The following is an excerpt from Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. Published by Rowman & Littlefield on May 26, 2017, Adam J. Criblez provides an account of professional basketball in the United States in the 1970s. This excerpt comes from Chapter 1: “1969 to 1970” and looks at the intersection between the NBA and antiwar protests during the Vietnam era.
NBA players generally insulated themselves from political and social causes taking place during the season. Players spent countless hours folded into small airplane seats, relaxing in hotel rooms or clubs, or in basketball arenas preparing for the next game. But on May 4, even NBA players stopped to take notice of the world coming down around their shoulders. The Vietnam War was exceedingly unpopular nationally, but was particularly so on college campuses. Student rallies against American involvement in southern Asia had, by 1970, grown increasingly violent. But no one could have foreseen the shooting that took place at Kent State University leaving, in the immortal lyrics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “four dead in Ohio.” National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of protesting students, capturing the attention of, among others, gangly Knicks’ forward Phil Jackson. “Up until Kent State, you had to worry about long hair and being against the war,” Jackson explained. “Then it turned and people were asking, ‘How can this be happening, and all for a war that most people don’t know why we’re in? You had to be paying attention to what was going on.” Jackson’s teammate Bill Bradley was definitely sensitive to these social issues. The previous October, when antiwar activists assembled on college campuses for what was dubbed Vietnam Moratorium Day, Bradley joined the fray, offering his support for the protesters. Having grown up in what one historian describes as “an idealistic world of infinite possibility…[possessing] a special sensitivity to the terror of extinction,” young men and women similar in age to the athletes playing professional basketball saw in national politics an inauthenticity and possessed a growing dissatisfaction with America’s foreign and domestic policies.[i]
In Madison Square Garden on the night of May fifth, the atmosphere was surreal. Harvey Araton, a longtime New York journalist, recalled that “there was a feeling of restlessness in the crowd, an air of pessimism and fear that came close to resignation.” Despite the national focus rightfully shifting to college campuses and anti-war protests, the Knicks and Lakers decided to go ahead and play the fifth game as scheduled.
Los Angeles came out hot in Game Five, pulling ahead by ten points in the first quarter. New York, forcing the action, funneled the ball to their captain, Willis Reed. Reed drove past Chamberlain and suddenly crumpled to the floor, holding his right thigh in agonizing pain. Reed limped to the sidelines as his teammates watched their title hopes evaporate. “I could see our championship lying on the floor,” DeBusschere remembered. “I could see the whole year crumbling with Willis’ right knee.” Years later, Frazier wrote about Reed’s injury. “The papers were filled with stories about the four students who had been killed at Kent State a few days before, and about the protests over it,” Frazier explained. “There were articles about expanding the Vietnam War into Cambodia and about demonstrations calling for America to get out. But today, I just couldn’t concentrate on those things. All I cared about was Willis.” DeBusschere, Frazier, and their Knicks’ teammates did not give up. Instead, the absence of Reed forced both teams to adjust. The Lakers stopped moving as much on offense, forcing the ball inside to Chamberlain rather than also relying on West and Baylor. Chamberlain towered over his Knicks’ opponents: one sportswriter compared 6’6” DeBusschere guarding 7’2” Chamberlain to “a tourist leaning on the Empire State Building.” But the Knicks also shifted strategies, playing five perimeter-oriented players to force Chamberlain away from the basket defensively. Frazier led six Knicks players in double figures and New York came away with an unlikely 107-100 win before L.A. evened up the series by taking Game Six.[ii]
College campuses throughout the nation closed their doors and cancelled exams after the Kent State Massacre. But the Knicks and Lakers battled on to a decisive seventh game. All signs pointed to Reed watching from the sidelines, which terrified Knicks fans. Against Willis’ undersized replacements in Game Six, Chamberlain exploded for 45 points and 27 rebounds. New Yorkers, now down to their last hope for winning a long-awaited title, held their collective breath, awaiting word of their Captain’s health. Not even Reed knew if he could play in Game Seven. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to try to play that seventh game,” Reed remembered, “the doubt in my mind was whether or not I was going to be able to do it.” In the early afternoon, Reed underwent more than an hour of treatment to loosen the muscles in his right thigh. A few hours before tipoff, Reed warmed up, testing out his leg. The pain was almost unbearable. Reluctantly, Reed allowed the team doctor to inject a numbing agent into his thigh as his teammates took the court for pregame warmup. Sitting for a few minutes on the trainer’s table, Reed suddenly hoisted himself up and, grimacing, made his way toward the court.[iii]
Adam Criblez is an Assistant Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University and the author of the new book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. Check out his website at https://www.adamcriblez.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @AdamCriblez.
[i] Araton, When the Garden Was Eden, 140, 119. Peter N. Carroll, It Seemed Like Nothing Happened: America in the 1970s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 21. Jackson spent the entire season on injured reserve, at least in part, because the Knicks wanted to retain his rights in the upcoming expansion draft and could do so if he remained on the reserve list.
[ii] DeBusschere, Open Man, 247-8; Reed, View from the Rim, 194; Sabin, Basketball Stars of 1971, 37.
[iii] Reed, View from the Rim, 200.