A Classic Rivalry
From 1969 to 1975, the Knicks-Bullets feud was one of the most heated in NBA history
There are several ingredients needed in order to make a great rivalry in professional sports. The rivals need to face each other in meaningful games for a number of years. They need to play with distinct styles. Their fans have to build a passion against the rival city and team. And the coaches and players have to have a mutual respect for one another. Under any definition, the Knicks and Bullets were classic rivals from 1969 to 1975.
The Chicago Zephyrs relocated to Baltimore after the 1963 season and, after a name change, returned a Bullets franchise to the blue-collar city for the first time since the original Baltimore Bullets disbanded in 1955. The city was still learning NBA basketball in the mid-60s, when the Bullets made three consecutive first-round draft choices that would transform the franchise into yearly contenders. In 1966, they selected forward Jack Marin. The next year, Baltimore picked guard Earl Monroe with the second overall selection. In 1968, the Bullets again had the second overall pick. After the Rockets selected Elvin Hayes, the Bullets grabbed center Wes Unseld.
With rookie Monroe, the Bullets improved from 20-61 to 36-46 in 1968. In Unseld's first season, Baltimore jumped to 57-25 in 1969 -- the best record in the NBA.
At the same time, a few hundred miles north, the New York Knicks were building their own championship squad. In the same draft that the Bullets found Monroe, the Knicks selected Walt Frazier only three picks later.
The Knicks had Willis Reed beginning in 1965, but he was a forward until a trade with Detroit in December of 1968 brought forward Dave DeBusschere to the Big Apple in exchange for center Walt Bellamy.
This was the dawn of a new age in the NBA, particularly in the East, where either Boston or Philadelphia had won the Eastern Finals since 1955. Wilt Chamberlain had been traded from Philadelphia to Los Angeles following the 1968 season. Bill Russell was playing his final season in 1969. The Knicks and Bullets jockeyed for supremacy in the East, particularly after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks moved to the new Midwest Division in the Western Conference beginning in 1971.
The New York Knicks met the Baltimore Bullets in postseason play six straight years, beginning in the spring of 1969. In the decade of the 1970s, the Knicks and Bullets combined to win three NBA championships, and won the Eastern Finals seven times.
Not only were both teams extremely good, but they played 36 postseason games against each other in a six-year period. Three times, the series came down a seventh and deciding game.
The teams had differing styles. The Bullets -- in the days of Monroe, Kevin Loughery and Gus Johnson -- were known as the most explosive and crowd pleasing club in the league. Defense -- not counting the undersized Johnson and Unseld -- was sporadic, at best. The Knicks, on the other hand, featured one of the best defensive teams of all-time. Frazier and DeBusschere made the league’s top defensive five every year, and Reed was an expert shot blocker.
Jack Marin vs. Bill Bradley: Duke grad Jack Marin would not be inducted into the Hall of Fame as Princeton grad Bill Bradley would be, but Marin might have been a better NBA player. He scored more points, pulled in more rebounds and made more All-Star games than Bradley. In his six years with the Bullets, Marin averaged 16.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Nearly 70 percent of his playoff games (24 of 35) in a Bullets uniform were played against Bradley and the Knicks. Marv Albert -- the Knicks' radio announcer then -- remembers that, “Marin used to get upset as Bradley would tug on his shorts out of the referee’s eyesight. It was all part of the gamesmanship. That match up was very, very intense.”
Kevin Loughery vs. Dick Barnett: At one guard spot, two wily old veterans matched up, as Dick Barnett of the Knicks guarded Kevin Loughery of the Bullets. Loughery, who had played his college ball in New York at St. John’s, had been with Baltimore since 1963. Loughery averaged over 20 points per game in the late 60s, with Barnett dropping in just a few less for New York. “Barnett was an excellent defensive player, as well,” remembers Albert.
The other three matchups were all worth the price of admission, too. Unseld versus Reed was epic. Gus Johnson versus Dave DeBusschere was as good as it got. Earl Monroe versus Walt Frazier was the pinnacle.
Wes Unseld vs. Willis Reed: They were two of the greatest centers of all-time, and both were a bit undersized. Unseld was the league MVP in 1969. Reed was the league MVP in 1970. Both were Rookies of the Year. Both won NBA championships. Who was better? Rod Thorn said, although it was close, he would give the edge to Reed, who had a more complete game. Certainly, Reed’s team needed more scoring from him than the Bullets required of the unselfish Unseld.
Earl Monroe vs. Walt Frazier: Legendary Knicks coach Red Holzman wrote in his 1980 book with Leonard Lewin, “A View from the Bench,”: “I matched Monroe with Frazier. Ace against ace. Power against power. If Monroe got 34, Frazier might get 34. The idea was not to allow the Bullets to get a big edge at that one position. They saw so much of each other, Clyde could have played Pearl in his sleep.”
One thing they both had was style -- both on and off the court. Frazier was more flamboyant off the court, and Monroe was flashier on it. But that’s not to say Frazier didn’t have moves in his game, or that Earl the Pearl was quiet off-the-court. Monroe, before the sixth game of the 1971 series with New York, described the scene recently as a “doomsday kind of thing.” So, how did Monroe prepare? “I normally liked to dress in all black, but before that game, I was in all black except for a hatband that was all red, to show that I meant business.” No one was cooler than Frazier, however. He was often seen before and after games with mink coats and velour hats. Talk about style.
Gus Johnson vs. Dave DeBusschere: Holzman, again in his book, wrote this about the DeBusschere-Johnson matchup: “The Classic Confrontation. Man against man. Will against will. Body against body … Gus was brittle, sometimes erratic, sometimes showboat but always a player the Knicks had to stop to win. He was only 6-foot-5, but played taller … Gus was to be bothered by bad knees through his entire career, but that only made his performances against DeBusschere all the more magnificent. People came to see the Knicks play the Bullets, and left talking about the mini-war between DeBusschere and Johnson. When Johnson and DeBusschere got together under the boards, it was like rubbing two huge trees together and setting a fire … DeBusschere’s pride was hurt (in the 1970 playoff series) when Johnson erupted for 15 points in the third quarter and 31 for the sixth game.
“They battled (in the seventh game) and DeBusschere hit 12 baskets and scored 28 points. … Gus came to the Garden for the first game of the 1969 opening series but he couldn’t play. He was a cripple with fluid on his left knee, which needed injections, and a damaged right knee that needed surgery … He was 32 and suffering. A few days earlier, he had helped Baltimore qualify to play the Knicks by scoring 19 points, grabbing 17 rebounds, and getting eight assists against the 76ers. … In three playoff series (versus New York), Johnson wound up with a 9-10 won and lost record against DeBusschere, by discounting Game 1 of the 1970 series he missed.”
Albert, too, said the DeBusschere-Johnson battles were “like a heavyweight championship fight.”
DeBusschere made the Hall of Fame in 1983, 20 years before his death at the age of 63. But Johnson never made the Hall. He died in the spring of 1987 at the age of 51. “I felt as though Gus was one of the best defensive players ever to play the game,” Earl Monroe said. “He not only played strong forward -- but he played the centers, the small forwards, and he played the guards, as well. As a teammate, he and Wes used to bet who would get the most rebounds. He was competitive even with his teammates. And strong -- I remember he shattered a backboard in Milwaukee, and we had to wait 90 minutes to get a new backboard to finish the game.”
1969: New York 4, Baltimore 0: The Bullets had the best regular-season record in the league but were swept by the Knicks in the playoffs. The Knicks won the four games by an average of 9.5 points per game. In the two closest games, Willis Reed had 35 points and 19 rebounds (Game 3), and 43 points and 17 rebounds (Game 4). It has to be noted that Gus Johnson missed the entire series with injuries.
1970: New York 4, Baltimore 3: This time it was the Knicks that entered the series owners of the best regular-season record. The Bullets again had injury problems: Loughery started the series wearing a heavy brace after running into Abdul-Jabbar a month earlier, cracking four ribs and puncturing his lung. The series was a classic, nevertheless.
The first game – played in New York -- wasn’t decided until the second overtime period. The Bullets had a chance to win at the end of regulation and at the end of the first overtime. Both times, they isolated Monroe on Frazier. At the end of the first overtime, Frazier knocked the ball loose on Monroe and Barnett scooped it up. Barnett nearly had the game-winning layup in the final second of overtime, but Fred Carter came out of nowhere and swatted the shot away. “Fred really surprised everyone, but he got the ball cleanly, and pinned it against the backboard. It gave us a big impetus,” said Monroe.
The Knicks finally put the game away in the second overtime. After New York won the second game in Baltimore, they had defeated the Bullets six straight times in the postseason over two seasons. The Bullets, who had lost their final two playoff games in 1965 -- and were swept in three games in 1966 -- had thus dropped 11 consecutive playoff games entering Game 3 of the Knicks series. Loughery, who had played in all 11 of the losses, was so distraught he removed the brace that restricted his shooting. He was limited to 10 painful minutes in the third game, but his 13 points helped Baltimore break the losing streak with a 127-113 victory. Wes Unseld had more rebounds than the entire Knicks team. The Bullets then evened the series in Baltimore.
Willis Reed needed a shot to ease his arthritis in his knees in order to play the fifth game. He played 45 minutes, scoring 36 points and pulling down a career-high 36 rebounds. The Knicks forced the Bullets to miss 27 of their 30 second-half shots. Gus Johnson had 31 points and forced DeBusschere to miss nine of his 11 shots from the field.
It came down to a seventh and deciding game at Madison Square Garden. Monroe scored 32 points in the seventh game, but Barnett gave the Knicks 28 points to lead them into the Eastern Finals.
1971: Baltimore 4, New York 3: In the 1971 Eastern Finals, the home team won the first six games. The seventh game was played in New York. Monroe doubled-up Frazier, outscoring Clyde 26-13. Marin outscored Bradley 20-13. But it was Fred Carter’s decisive jump shot with just over one minute remaining that gave Baltimore the game and series. “I’d have to say the 1971 Eastern Finals was one of the greatest playoff series of all time, when my Bullets defeated the Knicks 93-91 in the seventh game,” Kevin Loughery said. “You have to understand, Baltimore was always losing to New York -- we couldn’t beat the Knicks, the Colts couldn’t defeat the Jets, the Orioles couldn’t defeat the Mets. When we finally beat the defending champion Knicks, that was our championship.”
Bridesmaids no longer, Baltimore became known as “Titletown USA,” because in the spring of 1971, the Orioles were the defending World Series champions and the Colts were the defending Super Bowl champs. The Bullets advanced to the NBA Finals with their victory over the Knicks, but were swept by the Bucks in four games.
1972: New York 4, Baltimore 2: The Bullets realized that their core players weren’t going to win a championship. They drafted guard Phil Chenier in 1971. They traded Loughery and Carter to Philadelphia for high-scoring guard Archie Clark. Monroe refused to play for Baltimore, finally approving a trade to New York early in the 1971-72 season. In 60 games for the Knicks that year, Monroe deferred to Frazier and played just 21 minutes per game. Monroe was bothered by injuries in his knees that season, as well. He had played in the NBA Finals in 1971 with Baltimore and did the same for New York in each of the next two seasons. Gus Johnson’s knees limited him to less than half the games, and his spot was taken by John Tresvant.
In this 1972 series, it was Archie Clark that put together the huge scoring games. His 38 points led the Bullets to a victory in the first game, and his 35 points led Baltimore in the third game. Reed was limited to just 11 games that season due to tendonitis and had been replaced by Jerry Lucas as the Knicks' center.
1973: New York 4, Baltimore 1: The Bullets traded their second leading scorer (Marin) for Elvin Hayes in order to replace Gus Johnson as a big forward. Ex-Knicks forward Mike Riordon took over a starting position on the baseline for the Bullets. Hayes and Unseld would lead the Bullets to the NBA Finals in 1975, 1978 and 1979; but they were fortunate to make the playoffs in their first year together.
1974: New York 4, Capital Bullets 3: The familiar rivals met in the postseason for the sixth consecutive season. The Knicks would win for the fifth time in a last hurrah for three key veterans (Reed, DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas) who would all retire as New York's season came to an end. Monroe’s 30 points were the difference for the Knicks in Game 7, as they outlasted the Bullets 91-81. As was the case from beginning to end, Earl Monroe was again the focal point of this great -- and often overlooked -- rivalry.
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