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Shaun Powell

Ex-Knicks centers Willis Reed (left) and Patrick Ewing left markedly different legacies in New York.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Writer Harvey Araton discusses state of Knicks, then and now

Posted Nov 18 2011 6:08PM

There was a time when the city game was actually ruled by The City, when New York was the unquestioned basketball mecca, when the Knicks were discussed in relevant tones.

When the Garden was Eden, in other words.

That's the title of a new book authored by Harvey Araton, a New York Times writer who has covered the Knicks for over three decades. His book reflects heavily on the team's glory years of the early 1970s and flushes out the reasons for success. All the important players and moments are explained: Video Willis Reed's limp from the tunnel in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, coach Red Holzman's calm hand, the risky pairing of Walt Frazier with Earl Monroe in the backcourt and also the eventual demise of a two-time NBA champion.

The Knicks have never fully recovered from the Holzman era, in terms of championships won; they only reached the NBA Finals twice since (in 1994 and 1999), losing to the Rockets in seven games and the Spurs during a lockout-shortened season. The most recent decade was especially disastrous for the Knicks, who ended a six-season long playoff dry spell last season, endured the controversial reign of Isiah Thomas and had a handful of major PR stumbles.

Araton agreed to answer a few questions about the state of the Knicks, then and now. What was the motivation for writing the book?

Araton: All these guys have lived pretty full lives since those two championships in the '70s, and not only from a social point of view, but the distance of the decade helped me put this team in a different context. Also, going after these guys in their present-day lives and what they've done throughout the years: Phil Jackson going on to become the most successful coach in history, Bill Bradley running for president and becoming a senator, Dave DeBusschere being successful in business before he died. By understanding where they've gone would help me to understand why that team was as good as it was and why it worked so well. What was the single biggest reason the Garden hasn't celebrated like it did in 1970 and '73?

Araton: With a big-market team that can afford it, there's a tendency to try and recreate success so quickly. There are very few teams that try to do what the Bulls did when Michael Jordan left, which is break it down and built it up, and even that took longer than what they imagined. The tendency with the Knicks was to recreate it in a hurry and that led to personnel mistakes, bringing in people like Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo. They just went for personalities. And then to exacerbate that, the Garden was never in stable hands for very long. Every 3-4 years there was a Jim Dolan to come along and rip apart what was started. It was, 'Let's get this guy, that guy, let's get the hot coach of the moment, let's get Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino.' And they forced a coach and GM together in a shotgun marriage. All that Garden infighting happened repeatedly and the dysfunction kept spilling over. How would Red Holzman fare if he coached "today's" player?

Araton: After Willis was fired, Holzman came back to coach Micheal Ray Richardson, Bill Cartwright and a few others and for the most part he was bewildered by the young athlete, the changing breed, the pampered guy in college and he really couldn't coach them. He hung on for a few more years and they brought Hubie to replace him, a disciplinarian. I think if Red could be magically transported to today and got a team of mature guys with a superstar, meaning all the teams Phil coached, he'd be OK. If he was given a team like San Antonio or what Doc Rivers has in Boston, I think Red would be great because his greatest asset was letting his players be independent. He would not do well with a team of insecure players. Video Willis Reed or Video Patrick Ewing: who was the greatest Knick?

Araton: I acknowledge that Ewing never played with a second tier superstar in his career. But when he needed to come up big in Houston those last two games [in Video the 1994 Finals], he couldn't get it done. And then, for me to spend three days in Louisiana talking to Willis for the book, seeing how he grew up in the Jim Crow South and faced all kinds of racism, all the things I learned about him confirmed what kind of player and person he was. The most amazing chapter in the book dealt with his confrontation with Cazzie Russell in the midst of the 1969-70 championship season. What happened was one day in Detroit, Cazzie was racially profiled. Shows up to practice the next day in a foul mood. Goes out on the court and throws elbows at the white guys on the Knicks. Willis went up to him and said, "what the hell are you doing?" Cazzie goes, "be quiet, Uncle Tom." The entire Knicks season could've gone up in smoke right there. But what Willis did, how he handled it, how he allowed Cazzie to back down when he could've beaten the hell out of him and risked losing him for the season, was magnificent. There's just something about Willis Reed. As a man, when you get to know him and talk to people who knew him, he's one of these rare athletes who's the heart and soul of any team. Willis was the greatest Knick and it's not even a debate. Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller or Hakeem Olajuwon: who was most responsible for denying the Ewing-era Knicks a title?

Araton: I think you'd have to put Olajuwon at No. 1. Because even though it was just one series, it was all set up for the Knicks to win that year (1994). Hakeem, as a franchise player, the things he did in the post and ability to rise to the occasion, allowed him to deny the Knicks. Michael broke their hearts so many times but you expected him to. Reggie was a great showman but the Knicks beat him regularly and ultimately came out ahead of him. Has Knicks chairman James Dolan gotten a bad rap all these years?

Araton: As a whole, I wouldn't rate him as the worst owner in the NBA, not by a long shot. Something overlooked is Dolan is willing to spend whatever it takes to bring a winner to the Garden. The guy spent an obscene amount of money and allowed Isiah Thomas and Scott Layden to do whatever they wanted to do with it. I give him credit for at least trying to do the right thing. Where he loses credit is he just seems to be a guy who's stubborn to the point where the things that need to be done, he won't do, just because people are telling him to do. If he loved Isiah like he says he does, he would've settled that (sexual harassment) lawsuit because it became a circus. He did more damage to Isiah than Isiah could've done to himself. I don't think he's the owner he's made out to be in New York. You can't forget, the Knicks in the '90s were a great show and that was under Dolan management. The Garden is undergoing a cosmetic change. Can it ever be "Eden" again, in terms of being an iconic building that's home to championship teams? You touched upon it in the book's final chapter.

Araton: The relationship the fans had with those guys came in a different era. Those guys used to play pickup games at the Y with some of the fans. Dave Barnett would show up, Cazzie, a few others, they would play 3-on-3 with the fans or anybody who showed up. That stuff is unfathomable today. But understand, it's a different era now. Dave DeBuschere's son, Peter, said, "I wasn't born when the first championship was won. Those weren't my good old days. My good old days were the '90s when I was sitting with my old man at courtside watching Starks dunk over Jordan." The good old days to a lot of fans right now are those games with the Bulls, and with Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, and those two NBA Finals. Also we have to take into account the fans today, the young ones, they're used to the age of free agency. Back then players didn't have any rights. Fans today see players jumping from one team to another. The notion that you can microwave a team together, like the Knicks are doing now, and make an instant contender, the old fans will think they'll never be "our guys" but the young fans are OK with it. Therefore, I think the Knicks can have that same love affair. They did in the 90s. But from a completely different vantage point than before.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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