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Conceived in the 1946 season, the New York Knicks have been a symbol of the professional basketball world for decades. With the bright lights of New York City and the unquestionable magic of Madison Square Garden propelling the team forward, the Knicks have continually been a staple of the NBA and its success, even in the team’s worst of years. Looking back on the franchises’ last historic run for an NBA Finals title in the 1973 season, the New York Knicks unbridled popularity and success reached the pinnacle of the sporting world.
Entering the 1972-73 season with extraordinary expectations, the Knicks were fresh off a year that culminated in a stinging 4-1 series loss in the Finals to their Western Conference rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. With a clearly aging roster returning for what might be their last window of opportunity in the 1973 season, the Knicks were determined to repeat their playoff success, and vie for another chance at a title.
Striking a Balance
Led by a clearly more lethargic frontcourt, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Jerry Lucas were all in their early 30’s, and their production was dwindling. With post play and rebounding being the clear driving force behind success during this era of the NBA, the Knicks were relying heavily on split production from a roster of older, but experienced players. Early in the season, it was apparent that Red Holzman’s rotational strategy was effective, with Reed and Lucas in particular managing to provide ample problems for opposing defenses by splitting time at the center position. Although initially displeased with splitting time, Reed, who was returning from knee surgery, acknowledged the enormous advantage it provided the team, “Some nights you'll start. Some you won't. I was struggling back from my injury. And we were good for the team. We were different kinds of players. We presented different problems for different teams." It was this story of unselfish, committed play that helped propel the aging roster back into the playoffs with a respectable 57-25 record and a 3rd overall seed in the Eastern Conference.
Making a Run for the Title
Entering the playoffs, the Knicks were unfavored by many metrics. A much younger Boston Celtics squad had steam rolled the regular season schedule and captured the #1 seed in the east, posting an unbelievable 68-14 record in the process. The grueling regular season culminated into the playoff picture everyone wanted. A highly anticipated matchup being the two squads would ensue, once again pitting the crazed fan bases of Boston and New York against one another in a high stakes series for the ages.
Going back and forth between the Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden, the Eastern Conference Finals series was grinding down both sides. The aging roster of the Knicks was becoming even more of a factor at this point in the playoffs, with the frontcourt duo of Reed and Lucas taking huge beatings inside the paint. However, it was the inspired play from the Knicks backcourt that truly took center stage. Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier had wreaked havoc on opposing defenses the entire season, averaging over 35 points between the two of them, and the tenacious play of Henry Bibby and Dean Meminger off the bench provided the defensive spark that threw off the play of the Celtics’ star players JoJo White and John Havlicheck during game seven in Boston. The Knicks won the prevailing game in a dominant fashion, 94-78. With the East now in hand, New York would have a quick turn around to prepare for their western rivals, the LA Lakers.
A Rematch for the Ages
The Lakers had secured the Western Conference title a few days earlier and were promptly rested and eager for the Knicks to arrive in town. Red Holzman requested a delay to the series, as his aged players were icing and rehabilitating after the grueling 7 game series with Boston. The Lakers refused. The aged but still dominant duo of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain were waiting on the Knicks, and had their sights set on another championship over the New York squad.
The series began as many had predicted. The Lakers were fresh and obliterated the Knicks’ interior defense in the first half. Content taking outside shots, the Knicks were ice cold and appeared to be moving much slower than in the Boston series. The Lakers jumped to a 20 point first half lead, and although the Knicks made a huge run late in the game, the deficit was simply too large to overcome, with the Lakers taking game one 115-112. Entering game two, Coach Holzman adjusted the strategy of his team, leaning on the defensive prowess of Meminger and the front court to slow the Laker’s elite roster. The move worked, as the Knicks squeaked out the win, and evened the series 1-1.
With momentum behind them all the way back to New York, the Knicks were favored by many in games three and four. However, disaster seemed to strike once again, as the Knicks frontcourt opened the game shooting a dismal 8-27 from the field. Although the story of the game was not the lack of production from the Knicks, but rather the struggles of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. With two strained quads for West, and the debacle in the game of Chamberlain, the Knicks managed to survive on the late game heroics of Reed’s jump shots, taking the series lead 2-1.
Now leading the series, the Knicks had exposed the weaknesses of the Lakers, and were set to take the penultimate game and control the Finals indefinitely. Dave DeBusschere erupted in game four, shooting 11-15 in the first half. The offensive onslaught early, coupled with stifling defense in the second half secured the win in New York. By game five, the Lakers were clearly deflated and frustrated at their offensive production. Chamberlain in particular looked like a shell of his former self, as even his free throw percentage dwindled as the series progressed. With its lead players crumbling, the Lakers team fell for the final time, as this time Monroe took the spotlight for the Knicks.
New York burst into a frenzy once again as the Knicks were crowned champions of the basketball world. Although the play of their beloved team did not necessarily match the flashy style of the city, the Knicks had established one of the most balanced teams of the decade. When asked why the Lakers struggled so mightily in the Finals, Wilt Chamberlain stated, “The Knicks are so well-balanced and have tremendous passing and so many good shooters that you can't concentrate on one man.” That was the story of the 1973 Knicks. Unselfish play and attitudes were on display both on the court and in the locker room. This style, though simple, propelled New York to the pinnacle, and has inspired generations of fans since that immaculate season. Almost 50 years later, New York looks back on its last basketball championship with admiration and hope for its future teams.
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Sam Katulich is a content writer and research intern for Vintage Sports. Originally from Leonardtown, MD, he is currently a student at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and is majoring in Economics/Finance.