he launched a jumper from outside and missed. As soon as possible, his teammate Chamberlain confronted him. “What did you do that for?” the center asked. “I was open,” Riley protested. “Did you ever stop to think that there might be a reason for that???” Chamberlain asked indignantly, with impeccable logic.
I’ve thought of the exchange more than once this last week or so, as I recalled the current Knicks hoisting up one airball after another beyond the three-point arc. Plenty of Knicks ended up with nobody around them, at one point or another, in the magical season of ’73. But the overwhelming majority of the ’73 squad who bought into Holtzman’s mantra—“Hit the open man”—took high-percentage shots, with the assurance that some rugged rebounder or another—either DeBusschere or “Willis Lucas”—would box their man out and secure the carom.