The flights had been arranged, the phone calls made and the connections renewed. Fifty years after winning the first championship in franchise history, the members of the 1969-70 Knicks were going to be headed back to Madison Square Garden.
But even before the NBA suspended its season on March 11, the Knicks had to give in to the reality that flying a bunch of former players in their 70s (not to mention Dick Barnett, who is 83) from all reaches of the nation during a growing health crisis was a very bad idea.
So a day before Adam Silver announced that the NBA season would be suspended, the Knicks called off plans for the gathering of the championship team for a scheduled March 21 celebration.
“It was devastating,” said Walt Frazier, who guided the team to that title as the point guard and is the one member who is still there for nearly every Knicks game as the analyst for MSG Network. “We waited 50 years. For me, it was more like a homecoming, a family reunion.”
But they never got the chance to convene on the Madison Square Garden court one more time to recapture memories of that magical run.
The funny thing about recalling that championship is that the echoes have never really died down in New York. Maybe it’s because the brief glory days in which the team won two titles and reached three NBA Finals in a four-year span have never been repeated. The celebration may have been for the 50th anniversary of their first title, but the Knicks are not far removed from the 50th anniversary of their last one.
Maybe it’s because of the indelible image of Willis Reed hobbling onto the floor for warmups before Game 7 of the NBA Finals May 8, 1970 against the Lakers and — despite a torn muscle in his right thigh — hitting his first two shots of the game against Wilt Chamberlain.
Maybe it's because Frazier had 36 points and 19 assists in the Knicks' title-clinching 113-99 victory.
But if you ask those players who climbed the mountain, it was a special group before they ever tipped off that final game.
“I think it was the players on that team, the personalities, the characters,” Frazier said. “Look at the Mets. We all won titles that year, but no one is talking about 1969. The Jets, nobody is talking about those teams like they talk about our team. Guys are revered like it was yesterday.
“I’ll never forget talking to Bill [Bradley]. He was doing an appearance and took Oscar [Robertson] to a school in Cincinnati. None of the kids knew who Oscar was. You got a grade school in New York and somebody would have heard of DeBusschere, Bradley, Frazier. That’s the significance of that team. When I’m at the Garden, I hear kids and their dads. The kid will say, ‘There’s a Knicks announcer.’ The dad will say, ‘That guy was like Michael Jordan.’ We personified team.”
Of the nine numbers hanging in the rafters at the Garden, included are the entire starting lineup from that team — Frazier, Barnett, Bradley, Reed and Dave DeBusschere — along with 613 for the win total of coach Red Holzman. But any old-time fan will talk as longingly about the bench crew dubbed “The Minutemen.” Cazzie Russell, Dave Stallworth, Mike Riordan and Nate Bowman all played key roles.
“Well, one of the great parts about the team, the sums were more instrumental than any just one guy,” Barnett said. “Even though Willis obviously scored just four points, he played tremendous positional defense in terms of the big guy, played a tremendous role. Walt had that outstanding game. But we had contributions from a whole group of guys. You can never discount the fervor of the fans that supported us out of New York at that time. Dave Stallworth came in and played a tremendous part. Cazzie, Riordan, it was just a wide contribution, obviously with Red playing a tremendous part in bringing everybody together. It was a magical time during that period of basketball excellence.”
Reed joked that the team had to wait its turn, not only putting together the right pieces but waiting for Bill Russell to retire from the Celtics. When their time arrived, they won 60 games in the regular season and still needed a rough-and-tumble seven-game series against the Baltimore Bullets — their Eastern Conference mirror image with Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson and Jack Marin — to get out of the opening round of the playoffs.
They coasted past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in five games to reach the Finals and then traded wins and losses for the first six games. The series seemed ready to turn against them early in Game 5 when Reed went down in the lane with the injury. With the series tied at 2-2, this could have been a turning point, allowing Chamberlain to dominate before the Lakers returned to Los Angeles with a chance to end the series.
But at halftime the Knicks scrapped their game plan and instead threw assorted pieces at Chamberlain, giving up size and instead using speed and stealth to earn a 107-100 comeback victory.
“At halftime, we were trailing [by 13],” Frazier said. “Red changed the entire offense, going with a college 3-2 to open up the floor, make Wilt come out and play defense. To be able to improvise like that — at halftime we started talking about 3-2, something that we never practiced, but Red said, ‘Go out and try.’ ”
They did, with the 6-6 DeBusschere and 6-7 Stallworth taking turns at guarding Chamberlain.
With Reed sidelined, Chamberlain had 45 points and 27 rebounds as the Lakers won Game 6, 135-113, to set up the final game.
While Reed’s appearance on the floor provided drama that has been resurrected and recalled since that day, it was a mystery even to the players on the team.
“You’ve got to remember, there were no cellphones, no internet,” Frazier said. “So the day of the game, I’m calling guys trying to find out, ‘How’s Willis?’ Nobody knows. I didn’t know Willis had been at the arena since 8 or 9 in the morning getting treatment. In the training room, everybody was going in and out and finally Red ran us out — ‘We’ve got to play the game whether he plays or not.’ ”
“I knew I was going to go out there on the floor,” Reed said. “How much I could give, what could I do, I didn’t know. I went on the floor still dragging the leg really bad. That was the problem.”
Reed then nearly knocked the roof off the Garden by connecting on a pair of jumpers and scoring the first four points of the game for the Knicks.
“I’m laughing as I think of it, but we were an unselfish team,” Reed said. "The first shot, Barnett passed me the ball. And I’m thinking I don’t know if I would have passed that to Barnett if that was him that was injured. But we were unselfish. Hit the open man, that was our philosophy.”
Reed wouldn’t score again but managed to stay on the court for 27 minutes. The Knicks took a 69-42 halftime lead and cruised from there, led by Frazier's brilliant effort. Barnett scored 21 points, DeBusschere had 18 points and 17 rebounds and Bradley rounded out the starting five with 17 points.
“This was a ritual with Red and I,” Frazier said. “If we’re playing the Bullets, forget about offense, just focus on defense with Earl [Monroe]. This game he said, ‘Clyde, hit the open man, get everyone involved.' That was my mindset. But as the game progressed, I was the open man.”
That title ended a drought that began in 1947. That seems like nothing compared to what has followed that last championship in 1973, but that might be part of the allure for that team.
“I think it’s comprised of the absence of winning to a great extent,” Barnett said. “They can remember that we were successful. It really hasn’t been too much to look at since we left.”
“I think it was destiny, man,” Frazier said. “I keep saying that. If we played the Lakers 10 times after, I don’t think we would have won. But the way Willis came on court, the type of games, the fans, the reaction, everything was a storybook ending.”
1970 NBA Finals
May 8, 1970
Knicks 113, Lakers 99
Lakers 24 18 27 30 - 99
Knicks 38 31 25 19 - 113
LAKERS FG-FGA FT-FTA REB ASST. PF PTS.
West 9-19 10-12 6 5 4 28
Chamberlain 10-16 1-11 24 4 1 21
Baylor 9-17 1-2 5 1 2 19
Erickson 5-10 4-6 6 6 3 14
Garrett 3-10 2-2 4 1 4 8
Hairston 2-5 2-2 2 0 1 6
Tresvant 0-4 3-3 2 0 2 3
Egan 0-2 0-0 0 0 2 0
Total 38-83 23-38 49 17 19 99
KNICKS FG-FGA FT-FTA REB ASST. PF PTS.
Frazier 12-17 12-12 7 19 3 36
Barnett 9-20 3-3 0 2 4 21
Bradley 8-18 1-1 4 5 3 17
DeBusschere 8-15 2-2 17 1 1 18
Reed 2-5 0-0 3 1 4 4
Bowman 3-5 0-1 5 0 5 6
Stallworth 1-5 2-2 2 1 3 4
Riordan 2-3 1-2 2 1 2 5
Russell 1-4 0-0 3 0 0 2
Totals 46-92 21-23 43 30 25 113