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Books | Sports

November 28, 2011

When the Knicks Ruled the NBA

New York Times columnist Harvey Araton takes a gentler tack for his latest basketball book, revisiting the time when Walt, Clyde, and Bill were kings of the Garden.

Andrew Golding

The NBA season apparently will begin on Christmas Day, an exciting event for pro-hoops lovers after nearly two months of lockout-related drama. Among top storylines for the upcoming season is the New York Knicks' ability to mesh as a team. Boasting two of the top players in the league, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, in their first full season together, the Knicks are considered one of the elite squads in the Eastern Conference, a big change after 11 years without a playoff series win. But it takes more than two great players to win a championship—and sometimes even more than three great players, as demonstrated by the Miami Heat's loss in the NBA Finals last season.

Harvey Araton. Photo by Robert A. Cumins.
"Walt Frazier was the personification of cool at a time when it was cool to be cool."

Harvey Araton. Photo by Robert A. Cumins.

In When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks, New York Times columnist Harvey Araton writes about past Knicks teams that exemplified teamwork and selflessness with their performance. The 1970s-era Knicks—champions in 1970 and 1973—were loaded with talent, a collective six Hall of Fame players (Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, and Willis Reed) spanning those two title-winning teams, led by a Hall of Fame coach in Red Holzman.

For these Knicks teams, Araton writes, it was the subjugation of ego that allowed them to thrive. The players could have averaged more points and had more individual success as the centerpieces of their own teams, but it was as a collective unit that they defeated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals, and Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers to win their first title. The power of all was clearly greater than the power of one.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Araton tells Gelf about his own evolution as a writer, his favorite Knick, and his reflections on a special era for basketball in New York.

Gelf Magazine: You traveled to Louisiana and spent three days with Willis Reed, and spoke with numerous former Knicks players and staff. Bill Bradley was surprised when he met you—he thought you were black, based on reading your newspaper column. I'm interested in your observations—what surprised you in gathering material for this book?

Harvey Araton: What surprised me most was how much we (who grew up during that era) have forgotten or never knew about the difficulties and tensions that team experienced along the way to winning its two championships. We now tend to romanticize the process, remembering the Old Knicks as the “perfect team," and gloss over underlying racial tensions caused by the Cazzie Russell-Bill Bradley debate or the challenges presented by the integration of Earl Monroe into the lineup. These were fascinating dramas that played out over several years and could easily have undermined what those teams ultimately achieved. How the players dealt with and overcame the core struggles were at least as compelling to me as their most famous victories over the Lakers, Bullets, and Celtics.

Gelf Magazine: I'm a hoops junkie and Omer Asik is my favorite player. I'm wondering, who is your guy? Is it the mysterious Dick Barnett, the iconic Bradley, the pragmatic Earl Monroe, or perhaps Reed, whom you've called the greatest Knick ever?

Harvey Araton: After doing the book there is no player I have more respect for than Reed, who is just an unusually forthright and inspiring man. But my favorite player was and remains Frazier. He was the guy I always pretended to be when I was shooting baskets in the schoolyard, the player whose number I always asked for when the uniforms were handed out. He was the personification of cool at a time when it was cool to be cool.

Gelf Magazine: In his New York Times review of the book, Jeff Greenfield writes that "most absorbing is the story of Earl Monroe." Monroe was a star when he played for Baltimore (now Washington), but never won a title; he was a contributor on the Knicks championship team. Which situation made Pearl happier?

Harvey Araton: I think the inevitable answer to the question is that it depends which way Earl is spinning—and because his philosophical take on life is similar to the way he played, it's impossible to know in which direction he inevitably goes. As a master showman, Monroe does not regret having taken his talents to Broadway to win a championship with the Knicks. As a man who struggled financially during his post-playing days in part because he did not always handle the temptations of the big city, he at times regrets leaving the small-market nest and the owner, Abe Pollin, who operated his franchise like a family business. And by having to sacrifice a great deal of showmanship to play with the Knicks, Monroe believes he wasn't able to cash in, in the manner of Dr. J or some of the others with post-playing opportunities in the NBA.

Gelf Magazine: When the Garden was Eden is your third basketball book; the first two are Money Players and The Selling of the Green. Has your writing changed over time? My view is that Garden reads like a conversation with the reader about the Knicks players you admire, a much different tone than the other two books.

Harvey Araton: Garden is actually my fourth basketball book (the other was Crashing the Borders, a comparatively short and analytical look at the basketball industry). I would agree that Garden is much more personal—as well as positive. One of the reasons I took on the project was because the other basketball books were perceived as critical and because I grew up with the game and have always loved its intimacy and creativity. I wanted to write a book that would be considered more homage. I loved the Bird-Magic era, and the Jordan days, but the Old Knicks provided the opportunity to write not only as a journalist but as a fan, which is something Bill Simmons has done so successfully at ESPN.

Gelf Magazine: With two sons, both hoops fans, you have a familial focus group. What kind of feedback did they give you on the book?

Harvey Araton: When they finish their college readings for the semester and get around to my book, I will let you know.

Gelf Magazine: Jerry Sandusky and Penn State have been much discussed in the last couple weeks, of particular relevance to you with a son attending the school. You wrote on Twitter that "PSU should shut down its program for a couple of years as a matter of integrity." Why? One could say that those involved have been removed from the program or will soon be removed; that these were, if true, the nefarious actions of one man along with inaction from several others. And why penalize so many for what happened 10+ years ago? Do you also believe the University of Miami football program, the subject of serious allegations earlier this year, should be shut down?

Harvey Araton: I could be talked into a one-year shutdown but I certainly think Penn State would benefit from a year or two away from the very big and too-often corruptive business of football to catch its breath and refocus its priorities. This case reflects widespread institutional failure and a disheartening distortion of values. I want my son's degree to stand for the excellent academic programs the school has, not the abject surrender to a blind cult-like and/or corporate culture that football has become in too many places. The program is no doubt going to suffer in the near future—so why not take more time in finding the right successor to Paterno? Players should be allowed to transfer without penalty and some likely will even as Penn State plays on—which, of course, it will. And, yes, I do believe that any program that is found to have lost its moral compass to the extent that Penn State and Miami have sends mixed signals on commitment to meaningful reform when it makes administrative change while insisting that football is otherwise too big to fail.

Front-page image of 1970s Knicks by George Kalinsky.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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