Though he’s now one of the biggest names in sports journalism, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Harvey Araton was just one of millions of New Yorkers who found respite from the city’s gritty streets at Madison Square Garden.
The team that played there, which fans referred to as the “old Knicks,” was one of the most dynamic teams in basketball history. Their roster was lined with what would become some of the biggest names in sports history — Phil Jackson, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Jerry Lucas, to name a few.
In “When the Garden Was Eden,” released Oct. 25, Araton writes about how a group of racially and economically diverse players with larger-than-life personalities miraculously coalesced on the court, transforming the Knicks from one of the worst teams in the league into two-time National Basketball Association champs. And he does so while telling the story of what the team meant to him personally, to the city and to the future of basketball.
MetroFocus spoke to Araton about how in many ways, the heyday of the old Knicks — before the contemporary NBA of lockouts, multimillion dollar shoe deals and obsession with superstars — was a better, purer time for professional basketball.
Q: You write about the Madison Square Garden of the early ’70s the way some people talk about religious buildings, as this safe space where people of all ages and races could escape the harsh realities of city living in that era. Are things different today?
A: Well, I think it’s different just because of the affordability factor. Pro basketball is a much different sport on the socio-economic chain than it was back in the late ’60s and early ’70s. People like myself could go in and sit upstairs in the blue seats for the price of a student ticket, a couple of bucks.
In a very chaotic time in the country, and certainly New York City, the Garden was a place where you had people from the outer boroughs and you had very wealthy people from Manhattan. You had people from Harlem who were very involved with the team. The Knicks were professional basketball. They were centered right in the heart of the city in Midtown. And I do believe it was sort of a unifying experience for the city.
In a very chaotic time in the country, and certainly New York City, the Garden was a place where you had people from the outer boroughs and you had very wealthy people from Manhattan.
The game itself, just the nature of who can afford the tickets, has changed the dynamic of the crowd. There are some relatively affordable seats, but nothing to the extent of what it once was.
And I do think that the old Knicks team inadvertently contributed to where the game was destined to go. You had all the stars and all the Madison Avenue guys. Even in the ’50s and ’60s, the NBA had this sense of being an industrial league. With that Knicks team you really saw the blurring of sports and entertainment, which ultimately led to the explosion of that in the ’90s with Michael Jordan.
Q: This idea of the old Knicks laying the groundwork for an over-commercialized, business-oriented NBA seems very poignant right now considering the lockout. You spent a lot of time with members of the old Knicks in your preparation for the book. Did they have an opinion on the lockout?
A: I had called Willis Reed and asked him about it. In my mind, growing up, Willis was the ultimate working man’s star. He was a true blue-collar player, and I was just curious what he would say about the lockout. I did a piece for the New York Times that ran in Sunday’s paper about it.
I don’t know whether it was just the first thought that came to his head, or the timing of it, but he said, “What worries me is the people on the periphery who depend on the NBA for a living — the ticket takers and the ushers and the restaurant owners and parking attendants.” He essentially said, “This is a hell of a time for people to not be able to earn money off of what they do.”
And I thought that was pretty interesting because Willis, in the book, comes across as the ultimate captain. He was a guy who was always concerned about the welfare of the players. He always roomed with one of the rookies. In the book I talk about how he loaned money to his teammates and he would mediate their disputes with their girlfriends. He was generally a very giving human being.
Certainly, the old Knicks were in it to make money and I’m sure they had their own contract squabbles, but it was a very different time where there wasn’t this sense of extreme, overwhelming wealth that’s at stake. The players understood it was a really good living, but I think that there was always a sense that, when we get done with basketball, we’re going to need to do something else. This isn’t something that’s going to “set us up for life.”
And as we saw, most of those players have gone on to do varied things, some very fascinating things. Whereas today you’re talking about multimillions; if a guy doesn’t screw it up and waste a lot of money on nonsense, they pretty much will set themselves up for life, provided their career lasts anywhere from five to 10 years.
Q: You write about how the NBA didn’t allow ABC to air game seven of the 1970 championship until later in the evening because the league was scared that television would cut into ticket sales. How have things changed now that the shift in emphasis has moved to televised games?
A: Today’s NBA is a lot more about stars. It’s a league that has been promoted by stars. The league went along with the shoe company mentality of making players who were larger than life. That all started with Jordan of course. Sometimes you get the sense, when they say Michael won six rings or Magic won five, that they did it all by themselves.
I think that mentality is anathema to the players from the old days, certainly the old Knicks, who understood that it was about the whole team and they all had their contributing roles.
I think the marriage of television with corporations like Nike was the most impactful thing. In the decade after Jordan, a lot of the young stars who came into the league thought they could be the Jordans of their markets.
What we saw in the decade after Jordan was that a lot of guys had difficulty co-existing as superstars on the same team. Shaq and Kobe, even when they were winning championships, couldn’t co-exist in L.A. A lot of that had to do with media, the way television shaped superstars and the way that they all needed to have “their team.” There wasn’t room for two great players on one team, and that damaged the sport.
It’s not until the last year or two that the sport has begun to rebound. The younger generation of players saw how difficult it was to be the lone star on the team and have to carry all that burden if the team doesn’t do well. We’re moving back in the other direction now.
Q: One of the most remarkable aspects of the Knicks in the ’70s was how cohesive they were as a team, despite how many superstar players with superstar egos were on the court. What do you think were the greatest tensions between players, and how did they resolve them to become such a tight unit?
A: We look back knowing the outcome of the championships. We imagine them to have been the perfect team. Even when we think about the transition of Earl Monroe to the Knicks, there was a lot of skepticism about how they would share one ball, and would Earl fit in. But it all worked out. They won the championship. But that notion kind of glosses over how difficult it was, certainly in the first season when Earl averaged 11 points a game.
Beyond that, this was a team that was built in stages. In the early days, when they had Bellamy and Reed getting in each others’ way around the basket, they had to figure out, well what’s our next move? It turned out to be DeBusschere, which certainly balanced the team.
In the book I go to great lengths to discuss not only the basketball aspect of that, but also the undercurrent of racial tension.
There’s a chapter that goes into a lot of detail about that whole situation, and how it almost exploded in Detroit when Russell came to practice raving mad after being racially profiled in a car, and then started throwing elbows at the white players. Reed got in his face and Russell called him an Uncle Tom.
I do think that there were a lot of issues that the team had to work out coming into the playoffs in 1970. But like any other team, that kept evolving.
Harvey Araton has been a sports columnist for the New York Times since 1991, and previously was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He lives in Montclair, N.J.
MetroFocus Multimedia Editor John Farley conducted this interview, which has been edited and condensed.