Monday, April 19, 2010

Stories of growing up a fanatic Knicks fan; These days the NBA playoffs aren't for me

I wish I could make myself care more about the NBA playoffs. I just can’t do it. They go on much too long—especially the first round which goes on for about a month—and they’re entirely too predictable. Oh sure, upsets happen every once in a while, but not nearly as often as in hockey and when they do—like Orlando over Cleveland last year—you don’t get a handshake line, you get LeBron James stomping off and then insisting he was RIGHT not to shake hands.

It’s more than that though and, to be fair, a lot of it is just personal bias.

I grew up a Knicks fan, a fanatic Knicks fan at that. I was fortunate to come to basketball just when the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier-Dave Debusschere-Bill Bradley-Dick Barnett-Cazzie Russell Knicks were about to take off. (I could name the rest of the 1970 championship roster: Dave Stallworth, Phil Jackson, Mike Riordan, Nate (the Snake) Bowman, Bill Hosket, Don May and John Warren but that would be showing off).

When I was REALLY young, the Knicks often played Tuesday night doubleheaders—seriously—with two teams playing at 6:30 and the Knicks playing at 8:30. Since it was a school night I often went to the 6:30 game and then had to go home and listen to the Knicks (Marv Albert at the mike) on radio before going to bed. In those days, game actually took under two hours. The first time I ever saw the Celtics was in the first game of a Garden doubleheader.

When the Knicks got really good in 1969, I became a blue seats denizen, sitting as often as possible in section 406, which was right at center court and, just as important, right behind what was then Marv’s broadcast position. (He was moved downstairs not long after that). That meant my buddies and I could position ourselves to actually speak to the great man when he made his way to his location. He was never anything less than friendly, often asking us what WE thought about that night’s game. We always thought the Knicks were going to win.

After games, we would wait outside the player entrance to get autographs. Needless to say I had ALL the Knicks (DeBusschere was the toughest because he would go straight into the bar next door for a couple of beers and then would sign afterwards for those who waited him out) including the trainer, the immortal Danny Whelan.

The damn Celtics beat the Knicks in the ’69 playoffs and went on to win their 11th title in 13 seasons. Bill Russell retired (Thank God) that summer and the Knicks won 60 games the next season, including an 18-game win streak that broke the Celtics all-time record of 17. They were the No. 1 seed in the playoffs but it was never easy. They needed seven games to beat The Baltimore Bullets, who had some pretty good players themselves in Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson, Jack Marin and Kevin Loughery. The Milwaukee Bucks were scary because, even as a rookie, the player then known as Lew Alcindor was almost impossible to stop, but the Knicks won that series in five.

Then came the epic final with the Lakers that included Jerry West’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer to tie game three (the Knicks won in overtime even though DeBusschere fainted when the shot went in); Reed getting hurt in game five and the Knicks somehow winning with Bowman, DeBusschere and Stallworth surrounding Wilt Chamberlain as best they could; Chamberlain going off for 45 in game six and, finally, the Willis Reed game on May 8th, 1970 when Reed hobbled onto the court long enough to hit two jump shots to start the game and never scored again.

It didn’t matter. Frazier scored 36 (and also had, I think something like 19 rebounds and 13 assists) and the Knicks won 113-99. I can still see DeBusschere holding the ball over his head as the clock went to zero and I can still hear Marv’s call (I brought my radio with me): “It is PANDEMONIUM in the Garden!”

The Knicks lost the finals in 1972 to the Lakers team that won 68 games and completely destroyed the Knicks record winning streak by winning 33 (!!!!) games in a row. But they came back a year later and beat the Lakers again, Monroe taking Barnett’s place in the backcourt and Jerry Lucas filling in admirably for Reed who was never quite 100 percent again after his MVP year in 1970.

It was 21 years before the Knicks made it back to what were known by then as The Finals. Bird and Magic and Jordan had taken the league to new heights of popularity by then but I never really jumped on their bandwagon. It wasn’t that they weren’t brilliant, I just never warmed up to Phil Jackson—yes, an ex-Knick but all the Zen-stuff never took for me—or to Pat Riley. In fact, it was Riley’s presence as coach of the Knicks in ’94 that made it impossible for me to get excited about their finally getting back to The Finals.

I’ve often told the Michael Jordan/Riley, “you media guys just don’t understand basketball,” story (Note: click here to read the story from a previous post) but it went beyond that. Riley really DID think he had invented the game and I couldn’t stand his style of play as the coach in New York and then later, after he quit the Knicks by sending a FAX (!!) announcing he was leaving, when he coached in Miami. I’m sure Stan Van Gundy loved the way he shoved him aside a few years back when he saw a chance to win another title as coach.

I was actually glad the Knicks lost game seven to the Rockets in ’94 if only because I didn’t want Riley in the same sentence with the great Red Holzman. I had no such problems with Jeff Van Gundy or the ’99 group that made The Finals but that almost didn’t count because it came in a lockout-shortened season.

Nowadays, I just can’t get into the impossibly long playoff season (yes, the NHL is almost as long but there’s more suspense in the early rounds and you aren’t constantly pounded by ESPN with one promo after another and the networks see-no-evil coverage of all things NBA. Not that this is unique to the NBA on the four letter network, it just feels smarmier on the NBA because it is so non-stop.)

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the artistry of the league’s best players. James is amazing to watch, but I still can’t get past his behavior after the loss to Orlando last year. For the record, winning this year won’t change what he did last year. Only a genuine apology might do that. Kobe Bryant is fabulous but hard to love given his past—no, he wasn’t convicted of rape but HIS version of what happened that night in Colorado is none too flattering. Steve Nash is an absolutely freakish shooter but still hasn’t been to The Finals once. I love the potential of Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, who are mega-talented and appear to be really good guys too.

So, I’ll keep an eye on the playoffs and hope for an upset or two—although the first weekend hasn’t been too encouraging has it? Part of me would like to see the long-suffering fans of Cleveland (in all sports) get a title, part of me would like to see if LeBron is callous enough to leave after not delivering a championship.

And the Knicks? I like Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni. They have lots and lots of cap room this summer. If they use it to sign Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, I might get interested again. If it’s LeBron, well, call me when he apologizes.


Anonymous said...


I'm the same way... I guess. Not the biggest basketball fan to begin with, but I appreciate the players and their abilities... but some of the nuances of the game itself drive me nuts. Like the hour it seems to take to play the last five minutes of a ten point game because of all the timeouts and free-throws.
Anyway I checked out a few games this weekend and they all seemed to be over in the second quarter... no suspense at all.

The real reason for my comment is this... Did Riley ever acknowledge that you were right about Jordan? If so I'd love to hear that story.

Thanks for the blog, appreciate your writing it.

Anonymous said...

For the most part, I agree about the NBA playoffs, especially the first round. After that, I tend to watch a fair amount.

What bothers me more than the LeBron debacle at the end of the series last year is his, and 'his people' toying with the will he won't he re-sign with the Cavs angle. First of all, it is NOT a negotiation ploy - he knows his slotted salary if he re-signs. Secondly, if he's lobbying for them to get him better players, they are doing a great job in the difficult trade rules in the NBA (salaries must match, for the most part) and the fact that everyone is in limbo with his choice so long-term plans are difficult. And lastly, he and his folks feed the mess with wink-nod moves all the time.

This self-marketing game that athletes engage in deflate the joy from me.

Anonymous said...

I watch the finals and that's about it. But I can't watch the NHL either. Just can't get with a league that allows Todd Bertuzzi to play and lets Steve Moore twist alone in the wind.
Rich, Denver

KJT said...

Thanks John -- I grew up in upstate NY around the same time and listened to Marv Albert's unique calls of the Knicks and Rangers with an AM radio and an earpiece when I was supposed to be asleep. Your recitation of the Knicks roster brought a smile -- those names, along with the Rangers roster are burned in my brain for life. To this day I can't bear to pull for any Boston team because of the great rivalries of the NY teams with the Celtics and Bruins from those days. When Phil Esposito became a Ranger and Brad Park a Bruin, I though the world had ended. Great post.

Josh said...

Good column. I totally agree with you. I used to enjoy the NBA playoffs back in the Lakers vs Celtics era, but the new NBA is pretty much junk. I'll watch the finals but that's about it. The biggest problem with the NBA--other than the fact that many of the players seem to be very unlikable characters who could give a crap if they win or lose, as long as they get paid--is what occurs during the final minutes of games. The NBA time out rules are awful. Teams will often carry three time outs each into the final two minutes of a game, which means in a close game there will sometimes be time outs called on each of the final six possessions of the game. It makes the conclusion of these playoff games unwatchable. My suggestion would be that the league give each team three time outs for the entire game, with only two allowed to be carried over into the second half. Official t.v. time outs at the 8:00 and 4:00 minute marks of each period could replace the current insanely stupid system of referees charging alternate team time outs as substitutes to official t.v. time outs.

I was flipping between the NHL Penguins vs Senators playoff game and Bulls vs Cavs NBA game last night. The NHL playoffs is a far superior product.

John Caccese said...

There was one 1970 playoff game where Willis Reed had 36 points and 36 rebounds against the Bullets. Amazing.

My dad got us a couple of season tickets that year (Green seats, center court) and I went to a lot of games.

My personal favorite player was Cazzie Russell. I couldn't stand Bill Bradley. Even years later when Bradley ran for President, I used to yell at the TV, "Put Cazzie in!" He was my childhood hero, and I guess deep down he still is today.

Phil Jackson did a really good picture book with George "The Lens" Kalinsky documenting each playoff game from that year. I don't remember exactly what his injury was that caused him to miss the playoffs but the Knicks certainly didn't miss a beat without him. He didn't get all that much playing time back then anyway.

What a season that was. Nothing has come close for me since that time as far as the Knicks are concerned. 1973 just wasn't the same. For one thing, Cazzie had been traded and it was like the heart had been ripped out of the team for me.

Thanks for bringing back a flood of great memories, John.