New York Knicks Jerry Lucas, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Willis Reed,...

New York Knicks Jerry Lucas, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Willis Reed, Phil Jackson, and Bill Bradley celebrate after defeating the Lakers in Game 5 to win the NBA Championship at the LA Forum in Los Angeles, California, on May 10, 1973. Credit: Tribeca Film Festival

Pro athletes' interest in sports history usually does not extend to before their early adolescences.

But when Michael Rapaport visited Knicks training camp armed with ancient, grainy footage of games played when their parents were young, he was surprised to find a rapt audience.

"I really did get the sense they did care," the actor/director said, recalling the private screening of his documentary about the Knicks' championship teams, "When the Garden Was Eden," coming to ESPN at 9 Tuesday night.

"They really did seem to react. Despite that whole thing about how young people are like, 'Oh, who cares?' when I got up in front of the team and spoke briefly they were looking at me -- and I'm saying this with all due respect -- like I saw the kids in their eyes, the child in their eyes. They were looking at me wide-eyed and curious."

Afterward there were questions and comments, including from Amar'e Stoudemire about how those teams resonated with the city and from Iman Shumpert about how important fashion was to those Knicks -- just like the current ones.

"They got it, and they were really watching it moment by moment," Rapaport said.

All of which would have been very nice had the film -- based on the recent book of that name by Harvey Araton -- simply recounted the glory days and left it at that, which was the original plan.

But a funny thing happened a month before its April premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival: The Knicks hired Phil Jackson as team president.

Suddenly, the amiable eccentric who was just one of the talking heads became a bridge from that era to this one.

"It made for great drama; it made the film better," Rapaport said. "It almost feels like we made the film after the Phil Jackson thing, which isn't the case. But it was just the perfect ending to an already fascinating story."

It also led to Jackson arranging the screening at West Point and giving his players a look at him young and in overalls. "They got a kick out of it," Rapaport said. "I think everybody gets a kick out of seeing the old Phil Jackson."

It should be noted Rapaport, 44, himself is slightly too young to recall any of this and in that sense is in the same boat as the current Knicks. Like New Yorkers born after the baby boom, he had gotten sick of hearing about that era.

The project gave him a better appreciation for those teams, but the fact he did not grow up with them allowed an emotional detachment he believes helped his interviews. "I wasn't as star-struck as I might have been," he said.

Many of the interview subjects are excellent -- including ones you will not even see. It pained Rapaport to leave Harthorne Wingo on the cutting-room floor.

But the vintage footage is even better, from the familiar -- Game 7 of the 1970 Finals -- to the rarely seen, such as when Willis Reed fought most of the Lakers by himself in 1966.

"It showed that the Knicks had a guy who wasn't going to take any more ----," the director said. "It was one of the key moments to turn around that team from being the pushover of the league."

Rapaport, who grew up in Manhattan, fashioned his life as a teenager around preparing to play in the NBA. He realized he might not get there when, at 15, he encountered Shawn Kemp and Billy Owens at a basketball camp.

He did play in high school, but his greatest basketball achievement was being named MVP of the 2010 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, primarily for his defense on the guy who had been MVP the previous two years.

"Four points, seven fouls -- they gave me an extra foul -- and shutting down Terrell Owens," he said.

Rapaport still has dreams about playing in the NBA, often for the Knicks and sometimes dunking.

"This is a recurring dream," he said. "They're so sensational when that happens. It's, like, euphoric when I have them, because that's what I wanted to do."

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