Basketball is the game of the city in these times, for it is cramped and fast and vertical, and everyone is very close and vulnerable. By these measures it is appropriate, even symbolic, that New York is at last basketball champion of the world. On the day, last Friday, when the Knickerbockers finally won their first title since the NBA was started 24 years ago, mobs of workers roamed the streets pummeling longhaired students and unfortunate bystanders. It had been almost seven months since the Mets won their championship and, it was said, united New York in everlasting common cause. By last Friday, if there was a common cause left in town, it was the Knicks; after all, with Willis Reed hurt, there was no point spread and no one to bet against.
Jerry West stood that afternoon at the intersection of 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue, waiting for the light to change. Obviously, this stamped him as an out-of-towner. He squinted against the sun. It had gone from winter blizzards to summer since the playoffs began.
"Hey, West," a little guy said, spotting him. "Hey, West." Jerry turned to him and the man started chuckling. "You know what I almost done?" he said. "I seen you, and before I knew it I almost wished you good luck." He chuckled again, aghast that anyone in this frightened stockade town would dare even think so benevolently. West nodded.
"Well, look, West," the little guy said. "Look at it this way. Suppose I was a guy from L.A., and I seen Reed, just like this. What would I say to him?"
"You would probably say, 'Good luck,' " West said, smiling, stepping off the curb. As he entered the Garden across the street, a jovial fellow in the crowd suggested to a neighbor, "Break his leg."
A bit later, at three minutes past 6, Willis Reed moved onto the court. It was the first time he had been there since eight minutes into the fifth game the previous Monday night. At that point, turning to drive down the lane for a layup, he had strained two muscles in his right thigh and fallen in distress. "Oh my God," cried Dave DeBusschere, his colleague under the boards. Down 25-15 at that point, the Knicks came back to win and go ahead 3-2 in the series. But the spell had been broken Wednesday night in Los Angeles when Reed could not play. He watched while Wilt Chamberlain muscled his way to 45 points and the Lakers won in a smooth rout. Reed was flown back to New York that night, with the Knicks' physician and trainer, so that he could return to rehabilitation work on his leg first thing in the morning.
Now, at 6:03 p.m. Friday, with Don May going after his rebounds, Reed began to move about the court, not gingerly but slowly, deliberately. He worked around his range, throwing up his quiet one-handers. It was apparent that he could at least try to play. Chamberlain could see that for himself, since he had come in and stood watching, dispassionately, from the side of the stands. "He shoots fouls better than me," Wilt observed to a friend. A few minutes later, Reed paused by his taller opponent. "I can't go to my right that well," he told Wilt. The big man laughed cynically, for, of course, Reed has never gone to his right very well.
Following his overwhelming performance in the previous game, when Reed was not in uniform, Chamberlain had gone out of his way to praise the league MVP. "Willis has played better basketball against me than any center I've ever faced in playoff competition," Wilt declared unequivocally. This appraisal served to diminish Bill Russell, who had previewed his retirement last summer with some rather stout knocks at Chamberlain. Now Wilt was playing catchup.
Then, entirely on his own initiative, Wilt launched into a detailed and lengthy polemic, the essence of which was that his countrymen placed too much emphasis on winning and that, specifically, just reaching the NBA finals seemed to him to be the major achievement. What curious kind of punch could he be telegraphing? Some of his teammates fell to discussing it in the locker room before the final game. "You play the whole season to win, don't you?" asked one. "Isn't that what competition is all about?"
Reed returned to his locker room with the definite word every one of the Knicks expected—he would be on the court with them. "It's like getting your left arm sewed back on," Cazzie Russell said. Reed's teammates rested about him. The Knicks are not a great team. They are a good team, a solid team, a fine team, a smart team, but there really hasn't been a great team in the NBA since the 76ers of 1966-67. However, Red Holzman's Knicks may be the most perfectly formed team ever. All the parts fit together, with very little waste left over. "Everybody puts his in the pot. We're one big beef stew," Cazzie said, explaining it most succulently.
Bill Bradley, Russell's rival in college and now his rival for the same starting spot, sat across from him, so intense that chills swept over his body. "On every sports team there are conflicts," he was to say afterward. "Pro teams are made of conflicts. It is their nature; we are all competing. Why we succeed and why it is such a pleasure to be here is because, on the Knicks, our conflicts never turn to bitterness."
Then all the Knicks except Reed rushed out onto the floor to warm up. Reed stayed behind so that he could have his injections of carbocaine, a painkiller, and cortisone at the last possible instant. Across the way West had already been shot up, a needle in each hand. He had injured his left hand in the third game, his shooting hand in the first half of the fifth game, about the time Reed went down. "I don't even like to think about it," Coach Joe Mullaney said. "A shooter getting needles in his shooting hand."
Reed took his injections in the thigh moments before the tip-off. The crowd was growing apprehensive over his absence. "When Willis comes out they're going to pull the roof down," Dave Stallworth said, warming up. Reed came out at 7:34, one official minute to spare, walking purposefully, without a limp. As he moved down the entranceway the fans on the other side of the court saw him first and began to cheer and then to rise, and after that the whole place stood, generating waves of applause. His teammates paused to watch Reed sink his first practice shot. The Garden erupted. And then there was a very special reaction. All the people in Madison Square Garden, as if on cue, began to smile.
A smile is the most personal thing you can offer in New York; it is rarely tendered unless money or a luncheon invitation is included in the bargain. Now, however, for this one moment, all these people could not help but smile, in unison, at the huge brave man before them who had come back to give them a title.
The national anthem followed. In the upper reaches of the Garden some of the young people would not rise, and other spectators about them began, softly, tentatively, to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. On the court Bradley, the discreet Rhodes scholar, felt the chills again. He thought: "I cannot imagine anyplace else on earth that I would rather be at this moment than right here, about to play in the final game of the championship of the world."
Not so long ago, when the White House was not yet concerned with whether or not the President's press conferences might conflict with NBA playoffs, pro basketball was a limited domain. Friday night, movie stars and giants of industry sat in the Garden batting beach balls around during timeouts and screaming "DEE-fense." (Remember, as a child, when it was di-FENSE?) In Los Angeles the freeways had been at rush-hour peak since 3:45 Pacific time—thousands of businesses had shut so that employees could get home by 4:35 to see the game. They were wise to hurry; it was all going to happen very fast.
On the Knicks' first play from scrimmage Reed jumps from the top of the key and the shot goes in. "He ain't hurt," Walt Frazier says to himself, behind his muttonchop grin. Soon, though, Reed is hobbling like Chester chasing vainly after Marshall Dillon. Willis is to hit his second (and last) shot in another minute, but before that what he does at the other end of the court is even more significant. Wilt takes the ball at his spot to the left of the lane. He moves left. If he keeps going that way, can Reed stay with him? Can he shuffle fast enough or can he possibly cross over with that dragging, painful right leg? Willis stays with Wilt for a step. It is enough. Wilt goes no farther. He stops, fakes and throws the ball out. Thereafter, he goes almost exclusively sideways to the right, not driving in, just flipping his finger-rolls. Before Reed goes out with 3:05 left in the half, Wilt gets the ball 17 times in the pivot. He makes only two baskets in nine tries against the disabled Reed.
It is 61-37 when Reed departs, and for most of the way the Lakers, like the New Haven Railroad, are running about 12 minutes behind time. The Knicks have 69 at the half; the Lakers reach that in three quarters. (It was 113-99 at the end.) Frazier, with 23 points in the first half—36 for the game—is the star. He has been in something of an eclipse on offense lately but, shooting and making steals, it is not long before he knows he is "playing a dynamite game." But all the starters are playing so well that the bench is hardly needed. Dick Barnett, a former Laker, is on, and so is Bradley, who suggested the 1-3-1 offense the team has depended on since its recovery midway through the fifth game.
DeBusschere (see cover), as always in the series, is the best all-purpose player on the floor. Leaving aside the emotional consideration due Reed, DeBusschere is the top overall performer, for he has done everything possible you could ask of a player. (It was he, peering over Chamberlain's shoulder, who guarded Wilt when the game and the series turned in the fifth game.) Tonight, in the last one, he goes outside and bombs fearlessly at first, then moves underneath to work more on the boards. On defense he removes gallant old Elgin Baylor as a factor in his eighth vain try in the finals. Bill Bridges of the Atlanta Hawks, in to see the last game, observes: "There's not one other guy in this league who gives the 100% DeBusschere does, every night, every game of the season at both ends of the court."
It is DeBusschere now, after the game, who, on a pretext, asks Reed to rise, and then grabs the captain in a firm embrace and kisses him for all he is worth.
All of Walt Frazier's 36 points were not this easy but the Knick final victory was.
With his team behind in the fifth game, Reed writhes on the floor after straining two muscles in his thigh—the low point of Knick fortunes.
Having played on a leg recovering from surgery, Wilt walks off through a celebrating mob.