May 8, 1970—In retrospect, it seems clear now, the Los Angeles Lakers lost the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship even before the opening jump ball of the seventh and deciding game. They were flattened by the gimpy but heroic captain of the New York Knicks, Willis Reed (pictured), who sent the capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden into ecstasy as he walked gingerly from the locker room onto the court—then brought everyone to their feet by sinking the first two jumpers of the game.
The Knicks won going away, 113-99, for their first NBA title.
If my experience is any indication, the allegiance formed with a team in youth is tenacious enough to endure the worst setbacks. So it has proven with the Knicks, who have not won a championship in 40 years and, more often than not under current owner James Dolan, have been embarrassing.
But the particular magic of the Knicks’ 1970 run lingers with me still. In some ways, the ’73 team, with the addition of Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe, was better. (See my account of that later squad.)
But the earlier version reversed years of being doormats; they had a compelling storyline, in the form of Reed, in a battle against the odds; and—no small matter—I had to create the scene occurring in the Garden in my own head, since the game was not being shown in real time on network TV.
That’s right, for any youngsters reading this post. In that pre-Magic, pre-Bird, pre-Showbiz era, the NBA looked to maximize every dollar, which meant that, on the channels then generally extant in the New York market, the game was tape-delayed. Without cable (and nobody I knew had it at the time), you were out of luck.
Except that you weren’t if you were listening to radio. There you had the young Marv Albert, toward the start of his career as “The Voice of the Knicks,” catching the aural equivalent of a wave, his voice rising with astonishment to match the roar of the crowd at the preposterous sight before them at shortly after 7:30 pm: “Here comes Willis!”
I was 10 years old that spring. The sports team my family had long rooted for, the New York Yankees, was in the middle of a seemingly endless interregnum between dynasties/ I had formed no significant other franchise attachments until I became enthralled with the team that had reeled off 18 consecutive wins over the winter.
And now, listening to Albert, I might as well have been in the Garden with that crowd as Reed, hoisting up a left-handed jump shot that had already devastated the Lakers when he had been healthy in games 1 through 4, raised the roof in the arena as the ball sank through the net. Then he proceeded to do it again.
I hung on every word of Albert’s as the night wore on, thrusting my fist in the air every time I heard the short word he turned from an affirmation to an exultation: “YES!!!!”
With three future Hall of Famers in the starting five (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor) and with Reed out for Game 6, the Lakers had looked ready to take the series. But after the Knicks—who hadn’t even known if Reed would even be able to play—whirled around to see their center, captain and emotional heart, they were a team transformed. "When Willis Reed stepped onto the court, it gave us a 10-foot lift just to have him," recalled Bill Bradley.
Another Knick starter who pointed to the presence of Reed as the deciding factor in Game 7 was Walt Frazier. He was already the coolest cat in town with his fashion flair, but now the Knick guard had the game of his life, with 36 points and 19 assists.
Two other figures, neither of whom donned a uniform in the series—and one of whom had left the team that winter— should be mentioned in connection with the Knicks’ first championship.
The man no longer with the organization was general manager Eddie Donovan, who, in order to be closer to his family, had left the team just a few months before to take on a similar role with the expansion Buffalo Braves. But, in his six years as Knicks GM, Donovan had surely assembled a championship-caliber squad through drafts (Reed, Frazier, Bradley, reserve Phil Jackson) and trades (Dick Barnett and, most significant, power forward Dave DeBusschere, whose presence enabled Reed to move back to his natural position: center).
The other significant figure was coach Red Holzman. It was he who stressed the necessity of moving without the ball, of “hitting the open man,” and, above all else, of the word that would be chanted by the crowd in critical moments: “DE-FENSE!” Holzman emphasized that playing cohesively as a unit would bring success to the Knicks as individuals. Forty years later, after Holzman’s election to the Basketball Hall of Fame, his retirement and death, he remains a standard-bearer for a particular style of coaching, as evidenced by this Huffington Post article on “5 Tips for Building a High Performance Work Team.”