Black History Month: Red Holzman's Knicks were first NBA team to have all-black roster
Who are the best 11 players?
That was the question Red Holzman asked his staff every day in Knicks training camp before the 1979-80 season. After practice, the legendary coach would make his own list and ask assistants Butch Beard and Hal Fischer to make theirs. In the final week of training camp, they all had listed the same guys.
The Knicks were not looking to make history, only to assemble the best possible basketball team. Yet on the final day of camp, when they decided to go with their best players, Beard, who is African-American, thought he should state the obvious to Holzman, who was white.
“I said, ‘Red, do you realize we’ve chosen nothing but black players?’ ” Beard recalled in a recent phone interview. “Red looked at me and said, ‘We are choosing the best team in talent, not in color. I don’t care if they are all green.’ And that’s how we ended up with that ballclub.”
Forty years ago, that ballclub made history by becoming the first NBA team without a white player on its roster.
The fact that this was a big deal seems unfathomable to many young fans of today’s game, which may go a long way toward explaining why it has become a relatively unknown piece of NBA history. Still, judging from interviews with members of that team and published articles from that season, it was a very big deal. Not everyone was as color-blind as Holzman.
First, some quick history. The first African-American players joined the NBA in the 1950-51 season, a year after the merger of the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America. The three African-American players who broke the color barrier were Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols, Chuck Cooper of the Celtics and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the Knicks.
While more African-Americans slowly gained roster spots in the 1950s and early 1960s, it wasn’t until the advent of the American Basketball Association in 1967 that doors really opened. The ABA, which later merged with the NBA, ushered in an above-the-rim style of play and signed a number of extremely talented African-American players, including Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and Julius Erving.
According to a Sports Illustrated story in February 1979, 75% of players in the league were African-American. Still, players talked of unstated racial quotas, especially in Phoenix, which had more white players than black players in 1979.
"These are things you kind of understood if you were a player,” said Earl Monroe, who had come into the league in the late 1960s, played on the Knicks' 1973 championship team and was the elder statesman on that 1979-80 Knicks team. “You just took it for granted, because that’s how it was.”
Entering the 1979-80 season, the Knicks were far from their glory years earlier in the decade. The team was coming off a tumultuous 34-win campaign during which Holzman came out of retirement to replace Willis Reed, who was fired as coach after 14 games. In February 1979, the Knicks traded Bob McAdoo to Boston for a haul of draft picks.
The Knicks had two white players on their team in 1978-79. Rookie John Rudd barely played and second-year forward Glen Gondrezick averaged 5.0 points and 5.7 rebounds. The Knicks entered training camp looking to find spots for three first-round draft picks: Bill Cartwright, Larry Demic and Sly Williams. They also were quite impressed with Hollis Copeland, a free- agent small forward who had played at Rutgers.
“From my understanding, I was the last player on the list. I was the one who made it an all-African-American team,” said Copeland, who now works in New York as an institutional stockbroker. “I remember Butch Beard coming to me and saying, 'Cope, you made it pretty hard for them.' At the time, I didn’t know what he meant.”
Gondrezick was the last man cut on Oct. 10, 1979, two days before the start of the season. Copeland said he later heard that general manager Eddie Donovan and Madison Square Garden chairman Sonny Werblin had to sign off on Holzman's decision.
"When it came down to our last cuts, Red and I felt we had to keep the best players. If we had kept Gondo and Rudd just because they were white, we would have lost the respect of our other players,” Donovan told New York Times columnist Dave Anderson in 1979. “The players know who can play and who can’t. I’ve had a couple of calls from fans about our decision, but when I asked them if they would have wanted us to keep Gondo or Rudd as tokens, they said of course not.”
In the fourth game of the season, on Oct. 18, 1979, the Knicks again made history in a 129-115 loss to the Pistons in Detroit. For the first time ever in an NBA game, every player who participated was African-American. The Pistons' only white player, rookie Steve Malovic, did not leave the bench.
Soon after, a headline for a New York Post column by Peter Vecsey said: “The all-black Knickerbockers.” The columnist wrote that “judging from my mail, a number of fans have no desire to watch black performers.” The column went on to say that several unnamed “bigots” used a racially and morally disparaging remark (the Post printed it, but we won’t) to refer to the team.
The column, understandably, upset the players.
“Nobody wants to be called that,” Copeland said. “I thought it was in poor taste. But we just kind of let it go. We didn’t want to make a big stink.”
Cartwright, who had grown up in northern California competing with players of many different ethnicities, said it was weird to find that the racial makeup of a team mattered to anyone.
“You would think New York, which is a mecca for folks to enter from different countries around the world, wouldn’t have any problems,” Cartwright said in a phone interview. “It’s like anything else. ‘I don’t have any racial issues until you want to marry my daughter.’ It is what it is. The league has come miles since any of that has gone on.”
Monroe, who had come up in an era in which players were routinely harassed, talked to some of the younger players about his experiences and how they needed to deal with attitudes like this.
“I kind of took that as my role as a player who had been through all that,” Monroe said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t so much New York attitudes, but fans around the league let you know how they felt about you as an opponent and as a black man as well. From the '60s, I saw things go through different changes. You just had to know how to deal with it.”
Team members said much of the racism they felt was indirect and from the media, not from the New York the fans.
“If you get the lead and didn’t keep the lead, it was implied that our players weren’t smart enough to keep the lead,” Beard said. “That’s how things were said.”
Added point guard Jim Cleamons: “Occasionally, there were some snide comments made, but we were all professionals. What was important to us was to try to win basketball games. We weren’t trying to make social commentary.”
The Knicks improved by eight games that year, to 39-43, but finished fourth in their division. There was some to-do made about the fact that attendance was down that season by 37,119. Yet it can be argued that much of that had to do with the fact that the team was coming off a 31-win season. In 1980-81, the Knicks regained those fans and more as what still was an all-African-American team went 50-32.
Today, with the increasing number of international players, all-African-American rosters are a less common occurrence. And few seem to notice those rosters. Even in 1994, no one wrote columns about the racial makeup of the all-African-American Knicks team that went to the NBA Finals.
That the racial composition of a team once was considered controversial now seems like something out of an alternate reality.
Said Copeland: “To tell you the truth, I didn’t know until now that we were the first team in the NBA. I thought it was just New York. It’s funny. 'Cause I don’t think most of us thought what we were doing was history-making.
“We just were happy to be out there and living our dream.”
"Red, do you realize we’ve chosen nothing but black players?"
— Assistant coach Butch Beard to head coach Red Holzman
"We are choosing the best team in talent, not in color. I don’t care if they are all green.''
— Holzman's response