Younger fans, who have watched the Knicks excel only at ticket prices, front-office chaos and the decibel level of the Garden’s public-address system, may find the idea of the Knicks as the embodiment of intelligent, disciplined, unselfish play ludicrous. They would be well advised to pick up Harvey Araton’s “When the Garden Was Eden.” It will give them a clear picture of what made the Knicks so endearing, as well as a taste of how overwrought that affection could become.
The Knicks, after all, never came close to the dynastic record of the Red Auerbach-Bill Russell Boston Celtics, or Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, or his Lakers. Why, then, would accomplished adults like Woody Allen sneak away from a dinner party for a glimpse of a Knicks game (a moment captured in “Annie Hall”)? Why would the advertising legend George Lois spend every game under the basket, screaming obscenities at the refs?
In part, it stemmed from the perfect Gotham creation myth: When he became coach of the woeful Knicks in 1967, the Brooklyn native and City College all-American Red Holzman built a team that embodied his stripped-down philosophy: “See the ball on defense, hit the open man on offense.” Willis Reed was small for a center (at 6-foot-9!), but had a keen passing eye and an outside shooting touch most big men lacked. Walt Frazier blended flair and court command; Dick Barnett would call out, “Fall back, baby!” as he launched his jumper; Bill Bradley, the Princeton all-American turned Rhodes scholar, was scorned by skeptics as another “great white hope” without the skills to play in the N.B.A., but his constant movement opened the court for his teammates. And then came Dave DeBusschere, the last piece of that puzzle, with ferocious rebounding skills, a deadly outside shot; the acquisition of DeBusschere let Reed move to center, and a generation of hero-worshiping fans was born.
More important, though, was the way the team played as a unit. Knicks fans took pride in believing they had the basketball smarts to appreciate disciplined team play. Bradley says: “You began to hear the fans applaud the pass that led to the pass that led to the basket. You could hear the anticipation as the ball moved around the perimeter that something they would appreciate was about to occur.” Knicks fans even appropriated the chant from the Sam Huff days of the New York football Giants a decade earlier: “Dee-fense! Dee-fense!” Further, the Knicks did not just play for New York; they were part of the town. Cazzie Russell scrimmaged at the 92nd Street Y; Phil Jackson and Mike Riordan would take the Long Island Rail Road to the Garden.
And in part, Araton argues — echoing countless books and magazine articles of that era — there was the contrast between the world inside the Garden and the tumult of a nation dealing with a war abroad and upheaval at home.
Jeff Greenfield is a former correspondent and analyst for ABC, CNN and CBS. His latest book, “Then Everything Changed,” will be published in paperback in February.