The Right Stuff
If you came of age a few years earlier, it might have been Texas Western over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title game. Or UCLA vs. Houston – Lew Alcindor vs. Elvin Hayes – in January 1968 at the Astrodome, the first nationally televised prime-time college basketball game. Or maybe the nine titles the Celtics were winning in the ’60s with game-changing giants like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy bringing basketball’s possibilities into focus.
A few years later and basketball might have seized your soul when Magic and Bird met in the 1979 national championship game. Or, a year later, when Magic, an NBA rookie, went from point guard to center to replace Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – he wasn’t Lew Alcindor any more – in a Game 6 on the road and went for 42 points, 15 boards and seven assists in perhaps the most remarkable individual performance ever, given the circumstances and the stakes.
Magic and Bird launched the golden era of the NBA – Magic’s renaissance game forever ended the shame of NBA Finals games airing on tape delay – through the ’80s, with the Bad Boys playing a starring role as they ended both dynasties, Magic’s and Bird’s, and held off Michael Jordan until the ’90s. College basketball’s signature moment of the decade was the epic Georgetown-Virginia matchup pitting Patrick Ewing against Ralph Sampson, a landmark game in the creation of made-for-TV pairings that further grew the sport.
Jordan, of course, helped basketball’s international appeal explode, culminating in his participation in the most amazing ensemble cast ever assembled, the 1992 Dream Team – incomplete only for the absence of Isiah Thomas.
But the Knicks … those 1973 Knicks were breathtaking, not in a Showtime Lakers sort of way, or on a Jordan-Dominique Wilkins athleticism plane, but in their absolute precision, in their utter selflessness, in their relentless competitiveness and for the unmistakable joy they exuded in playing the game.
I tripped across a quick video tribute to them on NBA.com today and was reminded just how special they were, how much of an effect they had on me and my friends, playing high school basketball at that time, all of us captivated by the way the Knicks played and dedicated to emulating their exemplary teamwork. When Larry Brown talked about “playing the game the right way,” he couldn’t have pointed to a more shining example than Red Holzman’s Knicks.
Six Hall of Famers played on that team – six! – not including coaching Hall of Famer Phil Jackson, one of three key reserves Holzman used seamlessly off his bench. Walt Frazier was their best player, but on any given night, it could have been anybody playing the hero: Willis Reed, the captain; Dave DeBusschere, the native Detroiter who was a double-double machine and a man’s man; or Bill Bradley, the Princeton All-American, a fundamentally flawless player and great clutch shooter.
But the stories of two other players, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, perhaps most dramatically underscored why the Knicks appealed to so many.
If you were to name an all-time college All-American team, Lucas must be on it. He was a three-time first-team All-American – before freshmen were eligible – and averaged 24 points and 17 rebounds a game at Ohio State. He pretty nearly duplicated those numbers in the NBA, averaging 17 points and 16 boards for his 11-year career – in two seasons, he was a 20-20 guy – despite the sacrifices he made when he joined the Knicks, traded by Golden State in return for former Michigan All-American Cazzie Russell. In that championship season of 1972-73, Lucas averaged a relatively modest 9.9 points and 7.3 rebounds – and 4.5 assists, with a .513 shooting percentage – as a backup center who basically split time with Reed.
Monroe was my personal favorite for the way he blended in after the Knicks swindled Baltimore for him in a November 1971 trade. Four years after being made the No. 2 pick in the 1967 draft and averaging more than 20 a game all four years – and as many as 25.8 – Monroe sublimated his enormously creative and prolific scoring instincts to blend in with Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley, Reed and Lucas.
Ready for the killer, Pistons fans? The Pistons could have built that team. They had DeBusschere, trading him to the Knicks in December 1968 to appease a coach, Paul Seymour, they would fire after the season. They could have drafted Reed, who went No. 8 in 1964 when the Pistons could have used someone exactly like the rock-solid Reed, who could score, defend and rebound, but took Joe Caldwell with the No. 2 pick instead. They had their choice of Monroe or Frazier in 1967 – Frazier went fifth in addition to Monroe going second – but used the No. 1 pick on Jimmy Walker.
The Pistons, of course, would go on to win three titles over two eras with teams that were as close to a facsimile of those great Knicks champions as the NBA has seen since – teams built not around a colossal center or a superstar who dwarfed everyone around him, but through five relatively equal starters and players coming off the bench who might have been starters anywhere else, all checking their egos for the greater good. Basketball the right way.