I’m watching My Knicks do their thing. They’re on the road in Philly and down by four with 8 minutes to play. Earlier in the evening, they’d been down by 13 and scrapped their way back to a tie in the first half. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to give up 60 plus points in the first half to the home team and expect to get a W. They’re getting scoring off the bench tonight from ex Sixer, journeyman forward, Tim Thomas. The Little Big Man Nate Robinson, has just hit a strong side three after he was left alone in the corner and his man drifted toward a double team and paid for it. They’ve got a little momentum going.
It’s an interesting time for the Knicks: They’ve won 4 out of their last six, and three in a row. Earlier in the week, they put a stomping on a Phoenix Suns team that included; former All Stars, Steve Nash, Amare Stoudermire, Grant Hill, and a guy who used to be, Shaquile O’Neal. If Shaq is ‘The Daddy” he’s a delinquent one. The big man is a shell of the former player that he was. He’s now the saddest cliche in sports: the former great, who hangs around too long. Needless to say, the Knicks do not have anyone on their active roster, who is equal in reputation to this illustrious crew. It felt good to see them put it on the Suns.
BREAKOUT FORWARD DAVID LEE
Fourth year forward David Lee is providing a ray of hope. Along with the aforementioned Nate Robinson they are the most consistent players on this undermanned Knick team. They serve to remind us of the disgraced former Knick head coach and president, Isiah Thomas’ ability to spot talent. He drafted both players.
The Knickerbockers haven’t been successful, good, or even competitive lately. They haven’t been a playoff team since 2003. Haven’t drafted a “Rookie Of The Year” since ’87, and haven’t made the NBA Finals in a decade. Recent All Star Weekend representatives have been relegated to the dunk contest, and the rookies vs. sophomores game. The saturday night sideshow that has inspired media speculation about it’s relevance. Personally, I will never tire of seeing the Dwight Howards don Superman capes, or the Nate Robinsons jump over, former dunk contest champions, on their way to rim shaking highlights that are seen later on Sports Center. But then, I like showmanship.
Blame it on the way I grew up. My exposure to top shelf basketball was unusual and took place when I was at an impressionable age. In a move that would resonate in the sporting world 20 years later, with the drafting of Kevin Garnettt straight out of high school by the Minnesota Timberwolves, my high school schoolmate, Bill Willoughby skipped college and joined the pros.. He was drafted into “the show” by the Atlanta Hawks. He was what is referred to as a phenom, a young star of transcendent ability.
As is the case with really exciting talent, he had a nickname. They called him, “Poodle.” He was 6’8″ with the total package. He had speed, dribbling ability, deep shooting, and could jump out of the gym. In the parlance of the trade, he could fill it up. The first time I saw him I was 12 years old. It was a sunny spring day in the early seventies. It was early June, clear and hot. I was at the realest court in town, the hallowed ground where the best players, with the craziest reps, most skills and the most confidence gathered to put it down.
Not far from where I was sitting, a competitive craps game was being played. Delta 98’s, Caddy’s and more generic models were passing through the park, blaring hits by Bobby Womack and James Brown out of their radios. The ultra hip, “Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker, the revolutionary, NY radio personality was telling us that, “When Frankie Crocker isn’t on your radio, your radio isn’t really on.” Pretty young girls were playing their positions. The game both on and off the court was spirited. A classmate with an older sister in the school system put me up on it. She directed my attention to the court by whispering, “that’s the dude they call Poodle, right?”
I didn’t know, but I didn’t speak. I just watched. Even at 12, I knew that I was being included in an important loop. Not one that was official or codified, but important anyway. My classmate was putting me up on the buzz, and exhibiting the strength of ‘street knowledge.” She put me up on “game.”
Apparently, the streets had been talking, and what they were saying was this: this kid could go. Even to my untrained eye, it was obvious that, the 15 year old that I was watching was different.
I’d been playing organized ball since third grade; Lutheran, private, elementary school, league ball anyway. I was also beginning to get involved in regular, after school pitched battle on the backyard court, of a neighborhood friend. I was the youngest player involved, and was getting the down and dirty from guys in Poodle’s class. I was still a year or two away from branching out into the local street ball network, and over a full two years away from high school, and the competition of the high school program that turned out the first NBA small forward to bypass college for the pros.
Coaches and recruiters from all over the country would eventually find their way to Soul City, in an attempt to sign young Bill Willoughby up for their college programs. All the greats came to see this kid. The second winningest college coach of all time, Dean Smith came through. Maryland’s Lefty Driessell came through. Norm Sloan, the coach of the ’74 division I, national championship North Carolina State Wolfpack, that featured, “The Skywalker” David Thompson, came through. All of them came through, except the gold standard himself, John Wooden the “Wizard” of Westwood, head coach of the UCLA championship factory. He’d be retired by ’75 anyway.
THE LITTLE BIG MAN
In the pros, rebellion was underway. A group of visionaries had challenged the status quo by starting a competitive league, that would challenge the NBA’s hegemony. They played an entertaining brand of ball, but they couldn’t be taken too seriously. Key franchises seemingly changed cities every year, they played no defense, scores seemed to be 145-141 every night, the official ball was red, white and blue, everybody in the league had wild afros, and they had no national tv contract. In a pre ESPN world, they were hard to see unless you lived in one of the markets that had a franchise.
The one thing that made this league credible was the Virginia Squires. The franchise had two future hall of famers on their roster; George “Iceman” Gervin and, Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Ice was cool, but The Doc operated. The need to have Erving play in NBA arenas forced the two leagues to merge in ’76 and forever changed the game. He was magician, acrobat, ballet dancer and track star all rolled into one. He could pick the ball up with one hand and finish with authority. He made the dunk marketable. He was a force of nature. Without question, he was the most athletically gifted player of his era, and the bridge from the seventies to Magic, Bird and eventually, Jordan.
That would all happen later, but on that first June day when I saw Poodle, the mecca of the basketball universe was located in Manhattan on 33rd and 7th in the, “World’s Most Famous Arena” Madison Square Garden, the home of the, New York Knicks. The previous month, they had contested for their second title in three years, by going to the league finals and, and losing to a juggernaut Los Angeles Lakers squad that featured, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich.
Back then, there were no disgruntled 22 million dollar a year point guards, who were asked not to play, and not to put on the orange and blue. No overweight, over payed big men, with pending same sex, sexual harassment suits. No former senior management officials, who attempted suicide, and denied it, by throwing their daughter under the bus. Back then, they moved without the ball, played defense, shot from everywhere, passed to the open man and won regularly. Local NY tv station, WOR broadcast 39 away games per season, they were events The Garden was most definitely a place where, “Amazing happened” on the reg. The Knicks were a thing of beauty. Perfection in shorts.
They were a model sports franchise on many levels.They were a diverse bunch, an integrationists dream in fact. Wiliis Reed, the big man was southern, bruising and solid at both ends He was strong black and proud. He bodied up against bigger centers on D and took them outside and dropped feathery outside jumpers on ’em. The forwards were white. Dave DeBusschere was the power forward. He played D, shot from deep, scored around the rim with either hand and was the glue of the team. He’d been a player coach for the Detroit Pistons, pitched in the Chicago White Sox organization, became the last commissioner of the ABA, and in his capacity as general manger of the Knicks, drafted Patrick Ewing number 1 in the ’85 draft. The other forward, “Dollar” Bill Bradley, kept defenses honest by constantly moving and shot with precision. He eventually became a three term US Senator, and serious presidential candidate in 2000.
to be continued