“Now here comes Willis... and the crowd is going wild!”
That was Marv Albert’s call on the radio for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, and even though New York City is seen as some kind of secularist’s utopia or dystopic hellscape depending on your point of view vis-à-vis organized religion, Reed’s entrance is practically a shibboleth for Gotham basketball fans; flash a few stills from the grainy TV footage, and the entire gloriously improbable tale comes spilling out in gushing, reverent tones, as if retelling the deeds of saints.
The New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers were tied at three games apiece, but Knicks Captain Willis Reed had suffered a torn muscle in his right thigh during Game 5, and skipped Game 6 entirely. The 1970 MVP was desperately needed to grapple with seven-footer Wilt Chamberlain, and considering the all-time great had dominated an undersized Knicks squad in Game 6 to the tune of 45 points and 27 rebounds, things looked bleak.
Miraculously, mere moments before tipoff, Reed emerged from the center tunnel and Madison Square Garden erupted, while Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the rest of the Lakers were left gaping in awe. “I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man,” said Knicks point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier. “When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!” In the game’s opening minutes, the Captain swished two long jumpers, and after a Herculean effort from Frazier, New York rolled to its first NBA championship.
Reed’s heroics and all the legendary exploits of the 70’s Knicks are lionized in Michael Rapaport’s documentary, When the Garden was Eden, based on Harvey Araton’s book of the same name. The film, a part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday night and features interviews with Reed, Frazier, Senator Bill Bradley, current Knicks president Phil Jackson, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and many other Knicks stars of the era.
The movie details not just an atypically great stretch in Knicks history, but expounds upon the reasons why they remain the object of worship. It’s not just because they garnered the only two championship banners that hang in the rafters, but because their style of play—five pieces selflessly forming a screen-happy, passing, swarming machine that was greater than the sum of its parts—seemed to invoke the best of New York City, especially in contrast to the political and social upheavals that marked that era.
As Araton wrote:
To step inside Madison Square Garden was to grab hold of a lifeline to an alternate world of harmonic order and balance. Black men and white men from north and south, east and west, worked together for the common good, with purpose, commitment, and intelligence. It was a time in America when the generation gap may have never been wider but a Knicks game could bridge even the widest. It was Broadway’s rendition of what the country aspired to be but obviously, and painfully, was not.
The City in the 70s would be unrecognizable to denizens of the gentrified metropolis of today. In case you weren’t around at the time, it was not entirely dissimilar to the crumbling, often-frightening, urban nightmare depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver—where economic stagnation led to a spike in crime, and drug dealers and prostitutes worked openly on street corners from Downtown to Times Square.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the central role basketball plays in the culture. As director Michael Rapaport said in an interview with me, “You walk around New York City—Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Queens—every 20 or 30 blocks, you’re going to see a basketball court.”
It’s why the franchise’s failure to return to glory resonates different than, say, the struggles of the often-moribund Mets and Jets. Rapaport continued this theme Thursday night prior to the screening: “This is New York. This ain’t Tulsa, this ain’t Minneapolis, this is New York, and this is basketball. It's not lacrosse, it's not soccer, and we need to win here. Period. That's the only thing that matters. This is a basketball city.”
That sound you just heard is the howls of protest from Indiana and pretty much every other hoops-obsessed town across the country. And the following sound you’re hearing is an untold number of New Yorkers bellowing back, “Fuggeddaboutit!”
But this isn’t a debate; it’s a shouting match, and one thing that Gothamites definitely do better than anyone else is cling to their myths, even if the ability to scream louder and longer than the other guy is the best, most coherent (and often only) argument they can offer.
Frank Sinatra wasn’t exactly wrong when he crooned, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” Life in the city is difficult and frustrating, expensive and grueling. If you choose to make New York your home, you do have to believe that the end result of all the petty and grand indignities is something that couldn’t be achieved elsewhere.
Unfortunately, that myth too is starting to fray at the edges. Mayor DeBlasio may be unable to shovel snow, but he’s right about this being a tale of two cities. Feel free to scoff at his populist rhetoric, but as was the case in the 70’s, New York is once again seen as a city beset by massive problems and widening inequality; a place where a Horatio Alger type can’t actually achieve greatness by mere force of will, that talent and pluck and determination aren’t enough.
Sadly, in contrast to that leisure suited-era, the current edition of the Knicks is a pretty apt paradigm for a decade-plus of policy that catered to real estate brokers and Wall Street titans at the expense of what remains of the working-class. They’ve frittered away millions on bloated contracts given out to failed, broken has-been and never-will-be fraudulent stars, turned the supposed Mecca of basketball into a sporting punch line, and their faux-bluesy, fedora’d, tin pot despot literally fiddled while this Rome burned. Of course, even though this so-called strategy produced more execrable basketball than any fanbase should be forced to stomach, the team itself raked in enough ducats to shame Croesus.
So when New Yorkers pine for a better team, it’s not just about basketball, it’s about defending the article of faith that New York is the spiritual (if not historical) home to Naismith’s game, especially at a time when faith in the city itself is being so sorely tested.
At the premiere, even celebrities without any connection to the team or the film were peppered with questions about Phil Jackson, who’ll be the next coach, and whether or not Carmelo Anthony will return.
Seventies guard Dick Barnett had probably the best response to these persistent queries when he, resplendent in a Sherlock Holmes-ish hunting cap and long, silk scarf, bluntly chortled, “That's why they're paying him [Phil Jackson] 60 million dollars. I don't give out any free advice!”
Jackson himself wasn’t exempt. Though he dodged the press on the red carpet, cutting backdoor to sneak into his seat in a manner that’d make his ex-coach Red Holzman beam with pride, the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola managed to corral him at the end of the night, right before he jumped into a waiting car. With regards to embattled coach Mike Woodson, the cagey Jackson said, “I’m not going to make any comment about that right now.”
Speaking of the man who would be the franchise’s savior, in the film’s closing moments, as they updated the various ‘Bockers impressive, post-NBA curriculum vitae—Bill Bradley’s career in the Senate, Barnett’s becoming Dr. Barnett, and so on—they ended with a clip of Phil Jackson’s introductory press conference after being named Knicks team president.
You can never tell just by looking at someone whether they’re a basketball fan or not, but given the traditional demographics of a Tribeca Film Festival screening, I wasn’t expecting the audience to be composed of people that had committed Pablo Prigioni’s true shooting percentage to memory.
But when Phil started talking about the triangle offense, the crowd burst into applause and hoots and hollers that’d rival those that followed any last-second, game-winning Carmelo Anthony jumper.
Not only was I among the cheering fans, I went to the film’s opening night reception, hoping that Clyde Frazier et al. would be there, painting the town red. Alas, Clyde didn’t show, but Cazzie Russell, Dick Barnett and Earl Monroe sauntered in, full of swag in a manner not entirely dissimilar from the way they entered Studio 54 back in the day. They took a seat in the corner, laughing and celebrating with a slew of friends, and yes, attractive admirers. Dads took kids over to take their photos and I stood just slightly off to the side.
I found myself chatting with an older woman that was beaming from ear to ear. She told me how her dad had taken her to the Garden, and how Pearl was her favorite, but (paraphrasing Papa Shuttlesworth’s monologue from He Got Game) she hated that, even though it worked, the unselfish Knicks system put the shackles on the individual greatness and poetry of Earl’s game. She was a fan, too.
And I thought about my dad listening on the radio in 1973 during their march to a 2nd title. When I was less than a year old, the only way I’d get to sleep some nights is via a ride around the block in our decrepit Datsun hatchback. So Dad would drive, and to pass the time, he’d turn on Marv Albert’s halting yet oddly sonorous baritone. When I think of all the years I’ve wasted on a routinely terrible team, I go back to this inadvertent act of social conditioning and/or imprinting as the only rational explanation.
But even standing within spitting distance of The Pearl was close enough for me to envision better days ahead. If you can’t offer up wins, hope is a sports franchise’s greatest currency, and right now, the Knicks can offer that, even if that hope is driven more by nostalgia than a level-headed assessment of the talent on the roster.
I don’t know if Phil can make everything right again, but if nothing else, fans can peg their dreams to the idea that the Old Knick can bring back the magic of the Old When the Garden was Eden Knicks, or at least resurrect the fundamental principles that made that team so great and so utterly beloved. And if he, like so many other white knights before him, fail? Well, as Rapaport said, “If Phil can't do it, we might have to shut down the entire business.”
But there is hope. And for now, that’s enough.