For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.
GREAT PLAYOFF RIVALRIES (PART 3):
New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Sixties saw the old rivalries (St. Louis Hawks vs. Boston Celtics, Boston vs. Lakers) fade into the past...albeit not totally. Last week, we ended the Boston-Lakers series with the Celtics winning again in seven games. The new rivalry was also to include Los Angeles but the Eastern kingpins were to be the New York Knicks.
The Knicks, under the cagey veteran, Red Holzman, put together one of their all-time great units with a starting lineup of Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Bill Bradley. Bradley returned from a two-year sabbatical at Oxford University in England a year ago and DeBusschere joined the team in mid-season. Boston had upended New York in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1969 in six games but they did not even make the playoffs the next year, falling to sixth in the East. In 1970, Milwaukee, with the top pick in Lew Alcindor, made a run early beating Philadelphia four games to one while New York outgamed the Baltimore Bullets in seven in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Knicks then beat Milwaukee in five to make the Finals.
In the West, the Atlanta Hawks dispatched the Chicago Bulls in five and Los Angeles struggled past the Phoenix Suns in seven games. In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers swept the Hawks in four.
The Finals that year was to rank as one of the most dramatic in the history of the NBA. The Knicks had home court advantage and quickly jumped to a one-game lead over the Lakers, 124-112 on April 24 only to lose a nail-biter two days later to the visitors, 105-103.
The scene shifted to Los Angeles where a pair of overtime contests were to set the stage for a dramatic ending. The teams each split overtime games with the Knicks winning the third game of the series, 111-108 on April 29, and the Lakers outscoring the visitors a ton in overtime to win 121-115 on May 1.
Back in New York on Monday, May 4, the Knicks took a one-game lead winning 107-100. Then it was back to the West Coast two days later. The Lakers blew out the Knicks in this one, 135-113, again tying the series but the deciding game looked bleak for the New York five. Their captain, Willis Reed, had been injured and was not expected to play in the final game on May 8, a Friday. I will always remember that date as one of the greatest experiences of my basketball life. Let me explain.
I had recently resigned after a lengthy and mostly successful career as General Manager of the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks and was waiting until after the playoffs to pursue an offer I had from an Eastern Division team that I felt was extremely interesting. A week before, I received a call from an old friend, Buddy Jeanette, a former NBA player-coach who is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and who was then the Assistant General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pipers of the American Basketball Association, the rival league to the NBA. He explained that the Pipers were kaput and a new group - Haven Industries Inc. - had taken over the team and was looking for someone to run it. They had read the story about my resigning which was headlined "Dean of NBA GM's Resigned."
I told him that I was not interested but he said they were a big time company, one that included Jack Frost Sugar as one of their adjunct ventures, and that "they had plenty of money." I sorta laughed and said that would change the landscape a little and asked Buddy to have them call Red Auerbach in Boston and Eddie Donovan, who was then the General Manager of the Knicks. Donovan was a much heralded college coach at St. Bonaventure and had also coached the Knicks.
"Have them ask Red and Eddie about me," I suggested, "and let's see where it leads," I added.
Both Red and Eddie were long time friends of mine and they must have sealed the deal since I heard back from the Haven people a few days later. They wanted me to come to New York and meet with them but I realized at long last that I needed someone to represent me. Either Eddie or Red (or both) suggested Norman Blass, a top New York attorney, who represented a number of NBA players. I had worked with Blass before since he represented Walt Bellamy, who I had acquired from Detroit that same year. Bellamy played in 23 games for us that season averaging 15.1 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. He was a key factor in our winning the Western Division by two games over the Lakers.
I contacted Blass and told him I would be interested in discussing the new venture but I wanted a long-term contract, just not as general manager. He met with the new ownership group and got back to me in a couple of days and I flew to New York to sign a contract. Tom Cousins, who purchased the Hawks from Ben Kerner, was the best owner I ever was associated with - a true Southern gentleman who was a wonderful guy to work for. I knew I would miss Atlanta but I needed a new challenge. And boy did I get one. But more about that in a later column.
Blass and I met the Haven group for dinner around 5 p.m. at the Pen and Pencil Restaurant in New York City on Friday, May 7, the night of Game 7 game at Madison Square Garden. Midway through the meal, Lindsey Nelson, a well known radio and television sports commentator approached our table, and, after I made the appropriate introductions, urged me to stay in the game.
"Pro basketball needs you," he said.
That must have sealed the deal. They explained that they had agreed to the terms of the contract Blass had proposed but were sorry that they were unable to get me a ticket for that night's game. I asked a waiter if they had a phone and he brought one to our table.
I quickly placed a call to the Garden and asked for Coach Red Holzman explaining that we were old friends and that I was in New York. Red happened to be in the Knicks office and quickly picked up the phone and, after I explained why I was in New York, he assured me he had a ticket for me.
"You can sit with Selma (his wife)", he said. "Where are you, I'll send someone over with the ticket." My day was complete.
Getting back to that final game, Reed was not expected to play. You could almost feel the gloom settling over the Garden when the Knicks came out for the pre-game warm-up minus their captain, Reed. Then, as the public address announcer was ready to introduce both teams, Reed emerged from one of the side entrances. It took a few minutes for the sold-out Garden to spot Reed and then the building erupted in a giant roar. Reed took a couple of outside jumpers, then limped to the bench.
Holzman surprised everyone by starting Reed. A minute into the game, Reed made a 15-foot jumper from the top of the key, then scored another goal next time down. I don't remember how many points he scored or how many rebounds he grabbed...probably not many of either when you consider total statistics. But his awesome performance, virtually on one leg, was the key factor in the Knicks 113-99 win.
A year later, in 1971, neither team made the Finals. Baltimore beat New York 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals and Milwaukee downed the Lakers 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals. The Oscar Robertson-led Milwaukee Bucks then quickly swept Baltimore 4-0 for the title.
The Knicks-Lakers rivalry was to take a hiatus for one season.
In 1972, their rivalry resumed.