One image can conjure a once-in-a-lifetime event for an entire sport: Joe Namath running off the field, waving his index finger to symbolize that the Jets were amazingly No. 1; Cleon Jones going down on one knee as his team completed the impossible; Willis Reed hobbling out to lift his team and his city when he could barely lift his leg.
Any one of those visual icons would have been enough to last any one city for decades. The fact that they all symbolized earthshaking moments for New York teams in one sports cycle made each of them seem even more earthshaking.
“These three teams all related to the underdog in all of us — the downtrodden, the guy who was knocked down and then got back up to fight and, more important, win. What they did was simply make people believe again,” Art Shamsky, one of two rightfielders on the 1969 Mets team, wrote in “The Magnificent Seasons,” his book about those Jets, Mets and Knicks.
Reed, on the steps of Gracie Mansion in May 1970, when the Knicks were honored for their 1969-70 National Basketball Association title, said, “We’re glad to be part of a winning family: the Jets, the Mets and the Knicks.”
The Jets, representing the lightly regarded American Football League, mystified pro football in January 1969 when they upset the Baltimore Colts of the established National Football League. They also helped establish the Super Bowl as the summit of American sports.
The 1969 Miracle Mets created a template for dreamers when they were transformed almost overnight from laughingstocks to world champions.
The 1969-70 Knicks were not overachievers. But the franchise never had won the NBA championship before, and their chances against the Lakers for Game 7 did not look great because Reed was injured. His deliberate gait onto the court and his four early points gave New York its third straight Hollywood-caliber ending.
“In 1969, there was one person who made a major prediction — and backed it up — that started the whole mess here in New York: Joe Namath,” said Jerry Grote, the 1969 Mets catcher, referring to the Jets quarterback’s guarantee of an unthinkable victory.
“When he went out and did what he did, it made a whole lot of people in this town believe in sports here,” Grote said. “Without that first one, ours might not have been quite as significant.”
Ron Taylor, a relief pitcher for the 1969 Mets, had been on a World Series winner with the St. Louis Cardinals five years earlier, but he sensed that this was just different. “To win in New York as an underdog was just great,” he said. “I can recall all the sounds from the ticker tape parade.”
The Jets, Mets and Knicks all knew the feeling. Shamsky said, “I think all of us who were part of it look back at it as very, very special in our lives. I think we were an inspiration. Over the years, many people have come up to me — including men and women who were in Vietnam at the time, which was the worst place in the world — and said what we were doing made them feel better about what they were doing.”