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Blame it all on Clyde

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My story's simple: I blame Walt Frazier for everything.

Walt Frazier and the 1970 Knicks
Walt Frazier, second from left, was the straw that stirred the drink for the 1970 Knicks. Here, Clyde celebrates with Dick Barnett, left, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, right.
I blame Walt Frazier for it all, from the way I walk, to the way I watch hoop, to moving from job to job, to me now thinking that I know for sure who the next coach of the New York Knickerbockers should be.

Why do I blame Frazier? To know, you have to understand how good Jerry West was.

You can kinda know, if you were aware of stuff around 1970. I was 18 then, acutely sensitive to everything, but particularly the Vietnam War, and hoop. Everybody knew Jerry West was the Bomb. Jerry West was so much the Bomb it was like he wasn't really a white boy. He was just ... Jerry West. Had a gun. Pow-pow-pow. Averaged 30 a game, in the NBA playoffs, which is harder ball than regular season, much harder ball. Pow-pow-pow. OK, so he averaged 29 and change. That's 30. Him and Elg and the Lakers could never beat Bill Russell, John Havlicek and the Boston Celtics, but they came closest to doing it. They were next to the very best in the world, in ball, in hoop. Like Alley I., Dikembe and McKie today, for the Sixers.

I believe Walt Frazier could have checked Kobe Bryant. No, I do. Really. In my mind, it's The Truth. See what I'm saying? I blame Walt Frazier, or, more specifically, I blame all that game he had. See, Clyde not only checked the Pearl, Earl Monroe, to get to the Finals, he outplayed Pearl. Nobody outplayed Pearl. Kobe can outjump, outathlete Pearl, but Pearl had game nobody else every dreamed of until this day.

Kobe Bryant
Clyde would have found a way to "guard" Kobe -- not "stop" him, but guard him.
Then, in Game 7, '70 NBA Final, Knicks vs. Lakers, latter squad not so different from today, Clyde not only outplayed the great Jerry West, he took down the Lakers' whole team, not single-handed, because the '70 Knicks, The Team Full Of Answers, the Team That Could Beat The Lakers, didn't play that way.

But what did Clyde have, in that 1970 NBA Finals Game 7 victory, Knicks over Lakers -- 36 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, five steals, two turnovers and a block? Something like that? Inexact? You get the drift.

I was 18 then, and that game got into my head, ruined me for life. I was pulling so hard for Walt Frazier -- and by declension, the center, 6-10 Willis Reed, the power forward, 6-6 Dave DeBusschere, 6-5 Dollar Bill Bradley at 3, the 2 guard, Skull Barnett, and Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth and Riordan off the bench -- pulling so hard for them to win despite Reed's leg injury that hobbled him, immobilized him. And he had to go up against Wilt Chamberlain, who was still the most dominating big man ever to play, back then. Shaq wasn't the first center to be getting 40 and 20. Check the book for what Dipper was still dropping every night. Scary.

Know how can you pull so hard for a team in hoop, playing in the NBA Finals, or for the right to go, that you can't even watch them, you can't take the ebb-and-flow; you've seen your team come back many times, but this might be the time they get blown, in Game 7, and you couldn't take that, not after investing all winter and spring in them bums -- Oh, sweet! Here dey come back. Here come my boys. My babies!

But if they lose, if they get blown, well, you don't want to see that. You can root so hard for a team until you can't even watch them anymore. I was pulling for Walt Frazier's smooth game so hard, until I couldn't even watch Game 7, even though it was televised, even back then. That might have been The Run that made the league tick, in spite of all Russell's Celtics had done. I know that was The Run that got me.

Walt Frazier's game was pure. By that I mean, you can't go back and look for season statistics or playoff statistics and find huge numbers from him. Because he did whatever he had to do to win the game. The specific was winning the game. The universal was his total game. His game was not inside or outside, not city or country, not urban or rural, not Northern or Southern, not even black or white. It was just ... Game.

  Frazier personified the Woodenesque axiom: "Be quick, but don't hurry." Down when he needed to stay down, up when he needed to stay up, Frazier was the perfect guard, at least for the Knicks. He became the standard. It has yet to be met again in New York.  

From the universal came the specific. If Walt Frazier needed to get 30, he could get 30. Hell, he could've gotten 40 every night if he wanted to. If he needed to get 10 rebounds, or a particularly big rebound, he got it. If a string of assists was required, setting up his teammates for those 18-foot jump shots they never seemed to miss, that's the dime he dished. Those 18-footers -- that's why they would've been the one team in history, outside of maybe the Philly team they're playing, that could beat the 2001 Lakers.

Only Clyde was looking to go to the hole occasionally. The rest of the '70 Knicks --and the '73 Knicks world champions as well, which included Old Broke Daddy, Phil Jackson -- were looking for the 18-foot jump shot, and those they hit like layups, and there were times when those 18-footers fell like rain, comforting us, drowning the opposition. They shot an ungodly percentage on those shots. They clockworked the orange around the perimeter until the defense tired, laid off just a bit, had a moment of hesitance, then here came Skull, Bradley, DeBusschere, Cazzie, Clyde, Reed. Look at it. Straight up launching. Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow.

Do you really think Rick Fox would stop Dollar Biller? Think Horace Grant would be too much for DeBusschere? Think Fisher could keep Skull Barnett from dropping 20, while Skull was telling his mates, as his shots were in the air, "Fall back, baby!"?

Well if you don't know, you better ax somebody.

Meanwhile, Frazier moved the league, through defenses, through my own history, quite methodically.

In fact, in the dictionary next to "methodical," there is the picture of Walt Frazier, leaping off his man, who is setting a screen, perfectly timing the dribble of the ballhandler, picking that dribble three inches off the floor before the ball got back to the ballhandler's hand, gone the other way. Frazier personified the Woodenesque axiom: "Be quick, but don't hurry." Down when he needed to stay down, up when he needed to stay up, Frazier was the perfect guard, at least for the Knicks. He became the standard. It has yet to be met again in New York.

Aaron McKie
Philly's Aaron McKie is the current player with a game most similar to Clyde's.
In Philly -- that's another story. Alley I. is all up in the house in Philly. Alley I. has already served the Lakers something in this 2001 NBA Finals. You watch. The Lakers will win, but they will also get served.

Clyde? Clyde had beautiful game. Ruined my eye. Also ruined my life. I blame Clyde for everything.

The person who has a game closest to Clyde's still playing is this McKie dude from Philly. Same kind of game, basically. Control. No wasted motion. If McKie were quicker laterally, if he had slightly better hops, if he had 30 percent better handle, then his game would be just like Clyde's. But McKie still got sweet game. It ain't just Alley I. and Dikembe you gotta get a handle on. What do you need -- an assist, a steal, a rebound, a 20-footer? McKie can go get it for you. Has a beautiful game. Smooth. Playing basketball. Not just outathleting everybody. Ain't the best athlete out there. In the NBA Finals, he might be the worst athlete out there. But he ain't got the worst game. Got the best game, outside of Kobe, & Alley I.

I think Clyde could have guarded Kobe. I didn't say stop Kobe. I said guard Kobe, make the double-team unnecessary, thereby keeping the integrity of the rest of the D. What I'm saying is, Kobe's gonna get his 30 against Clyde, yeah. But will he get 40? Not in the straight context of trying to win the game. More likely to get 22 than to get 40 on Clyde. Can't prove otherwise.

Walt Frazier still does an enjoyable job of color commentary on radio in New York, at least the last I heard he did, last I looked, but you can't know from just listening to him. You can't look at him or hear him and know, Dog. You had to see him, see how cool he played, how cool he was; he dressed in fashion, and by doing that, you can look a little ridiculous later, depending on when dorsal-fin lapels and bellbottoms and wide-brim lids come back in vogue.

Clyde could've guarded Kobe. I know he could've guarded him better than Antonio Daniels from San Antonio did. Clyde was 6-4 too. But he was a tall 6-4. Played 6-6. Kobe's 6-8. Plays 7-foot. Still ...

Well. We could discuss imaginary NBA matchups and men's fashions all day, but you might want to know why I say I blame Walt Frazier for everything, not just for the strange way I see world-class hoop.

Walt Frazier made enemies for me. Enemies I didn't need. When I was working for the Illy, way back in the day, I was assigned to do a story about the Knicks. This was, oh, 15 or so years after 1970, and Frazier was long gone from the court, but not my head. So when the Knicks unveiled their Rookie of the Year, All-Star point guard, a native-born son of New York, a gregarious, professional, talented, considerate young man named Mark Jackson, a talented and admirable young man who would go on to play 15 honorable seasons in the NBA, including half of those with the Knicks, all I could do was look at him and absently think, and unfortunately say, "We'll never win the NBA title with Mark at point."

Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson was one of many Knicks point guards who couldn't fill Clyde's shoes.
I didn't mean anything by it, other than what it was. Mark could still a be a fine NBA player, maybe even a great player some nights. There have been great NBA players, a few, who never won an NBA title. But some Knick toady ran back to Mark giggling, "Didya hear, didya hear what that dude from the Illy said about ya, Mark, didya, huh?"

If I'd been just some fan, it would have rolled off Mark's back. But Mark heard about it, and sure, he didn't like it; I wouldn't like it if some professional wag said I'd never win a Pulitzer Prize. Deep down inside, I'd realize it might be the truth -- but I still wouldn't like anybody pointing it out, especially around my job. I could see Mark not liking what I said.

So later, at the All-Star Game, when I was asked about him by one of my colleagues at the Illy, asked if it was true, what I'd said, and if I could offer explanation, if not restitution, I said, "Well, he's the best slow player I've ever seen."

Lost Mark Jax right there. We could have been boys, probably. At least a good outsource. Great interview.

Strick, that was another thing entirely. One day, a couple years later on, when Joltin' Joe Valerio had me on The Sports Reporters, during what I thought was a commercial break, I absently said, "Strickland has to play," meaning Rod Strickland, then a rookie with the Knicks, had to get his playing time, even though Mark Jackson was still there. Turns out I said this over a hot mike on-air. Strickland heard about it later and in Las Vegas at a Mike Tyson fight, he just stopped me, as if to say, You reconiiiiize ... but he didn't give me any money or nothing like that. What good did that do me? Just alienated Mark even more.

Finally, when they got tired of me at the Illy, I moved on, and was writing books, including a book about hoop and The Run with a famous movie director from Brooklyn. He chose me to write a book about hoop and The Run with him because on the critical day we met to discuss it, I wore a pair of low-cut Pumas.

"Rockin' the Pumas!" said the director. He didn't have to say anything else. This was in the '90s, and Walt Frazier was retired well over a decade, and Pumas were out of style -- except on the feet of True Believers.

Everybody from Woody Allen to Spike Lee to half of the Page 2 Wrecking Crew knows what I mean. Do you? Well, if you don't, low-cut Pumas mean Walt Clyde Frazier. That's what they mean. The shoe was not made with his name on it, like Air Jordans. The shoe was already there, and he took it over.

Probably never got a dime for wearing them, either. Should get a royalty. Walt Clyde Fraizer is the only reason I bought them, the low-cut Pumas. They still make them. McKie should try on a pair. Might make him quicker, improve his hops. I don't know what we're gonna do about that so-so handle, though.

Spike Lee
"Dog, we in trouble. Big trouble."
But that's cool, Aaron McKie, your game's still tight, butter, smoove. But nobody could ever be Clyde.

See? Ruint, I'm telling you.

Later, when Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State, expressed a desire to play in the NBA, me and the movie director, we went to see him. Told him I knew Dean Smith ran up to him all giddy after one game and told Charlie he could play in the league. Told him I saw that baseline move he dropped on Carolina. He beamed. I knew then football wasn't his answer. I said the fact was, he could play 10 years in the league, standing on his head, and it would be great if he could play for the Knicks; but I was thinking of him as a backup -- to Walt Frazier, in my mind. I never saw him starting. I saw him starting with the San Francisco 49ers, at QB, and moonlighting with the Knicks. Forgetting that Clyde was closing in on 50 now. Forgetting that Charlie didn't want any part of any pro football. I penciled in Charlie as the backup point.

Then I sat courtside with that same movie director, one of the two, Woody Allen or Spike Lee, the biggest Walt Frazier fan of the two; I sat with him one day after the Knicks signed a secret weapon point guard free agent. I was there to watch him. I'd never seen him play, because he had played over in Jersey. Anyway, I sat in the Garden, courtside, some six years ago, and the Knicks came out to warm up, and there he was, in all his glory. Chris Childs. I looked at his spavined legs, short arms, small hands, the way he moved, the way he carried himself. I turned to the movie director and said, "Dog ... we in trouble. Big trouble."

And so it was, for the next five years. But it's not Childs's fault, that he wasn't Walt Frazier.

Here we are at the 2001 NBA Finals, 30 years removed from the two NBA titles Clyde helped win. We are about to offer a second coronation to the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. Jerry West's revenge, you might call them. It was Jerry West who put this thing together, main. White boy this. They have Wilt Chamberlain to the third power, in Shaquille O'Neal. They have the younger model of Michael Jordan in Kobe. Michael Jordan is not the only player Kobe reminds me of, frankly.

Kobe's game is starting to slow down -- by that I mean he is ungodly quick, but he doesn't hurry anymore. He doesn't need to. He keeps the game in front of him at all times. Whatever you need, Kobe can get you. A steal, 10 rebounds, a particularly important rebound; an assist, or a string of them, setting up his teammates for those open 18-footers.

Kobe can guard Alley I., the way Clyde could guard Pearl; now, understand -- like I said before, guarding dudes like that ain't the same as stopping them; guarding them means keeping them in check, countering them with your own 30, or 40 points, so the double-team doesn't have to come, and the defense can maintain integrity.

Kobe is 30 breathtaking points a night, 40 a night, if he needs to get that ... hell, 50 ... 60 ... and so is Alley I. But Kobe is 6-8, and younger, and ... not to be believed.

Maybe Walt Fraizer couldn't have guarded Kobe. Maybe Walt Frazier is Kobe ... with a jet up his ...

As for the late and lamented New York Knickerbockers, well, Mark Jackson came back home, to play in the Knick backcourt one last season, 2001, which means he did one thing better than Clyde. He outlasted him. He played longer. Really, the New York Knicks should make Mark Jackson their next head coach, and then they might eventually have a chance for another NBA title against the Larry Browns, the Phil Jacksons (ex-point guard, ex-Knick, respectively) and the Doc Riverses (ex-point guard and ex-Knick) of the league.

The New York Knicks could definitely win the NBA title with Mark Jackson at coach.

But he'd have to get a world-class point guard first.

He'd have to get somebody who can guard Kobe.

He'd have to get ... Walt Frazier.

Failing that, I guess get Battier. Or G.P.

I don't care how you do it.

Just do it.

Me and Clyde, we'll be courtside. Waitin' ...

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."

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