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Fran Blinebury

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The 1970 Knicks' penchant for teamwork made them one of the greatest NBA champions in history.
Wen Roberts/NBAE/Getty Images

1969-70 Knicks had talent, but teamwork set them apart


Posted Oct 17 2012 8:42AM

Lewis & Clark, Lennon & McCartney, Ben & Jerry: The magic is in the collaboration.

The 1970 New York Knicks were nothing short of breathtaking for the way they turned a group effort into a masterpiece.

They will always be Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett and Dave Stallworth and Cazzie Russell and Mike Riordan and Nate Bowman. You never mention one without thinking of another.

They were not a stable of individual thoroughbreds ready to win the race on their own as much as a team of Clydesdales always capable of pulling the wagon faster and farther together. Lift off the cover and you could see the inner workings of a Swiss watch tick, tick, ticking. Close your eyes and you could hear a symphony.

"Move the ball."

"Find the open man."

Those were the mantras of coach Red Holzman, as simple and deadly as a stiletto, and that's precisely how the Knicks cut their opponents up.

They were a puzzle that found the key piece a season earlier on Dec. 19, 1968 when they traded Walt Bellamy and Howie Komives to Detroit for DeBusschere. At 29, DeBusschere had already been a player-coach for the Pistons and when he brought his nose for the ball, blue-collar attitude and ferocious defense to New York at power forward, it enabled Reed to move to his natural position in the middle of the lineup.

The Knicks finished up the 1967-68 season 36-11 after the trade for DeBusschere and surprised the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs, but that was just a start. When the following season began, the Knicks were already at full boil. With DeBusschere at his side, Reed became more comfortable and more assertive at center and roared off to have a season that was unmatched until Michael Jordan came along and duplicated the feat in 1995-96 -- winning the regular season MVP, All-Star Game MVP and Finals MVP.

The Knicks began the season 23-1 -- the best start in NBA history -- and from Oct. 24 to Nov. 28 won 18 consecutive games, which at the time was a league record.

A young Frazier was just establishing himself as a future Hall of Famer capable of taking over at both ends of the court, while veteran Barnett used his unique kick-back-both-legs style to fire in jumpers from the wing. Meanwhile Bradley, the Princeton All-American and Rhodes Scholar, was relentless with his movement around the floor, ability to score and to set up his teammates. Toss in Russell, the former college player of the year at Michigan, and the Knicks had all of their bases covered.

But while they could have been a team that scored enough to points to win plenty of games if left to their own devices, it was their attention to defense and their willingness to always share the ball that made them special. It was Holzman's basic yet effective philosophy that made the Knicks greater than the sum of their parts and raised them to the standard by which so many NBA championship teams have been judged.

"We personified team, because you can't think of Frazier without Bradley without Reed, without DeBusschere without Barnett," Frazier recalled. "That's how we captivated this city. Black and white, working together unselfishly. Hit the open man, always looking for the open man, and defense. That was the catalyst that spurred us on to greatness and the championships. Those are my fond memories. When people think of that team, that's what they think about -- 'Oh man, your defense, your guys were the smartest to the play the game, your teamwork.' That's how we'll be remembered forever."

At a time when individualism was being celebrated in America and Muhammad Ali was on a "look-at-me" drive to the top, the Knicks brought the old-time values of teamwork and shared sacrifice back into vogue.

Reed was clearly the captain and the leader, averaging 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. "Clyde" Frazier, with a game that was cooler than his wardrobe, averaged 20.9 points and ranked second in the league in assists with 8.2 per game. DeBusschere, Barnett, Bradley and Russell all averaged double-figure scoring in the share-the-wealth atmosphere and Holzman was named Coach of the Year as the Knicks won 60 games for the first time in franchise history.

The first round of the playoffs brought another matchup with the Bullets and a roster that had Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and Jack Marion. The Knicks survived in seven games. In the second round they beat Rookie of the Year Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and the Milwaukee Bucks in five.

That sent the Knicks into a high-profile Finals matchup with the Lakers featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. After a pair of overtime games split by the teams and a sixth game loss when Reed had to sit out with a thigh injury, they arrived at the Game 7 moment that practically blew the roof off Madison Square Garden.

When the ailing Reed limped out of the tunnel and onto the floor, the emotional lift could probably have launched the Knicks clear over the moon. Reed won the opening tip from Chamberlain, then scored his team's first two baskets and the Knicks were on their way. The legend, of course, is all about Reed. But it was the typical team effort -- and a brilliant 36-point, 19-assist show by Frazier -- that sent them on their way to a 113-99 win and New York's first NBA title.

Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere and Bradley would all eventually be voted into the Hall of Fame, recognized for their individual achievements.

But it is the simplicity of their style -- pass the ball, hit the open man -- and sound of the basketball symphony they played together that makes the 1970 Knicks still echo through the years.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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