The night brought back memories. The 19,694 in Madison Square Garden, the first capacity crowd since the Knicks' championship year of 1973, worked itself into a lather as the game seesawed through the fourth quarter and into overtime. Then, right on cue, Walt Frazier—"Clyde"—did his patented last-minute clutch number, just as he so often had. When his team's six-point lead suddenly shrank to three with 1:50 left, Frazier took the ball upcourt and went straight for the basket, spinning in a layup, drawing a foul and coverting the free throw for a three-point play. Then, just to make certain, he leaped up on defense and deflected a pass to a teammate, and as the final seconds ticked away, raised his fists in triumph and grinned broadly. The crowd went wild. Another classic Frazier finish.
Except that for the first time in 11 seasons at the Garden, Frazier was dressed in an enemy uniform, and his vintage game—28 points, eight rebounds, five steals, four assists—produced a 117-112 victory for his new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, over the New York Knicks, whom he had helped win NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. Seventeen days earlier the Knicks had sent the quintessential New Yorker off to Cleveland as compensation for signing 28-year-old free-agent Guard Jim Cleamons.
Before the game Frazier admitted having butterflies—uncharacteristic for the original Mr. Cool. "I never thought to check when I'd be coming back to play in New York," he said. "I had no idea it would be this soon until I got a letter from a friend that said 'See you next week.' I thought, 'Wow, I'm not ready for that yet.' " The seven-time All-Star, once the cynosure of all New York, or so it seemed, had heard boos in the Garden in the past two non-winning, non-playoff seasons, and he was not sure how the crowd would greet him. But even before his name was called in the introductions, the cheers swelled to a deafening pitch, and Frazier got a three-minute standing ovation. The cheers, the attention and then the game left Frazier ecstatic.
"I thought the ovation would go on all night," he said afterward. "Tonight I was the greatest. They still love me."
After the game Clyde's fans and friends filled his old haunts—Harry M's, P. J. Clarke's, Maxwell's Plum—waiting for Clyde to come celebrating, as he always had after a triumphant night. But this night Frazier was no more than a visitor to the city. After talking to reporters for nearly two hours he went straight to the apartment he still keeps on East 57th Street and—exhausted and alone—went to bed.
The next morning, as he was sauntering through LaGuardia Airport to catch the plane back to Cleveland, a man approached him and asked facetiously. "Aren't you Reggie Jackson?"
Frazier laughed. "Today I am." Then he caught himself. "But I'm not a New Yorker. I'm a Clevelander."
He had with him half a dozen pieces of luggage, filled with whatever items from his legendary wardrobe he had been able to stuff into them. "Just casual things," he said. "Leathers, slacks, shirts, some shoes. No suits. And two furs, for when it snows. I want to be ready."
Left behind in New York: the burgundy-and-beige 1965 Rolls-Royce, which was being overhauled ("I wasn't sure how good the service would be out there," he said), the famous round bed with the $3,500 mink spread, the pool table, the closetsful of clothes, not to mention the $150,000 seven-room, five-bath 45th-floor co-op apartment.
Until he finds something to replace that layout, Frazier is living with Cavalier Center Jim Chones, his wife Elores and their 16-month-old daughter Kareeda in a four-bedroom split level in suburban Beachwood, 25 minutes from the Coliseum, which itself is some 25 miles southeast of Cleveland in the town of Richfield. Chones, who barely knew Frazier, rescued him after three nights in a Holiday Inn.
Such gestures, plus the respect shown him by the young Cavaliers and Coach Bill Fitch, have made Frazier feel wanted for the first time in two years. Relaxing at the Choneses a couple of days after the game against the Knicks, he talked about his circumstances, accepting them without complaint but still not understanding the Garden boos or why the New York press had made him the whipping boy for the Knicks' failures.
"I guess the cool image started working against me," he finally said. "When we won, people said, "Frazier's cool, he never shows emotion.' When we lost, they said, 'Look at Frazier, he doesn't care.' The whole team changed into a group of individuals. I was the star, so I got the blame." Frazier laughed. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't."
The problems began two seasons ago when Frazier missed 23 games with various injuries. "It was mind blowing," he said. "I was down and out and every time I picked up the paper I saw 'The Knicks are 4-1 without Clyde.' " Upon his return Frazier became almost reclusive, practicing yoga at home, changing his diet to include predominantly fruits and salads laced with wheat germ oil and powdered calcium, eating meat only on game days. Since then, he maintains, his mind and body have never been better conditioned.
But his once idyllic relationship with the press began to deteriorate. Last February he lost his starting job temporarily. then resigned the team captaincy. Reporters, fans, even his own teammates felt that he was sulking. "The way I play, it sometimes looks like I'm loafing," said Frazier, "but I want to win. I was unhappy, but it was because I was forced into keeping quiet. That's not me."
In training camp this season with the Knicks, Frazier was in shape and performing well. But on the day it was announced that Frazier was going to Cleveland, his backcourt mate Earl Monroe acknowledged that it was probably best for the team. "Maybe it isn't good for the rookies to have him around," said Monroe. "Maybe they should get rid of me, too."
There is no lingering bitterness on Frazier's part. "It was a perfect marriage," he says. "They got two championships and I got fame and fortune. What more could I do in New York?"
A senior team official did not feel so bad either. "We should have gotten rid of Frazier two years ago," he said. "If we still had him, we'd be the same team we were last year." The Knicks wanted to move Frazier badly enough to agree to assist Cleveland in paying his $400,000 annual salary for the next three years—that in addition to paying Cleamons $275,000 a year.
The way things have worked out delights Fitch. "In my opinion Frazier is one of the five best guards ever to play the game," he says. "The worst that can happen is that Frazier will never beat me again. He is perfect for our game, which is a setup offense and team defense, the way the Knicks were. I have no doubts about him. You look at a classic Rolls-Royce with lots of miles on it and you know it doesn't want to be put away in a garage. He's my Rolls-Royce, and I think you'll see him rolling with the best for a longtime yet."
Fitch says the first time Frazier practiced with the team "my assistant and I walked away feeling like we'd been to a coaching clinic. He showed everything he can do. Everything." Frazier's role is to steady the young Cavs and take charge in crucial spots, just as he did in the game at New York. Fourth-year Guard Foots Walker is the ball handler—"I like that," says Frazier, "anybody gives me the ball I give it to Foots"—while Clyde takes his man low and shoots off picks set by Forwards Campy Russell and Jim Brewer, using his classic haaang-in-the-air pullup jumpers.
He hit 19 points a game in the Cavs' first six games, right around his career average, playing just under 38 minutes. He will take points away from veteran shooting Guard Austin Carr and swingman Bingo Smith but his passing will probably mean more points for Russell, now hitting at a 22.3 clip. So far everyone is glad to have Frazier, and Fitch is convinced that he, Fitch, is a genius.
Not that the way has been totally smooth. "I hope I prove Fitch right," Frazier said before Thursday's game against Kansas City. But that night he made Fitch look like a dunce as the Cavs staggered through a 119-104 whipping by the Kings. Frazier's shooting was off in the first half, and in one 17-second stretch he committed two sloppy fouls. Fitch had to sit him down. In the second half Frazier scored 11 points but was repeatedly burned on defense.
"Frazier looked like walking death tonight," said Fitch. "If he went out tonight he'd get mugged. By a one-armed cripple." But two nights later against Boston he was the old Clyde again, giving the Coliseum folks a 22-point show as the Cavs knocked off the Celtics 103-98.
By week's end Frazier still had hardly seen anything of Ohio except for the Coliseum, the airport and Chones' house. He had not been anywhere near a nightspot or downtown Cleveland. Such time as he had, he spent house hunting. "People in New York make Cleveland out to be Siberia," he was saying, "but I'm going to like it here. When I think about it, what is there in New York to miss? The traffic? The concrete? The hassles? The cost of living and the taxes are lower here. I'll save money. And I'm a different Clyde now. I'm not the guy who's into nightclubs every night. I like being by myself. I'm into nature now."
An attractive real-estate agent took him on a dizzying tour of houses and condominiums in suburbs like Beachwood, Shaker Heights, Lyndhurst and Pepper Pike, all of which are at least 25 minutes from the Coliseum and 45 from the airport. "But right near the freeway," she kept saying. "I can see I'm going to have to get me a chauffeur," said Frazier. She showed him a $150,000 ranch house. "Couldn't get half my furniture in there," he said. Then another, on a one-acre tract. "I thought I'd be able to get some land, have some room. Man, 150 grand in Cleveland and this is all you get?" She suggested he might want to look at Senator Howard Metzenbaum's palatial home, a steal at $550,000. "Three years. That's how long I plan to be here. Not a lifetime," said Frazier. Finally he looked at one of the area's plushest condominiums. "No closets," he said. "In New York I have a dozen closets. Couldn't get the round bed through the door." He was still smiling.
"Ah, but look at the view," she said, ushering him to a window overlooking magnificent red-and golden-hued rolling woods.
"You call that a view?" said Frazier. "I'm used to looking out on the greatest city in the world."
"Wa-alt," said the woman a trifle impatiently. "This is not New York."
"I'm hip," said Clyde.