Publish date:


In his eighth pro season the pressure is on the Knicks' Walt Frazier as never before. But he remains basketball's best guard, and while his life-style is less gaudy, the thermometer is steady

The New York Knicks had just lost to Golden State, but Walt Frazier, as usual, had things well under control. Back at the Oakland motel where he and his Knick teammates were staying, Frazier joined some friends in the cocktail lounge. He finished off a glass or two of wine and danced with one of the women in the group, a comely brunette. The party was still going strong when Frazier abruptly got up and announced grandly, "I'm going to have a bowl of granola and go to sleep."

Now you see him, now you don't. Same thing on the basketball court. He goes half-speed for a few steps and you think you have a fix on him, and then suddenly he has the ball out of your hands or is past you for two points. He is Clyde, remember, the Knicks' wily, wisecracking man about town. It is scarcely any secret that Walt Frazier drives a Rolls-Royce, that not long ago he moved into a 45th-floor apartment on New York's East Side, a 7½-room spread that he is now sprucing up with a pool table and sauna. The apartment has a dozen closets which are already so crowded with velour suits, flowing capes and the like that Frazier has to hang his $5,000 black ranch mink coat in one of the bathrooms.

On the other hand, there are intriguing signs that Frazier is reducing the voltage of his storied life-style. In recent months he has taken to smoking a pipe. He has also been seen now and then wearing neckties. His new apartment is done in beiges and browns, a far cry from the dominant lavender of his previous place. He still sleeps in a mink-covered round bed, but the nine-foot mirror that was on the ceiling of his old bedroom is gone. As for choosing granola over brunettes, Frazier allows, "After playing one game in an evening, I sometimes don't feel like playing another."

The fact is that Walt Frazier will turn 30 next month and he is starting to look, sound and act just a tad venerable. Standing the other evening at his living-room window, his trimmed beard silhouetted like a hedgerow against the illuminated Manhattan skyline, Frazier said softly, "I've always picked my spots. I still like to rip and run but I know I can't go like I used to and still play good ball."

Now in his eighth NBA season, Frazier has reached a crossroads of sorts. With the retirements this year of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West, it is permissible at long last to say unequivocally that he is the best all-round guard in pro basketball, stature he underscored by winning the MVP award in last month's NBA All-Star Game. And with the departures of Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, Frazier is the most prominent link to the Knick teams that won two NBA championships and awakened fans—or at least New York sportswriters—to the joys of team defense and hitting the open man. Just now the Knicks are barely above .500 and struggling to make the playoffs. But thanks largely to Frazier, enough of their old mystique remains to pull big crowds both at Madison Square Garden and on the road.

A fixture on every list of best-dressed or most-eligible athletes (he was married while attending Southern Illinois but has been separated for seven years), Walt Frazier is also the personification of cool, this both by his own estimate and that of the sneakered youngsters who collect outside dressing rooms in all the NBA cities and slap palms as Clyde glides into view. Frazier picked up his nickname when he was wearing wide-brimmed hats like those in Bonnie and Clyde, and the handle now seems dated. Groping for something better, some compare him to Shaft, who is also black and cool, while George Morrow, the foghorn-voiced manager of a hangout next to Madison Square Garden called Harry M's, speaks of him as "the Frank Sinatra of the Sports World."

"The women love Walt Frazier with a passion," rasps Morrow. While the Frank Sinatra of the Sports World dined in Harry M's one night, Morrow brought over somebody who wanted to meet him, a stout, middle-aged woman whom Frazier kissed on the cheek. The lady jumped up and down, squealing delightedly.

"You all right?" asked Frazier.

He is a habitué of such East Side haunts as P. J. Clarke's and Hippopotamus, yet he insists that the only time he ever had too much to drink was the night his son, Walter III, was born, eight years ago. "Walt takes better care of himself than any athlete I've ever known," affirms Knick Forward Phil Jackson, a former roommate. And the Knicks' Bill Bradley, known for being squared away himself, says, "Clyde's got his feet on the ground. He knows where he's going." Before Frazier could get into his new apartment, his personal life was investigated by the building's board of governors, one of whom worriedly asked him, "What about these wild parties you give?"

"I don't give wild parties," Frazier replied evenly. "I go to them."

On a recent flight to Portland, Frazier pointed to a page in the book he was holding and said, "If a girl complains I'm giving her a hard time, I can use this." The book was a paperback collection of quotations and an underlined passage read, "That which we achieve with the most difficulty, we retain the longest."

Books of quotations are Frazier's favorite reading matter. He has gone through dozens of them, memorizing entries as though they were lines in a play—which, in a sense, they are. "I use the quotations in speeches and everyday conversation," he says. One quotation he has favored is the Shakespearean business about all the world being a stage. "Why don't you catch my act at the Garden?" he asks women who strike his fancy. "If you're lucky, you can catch my act off the court, too." He refers to himself as though he is giving stage directions: "Clyde can come on cold and even cruel, but usually he's only teasing."

Growing up in Atlanta, Frazier took a while to get his act together. "I always had exquisite taste," he says, referring to clothes. "I just didn't have the money." The eldest of nine children—Eula and Walter Frazier Sr. ran a cafeteria—he often scolded his various younger sisters for messing up the house and he remembers getting angry at his mother one evening because she took so long to dress that they missed a wrestling match.

These boyhood outbursts contrast with the utter self-control that Frazier exhibits today. The transformation impresses Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson. He has made Frazier's briskselling instructional, Rockin' Steady, a text in an introductory Afro-American studies course. Subtitled "A Guide to Basketball and Cool," the book reflects Frazier's fastidiousness in the minutest details of his life, from his wardrobe "stats" (49 suits, 50 shirts, 50 pairs of shoes) to his pregame ritual in which "I pat down my 'burns, I mash down my 'stache—so the little hairs won't stick up and tickle my nose." Thompson says, "People who don't understand black culture sometimes assume that 'cool' comes naturally, that it's a matter of just bopping along. But it can be a learned thing, requiring great discipline."

Frazier was already displaying his composure by the time he reached Atlanta's David T. Howard High School, where he was a star football quarterback and baseball catcher as well as a whiz in basketball. "The other guys looked to me for leadership," he says. "I realized it didn't help if I was flustered." Frazier succeeded Reed as Knick captain this year, but he is hardly the holler-guy type. Except for his flashing eyes, imprisoned in a stolid mask, Frazier's only lapse into demonstrativeness is the clenched fist he occasionally raises after a big play. He has never come close to receiving a technical foul in the NBA. "Why argue with the refs?" he asks. "Ever see one change his mind?"

A playmaker who controls the tempo of a game much the way Robertson did, Frazier is a perennial 20-point scorer. He has been an NBA All-Defensive selection six straight years. At 6'4", tall as guards go, he was second among all NBA guards in rebounds last year, with 6.7 per game. His work load is even heavier this season. Without Reed and DeBusschere, both skilled at setting picks and maneuvering into the open, New York's attack now consists essentially of Frazier or the artful Earl Monroe, the team's other All-Star guard, taking turns going one-on-one. "We have to work a lot harder to get our shots," says Frazier. With defenses keying on them, he and Monroe are often forced to heave up low-percentage shots just as the 24-second clock runs out.

If Frazier sometimes appears to be resting, it is partly explained by his economical style: small head fakes, sleight-of-hand passes, subtle changes of speed. But Frazier acknowledges that at times he is resting. Phil Jackson says, "Everybody steals little rests, and the best time to do it is on offense. Even John Havlicek occasionally stands there and lets Dave Cowens go one-on-one. But we don't have a Cowens. Walt controls the ball so much that his rests are more noticeable."

Reed and DeBusschere are also missed on defense, where their ability to switch men and clog up the middle freed Frazier to leave his man and go after steals. After leading the NBA in team defense in five of the last six years, the Knicks have fallen to sixth this season, and Portland Guard Geoff Petrie says, "When Frazier leaves me to gamble now, it's possible to take advantage. It's easier to get into the open." But Frazier currently ranks second to Golden State's Rick Barry in steals, and ex-teammate Reed, who once called Frazier's hands "quicker than a lizard's tongue," says, "With Clyde the threat of a steal can be as damaging as the steal itself. It makes the other team protect the ball more. Clyde is as intimidating in his way as Bill Russell was."

During the flight to Portland, where the Knicks were to meet Petrie's Trail Blazers, Frazier took time out from his volume of quotations to discuss his defensive strategy. "I start out by giving my man room. That keeps him guessing where I am. As the game goes on I start tightening up on him, so gradually that he doesn't notice. I'm setting him up for the kill." The next day Frazier happened to walk into a Portland coffee shop just as Knick telecaster Cal Ramsey was discussing a steal that Frazier had made in overtime a few days earlier against Phoenix' Charlie Scott. Frazier went in to score an easy basket that sealed New York's 117-113 win.

"It was the best steal I've ever seen Clyde make," said Ramsey. "Scott was dribbling, protecting the ball, but Clyde somehow got a hand in to poke it away. Now comes the amazing part. Scott was leaning toward the loose ball, with Clyde right behind him. Clyde somehow spun around him to get the ball."

As Frazier listened, a smile played on his lips. "I still don't know how I did it," he said. He almost made it sound unrehearsed.

Not long ago, leaning against a podium in a student lounge at Manhattan's Bernard M. Baruch College, Frazier imparted a confidence. "I drove my Rolls here today. What I'm getting paid to answer your questions won't cover the gasoline." His 200-odd listeners laughed.

Frazier, in fact, was receiving $1,000 for the appearance, but he can be forgiven for pretending to treat such sums cavalierly. He is midway through a five-year, $1.5 million contract with the Knicks and he pockets another $100,000-plus annually for endorsing clothes, basketball shoes, stereo sets and other products. He picks up loose change staging basketball clinics. Frazier, his agent, Irwin Weiner and Billy Cunningham are partners in Walt Frazier Enterprises, a firm that handles the business affairs of such players as Julius Erving, Bob Lanier and George McGinnis.

To his many ventures Frazier brings an appreciation for a dollar that extends to his private life as well. One afternoon, as Frazier drove away in his Rolls, a parking attendant looked at the quarter the basketball player had just given him and snarled, "Some big shot." Unruffled by such incidents, Frazier says, "I tip at the going rate. I don't want to be treated special and I'm not treating anybody else special." Asked why, then, he would buy a Rolls-Royce, he replies, "It was a good investment."

Frazier shrugs off other criticisms too. He has offended black-is-beautiful sensibilities by publicly calling Sophia Loren his "ideal woman" and has come under fire from feminists simply for being, well, Walt Frazier. One of his business interests is a liquor store he purchased two years ago in Harlem. He seldom goes into the neighborhood without being upbraided by black activists who feel he could have found more beneficial ways to invest in the community. Recently he decided to put the store up for sale, explaining, "It's too much of a hassle." But, he adds, "The store hasn't been profitable anyway."

Given a choice of roles, Clyde might prefer The Misanthrope to The Playboy of the Western World. He calls himself a loner, insists that "my own happiness comes first," helpfully traces the origins of this self-interest to his days at Southern Illinois. "At first people on campus couldn't have been nicer," he says. "Then I lost my eligibility one year and everything changed. The coach even refused to give me a ride in his car. That's when I realized you have to look after yourself." Frazier eventually made his grades (though he still lacks 40 credits for graduation) and led SIU to the 1967 NIT championship. But his avowed view of the human race is summed up by the pearl-handled .22 pistol he kept under the front seat when he drove up from Atlanta to join the Knicks.

Still, Frazier may not be quite the iceberg in muttonchops he pretends to be. He is sensitive enough about racism, for example, to slip into speeches wry references to the times he has been mistaken for the chauffeur of his Rolls. He is also loose enough with the purse strings to have lavished a $65,000 ranch-style house near Atlanta on his mother—she and Walt's father are separated—and, more recently, to have bought a new Nova for his brother Keith, a high school basketball star in Atlanta. Frazier says with obvious sincerity, "My success has been like a dream. The best part is being able to do things for my family."

A low point in Frazier's career came in the early going of last year's NBA playoffs when, playing sluggishly against the Capital Bullets, he was jeered by the Madison Square Garden regulars. The event was headlined in the next day's New York Post as THE NIGHT THEY BOOED CLYDE. Outwardly Frazier shrugged it off. "The fans are fickle," he said.

His true reaction, however, has been described by a young woman who has dated him off and on for four years, a TV makeup artist named Toy Russell. "Walt was very hurt by the booing," she says, "and he was very worried about the way he was playing. He had insomnia and wouldn't answer his phone. He just wanted to concentrate on basketball. Walt Frazier is a very private person, but he is also very gentle and sensitive. That's why I hate the whole Clyde image."

If only because he is convinced that they at least are not fickle, Frazier shines around children. Stopped by a young autograph-seeker in Seattle last year, he wound up taking the pop-eyed boy to lunch. Another time he was approached at the Garden by a pudgy kid of about 10, who asked, "Will you sign my program, Clyde?"

"It'll cost you $2," Frazier said.

The boy drew back. Frazier, realizing he had been taken seriously, said soothingly, "You look like a nice kid. You can pay me later."

Frazier also has a winning way with sportswriters, who flock around his locker after games to be fed one-liners, insights and, when appropriate, quotations from Bartlett's. Of Jerry Sloan's pawing defense, Frazier once quipped, "Being guarded by him is like going through a tunnel of love." After Earl Monroe arrived from Baltimore, Frazier said, "Earl didn't have to give us the Bullets' plays. He was their play." Of their conflicting styles: "Earl's fire and I'm ice." And why is Frazier always sitting there with his foot in an ice bucket? "I've got an arthritic toe," he deadpans. "It hurts after every game, win or lose."

At Baruch College there was more sting in the exchanges. "Why'd you buy a liquor store?" demanded a young black man in goatee and wire-rimmed glasses.

A hush fell. Frazier said, "Why don't you ask other guys who own liquor stores?"

"Because you're in the forefront, brother. You're Walt Frazier."

"What about the junkies who keep robbing the store?" said Frazier.

The man glowered. "If I were a junkie, I'd burn it down," he said, and left the room.

Frazier kept his cool. "If he burned it down, I'd get the insurance." A few people chuckled but now Frazier became serious again. "I've been criticized for not doing enough, but in my own mind I know I'm doing things." He mentioned his contributions to sickle cell anemia funds, the United Negro College Fund and the Police Athletic League. "They help not just blacks but all kids," he said. But he never mentioned that he was thinking of selling his store. When the session ended, he received a standing ovation.

The occasion was supposed to be a surefire promotion, a chance to meet the author of Rockin' Steady, but John Girolamo, manager of Aldines' bookstore in suburban White Plains, was miserable. A hinge on the front door had been torn loose and glass from a broken window was strewn across the floor. Waves of teen-agers charged through the aisles, knocking over racks and trampling books. The bespectacled, wavy-haired Girolamo scurried around, crying, "It's a disaster—an absolute disaster."

In a corner of the store Frazier sat behind a desk that separated him from the pressing mob. Everybody seemed to be shoving and shouting. "Is it really Clyde?" somebody called from the rear, and a girl's voice offered assurances, "Yes, and he's beautiful." Those in front pleaded for autographs, but Frazier, ignoring them, lifted himself onto the desk. The crowd grew quieter when it saw him, quieter still when he announced, "Unless you get organized, I'm leaving."

A moment later Frazier was out in the crowd, moving people around with the quiet authority he exercises on the basketball court. Some he shooed toward Biography and Literary Criticism, others in the direction of Birthday Cards (Relative). The boys gawked and some of the girls tittered, but everybody cooperated. Returning to the desk, Frazier commanded, "Now come forward. Single file. One autograph each. Then leave that way."

Frazier's felt-tip pen went to work. In less than an hour the crowd had thinned to a handful. Taking a breather, Frazier put down his pen. Like sportswriters in the Knicks' dressing room, Aldines' clerks and the remaining teen-agers gathered around him. As usual, Clyde came through. Turning to one of the bookstore's employees, he chided, only partly in jest, "You shouldn't have underestimated my popularity."






With kids, like this one at a summer basketball clinic, Frazier reveals an unexpected warmth.