Red Holzman, the paragon of a coach, wore a blue double-breasted blazer, gray slacks and a blue oxford shirt. Walt Frazier, the paragon of a well-dresssed guard, wore a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, black slacks, black vest and a black shirt.
"I had 12 blue suits; they all looked the same," Holzman said.
"When we were winning he said he wasn't changing suits," Frazier said. "Maybe it was an excuse. Maybe he had only one."
"Look at this," Holzman said, holding the blue of the jacket against the gray of his trousers, "that's two suits."
The occasion was the promotion of the Silver Anniversary Knickerbocker team in the sort-of Legends Game set for Sunday. And Thursday was the trading deadline for this Knickerbocker team. That one won the first of the only two championships in the team's history. This one went as far as a team can go and still not win last season. Expectations remain.
That 1970 team remains one of the most popular--maybe the most popular--team ever in New York. That team was an ideal. It had the elements great teams aspire to. "There were times then I said, I wish I could have been in the stands watching that team," reflected Holzman.
Ernie Grunfeld, the current general manager, is the voice of memory. He admired and learned from that team while in high school in Forest Hills. "People really love that team because it played like a team," he said. That's the aspiration. Grunfeld said only "lateral" deals were available Thursday, which made no sense to him. That would risk the chemistry, which is always gossamer stuff. In effect, getting Charles Oakley back on the active list would be the big addition. When he is playing, Oakley and Patrick Ewing lead by example, and Derek Harper by word and deed to a level beyond his tentative half-season last year.
"I think we're ready to win," Grunfeld said. "You can't analyze the season after every win and every loss. Look at the overall pattern: We've won 21 of the last 27."
"I think they can win; they're better than last year," Frazier, the broadcaster, said. He finds similarities in the comparison to his time. "Defensively, they're similar," he said. "We had good cohesion; this team does."
This team has a different kind of urgency--call it a window of opportunity. Age and low draft choices say if it doesn't win soon, it won't happen.
In the old days, cohesion was a product of effort. "They realized that playing unselfish was the best thing they could do for themselves," Holzman said. "Being unselfish could be selfish." He sold it, and they bought it.
"I think if you went back, we were like that in high school or in grade school," Frazier said.
They were very smart. With the exception of Willis Reed, all the regulars had played guard, and they all responded to Holzman and his $3 pocketwatch. "It got to the point where they policed each other," the coach said. "They'd say, 'He's late, coach.' There were guys who would never be late to the point where we wanted them to be late. Guys would kill themselves to be on time."
As Holzman and Frazier chose their wardrobes, and Bill Bradley chose his anti-wardrobe, Holzman never let his ego compete with the ego of his players for basketball sartorial splendor. He would grumble at them, but only in private. "His forte was that he never coached until he had to," Frazier said. "He was the supreme players' coach."
In the hotels, the team would stay on the third floor and the coach would stay on the 23rd. What they did off the court, he didn't have to know. On the court he'd know. "If you were a prima donna," Frazier said, "he'd lambast you: 'Frazier, you're supposed to be an all-star. . . . Reed, you're supposed to be a rebounder. . . .' He played no favorites.
"He was always yelling at me because I was impervious to it. He'd never yell at Bill because he'd play worse. Win or lose, he talked to you. If I played lousy and was moping in the locker room, he'd say, 'Let's go, Clyde; you're on my time. The sun will come up in the morning.' "
Frazier, who had hands that could steal hubcaps off moving cars, notes the marvelous defensive job Harper has been doing. "He's taken the point guard out of it; when he's in the game there's no penetration," Frazier said.
Harper is 33; can he do it 82 games, plus the playoffs? Frazier also notes Dick Barnett, who was 34, reached a peak in the playoff to the championship. "Red never wasted him in practice," Frazier said.
Pat Riley is different. "He's a master at taking care of his team," Holzman said. "Things I wonder why he's doing turn out great. I've never seen him do anything that doesn't work out."
Well, hardly ever. Riley assailed his team in public for "unprofessional" performance against Miami. The team reacted with a sky-high performance in a yardstick game against Houston, then dirtied itself against Cleveland. "You never know which team is going to show up," Frazier said. "When they're in dire straits, they perform magnificently. They don't know how to be a frontrunner."
This team is deep in effort but painfully thin on offense. "When they get behind, they're mesmerized by the three-point shot," Frazier said. That team had six players who could win a game on offense as well as defense. This team beats good teams and loses to teams it should beat.
But this is the era of expansion basketball. It's a mediocre league. The Knicks are as genuine as anybody. They have the unselfish nature of a champion, whether it's their nature or not. "In the team concept, an ordinary man can become an extraordinary performer," Frazier said. Bradley epitomized that.
That was the last NBA team to room separately. As Holzman brought that team together, Riley has brought this team together. "It used to be if you went to a restaurant and there were eight Knicks, they'd be at seven tables," Frazier said. "Gerald Wilkins and Mark Jackson would look at who was in the uniform before passing; I don't see that anymore."
This team went to the seventh game of the Finals. That team went to the seventh game and beat the Lakers. It is known as the Willis Reed Game, for the last-moment drama of his limping onto the court. It should be remembered that Frazier played 44 minutes, scored 36 points and tied the playoff record with 19 assists, at a time when assists were real assists. "It was," Holzman said, "the greatest game in Knickerbocker history for an individual. Probably still is."
For a time Frazier believed he'd been "snubbed" because of the acclaim for Reed. "In retrospect," Frazier said, "I saw if Willis didn't come out like that and ignite us, I never would have done that." And, as in the other time, Holzman admired Frazier's garb. "You're looking good," Holzman said. "Are you saving any money?"