Fans of the woeful New York Knickerbockers haven’t had a lot to cheer for in recent years, or ever. But on May 8, 1970, an electric Madison Square Garden crowd saw the Knicks crush the Los Angeles Lakers to bring home their first NBA championship.
Coached by New York native Red Holzman, the Knicks resembled the current Golden State Warriors, dominating on the offensive end with their unselfish team play while holding down the league’s best defense. The team was led by Willis Reed, the best center in the league and the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 1970, and Walt “Clyde” Frazier, nicknamed for his glamorous fashion style borrowed from Warren Beatty’s character in Bonnie and Clyde. The supporting cast included Dave DeBusschere, Cazzie Russell, and future U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. A key role player, though injured for this playoff run, was future legend of zen coaching, Phil Jackson.
Aside from a few runs in the early 1950s, when the league was tiny, the Knicks had been terrible until the late 1960s. The pieces finally came together in 1970, when they finished with the league’s best regular season record, and cruised past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks to reach the NBA Finals. The Knicks were en route to taking a 3-2 lead in the best of seven series when disaster struck: Reed went down with an ankle injury. Without Reed to stop the Lakers’ behemoth Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 45 points and grabbed 27 rebounds, the Lakers crushed the Knicks in Game 6 to tie the series. With Reed doubtful for Game 7, things looked bleak.
When Willis Reed emerged from the Knicks locker room dressed to play, Madison Square Garden erupted in pandemonium. A clearly hobbled Reed not only hit his first two shots, but played tough defense on Chamberlain before sitting down, firing up his teammates, who handled the rest. (Of all the inspirational Youtube videos, I’m partial to this one.) Walt Frazier threw down an epic 36 points, 19 assists and five steals, one of the greatest Game 7 performances in history. The Knicks steamrolled the Lakers, and brought New York City its first NBA championship.
”There isn’t a day in my life,” Reed has reflected, ”that people don’t remind me of that game.” For Knicks fans, deprived of many other fond memories, that game will never be forgotten.