NEW YORK –Donnie Walsh remembers the impact the 1969-70 New York Knicks had on the NBA, even if he wasn’t here firsthand to share the experience.
“Then, I was at the University of South Carolina, as an assistant to Frank McGuire,” said the Riverside [Bronx] native, who is now in his second year as president of basketball operations. “But, I don’t think Legends Night is limited to New Yorkers. I know it was really felt here, but throughout the history of basketball, that team exemplified what you’d want if you were a coach. They were smart and talented –more talented than, perhaps, they were given credit for- and played that way.”
On Monday evening, during halftime of their game against the Milwaukee Bucks, the organization and its loyal fans celebrated the 40th anniversary of that championship squad. The event, formally billed as the Second Annual Knicks Legends Night, also honored Cal Ramsey with the newly-named Dick McGuire Knickerbocker Legacy Award, which is emblematic of the team’s pride and tradition. McGuire, who had turned 84 just eight days before his death on February 3, was affiliated with the organization for more than a half century.
The on-court festivities occurred six months to the day that another local team was honored for a similar milestone. But, unlike the Amazin’ Mets ascension to the top of the baseball world in 1969, the older Knicks didn’t surprise anymore. After all, New York had posted the fourth best record in the 14-team NBA during the previous season, although they somehow finished in third place, three games behind the 57-25 Baltimore Bullets, in the very competitive Eastern Division. By contrast, the 1968 Mets had finished ninth in a ten-team division, a robust 24 games off the pace.
William ‘Red’ Holzman, the wily coach who posted a franchise-best 613 victories, led the Knicks to a 23-1 start, including a team-high 18 consecutive wins. A nine-game winning streak, from January 23-February 3, 1970 bumped the record to a whopping 47-11. New York would win the division by a slim four games over the Bucks, who featured future Hall-of-Fame center Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] and Flynn Robinson, a journeyman guard.
The Knicks placed Dave DeBusschere, Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier and Willis Reed on the All-Defensive Team, and Reed was the first player to capture the MVP trifecta [All-Star, Finals, and Regular Season] in the same season.
Reed’s upper thigh injury in Game 5, and subsequent dramatic entrance during warm-ups before Game 7, remain a signature moment in NBA history. Though his surprise return to the court inspired his teammates and further juiced the capacity crowd, it was Frazier who sealed the victory with 36 points, 19 assists, and seven rebounds in the 113-99 clincher. Clyde’s performance is perhaps both the greatest, and most unheralded, in any championship series finale.
All but two of the surviving members appeared. The first was forward Dave Stallworth, who returned from a heart attack to become a vital contributor. The other was Phil Jackson, who won a record 10th title when the Los Angeles Lakers bested the Orlando Magic in 2009, was in Memphis as his team prepared for its game against the Grizzlies on Tuesday. Jackson, who deliberated coaching this season due to “health issues,” ultimately declined an invitation.
Ironically, the 6’8” forward, a noted defensive specialist, did not play any games for New York that season, as he was confined to the injured reserve list with a back injury; Jackson, however, remained close to the squad while assisting George Kalinsky, the famed Garden photographer, throughout his rehabilitation.
Holzman, GM Eddie Donovan and trainer Danny Whelan are deceased, as is DeBusschere and reserve center Nate Bowman. Debusschere, who had earlier pitched a shutout for the Chicago White Sox in 1963, is best remembered by younger fans for his exuberance after winning the Patrick Ewing-lottery in 1985 while serving as general manager.
Each of the five decedents was represented by family members.
[ John J. Buro is the author of the “Open Court: A Year with the New York Knicks”. The book is only available at www.opencourtbook.com. ]