Harvey Araton had grown up a New York basketball fan cheering for two of the most fascinating championship teams – the 1970 and '73 New York Knicks – in one of the most extraordinary cultural times. These were the Knicks of Willis Reed and Walt Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley and Phil Jackson. They were an eclectic, fascinating collection of characters and talent, a study in the changing dynamic of socially conscious athletes in professional sports.
In his new book, "When the Garden was Eden: The Captain, Clyde, Dollar Bill and the Glory Days of the New York Knicks," Araton digs into the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Kent State shootings and a changing political and social climate in the NBA's locker rooms to write the best kind of sports book: One that, with the passing of the era, allows characters and sources the context and distance to make better sense of it all.
Araton, the preeminent voice on the NBA for three decades at the New York Times, has written several terrific books on the NBA, including "Money Players," and "Crashing the Borders." But "When the Garden was Eden" will be his most lasting, remembered work. It's simply one of the most compelling books ever written on pro basketball.
Araton took time to discuss the book with Yahoo! Sports recently.
Q: When you were first presented with the idea of a book chronicling those Knick teams, you were hesitant? What helped persuade you to go forward with the project?
Araton: I felt some reluctance. In the back of my mind, I felt I knew the story, that everybody knew the story's bones. …Willis limped out for Game 7, and I was asking myself: "What new can I bring to this?" So, I took a week to think about it, and while I was doing that, I picked up an old copy of Dave DeBusschere's book, "The Open Man," and started reading again.
There was one passage – just a paragraph – that stopped me. DeBusschere told of the time in January of 1970, in Detroit, when Cazzie Russell, who had gone to Michigan and gone over to Ann Arbor, was driving back to Detroit for a game against the Pistons. He was pulled over by the police, held at gunpoint and let go. He showed up at practice irate, told his teammates about it, and when he got on the floor, he started to throw elbows at the white guys.
Willis Reed walked over, and asked, "What are you doing?" and before Cazzie could edit himself, he said, "Be quiet, Uncle Tom." DeBusschere tells the story in the book with no context, no depth, no sense of what it means for a black man from Chicago to say that to Willis Reed in front of his teammates. Willis had grown up in the Jim Crow south.
I was blown away by this. Forty years later, those things that were happening in the early 1970s all took on greater meaning now. I ended up fleshing out a whole chapter on that incident. That moment with Willis and Cazzie was a turning point for that whole championship run. If Willis had beaten the [expletive] out of Cazzie, and emasculated him in front of the whole team, the Knicks might have lost him psychologically. And Cazzie ended up playing a major role in two crucial playoff games in 1970.
Q: You had a long and relatively complicated history with the key member of those great Knicks teams, Willis Reed. How did that continue to evolve with the reporting and writing of the book?
Araton: As a kid growing up, I idolized Walt Frazier. If I was in the school yard, I'd be fooling around, dribbling with my back to the basket like Frazier. I even wore No. 10 one year in high school. But even as a dumb kid, you knew that Willis Reed was the heart and soul of the team.
One day in 1978, when Willis was the coach of the Knicks, I was working in the [New York] Post office. I had done some writing already and befriended Peter Vescey. I used to take dictation of his stories over the phone. Our new Knicks beat writer, Doug Smith, left about two-thirds of the way through the season, Peter recommended me, tells our editor, Greg Gallo, that I know something about basketball. So, Gallo sends me to Cleveland.
They lost a close game, and my whole story was just second-guessing every move that Reed made down the stretch. Now, I go back to the hotel, acting like I'm a big shot on the road, and there's Willis in the bar with his assistant coaches, including Dick McGuire. He sees me carrying my typewriter, and calls me over to the bar, puts his arm around me, introduces me around as the "new guy on the beat." Back then, beat writers were considered like part of the family. Well, here I am, and I've just ripped the [expletive] out of him in the Post, and now this is great: Not only was he my hero, he's a great guy.
I was literally shaking under my blankets in my hotel room. Here I am, the muckraker from the Post, and he knows what my job is: I've got to come with both guns blazing. On one hand, I want to hug the guy because I love him so much. On the other, I want to get him fired.
[Eventually], Sonny Werblin took over [the Knicks], and Willis' job was on the line. I was talking with him alone in the old Coliseum in Seattle after a practice. I asked him, "Hey, are all these rumors about your future as coach getting to you?" He says, "Yeah, I've got a lot of young guys on the team, and they want to know, 'Is the coach in or out.' " He didn't say it as an ultimatum, or a plea. And I wrote it to reflect the context of what he said. Well, the Post editors rewrite it, and the backpage story becomes: "Willis to Sonny: In or out?"
I called Werblin's office and told him: "Listen, I don't want to get my editors into trouble, but that's not the way he said it. It wasn't an ultimatum." Well, the Knicks lost the game in Seattle, lost in Denver and flew home on a Friday. Willis was told to report to the Garden that night, and he was fired there. At the press conference, Werblin said, "Nobody gives me an ultimatum."
At the time, Willis' PR guy, Jimmy Williams, said to me, "Willis will never forgive you. That was his dream job and you got him fired. You're an [expletive]." I dealt with Willis in his years as the GM and coach with the Nets, and he was always gracious. He always returned my calls. But this guilt, it never went away. So when I started on this book, I knew I couldn't do it without spending a lot of time with Willis. I told him I wanted to come down to Louisiana, where he was living, and spend time with him and tell the story. We had never really had a long discussion about that incident, though. And so Willis tells me: "Harvey, I've known you a long time. I've seen you grow as a professional and a man, and I'd be proud if you did our book."
I hung up the phone, and I had tears in my eyes.
Q: You came to the book with so many notions about the story, the characters, and I sense that many were validated about the people, the players, and how they fit into the role of those teams and that group. What was the story that epitomized that for you?
Araton: There's one story in the book, where Willis got hurt in Game 5 of the '70 Finals series with the Lakers, and spent most of the game listening to Marv Albert's broadcast in the locker room. But he had never seen Game 5 in his life. So I ended up with an old black-and-white scouts' tape of the game. When I went to see him in Louisiana, I stuck that game and Game 7 into a bag, and asked him if he wanted to watch any of the games with me. He asked, "What have you got?" I told him I had Game 7, and he said, "No, I've seen myself enough times in that game." So I told him, "I've got Game 5," and he said, "I've never seen it."
So we sat down and watched it, and he was just amazed. Dave Stallworth hit a reverse layup over Wilt, and Cazzie made all these big plays. Willis was so excited, he called up Bill Bradley. He told him, "Senator, I just watched Game 5 of the 1970 Finals with Harvey, and you guys did a great job!" It was as though the game had just been played two days earlier to him.
So I left the video with him, and a few days later, I got a note in the mail from Willis, thanking me for showing him the game. It read, "I really enjoyed it. It was our greatest victory." And that just told you everything about Willis Reed. Here's a guy who was the heart and soul of that team, whose legendary accomplishment is playing Game 7 on one leg, and he's saying that the greatest victory his team ever had was one he had nothing to do with. How many men would have the humility to say that? That summed up who he was, and what he was all about – and why he was the perfect leader for that team.
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