By Barry Janoff
April 10, 2013: Even better than watching the NBA Finals is watching it with two players who played the game, were named in 1996 as two of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History and are both in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.
On April 14, MSG Network in New York will show for the first time in 40 years a complete broadcast of Game 5 of the 1973 NBA Finals, in which the New York Knicks closed out a 4-1 series defeat of the Los Angeles Lakers. The game was telecast on ABC, but tapes of it vanished, were destroyed or fell victim to age.
As part of a 40th anniversary reunion of the 1972-73 Knicks, MSG Network tracked down a tape of Game 5 and put it through a painstaking process of restoration. The 40th anniversary of the 1972-73 NBA championship team also included a reunion on April 5 in Madison Square Garden of the members still alive, which included Frazier, Monroe, team captain Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Dean Meminger, John Gianelli, Henry Bibby and Harthorne Wingo. Coach "Red" Holzman died in 1998, Dave DeBusschere died in 2003.
Even for those people who are not fans of the Knicks or Lakers, this game, and the entire 1973 Finals series, has major NBA historical significance. There were 13 future Hall of Famers involved in the series (who were later inducted either as players or coaches): Holzman, Frazier, Monroe, Reed, DeBusschere, Lucas, Bradley and Jackson from the Knicks; and Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Pat Riley and Bill Sharman from the Lakers.
It also was the last game of Chamberlain's career and, to date, the last time the Knicks won the NBA championship. Back then, the Knicks were in the Finals three times in four seasons, winning the franchise's first crown in 1969-70 against the Lakers and losing to the Lakers in 1971-72 before taking their second title a year later. The Lakers did not make it back to the Finals until 1980 (defeating the Philadelphia 76ers behind Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar); the Knicks did not return until 1994 (coached by Pat Riley, losing to the Houston Rockets).
The game will be seen in grainy color (and partly in black-and-white) just as people saw it on May 10, 1973 (when it aired beginning at 10:30 PM ET from the Fabulous Forum in Los Angeles). ABC had few camera, limited graphics and minimal instant replay. The announcers, Keith Jackson and former player/coach and Hall of Famer Bill Russell, kept a verbal running score as well as a tally of the time, points, assists and rebounds.
Also of striking contrast to the modern NBA game: No three-point line, players wore short-shorts and there were no ads scrolling along the sidelines, or on seat backs or basket stanchions. But there was some on-air marketing. Presenting sponsors included Sears, Ford and Ford Autocraft. Champion, Mennen Skin Bracer and United Air Lines had commercials. Bill Cosby did a commercial for White Owl cigars. In another, Bart Starr touted the Yellow Pages. There was no ESPN presence (the cable network launched in 1979), no sideline computers, no fans talking on cell phones and no Twitter.
Clyde is a businessman and analyst during Knicks telecasts. Pearl has won numerous accolades for his work with local and national literacy, health (he has Type-2 diabetes) and civic-oriented organizations; his autobiography, Earl the Pearl: My Story, hits shelves this month (Rodale Books).
They sat together in Clyde Frazier's Wine & Dine, located a few blocks away from the Garden, to watch the refurbished Game 5 tape play on the multitude of screens in the restaurant. They also had microphones to provide running commentary and analysis to the small group of media members invited to share the experience.
• What do you remember before the game started?
Clyde: I remember that Jerry West was injured, but he told people, 'I'll play until they drag me off the court.' . . . I remember thinking before the game, 'Let's finish this off. No more games.' We were a veteran team. We had been there before. So there wasn't a lot of hoopla. We just wanted to take care of business.
• How would you compare fans during the Finals then to today?
Clyde: Look at the stands. The crowd was not a factor. Today, they constantly show the crowd. They are part of the game. Back then, they just showed the action on the court. . . But let me say I'm not talking about the fans at Madison Square Garden. The New York fans really catapulted us. These are the things you remember most about the New York fans. The way they can help galvanize a team. And that's so symbolic this year. No team likes to play the Knicks once they get in the playoffs. Or the Yankees. Or any New York team. Because of the crowd. The fans really galvanize the team. We're hoping that can happen this year and the the team can win another championship.
• What stands out about the game?
Clyde: The game was in the Fabulous Forum, which was the best place to play basketball aside from Madison Square Garden. There were celebrities there, but it wasn't like today where they are seated at courtside and always on TV. Back then, they had good seats but they were dispersed throughout the area. Also, people there arrived late and left early because they didn't want to get stuck in traffic. If you look [at the tape] at the end of Game 5, the place is almost empty!
• Watching the introductions, the players are sitting on their respective benches, the announcer calls their names and they stand up and wave. No fanfare. No major hoopla.
Clyde: It's entertainment now. There were no cheerleaders. No dancing girls. We were in the Forum and they didn't even have the Lakers Girls yet (introduced by team owner Dr. Jerry Buss in 1979-80). . . But we did have some colorful players. Back then, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson both were hippies. [Laughs.]
Pearl: When you look back, the American Basketball Assn. had the model for a lot of the things the NBA became. The ABA had entertainment. They had dancing girls. They had the red-white-blue ball. The three-point line. They made the game entertaining.
• We're watching action from the first quarter. What stands out for you?
Clyde: I was a good defender so of course they put me on Jerry West! I'm trying to force Jerry West to his left. Push him in that direction. Dick Barnett liked to guard him. He liked to push West and shove him. Of course, you can't do that today. If you put your hand on a player you get whistled for a foul.
Pearl: Wilt was still a force, but he wasn't the same player he had been three, four years earlier. This was his last game in the NBA.
• What's going though your mind now as you watch the game?
Clyde: [Watching himself miss an open jump shot] Frazier throws up a brick.
Pearl: I remember going back into the huddle and Red would ask, 'What do you want to do?' He would make the players responsible . . . Watching this makes you humble. You see mistakes; you realize you're not as good as you think you were . . .
Clyde: [speaking to Pearl] You were good.
Pearl: I had a nice beard going!
• Were you a 1970s version of James Harden?
Pearl: [Laughs.] No. My style was inspired by Clyde.
• It's difficult to compare the different eras in the NBA, but could any of the point guards today, such as Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook — have played at a high level in your era?
Pearl: People know this, but I'm speaking from a player's perspective: It's a different game from when we played. There was no no three-point line [in the NBA]. There were more players who could bring the ball up. More players who could score and defend. And, you can see, the uniforms were different. We had those shorts on, not like what they wear today. [Laughs.]
Clyde: A lot of these guys today would be intimidated because they can't shoot. They don't have a mid-range shot. They take a lot of shots from past the three-point line. Back then, you had to have a mid-range shot. That's why we ran the pick-and-roll: to get guys open to take a mid-range shot. But I have to say that the size of the guys today, they are bigger, stronger than we were. So if we played them, there would be a lot of mismatches.
Pearl: Looking at [Game 5] and talking about the [1972-73] Finals, you only remember the good stuff. But we knew it was going to be a hard-fought series, and [Game 5] was a hard-fought game. It was physical. You could see the bodies banging, and [the referees] weren't blowing their whistles back then the way they do now. You could put your hands on a guy. Push him. The big guys — not the guards like Clyde and me — could really bang under the boards. So we had DeBusschere. We had Reed. They gave it. They took it.
• We're looking at the end of game now. What do you remember about it?
Clyde: If you watch here, there was a long pass thrown to Wilt with time running out, and we had the game and the title won. The Knicks left him unguarded to score the basket. It was symbolic. This was Wilt's last game in the NBA. His last basket was a dunk . . . Immediately after the game was over, we were very calm. There was no hoopla on our part. We had been there before and we thought we'd be there again. And look at the arena. It's almost empty. We walked to the locker room. No on-court celebrations or ceremonies. We were interviewed in the locker room by Keith Jackson and Bill Russell. No champagne. Actually, we had beer in the locker room. And you were allowed to smoke cigarettes . . . We each got $8,000 as our full winning share. So the NBA has come a long way.
• What would you and Pearl have done if you had the three-point line (which was not introduced into the NBA until 1979-80)?
Clyde: The three-point line has been both a blessing and a curse. Today, nobody can shoot inside. There are no consistent mid-range shooters. Guys want to shoot from the three-point arc. If you go to a game early, everybody is practicing shooting the three-ball. No one is even practicing free throws.
• Before Pearl joined the Knicks in 1971 he was with the then Baltimore Bullets and you two were going head-to-head, real adversaries. What do you remember about that?
Pearl: I was telling Clyde the other day, some of the best games I played in were against the Knicks. We lost to the Knicks in the first round of the 1968-69 season, and we lost to them in a seven-game series the next year (when the Knicks won the NBA title). Then we had another seven-game series in 1970-71 and beat them to go to the Finals (losing to the Milwaukee Bucks led by Oscar Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Then the next season I was traded to the Knicks and we beat the Bullets. For me, it was all about the competition. And, with Clyde, the competition was intense. And there was nothing better than that.
• Do you think we will ever see a Finals where 13 participants would ultimately be in the Hall of Fame?
Pearl: The years from 1965-75 are what I call the Golden Age of basketball. Look at the players who were in the game at that time, look at how many of them and how many of the coaches are in the Hall of Fame. And those aren't even some of the great players who were on the [Boston] Celtics, the St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta).
Clyde: In our era, every team had a dominant center. Wilt, Bill Russell, Willis, Nate Thurmond. Every night you were going up against a big guy who could control the game. Now, there is a dearth of centers. There are some big guys — Dwight Howard, Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler — but the dominating center doesn't exist for the most part. The NBA doesn't even list 'center' on the All-Star ballot anymore. They call it 'front court.'
• Who do you see as the dominant players today?
Clyde: LeBron of course. Kobe. Kevin Durant. Melo. The guys who play center all can be neutralized.
• Watching Game 5 from 1973, does it seem strange now that you don't see any ads on the sidelines, no logos on the seats or stanchions and that the basketball shoes weren't part of the story?
Clyde: That wasn't part of the NBA back then. The companies were giving you shoes, but they didn't pay you to wear them. I had a signature shoe with Puma, but that was later on (1973) after we won the second title. They were made of suede and they stretched . . .
Pearl: [Laughs.] I remember every time I looked around, Clyde was bending down, tying his shoes!
• Do you think the players today are students of the game?
Clyde: Not really. I remember when I came into the NBA I could go all the way back to the early days, George Mikan, the history of basketball. Today, a lot of these guys know us but only vaguely. For them, the NBA begins with Dr. J (Julius Erving) and then it moves forward. I remember one time when Earl and I were together and A'mare Stoudemire asked us, 'Did you guys ever play together?' [Laughs.] That was so symbolic to me. I was thinking, 'We were like you and Melo when you came together on the Knicks.' People said it wouldn't work. Which is what they said when Earl came over from the Bullets. And we won a title. Why it worked is that we had mutual respect for each other. It never got to the point of saying whose team is it. It was our team. Now we're still friends.
• Where would you rank the Frazier-Monroe Knicks backcourt in NBA history?
Clyde: There was a poll recently that asked for the best guard duos in NBA history. Magic Johnson and Byron Scott came in first, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars came in second, and Earl and I came in third! First of all, Scott is not in the Hall of Fame, so I discount him. And could Dumars have run a team by himself, like Earl did, like I did?
• David Stern is in his final year as NBA commissioner. What do you think his legacy will be?
Clyde: His legacy is that he turned the league around. He made it a big deal. He made the entertainment aspect more important. He took the game global. He got people to talk about the game all year, not just during the season. He got companies involved that would not have considered the NBA. Without him, the players today would not be the superstars they are, they would not have brands that are international. Look at the difference between the 1973 Finals and the 2013 Finals. It's big business now, it's entertainment that people around the world want to see.
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