50 Years Ago: When the Garden was Eden

WhenTheGardenWasEden-GuysMy second sports love after baseball is basketball. I enjoy watching it at any level and still enjoy playing, modest though my skills may be.

As a fan growing up in the New York area, the start of the 2019-2020 NBA season reminds me of the beginning of an era of Knicks greatness 50 years ago in the 69-70 season. The joy that the great Knicks team of the next 4 seasons gave to the New York market and fans of the team was unforgettable. Alas you need to be 60+ years old to remember the time. Tad Steak’s and Nedick’s were still New York City institutions.

The current Madison Square Garden Complex, located between 31st and 33rd Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues on Manhattan’s West Side, had just opened in 1968. Everything about the Garden in that era was exciting. 50+ years later (and one massive overhaul later) it remains an ironic venue.

But as the 69-70 season began the team, coached by Red Holzman, was destined for greatness.

The starting five was legendary:

Bill Bradley (#24) and Dave DeBusschere (#22) were forwards

Captain Wills Reed (#19) was their center

Walt (“Clyde”) Frazier (#10) and Dick Barnett (#12) were the guards

All their numbers are now retired and hang in the rafters at the Garden.

In addition, frequent bench contributors were Cazzie Russell, Dave Stallworth, Nate Bowman, and Mike Riordan. Deeper on the bench were Bill Hosket, Don May and John Warren.

As the season began, I was a 17-year-old senior at Jonathan Dayton Regional High School in Springfield, NJ in northern NJ. I watched every game I could on TV, listened to a young Marv Albert broadcast their games on radio and spent my own (limited) money to go to games. $20 was a ton for me in that era, but there was nothing like the electricity that the team provided in that era.

The team was 60-22 in the regular season and had set a record with 18 wins in a row. Every victory was thrilling and the playoffs were mind blowing.

They defeated a tremendous Baltimore Bullets team in 7 games, the Milwaukee Bucks (featuring legendary Kareem Abdul Jabbar) in 5 games, and then were matched up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals.

The Lakers had 3 all time greats in their line-up–Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Every Knick fan knows about Willis Reed’s injury during game 5 and their crushing defeat with a Reed-less Knicks in game 6. In game 7 a hobbled Reed came through the tunnel onto the court in warm ups and scored the first 2 baskets of the game for the Knicks in game 7 (and his only points). The noise was deafening. While Reed’s contributions were inspirational, it was Clyde’s night to shine, as he helped the Knicks win game 7 and the championship  with 36 points and 19 assists. It was thrilling. I still feel the excitement almost 50 years later.

The Knicks would continue to excel after their 1st Championship and would return to the finals in ’72 (a loss to the Lakers) and ’73 (won against the Lakers). Earl Monroe would join the team and bring his own special kind of magic and Jerry Lucas would contribute to the 73 champs. And a gangly Phil Jackson would contribute off the bench as well. But nothing could compare to ’69-’70 when the Garden was truly Eden, an era captured in the ESPN 30 for 30.

Today’s fans under 60 can’t fully appreciate how the team from 50 years ago captured the city’s heart. Today’s team is in transition with hope for the future, but realistically no chance of a short-term championship.  But sitting court-side today is Clyde broadcasting Knicks games for MSG Networks while reminding us Knicks fans of greatness years ago.

Maybe again someday.

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