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They Were Good Once: Book review of "When the Garden Was Eden" by Harvey Araton

Irwin M. Stelzer

I have never understood cricket. Ice hockey leaves me cold. Soccer, a game in which 1-0 is a smashing victory and 2-0 a high-scoring rout, seems to me an exercise in futility. Pro football is interesting, but only because it tells us just how much punishment the human body can take. And it has those cheerleaders. Baseball is beautiful but primarily a series of individual feats, double plays excepted.

Then there is basketball, a game that proudly claimed that there is no “I” in team, at least in the days of the “Old Knicks” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. If anyone of a certain age, brought up on the concrete schoolyard courts of New York City, who never missed a Knicks home game (or many away games when they coincided with business trips), can read Harvey Araton’s book with a dry eye, he is a better man than I.

When the Garden Was Eden arrives at a time when Madison Square Garden and every other NBA arena sits empty of basketball, the new season partially canceled as the league’s labor impasse drags on. It is fortunate, then, to have Mr. Araton available to transport us back to the era, as the book’s subtitle has it, of “Clyde, the Captain, Dollar Bill and the glory days of the New York Knicks.”

Mr. Araton was brought up in the great tradition of New York Post sportswriters. He can still smell the hot dogs—and report that no championship team has room “in its end-of-game lineup for conscientious objectors” who are unwilling to take the last shot in a tight game and that the 6-foot-6-inch, 250-pound “David Albert DeBusschere was built like a Chrysler 300c,” the auto industry’s homage to the Sherman tank.

So we have the tale of a team being stitched together in the mid-1960s from scouting reports by Red Holzman (soon to be named coach) and shrewd management moves by Ned Irish, the team’s president. These Knicks, Mr. Araton writes, were “a mix of eclectic upstarts and outsiders from schools historically black (Willis Reed’s Grambling), bookishly white (‘Dollar’ Bill Bradley’s Princeton), or categorically remote (Walt Frazier’s Southern Illinois University),” with only Cazzie Russell coming from a traditional sports power, the University of Michigan.

The Old Knicks—as I can’t help calling them—had come a long way since the 1950s, when I, along with perhaps a thousand other fans, watched the almost all-Jewish team—most of the players were recent graduates of New York University—play at the 69th Regiment Armory. (The halftime entertainment was a brief match between the Knickerettes and whatever women’s team could be conjured up.)<

There is more to this book than a recounting of glorious performances by the Old Knicks. Mr. Araton writes about the struggles of black players, many brought up in the segregated South, and the battles for a pension plan. It took an Oscar Robertson-led strike threat on the day of the 1964 all-star game—and Elgin Baylor telling Los Angeles Lakers owner Bob Short to commit an intimate act with himself—to win a benefit that today’s players take for granted. The book also takes us through the history of teams other than the Knicks; and it describes games with a vividness that makes it unnecessary to watch vintage NBA films.

Mr. Araton shows how the Knicks’ smallish front line of DeBusschere, Bradley (6 feet 5 inches) and Reed (“listed” as 6 feet 10 inches) demonstrated that determination and moving without the ball, a Bradley specialty, trump mere size. A team composed of black players and white players—this in a day when race relations were still fraught and some managers believed that the majority of players on the court had to be white lest the fans rebel—proved that cohesion wins games. (The team’s implied suggestion: Maybe society should make a bigger effort at racial harmony.) Mr. Araton says that “only the Knicks could unite the metropolis . . . create their own buzz in bars all over Manhattan . . . link the lunch-pail commuters of the outer boroughs with downtown’s wealthiest power brokers, the denizens of Harlem with those made famous by Hollywood.” The Knicks were seen around town and, like all basketball players, were more recognizable than players in other sports, who wear helmets and face masks or caps and baggy uniforms. Only the Jets’ Broadway Joe Namath (from Beaver Falls, Pa.), with his mink coat and bar-hopping, was the exception.

The marriage of the Knicks with New York City was inevitable. Local politicians, including Mayor John Lindsay, coveted the sweet smell of success—even someone else’s. And professional basketball needed the city’s media powers to propel the sport from a poor cousin of baseball and football onto a higher plane, one that would attract what Mr. Araton calls “all the corporate heavyweights”—the Mad Men who allocate their companies’ advertising dollars and, along with clients, populate the high-priced seats. These are the men who could turn Walt Frazier into “Clyde” by doing a fashion shoot showing him in a white suit wearing a wide-brimmed Clyde Barrow hat.

It would be the equivalent of revealing who-dunnit when reviewing a mystery novel to attempt to summarize Mr. Araton’s account of the great championship seasons of the Old Knicks in 1970 and ’73. (There have been none since.) Suffice it to say that his description of an injured Willis Reed hobbling down the Madison Square Garden runway to the court as the Knicks completed their warm-ups for the final game of the 1970 championship playoffs against the Lakers is a gem.

So forgive the author, now with the New York Times, his attempt to liken President Barack Obama to those Knicks—his Frazier-like “classy style,” his Reed-like “modest but proud beginnings,” his Bradley-like “intellectual . . . liberal leanings,” his DeBusscheresque “blue-collar values.” Stick to the sports and you’ll have a good read about the great Reed and friends.

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