This is the 40th anniversary of the 1970 World Champion New York Knicks, and the franchise will honor that outstanding team tomorrow night at the Garden. By now we all know about the May 8, 1970, heroics of Knick captain Willis Reed, who hobbled onto the court, scored the team’s first four points while basically playing with one leg and led his team to its first championship. Just the sight of him on the floor intimidated the Lakers and inspired the Knicks to victory.
Reed’s performance in the series was good enough to earn him the Finals MVP (and by the way, he had to guard three Hall-of-Fame centers during the playoff run: Wes Unseld, the artist formerly known as Lew Alcindor and Wilt Chamberlain). That season Reed also won the regular season MVP, the All-Star game MVP (he was the first player to win all three awards in the same season), was on the All-NBA first team, the Defensive first team, was the Sporting News MVP and was voted ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year. I’m pretty sure he was also named Father of the Year, Husband of the Year, Sears’ Customer of the Year, he was McDonald’s one millionth person served, he was voted most likely to succeed by the Knicks, he was elected prom king at the team’s dance, he was captain of his neighborhood watch group, but oddly he lost out as employee of the year to Mike Riordan. Needless to say, 1970 was Willis’ year.
Lost in all the Willis hoopla of game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals was the performance of Walt “Clyde” Frazier. He swished and dished for 36 points, 19 assists and added five steals for good measure. Not only was he outstanding on the court, but he also clutched it up sartorially, by only donning his special playoff duds, and getting behind the wheel of his championship Rolls-Royce as opposed to his regular season Rolls.
Those performances are the stuff of legend, and throw in fellow Hall-of-Famers Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, along with a fits-like-a-glove supporting cast and you have one of the great teams of all time. They were known for teamwork, unselfishness and defense. They epitomized the word ‘team.’ But how were they built? It all starts with two men: Red Holzman, who joined the Knicks as their chief scout in 1958, and Eddie Donovan, who was hired as the team’s coach in 1961. After years of bad luck and bad decisions in the draft – a few of their number-one picks suffered illnesses or injuries and only played a handful of games for the franchise, and the team bypassed players like Nate Thurmond, Gus Johnson, John Havlicek and even players who they would eventually trade for (Walt Bellamy and DeBusschere).
But everything changed in 1964. Donovan was relieved of his coaching duties, but was kept on as general manger. The Knicks had the first pick in the draft that year, and Holzman (who was still working as a scout) and Donovan narrowed their list down to three players: Lucious Jackson, Jim Barnes and Willis Reed. They settled on Barnes and figured the other two would soon be selected. But much to their astonishment, Reed lasted into the second round and they quickly scooped him up. It was to be the greatest (and luckiest) draft decision in franchise history, and the center was the first piece of the championship puzzle. Reed was an instant star, winning the Rookie of the Year award and making the All-Star team. Next on the list was Dick Barnett. In October of 1965, Donovan gambled and traded the younger Bob Boozer to the Lakers for Barnett, who had his worst year the previous season. But Barnett had a resurgent season, and led the Knicks in scoring his first year with the club. Only weeks after that trade, the Knicks sent three players to Baltimore for Bellamy. This trade only worked out later when Bellamy was sent packing, because he pushed Reed to the power forward position, where he was less effective than at center.
That year, they drafted Mr. Princeton, Bill Bradley and vital cog Dave Stallworth. Bradley put the Knicks in a bit of a sticky wicket, though, when he went off to jolly old England to eat bangers ’n’ mash, don a Beatles wig and hang out with the likes of Michael Caine and Lulu (oh yeah, and he was a Rhodes Scholar, too). In 1966-’67 the Knicks finally made the playoffs again after a seven year drought, and they added guard/forward Cazzie Russell that season as their number-one draft pick. The next season, four key members of the championship squad would make their debut, along with their legendary coach. They gambled again in the draft by selecting Frazier, who had one more year of eligibility left in college, but the Knicks threw some big bucks at him (which he needed for his sartorial expenses), and that enticed him to turn pro. Hippie and future coaching legend Phil Jackson was their second-round selection, center Nate Bowman was purchased from Chicago and Bradley joined the Knicks that season, returning from England. The team got off to a bad start, though, and coach Dick McGuire was fired, and replaced by Holzman halfway through the season.
Three more bench players were added to start the 1968-’69 season – Mike Riordan, Bill Hosket and Don May. Every piece seemed to be in place for a championship run. Only one thing was missing: Winning. The Knicks started out the season 6-13. The team did start to win, though (12 out of their next 16), but one more transaction put them over the top. Bellamy and Howard Komives were shipped off to Detroit for DeBusschere. Reed moved back to center where he belonged, Frazier was put into the starting lineup for good and DeBusschere was the legendary “final piece to the puzzle.”
They made it all the way to the Eastern Division Finals, losing to the champion Celtics. But the next season, with that roster together for a full year (along with first-round draft pick John Warren, but without Donovan as he moved on to Buffalo), they steamrolled through the season, winning a franchise-best 60 games (including a then-league-record 18-game winning streak), beat Baltimore, Milwaukee and LA in the playoffs, and the rest is history.
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