When the New York Knicks Were on Top
The most valuable NBA franchise today hasn’t won a national championship in two generations. But 50 years ago, the New York Knickerbockers lit up the biggest city in America with their first NBA title, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in a dramatic 7-game series. May,1970 is fondly remembered in Knicks lore as a magical moment when a talented crew carried their team to the top of the world.
The beginning of the 1970s ushered in a new era in professional basketball. Bill Russel’s retirement from the Boston Celtics in 1969 signaled the end of Boston’s decade-long dynasty under the basket, while 7’2 center Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would start his indomitable reign with the Milwaukee Bucks. In the executive suite, George Mikan, the ABA commissioner who introduced the 3-point line and the flashy red, white and blue basketball, was gone, while former Georgia governor Carl Sanders became part-owner of the newly-minted Atlanta Hawks, formerly the St. Louis Hawks.
The NBA at the time was comprised of just 14 teams and the New York Knicks were running the ball at Madison Square Garden, their home since the league’s inception in 1946. Ned Irish, Knicks founder and President, was still overseeing the club’s operations. For some time, a parade of coaches had come and gone with the team’s fortunes and in 1968, Dick McGuire was replaced in mid-season after the team floundered 15-22. Red Holzman, assistant coach and team scout, took over as Head Coach. As a player, Holzman was point guard for the Rochester Royals when they defeated the Knicks at the 1951 NBA championship.
The impact was immediate. Holzman flipped the remaining games on the calendar to the Knicks’ favor, salvaging what would have been a losing season into a winning one that ended with a 43-39 record and a berth at the playoffs. In the early years, New York were trophy contenders, clinching 3 consecutive conference titles in 1951, 1952 and 1953 under the helm of Joe Lopchick. But they never got past the semifinals for a shot at the crown and after Lopchick departed, the Knicks only made the post-season in 4 of the 13 years leading up to their first title. In one notorious header against the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962, the Knicks failed to stop Wilt Chamberlain who scored 100 points against them, an individual NBA record that still stands today.
By the late 1960s, the Knicks were on a march towards making NBA history. Point guard Walt Frazier was drafted out of Southern Illinois University and power forward Dave DeBusschere was traded in from the Detroit Pistons, both joining veterans Willis Reed and Dick Barnett. Future Chicago Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, and future New Jersey Senator, Bill Bradley, were brought on board as well. Unbeknownst at the time, it was the making of a legacy team that would see 7 of the 8 identified names, including Holzman and Irish, be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The 1969 NBA season exploded with promises for New York as the Knicks delivered their own record-breaking, 18 game-winning streak that ended the day after Thanksgiving. Holzman’s strategy emphasized more than just hard teamwork, but ‘pressure defense’. Playing physical on both ends of the court, Reed was grabbing 14.9 rebounds per game and DeBusschere was catching 10.0. Collectively, the squad led the league in holding off opponents at 105.9 points per game, cementing their reputation as the best defensive club in the NBA. The team wrapped up the regular season with a dominant 60-22 record and a ticket to the playoffs.
First up were the Baltimore Bullets at the Eastern Semifinals. Dispatching the mid-Atlantic squad 4-3, the Knicks put away Earl Monroe, Baltimore’s prolific scorer who led the series with 28.0 points per game. Two years later, Monroe would find himself on the Knicks roster. At the Eastern Finals, it was the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks that New York were now facing. Once again, the Knicks’ tight teamwork and defensive focus overcame the powerful presence of a single individual, this time in the form of Abdul-Jabbar who landed 34.2 points per game. New York clinched the series 4-1, earning their first ever trip to the Finals.
Waiting in the wings were the Los Angeles Lakers, fresh from sweeping the Atlanta Hawkes 4-0 at the Western conference. In the first NBA Finals to be televised nationwide, Reed, DeBusschere and Frazier were now squaring off against another group of future Hall of Famers: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. With 19,500 exuberant fans packed into Madison Square Garden, the Knicks took Game 1, but lost Game 2 as Chamberlain made two decisive blocks in the closing minutes to win it for Los Angeles. The series started off with a tie as both teams flew out west for the next battleground.
Games 3 & 4 were grueling tests of overtime. Reed and West were fighting for points, while 7’1 Chamberlain, despite mobility issues stemming from knee surgery the previous year, maintained his rebound supremacy. In Game 3, West landed a clutch shot from beyond midcourt, equalizing the score at the buzzer. With no 3-point credit allotted back then except in the ABA, the game went into overtime and the Knicks ended up prevailing. Game 4 saw the Lakers respond with their own overtime victory after Baylor’s free throws tied the score in regulation.
The drama continued to unfold in Games 5 & 6 as both teams traded leads again. Back at the Garden, the Knicks lost Reed to injury after the first 8 minutes in Game 5. As New York fans held their breath, Holzman gambled with aggressive offense-defense hustles, forcing the Lakers into 19 turnovers that resulted in the Knicks conquering a 16-point deficit to win the day. But those tactics failed to carry into Game 6, which saw Reed out of action and Chamberlain net 45 points. Los Angeles tied the series 3-3, unleashing a 7th final and decisive match.
Nobody knew if Reed would return, but the Knicks captain created raucous cheers inside the Big Apple arena when he stepped onto the court. He scored the first two baskets of the game, his only points, and kept effective coverage over Chamberlain despite hobbling on the floor. The Knicks ended up outplaying and outrunning their West Coast rivals, with Frazier leading in points, followed by Barnett and Bradley. In the end, the Knicks were the new NBA champions, having vanquished the Lakers 113-99.
Reed was immortalized with both the NBA and NBA Finals MVP awards and Holzman was named Coach of the Year. For New York, the Knicks also brought the city its third professional championship in 16 months; earlier, the Jets had won Super Bowl III (1968) and the Mets followed with the World Series (1969). The brief, but glorious period for the Knicks was just beginning as the team would reach the Finals again in 1972 and clinch their second and last title in 1973, both against the Los Angeles Lakers. But no other moment in Knicks history matched the Spring of 1970 when a group of legacy players left an indelible mark for their city and fans.
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