Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Herbert Warren Wind on Red Holzman, Phil Jackson and the Early '70s Knicks

A little bit random today, but... while researching a couple things about the fabled early '70s New York Knicks teams, I somehow stumbled upon a story from the April 7, 1975 issue of The New Yorker called "The Right Men in the Right Place" (available only to New Yorker magazine subscribers), by the gloriously named Herbert Warren Wind.

It's truly a walk into a different era of sportswriting, as Wind offers an expansive essay on the NBA in the transition era from the Bill Russell retirement in 1969 through 1974, when several key players retired, including Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Willis Reed.

In particular, Wind analyzes the beloved Knicks of that era (champions in 1970 and 1973) in great detail, and if there is a singular protagonist, it is the Knicks Hall of Fame coach, Red Holzman, described in the piece by his chief protege, then-Knick Phil Jackson, as "a very gentle guy who gets his players appropriately prepared for the lifestyle of pro basketball" - a phrase which, perhaps minus the "very gentle" part, seems as though it could apply equally well to Jackson himself.

In the recently published The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons quoted a blurb from a 1956 Sports Illustrated cover story on Bob Cousy by Wind, and then footnoted that "You had to like the fifties, when sportswriters had names like 'Herbert Warren Wind'."

But Herbert Warren Wind was more than just a dandy name, he was a decorated writer who was known mainly as a legendary golf writer during his long career at the The New Yorker and Sports Illustrated, though he covered other sports as well. A 2005 obituary in the Boston Globe called Wind the "poet laureate of golf" and noted that he came up with the nickname of Amen Corner for the pivotal holes at the Augusta National Golf Course.

With the best writers seeming to be more specialized by sport today, I guess it feels surprising that a golf writer could have such a nuanced feel for another sport like basketball, but Wind certainly offers richly detailed analysis as part of his elegant piece on the Knicks.

I particularly enjoyed these details on Phil Jackson, Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley, as it seems that the men as described in 1975 are quite similar to the ones we know in 2010:
    "[On team flights,] most of the members of the team relax by gabbing or playing cards, but three -- Jackson, Bradley, and Frazier -- prefer to sit apart, in order to get some reading done. Jackson, a pleasant man who gets along well with people, reads books dealing with philosophy, psychology, and religion. When his basketball career is over, he would like to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, and it is difficult to think of a person who would be better at it. This winter, Bradley was reading Martin Mayer's "The Bankers" and Carl Jung's "Man and His Symbols," and was preparing to dig into a congressional-committee report on solar energy. He does a lot of underlining, and used to do even more. "I now underline facts mainly, not the guy's theories," he says.... Frazier regularly studies two books -- Bartlett's "Familar Quotations" and Webster's Pocket Dictionary. When he comes across a quotation or a definition that has particular significance to him, he copies it down on a pad, the better to retain it."
Quotating and notating!

[Ed. note: As Clarence Gaines (aka @cgrock24) tweeted: "Phil Jackson stated when he was with the Knicks that he wanted 'to teach in a 1-room schoolhouse' (Goal Accomplished)." Amen.]

As Phil Jackson stands on the cusp of yet another significant coaching record - most wins by a Lakers head coach - I loved reading this excerpt, which gives a sense of how the protege picked up a sense of flexibility and letting players think for themselves from the mentor:
    The Knicks under Holzman had a sizable repertoire of offensive plays -- about twenty, each with many variations -- but they were not at all averse to adopting another team's play that they thought might work for them.... (Jackson and Bradley in particular were forever thinking of plays the Knicks could utilize to good advantage themselves, such as a blind-pick play that Chicago ran to open up the lane for a cut by Bob Love, or a Los Angeles staple in which Gail Goodrich raced toward West at one side of the court and set a pick for West to swing around.) "I always wanted the players to feel free to suggest new things for our offense," Holzman told a visitor not long ago. "Then they'll break their neck to make them work. If they don't use their basketball intelligence, all their years in the game become an untapped spring that's going to waste. I don't mind telling you that our team won many games because of suggestions the players came up with. They made me a better coach."
If you like details from another time like these, there are pages and pages of them in "The Right Men in the Right Place" and I'd also recommend Wind's 1986 New Yorker story "Bird and Boston" (again available only to subscribers), which offers a snapshot of Larry Bird at his height.


At 4:27 PM, OpenID northofthe400 said...

A neat aside on Wind: he's the only author with two books on Sports Illustrated's top 100 sports books of all time. Not even AJ Liebling, David Halberstam or Frank Deford managed that.

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