Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Birth of Cool

The image of a hobbled Willis Reed walking out of the New York Knicks’ locker room to frenzied cheers at Madison Square Garden before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is indelible to anyone with even a rudimentary sense of NBA history.

The Knicks captain’s heroic return from a hip injury to make New York’s first two shots against the Los Angeles Lakers has dominated the popular recollection of that game. Reed’s gutty effort still raises goosebumps, and it is rightfully lauded for giving the Knicks an emotional boost after Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers dominated in Game 6.

But the focus on Reed obscures the brilliance of Knicks point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier in that game. The inimitable Frazier put on a master’s class in the art of playing point guard in the 113-99 victory that gave the Knicks their first NBA title.

In studying team management under Professor Clyde, it is useful to use his textbook “Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball & Cool” — written with Ira Berkow. It is one of the seminal works in the Western hoops literary canon.

LESSON NO. 1: The essence of a playmaker

“It’s like making something up — making a poem or something. You’re coming down, playing around. With words it’s the same thing. You’re in control, you know what the goal is and you’re not sure how you’re going to get there. But you’re pretty sure you will, and it’s going to be exciting. That’s one of the joys of basketball — improvising.”

Reed provided the drama, but Frazier was in control of Game 7 from the jump. The Garden crowd had been primed, and was ready to explode. On the Knicks’ first possession, Clyde coolly brought the ball up the court on the left side. He paused for the limping Reed to join the offense, then fed the center a pass for mid-range jumper that splashed the net. Pandemonium. The Lakers never had a chance after that.

Frazier played his old Southern Illinois teammate Dick Garrett like a Hammond B3 organ. The Lakers guard was kept off balance by Frazier’s wide array of pump fakes and behind-the-back dribbles. Clyde hit all five shots he took in the first quarter and sank all five of his free-throw attempts. His numbers after the first 12 minutes: 15 points, four assists, four rebounds and an impressive block on an attempted breakaway layup by Jerry West.

LESSON NO. 2: Steal the opponents’ thunder

“Funny thing, stealing is the part of the game I love best. Stealing a ball and then scoring the basket, or passing for the score. Stealing is a calculated gamble. I don’t think you can be conservative and make steals. You got to gamble to a certain extent. But you can look foolish if you lose. It’s like a card player. You’re watching what the other guy does. As the game goes on you know what the guy would bet on, right? And like you try to sucker him with different hands, try to make him show his hand, you know? Stealing a basketball is about the same. Anticipation and quickness and cool.”

Defense became Frazier’s calling card early in his career. He kept a mental Rolodex of opponents’ tendencies and dribbling rhythms. In the second quarter, Clyde got two Lakers stars to show their hands.

West was bringing the ball up the court with Frazier lying in wait at half-court. As West drew near, Frazier struck with the precision and quickness of a venomous snake. Frazier details in “Rockin’ Steady” his philosophy on catching flies with his hands (complete with visual aids). Those quick hands knocked the ball away from West, and Frazier directly segued into a sprint to the basket. Frazier hit the layup and was fouled by West, the three-point play giving the Knicks a commanding 51-31 lead.

A few minutes later, Elgin Baylor was dribbling near the elbow and Frazier was playing off Garrett a few feet away. The double-team caught Baylor by surprise, and his attempt at shielding the ball from Frazier was a split-second slow. By the time Baylor turned around, Frazier was on his way for another layup.

Frazier’s swarming defense helped force the Lakers into 14 turnovers in the first half. The Knicks were up, 69-42, and Frazier already had 23 points (on 8-for-11 shooting), nine assists and six rebounds.

LESSON NO. 3: Control the environment

“It’s my responsibility as ball-handler to get the whole team wheeling and dealing. Willis says it’s my ball and I just let the other guys play with it. Well, most players don’t care if that’s true as long as they get their shots.”

With the Knicks holding a big lead, Frazier’s main concern in the second half was to orchestrate the tempo. The Lakers charged West with disrupting Clyde in the third quarter, and “The Logo” had as much success as Garrett did.

Frazier scored eight of the Knicks’ first 10 points after halftime. He came off a crushing pick by Reed to nail a long jumper over the outstretched arm of Chamberlain. Clyde got into the lane at will, and showed his innate understanding of a point guard’s existential question: when to shoot and when to pass.

Frazier moved the Knicks’ chess pieces around on offense. He hit Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley directly in their shooting pockets. Frazier’s traffic directing often didn’t lead to an assist for himself, but his passes set up teammates to find another Knick for a basket.

Fittingly, the Knicks’ final basket came after Frazier ran the team’s delay offense, then knifed into the defense to set up Dick Barnett for an open jumper.

Frazier’s final line was astronomical: 36 points (12 of 17 from the floor, 12 for 12 from the line), 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. If that’s not the best game by a point guard in basketball history, it is at least in the conversation.

FINAL LESSON: Style points

“Some people say, well, how can girls want to kiss you when you have a mustache and beard? It’s like what Archie Moore the old fighter answered to that question. Girls are thrilled to go through the forest to get to the picnic.”

Walt Frazier became “Clyde” for his outsized personality and his affinity for fedoras and Rolls-Royces. “Rockin’ Steady” contains exhaustive accounts of Frazier’s grooming habits and game-day preparations. He catalogues the contents of his closet (49 suits and 18 lids) and extols the virtues of his nine-foot round bed with a fitted white mink bedspread.

Frazier played the game with similar style. His uniform was always crisp and complemented with his “Puma Clydes.” In Game 7 against the Lakers, his mini-fro, mutton chops and mustache were immaculately manicured. He also didn’t seem to sweat, keeping with his cool persona. You couldn’t ask for anything more in a point guard.

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