A charter member of the NBA, the New York Knicks were still seeking their first league championship in 1969-70, when a heady coach named Red Holzman took a team of talented individuals and blended them seamlessly into an outstanding unit which used basketball basics like "Hit the open man" and "See the ball" as its credos.
Holzman had been a guard with the old Rochester Royals in the 1940s and early `50s, both in the National League and in the NBA, and had coached the Hawks in Milwaukee and St. Louis for four seasons in the late `50s. He then worked as a scout before succeeding Dick McGuire as coach of the Knicks in 1967. Holzman preached defense and team ball, and players conformed to his tenets or were replaced. The key move came on Dec. 19, 1968, when high-scoring center Walt Bellamy was dealt to Detroit along with guard Howie Komives for Dave DeBusschere, a hard-working forward who had served as player-coach of the Pistons at age 24. The move not only gave New York a vital rebounder, scorer and defensive presence at forward, but it allowed Willis Reed to move into his natural position at center, where he flourished.
Reed embodied the team's spirit, a rugged center who gave no quarter and asked none-he once took on the entire Lakers team in a storied episode during the 1966-67 season. In 1969-70 he enjoyed a season for the ages, winning MVP honors for the regular season, the All-Star Game and the NBA Finals, a trifecta that would go unmatched until Michael Jordan did it in 1995-96. Reed averaged team-highs of 21.7 ppg and 13.9 rpg (fifth in the NBA). Flashy young Walt "Clyde" Frazier was the playmaker, averaging 20.9 ppg and ranking second in the NBA in assists at 8.2 apg. He also was adept at playing the passing lanes in the Knicks' scheme of team defense, unafraid to gamble knowing Reed was behind him to cover for any mistakes. Four other players averaged in double figures in the balanced attack preferred by Holzman, who would be voted the NBA's Coach of the Year: guard Dick Barnett (14.9), DeBusschere (14.6), and small forwards Bill Bradley (14.5) and Cazzie Russell (11.5).
The Knicks, using pressure defense and selflessly making the extra pass on offense, won nine of their first 10 games and never looked back. They finished with 60 regular-season wins for the first time in franchise history, including what was then a record 18-game winning streak early in the season. The Knicks were tested early in the playoffs by the rugged Baltimore Bullets, who featured Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, Jack Marin and a future Knick named Earl Monroe. The teams would have several classic matchups over the years, and New York won this one in seven games, capturing the finale 127-114. The Knicks then dispatched Milwaukee and its rookie center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in five games, to set up a memorable seven-game NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The teams split the first four games, with two of them going into overtime. Reed injured his leg in Game 5, but the Knicks hung on to win by using a swarm of shorter players to harass Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain. As Reed sat out Game 6, the Lakers won easily, and nobody knew if he'd be able to play in Game 7. The teams had just about completed their pre-game warmups at Madison Square Garden when Reed limped onto the court for the opening tip. In dramatic fashion he scored New York's first two baskets, providing the emotional boost for a 113-99 victory that gave New York its first championship. Frazier, who joined Reed on the All-NBA First Team, had 36 points and 19 assists in Game 7.