Q&A: Harvey Araton on Willis Reed, Sportswriting, and the Knicks

Manny Rubio/US Presswire Willis Reed

As a New York Knicks fan growing up in the ’90s, nothing was more annoying than having to listen to my dad repeatedly say: “They’re good, but they’re not great. Those ’70s Knicks — they were great.” He had a point. Those Knicks teams were comprised of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Dick Barnett, Dave DeBusschere, and ultimately Earl Monroe. They did something that no Knicks team has been able to since — win championships. Harvey Araton’s book, When the Garden Was Eden: Clyde, The Captain, Dollar Bill, and the Glory Days of the Old Knicks, discusses all these on-court personalities and their success. But it also puts everything in context, placing the team within their turbulent era and tracing the disparate lives of the players up until today. I spoke at length with Araton about his book, the difference between the NBA then and now, and the way we choose to remember it all.

I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how this book came to be. In an interview I read, you said it was suggested to you and you had to take some time to think about it.
There were a lot of Old Knicks books written in the early ’70s, in the wake of that first championship season. There’s an old line about the Knicks: “So many books, so few titles.” It plays into this notion of New Yorkers making a bigger deal of what transpired in that era than what really did. So I was a little reluctant at first.

But all the principals had lived virtual lifetimes between then and now. I mean, Phil Jackson is the most credentialed coach in history, almost carrying the torch for Red Holzman. Bill Bradley was a senator and presidential aspirant. Dave DeBusschere went on to a fairly diverse career in business and media and as general manager of the Knicks and commissioner of the ABA.

There’s Walt Frazier’s metamorphosis from Walt to “Clyde” and back to Walt. And Earl Monroe trying to find some perspective on leaving the Baltimore Bullets and joining the Knicks and sacrificing as much from his individuality as he did. I thought by being able to get to these lives 40 years later it would help explain why this team was so unique and different in the first place.

As a kid growing up, I was just a fan: a dumb teenager screaming from the blue seats and either smelling — or smoking — marijuana. Being able to put that into context, and as a journalist, being able to go back and study something I was so passionately involved in as a kid was a neat thing to do.

There’s that undercurrent of your own life throughout — going from fan to young New York Post beat writer trying to make it in the harsh New York tabloid environment, which put you into conflict with your own heroes. In one instance, you publish a weary quote from Willis Reed, who was at that time the embattled Knicks coach, that many misinterpret as an aggressive “ultimatum.” He gets fired a few days later. You write: “the advancement of my young sportswriting career at the expense of the most essential Knick in the history of the franchise did not feel like much of a triumph.” Did you set out to weave in your own experience or did it happen organically?
I didn’t want to overdo that element because obviously the story is not about me. But I do feel like I had somewhat of a unique experience — you know, sleeping outside the Garden, sitting in the blue seats. Then it seemed like overnight I went from being a fan to being on the road with Willis Reed in that brief coaching period that he had when I was on the beat. Holzman and Monroe were still there, Jackson was hanging around, DeBusschere came back to the team. And I had the ability to create relationships with these guys, who were my heroes, during their afterglow with the Knicks.

I almost feel like the Old Knicks are as much a part of my youth and my life — my early life — as any school that I went to or any group of friends that I had. I played some basketball in high school and I always wanted to wear no. 10, and I dribbled with my back to the basket. Unfortunately, I should have had the ball taken away from me.

I think the Willis Reed story, and the way he reacted — he was incredibly gracious and forgiving both initially and years later — says as much about him as it does about you. And I certainly relate to what you say about the team being as important as any school. Unfortunately for me, “the team” was those ’90s-era Knicks. But I have memories of sitting in the car and listening to radio calls with my dad, or of getting permission from teachers to go watch games.
These moments stay with us for our lives. That particular Game 7 wasn’t televised in New York, and it created the opportunity for everyone to hook into that game in some funky way. One guy told me it was his senior year and he had a date, and they went to the movies. And he kept sneaking out — there was some kid sitting out in the lobby with a radio, probably one of the ushers or the popcorn people — and he kept telling his girlfriend “I have to go to the bathroom,” and he wasn’t paying any attention to the movie. Some people lived in areas, like out on Long Island, where they might pick up the New Haven ABC affiliate. Like, if they played with the rabbit ears of their antenna, they might get a snowy picture. Everyone has their version.

The book has a running theme of documentation. You go and look at Holzman’s old scouting reports. You write about the Madison Square Garden’s photographer and all his iconic images. You watch Game 5 with Willis Reed, and I don’t think he’s seen the video in decades, if at all. And you mention Earl Monroe ruing the lack of footage of himself in his prime. Do you think the scarcity of video has helped preserve the Old Knicks’ mystique?
I think you hit on something that didn’t even occur to me when I was doing the book — that for Earl, he feels a little cheated, because when people talk about him it’s all, like, hearsay. You know, a lot of older people saying, “Hey, kids, if you want to see something, you should have seen Earl Monroe.” I thought it was a very sweet moment when his wife told their daughter: “What Michael Jordan did in the air, your father did on the ground.”

We can see Game 7, that game was preserved by ABC, but so much of the other stuff was either on such old, grainy film, or just in pieces, like Game 5 from 1970. That video has significant gaps to it and it’s hard to follow.

As I look back, I actually am happy that there wasn’t a 24-hour SportsCenter or Twitter to intrude on that moment of Willis coming out. The drama built over the course of two days between the games. The fans at the Garden had no clue. Even those of us who were tuning in on the radio — there were no pre-game shows, and no people talking nonstop during the afternoon and getting updates.

In most people’s minds, Willis limped severely onto the court. But the video does show him walking, striding onto the court, maybe with a little bit of a stiff-legged look to him, but he didn’t look debilitated as he came out. But again, that’s the power of memory, of the moment — we can make of it what we will, and remember it as we want to.

Are your sons Knicks fans?
Not really. My older son, who’s 22 — he was a Bulls fan in the ’90s. He’s a huge sports fan and NBA fan. I think if the Knicks got good he’d probably be, if they continue to grow with Stoudemire and Anthony. I have my doubts about this combination of players that they have.

My younger one, I can’t explain him. He’s 18 and he’s an L.A. Clippers fan. He may be the only L.A. Clippers fan east of the Mississippi or east of the California state line. I can’t even explain it by telling you that he’s been a Clippers fan since they got Blake Griffin. He’s been a fan for like five years, and he’s in all his glory now that they’ve got Griffin, although I tease him endlessly.

He sounds like an investor. Buy low.
He’s a funny kid. He always picks some nondescript team to root for, like, the Jacksonville Jaguars are his football team. But when it comes to the Clippers, I have to say, he’s a real fan.

This book quotes Fuzzy Levane saying: “As far as five men working together, the Knicks were the perfect team.” But there’s also a lot of tension. You have a memorable story in which Cazzie Russell says to Willis Reed, “Be quiet, Uncle Tom.” There’s the old saying that when those Knicks left the Garden, they would hail 12 different cabs. Still, on the court there was so much cohesion. Was that a function of them buying into their coach’s system, or a testament to the leadership of Willis Reed, or a mixture?
It’s easy for someone who wasn’t a Knicks fan to, and I mentioned this before, talk about how the Knicks won two championships, and what’s the big deal, and it’s this whole New York thing. But I do think the Knicks were a team in the perfect place and time. In the ’50s and ’60s, when the Boston Celtics were unbelievable — unmatchable, really, historically — forget about the Red Sox: the Celtics weren’t even as popular as the Bruins! The NBA was really considered a third-rate league in many places.

It wasn’t until the Knicks brought in the Madison Avenue crowd — people like George Lois, who’s featured in the book — that we saw the beginning of this notion that sports and entertainment could blur. In that sense the Knicks did break new ground and give us a glimpse of what the NBA would become, first during the Bird/Magic era, and then exponentially once Jordan’s Bulls became a global phenomenon, and then in the 21st century with Kobe and LeBron.

As far as the team itself, part of it was the quiet and dignified leadership of not only Willis Reed but Red Holzman. But also, the kind of players they had … I mean, they never had, at any position, the best player in the league. They really didn’t have physically dominant players at any one position. If you look at their front line, Reed was perhaps 6-foot-9, maybe a shade over. DeBusschere was 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6. Bradley was 6-foot-5 and certainly no physical specimen.

Their teamwork, plus the fact that you had all these highly intelligent players with high basketball IQ — they had a true sense of the game. But I also think they had to play that way in order to be successful. I don’t think they would have been any good, or as good as they were, otherwise.

Regarding that team-first mentality: you make the point that today, if Earl Monroe were sat in favor of Dean Meminger, the way he was in Game 7 of the 1973 Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, it would have been THE huge story of the game. Instead it just … happened. People weren’t looking to mine those sorts of angles.
Baseball players come up through the minor leagues, and they ride buses together, and they play in small towns. Football is a game about the trenches and togetherness, and the players are for the most part anonymous to the average fan because they’re costumed from head to toe. Hockey is like baseball — there’s a whole sense of junior hockey and a whole climb up the ladder and a greater sense of brotherhood in those sports.

But basketball … in the modern game, basketball players grow up with this sense that they are the sun and everyone else is in orbit around them. Back then there was this whole different world, with a much greater emphasis on the team. Egos were still bruised, and in the moment I’m sure Earl wasn’t particularly thrilled. But these guys were conditioned to be a part of something, some greater good.

Now there would be so much made of something like that. It would almost force an athlete to react in some negative way, because they’re being prompted over and over again, whether by text, or by TV, or interviews post-game. It would have been a huge deal, somewhat like last year in the playoffs where Russell Westbrook ended up being benched and it was the story after the game.

It was shocking to me to go back and look at newspaper clips after that Game 7 in Boston and see no mention — I mean, it was mentioned that Monroe didn’t play, but only in the context that hey, Meminger played great! There was no hint of, you know, Earl having to defend himself, or the coach being asked why. There was just no mention at all. Living in today’s environment, that was shocking to me!

It’s a history book in many ways. One of my favorite details was that Marv Albert’s brother Steve was a student at Kent State during the shootings. It shows how inescapable that turbulent era was, and also how involved in that era so many of the players were. Do you think that was one of the last teams to be such a part of their history?
I think the nature of the times involved everyone, whether you were for or against. In the book Phil Jackson says, “We talked a lot about these issues.” They expressed themselves in different ways. Bill Bradley did go to rallies, and he was getting involved politically. Jackson had his choice of dress and the friends he made.

Back then the beauty of being an athlete, whether you were Muhammad Ali or someone with a much lower profile, was you weren’t taking that many great risks in terms of earnings. The end of the politically involved athlete was really ushered in during the Jordan era, because there was so much at stake. Harvey Gantt, who was the mayor of Charlotte, ran for Jesse Helms’ Senate seat. He was an African American and sought Jordan’s endorsement, and Jordan’s response, as it was reported by Sam Smith, was “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

The risk became too great for athletes to speak out, or even get involved in any meaningful way in the issues, because in order to maintain their public image and keep the corporations that sponsor them happy, they have to cut it right down the middle. I think that’s why, even with the war in Iraq — I mean, there were so few athletes who had anything to say. Steve Nash was one of them, and he’s born in South Africa and raised in Canada. There was just such little dissent from the mainstream sports world.

I don’t want to say it was unique to the Knicks, because Bill Russell was a politically involved athlete, Jim Brown, there were a lot of athletes in that era who were much more outspoken. But you could afford to be then, because there just weren’t the corporate riches at stake that you have today.

Given that you were a fan, and already had what I’m sure was an encyclopedic knowledge of this team, what kind of things surprised you most over the course of your reporting?
The biggest surprise for me, because I really had no clue about it, was the depth of character of Walt Frazier. When I went to St. Croix to spend time with him there, I was so intrigued by the passion he had for what he was doing there, out of the spotlight and just for his own self-gratification.

I was very moved by the way he talked about the purpose of being able to build on his whole property and his own sense of growth — just the whole symbolism of personal growth with the actual growing of plants and vegetables. I remember leaving there and going home and telling my wife, “Wow, he’s nothing like the athlete that I grew up reading about and hearing about.”

The other thing I found utterly fascinating was my time with Willis Reed in Louisiana. I’d heard and read some things in the past about the black experience in the Jim Crow South, in that it was horrible with segregation, and yet there was a strong sense of community and family, and not the sort of fragmentation that we had here in the north and the more subtle racism.

On my first day there when Willis sent me to see old friends and acquaintances in Bernice, the town he grew up in, and the first person he sent me to was a white man that had employed his mother as a domestic. He acknowledged the fact that he did so with a purpose: that whatever preconceived notions I brought with me to Louisiana he wanted to dispel and open my eyes and give me a wider lens.

And it comes back to Louisiana and its culture in the end, with the story of Karl Malone calling him up to ask him to introduce him at the Hall of Fame ceremony, and addressing him as “Mr. Willis.”
What’s funny about that, is that in the summer of 2010 I was coming to the end of the book. Then it was a long, convoluted winter of editing that got kind of put on hold because my editor at Harper was doing Billy Joel’s memoir that never got published.

So, I was finishing the first draft in August, and I did not have an ending. The Bill Bradley quotes at the end of the last chapter I felt were an intellectual ending — he summed it up great — but when you work on a project that long, you want more emotion, something more visceral. And I went up to cover a Hall of Fame induction. I had done a long piece on Scottie Pippen, who was inducted in that class, so I went to cover the event.

And they call up Karl Malone and I look to my left in the aisle and there’s Willis Reed trailing after him. Willis Reed?! Then it hit me that they’re both from small towns in Louisiana. I had no idea they were located, you know, 10, 12 miles apart. And Malone explains why Willis is up there, and I see Willis with that very proud humble look. And I just got this tingling sensation. I said to myself, “Oh my God, here’s my ending.”

Previously by Katie Baker:
A Careful Analysis of the Trailer for A Warrior’s Heart
Sidney Crosby’s Night
The Return of Sidney Crosby
Goalies Of The Week

Filed Under: New York Knicks, Grantland Q&A, Katie Baker

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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