It was one of the biggest nights in New York basketball history: May 8, 1970, when the Knicks won their first NBA championship with a 113-99 victory over the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Madison Square Garden.
But the varied ways in which Knicks fans experienced the milestone — most of them not on live television — are difficult to fathom looking back 50 years later.
There were the 19,500 people in the Garden.
There was the live radio audience listening to Marv Albert on WHN radio.
There was the national TV audience watching Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman on ABC, but not live in New York.
There was an out-of-market audience listening to a radio call by Jim Gordon.
And there a few thousand homes watching Marty Glickman live on Manhattan Cable Television. If that.
“It was all bars, because most people did not have it,” Albert recalled of that first full season in which Knicks and Rangers home games were carried by the fledgling cable television service.
Charles Dolan, father of current Garden executive chairman James and Newsday owner Pat, was president of the young company. Glickman was helping him with its launch.
At the time MCT had about 22,000 customers, all in Manhattan, and only south of 86th Street on the East Side and 79th Street on the West Side.
“[Glickman] would always say they had no idea how many people really were watching,” Albert said. “But certain bars would be jammed. That was the big audience for them. There were very few homes, outside of executives for Manhattan Cable.”
The cost was $9.95 for installation and $6 a month thereafter. Bars paid more, and rightly so.
The New York Times — which called cable TV “a new electronic fad” — reported crowds four deep at the bar for Game 1 at the Red Blazer on Second Avenue near 82nd Street.
There also were closed-circuit viewings during Finals home games at locations such as Manhattan Center and the Felt Forum, for $6 a ticket.
Some Long Islanders were able to pick up the ABC signal from Channel 8 in New Haven and watch live, but the game was blacked out on Channel 7 in New York until a tape-delayed replay at 11:30 p.m.
The law at the time did not allow cable TV to carry programs seen normally on broadcast TV. Because most home games in that era were not on free TV, cable was able to sign exclusive agreements to show them.
But the vast majority of New York-based Knicks fans had to lean on Albert, then a 28-year-old sports radio prodigy who was working without an analyst by his side, only a statistician and an engineer.
Did he consider that night how his call would be elevated in importance by the circumstances?
“It was more after the fact,” Albert said. “At the time we were told it was the largest radio audience for a sports event probably in the history of the country, so then you start thinking about it.
“But at the time and at my age, I was just so excited to be able to do this championship run.”
Albert did not mind working from the upper reaches of the Garden, before radio announcers moved later in the 1970s to a sweet location just over the players’ entry tunnel.
“I was so accustomed to it that it didn’t bother me,” he said. “And the players were so recognizable.”
The location, and lack of a partner, did create logistical challenges. After the game, while Albert made his way to the locker room for interviews, the station simply threw it to DJ Ken Lamb to play music until he got there.
“The disc jockey just came on and said I would be back,” Albert said, laughing at the absurdity from a 21st century perspective. But he did not complain. “I was so thrilled just to be there,” he said.
A recording of Albert’s call still exists. Glickman’s almost surely is lost to history. But YouTube has the full ABC telecast, including Twyman famously pointing off camera during the pregame and saying, “I think we see Willis coming out!” (MSG Networks will replay Game 7 at 6 p.m. on Friday.)
The game itself was a dud for a national audience because of the Knicks’ dominance, even with center Willis Reed hobbled by the severe thigh injury he suffered in Game 5.
The Knicks built a 69-42 halftime lead and cruised, led by Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists. Reed mostly was there for inspiration, limping badly after scoring the Knicks’ first four points on two jumpers and helping to guard Wilt Chamberlain.
After the game, ABC’s Howard Cosell told Reed, “You’ve offered, I think, the best that the human spirit can offer.”
Albert said he never has heard a crowd at the Garden as loud as when Reed belatedly took the court, and fans mostly kept it up until the end.
“It was exciting because on radio you’re calling every play, and it sounds even more exciting in a game like that than on TV,” he said. “But on every basket and every defensive play, the Garden was going berserk.”
The crowd noise is evident in the background of Albert's original call of Reed taking the court for warmups, so much so that he later recreated a clearer — and somewhat different — version of the call that often is heard over highlights of that moment.
While most fans at the Garden were surprised to see Reed emerge, the TV and radio audiences had been told he would play. Coach Red Holzman broke that news to Cosell before the game on ABC, and Albert informed his listeners that Reed would start, too.
Albert, now Turner’s lead NBA play-by-play man, said those Knicks remind him of other great teams whose games he has called, from the 1990s Bulls to the Warriors of the late 2010s.
“But I was closest to that team,” he said, recalling commercial flights on which he would sit next to Frazier or Reed or Phil Jackson. “It was a special team. It was a lot of guys who were very smart and interested in other things aside from basketball.”
They also were very good at basketball.
“I always felt very strongly about being objective, but it’s easy to be objective when a team starts 23-1 and has so much talent,” Albert said. “It was so much fun to watch because of the way their defense was superb and the way they swung the ball and passed the ball, which reminds me of Golden State and San Antonio in recent years.”
Those teams’ championships were secured while fans watched en masse on television, sharing the experience. For Knicks fans in 1970, it was more complicated than that.