Legends profile: Walt Frazier
With a nickname taken by a Knicks trainer from the folk-hero robber Clyde Barrow, whose life was chronicled in the film Bonnie and Clyde, Frazier presided over the Knicks for 10 years from 1967 to 1977. He left holding team records for points scored, games played and assists.
Frazier later spent portions of three seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, ending his career in 1979 with a lifetime average of 18.9 points per game in 825 regular-season games and 20.7 points per game in 93 playoff contests. But it was with the Knicks that Frazier helped redefine the character of professional basketball, significantly boosting its popularity in New York and beyond.
“It’s Clyde’s ball,” teammate and Knicks captain Willis Reed told Sport magazine at the height of the Frazier era in New York. “He just lets us play with it once in a while.”
As a Knicks player, Frazier scored 19.3 points per game, played in seven NBA All-Star Games, and was named to four All-NBA First Teams and seven NBA All-Defensive First Teams. He is especially remembered for his inspirational performance in the seventh and deciding game of a thrilling 1970 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The eldest of nine children, Frazier took readily to on-field leadership at Atlanta’s Howard High School. He quarterbacked the football team and played catcher on the baseball team. He learned basketball on a rutted and dirt playground, the only facility available at his all-black school in the racially segregated South of the 1950s.
Frazier developed his playing philosophy very early on, according to his high school coach, and carried it with him to the pros: aggressive defense takes priority and hitting an open man is more productive than taking a wild shot.
Although he was offered more scholarships for his football skills, Frazier accepted a basketball offer from relatively obscure Southern Illinois University. “I was looking hopefully to the day when I could play pro ball, and there were no black quarterbacks on the pro scene then,” he explained.
Led by Frazier, Southern Illinois became the first small school to win the National Invitation Tournament. Frazier earned All-America honors as a senior, and the Knicks made him their first-round pick (fifth overall) in the 1967 NBA Draft.
He started slowly, averaging only 9.0 points in 1967-68. “My rookie year, I really played lousy at first,” he recalled in Sport. But midway through that season a new coach, William “Red” Holzman, took charge of the Knicks and emphasized the aggressive defense that was Frazier’s strongest suit. The rookie’s playing time soared, as did his confidence. Frazier and teammate Phil Jackson, who would later gain more fame as the head coach two dynasties: the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, were named to the NBA All-Rookie Team at season’s end.
Possessing exceptional peripheral vision and quick hands — “faster than a lizard’s tongue,” commented one opponent –Frazier began delighting New York fans with sudden steals and lightning passes. “The great thing about Clyde are his hands, his anticipation,” Holzman told Sport. Added teammate Bill Bradley, “[Frazier] is the only player I’ve ever seen [whom] I would describe as an artist, who takes an artistic approach to the game.”
By adding Frazier, Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere to a starting lineup that already featured center Willis Reed and guard Dick Barnett, the Knicks quickly built an unusually well-balanced club, a championship contender that reached the Eastern Division Finals in 1968-69. Frazier averaged 17.5 points that season and earned the first of seven consecutive selections to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
Early in the 1969-70 season, the Knicks won 18 consecutive games, setting a new NBA record, and went on to a league-best 60-22 mark in the regular season. The team’s unprecedented emphasis on defense, led by Frazier, showed in two remarkable statistics: the Knicks achieved the best record in the NBA with their leading scorer, Reed, ranking only 15th in the league; and their defense allowed just 105.9 points per game, nearly 6 points better than their closest rival. Frazier averaged 20.9 points and 8.2 assists for the season. He made the first of seven successive All-Star appearances and earned the first of four selections to the All-NBA First Team.
The 1970 NBA Finals matched two superlative clubs, the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, representing the country’s two biggest metropolitan centers. The seven-game series generated more national excitement than the NBA had ever known. Pitted against a Lakers club that featured such legends as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, the Knicks battled their rivals to a deadlock through six games, despite a leg injury to Reed, their top scorer, in Game 5.
In the decisive seventh game at Madison Square Garden, Reed hobbled dramatically onto the court, long enough to score the first two baskets of the game. Then he turned the spotlight over to Frazier, who responded with one of the greatest performances ever in a Finals Game 7: 36 points, 19 assists and five steals — including a celebrated heist from West that devastated the Lakers’ morale.
While bringing the ball upcourt during the second quarter, the Lakers’ on-floor leader momentarily slowed his dribble as he approached the midcourt line. Frazier pounced across the line, flicked the ball off West’s fingers, and raced for the Knicks’ glass, a half-step ahead of his opponent. As Frazier, in a characteristic motion, laid the ball up into the basket rather than dunking it, West fouled him. Frazier completed the three-point play. On the Lakers’ next possession the Knicks’ Mike Riordan forced West into a shot-clock violation.
“West looked bewildered,” Frazier later wrote of the pivotal sequence in Walt Frazier: One Magic Season and a Basketball Life. “For that one moment, he was out of control, and you never saw that happen with Jerry. We’d wounded their leader. I knew we had them.”
Frazier was right. The Knicks won the game, 113-99, and with it the franchise’s first NBA Championship. “I felt as pumped up as I ever have on a basketball court,” Frazier recalled in HOOP magazine. “I always tried to hit the open man when I played, but that night I was the open man. There’s no doubt that ’69-70 championship team was the highlight of my career. I think of that team every day.”
In a sport known for dizzying offensive numbers, Frazier and the Knicks had managed to make the art of defense seem glamorous. At the height of that era in Knicks history, fans at Madison Square Garden would mount chants of “Dee-fense! Dee-fense,” especially on those occasions when the Knicks trailed in a game’s fourth quarter. Fans believed and opponents feared that a couple of defensive maneuvers by Frazier would turn the score around.
“It’s not only that Clyde steals the ball,” former teammate Bill Bradley told Sport, “but that he makes them think he’s about to steal it, and that he can steal it any time he wants to.”
Part of Frazier’s defensive success lay in keeping his distance. “I don’t believe in contact defense,” Frazier said in 1971. “I like to keep them guessing where I am. I have the advantage because my hands are so quick. It’s like I’m playing possum; I’m there but I don’t look like I’m there. They’re relaxed more than if you’re up there pressuring them all the time. That’s when they get careless.”
Fans, too, admired his cool demeanor. He rarely indulged in angry outbursts and almost never expressed displeasure with officials. Frazier even perspired on the court far less than most players, furthering his aura of unflappability. Frazier moved on the court like Fred Astaire on the dance floor, according to one sportswriter, “his simplest gestures dripping with elegance. Frazier’s smooth, sultry style of play was the physical equivalent of a Southern drawl.”
A certified hero in New York, Frazier became as well known for his stylish attire and after-hours partying as for his ballhandling and peerless defense. This led to many magazine articles, photoshoots as well as commercial advertising opportunities. He parlayed his cool persona into becoming one of the first athletes to be paid to wear a basketball sneaker — a suede version made by Puma.
On the court, he led the Knicks to four more winning seasons. In 1971 New York reached the Eastern Conference Finals but lost to the Baltimore Bullets in seven games. The Knicks returned to the NBA Finals in 1972 but fell to a powerful Lakers team that had gone 69-13 in the regular season.
Early in the 1971-72 season the Knicks acquired guard Earl Monroe, an archnemesis of Frazier’s, from Baltimore. Skeptics said the longtime rivals were a disastrous match, but instead the storied “Rolls-Royce backcourt” gave the Knicks an even more formidable defense. “He’s fire and I’m ice,” Frazier said of Monroe in Newsday. In 1972-73, the pair’s first full season together, New York defeated the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals and then regained the championship by downing the Lakers in five games.
His second championship ring marked the peak of Frazier’s career. The Knicks began a steady decline that saw them fall out of championship form and then out of the playoffs entirely by 1976. Frazier, meanwhile, turned in three more All-Star seasons and even captured the All-Star Game MVP Award after a 30-point performance in 1975. In 1976-77, his scoring average dipped to 17.4 points per game, and the Knicks missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
On the eve of the 1977-78 season New York sent Frazier to the Cleveland Cavaliers as compensation for the free-agent signing of Jim Cleamons. With that move one of the most glorious careers in Knicks history came to an end. At the time, Frazier ranked as the Knicks’ all-time leader in scoring (14,617 points), assists (4,791), games played (759) and minutes (28,995). Patrick Ewing would eventually surpass him in all those categories except assists.
Frazier was stunned by the trade but dutifully reported to Cleveland after a decade in the Manhattan limelight. The move did not, however, restore the on-court skills of his prime. Partly hampered by repeated foot injuries, Frazier played in only 66 games over portions of three seasons in Cleveland before the Cavaliers put him on waivers three games into the 1979-80 campaign.
In retirement Frazier set up shop as a player agent, invested in a franchise in the short-lived United States Basketball League and then moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands and obtained a charter-boat captain’s license. But he lost both a home and a boat to Hurricane Hugo, and in 1989 he moved back to New York to work as an analyst on Knicks broadcasts. In that role, the ever-colorful Frazier delighted and confounded New York fans with a constant barrage of rhyming phrases and creative word usage — “Clyde-isms,” as they came to be known.
When his playing days had concluded, Frazier’s accomplishments on the court were still being acknowledged. In 1979, the Knicks retired Frazier’s No. 10 jersey. In 1987, he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And in 1996, he was elected to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.