The 1973 NBA Finals teams dominated – and looked good in the process
True style never goes out of fashion. Take the 1973 NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers. That was style, my friend. All the basketball stars in those crazy, psychedelic days of the early ‘70s had miles upon miles of style, but it was especially true of these two squads. And we’re not just talking on the court, although we’ll get to that in a minute – we’re talking on the street.
L.A., for instance, had the Big Dipper. Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain, the headbanded hero, was a seven-foot, flashy clothes hound. Then you had his fellow All-NBA First Team counterpart Jerry “Zeke From Cabin Creek” West, an icon who sported a disciplined, eye-catching, no-nonsense style. But if you want to really talk flair, you’ve got to focus on New York, the team that would go on to win the 1973 NBA Finals 4-1, a margin that disguises just how close the series actually was. The Knicks had character. They also had characters.
Mr. GQ, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the night owl who favored broad-brimmed hats and crushed velvet jackets, played alongside a regular Joe, Dave DeBusschere, who was so down-to-earth that he’d get lost among Knick fans at local sports hangouts. But those two weren’t the only ones. The Knicks’ locker room was a Hollywood casting agent’s dream, with genuine role players who were also stars – a playground legend (Earl “the Pearl” Monroe), a senator-to-be (Bill Bradley), a hippie (Phil Jackson), Mr. Memory (Jerry Lucas) and a hero (Willis Reed).
“You had the Pearl, the Big Dipper – all of us, all in one series again for the second straight year,” says Clyde. “Those New York-L.A. series really catapulted the League into the nation’s consciousness.”
In ’73, it had been a few years since Boston had won the last of their 11 championships in ’69, and the NBA needed new heroes.
“I don’t think we can underestimate how important those series were, because in New York and L.A., you had the two capitals of the world playing each other and everybody taking notice. Years later, Dr. J took over, and then it was Magic and Bird doing their thing, then Jordan. But having New York play L.A. at this time in the early ‘70s was very significant for the success of the NBA,” recalls Frazier.
The 1973 NBA Finals provided classic matchups. One was between the two best guards of their time, All-NBA First Team counterparts Frazier and West. One was known for his flash, the other for his substance (even though each had plenty of both). Then there was bigger-than-life 7-1, 275-pound Chamberlain, taken on by the smaller but nearly as legendary 6-10, 240-pound Reed and the 6-8, 235-pound Lucas. All five were named among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in ’96. In fact, an unbelievable number of players – seven – from the 1973 NBA Finals appear on that list, and that doesn’t include Bill Sharman, the Lakers’ head coach at the time.
Game 1 saw the 60-22 Lakers take advantage of their road-weary foes. The 57-25 Knicks – worn down by a grueling seven-game series with the 68-14 Celtics, in which Boston and New York had changed home arenas for every game – went into the 1973 NBA Finals only two days after their Eastern Conference clincher. “We were motivated,” explains Reed, “to play the Lakers because they said they’d rather face the Knicks than the Celtics.”
Still, the Knicks feared a repeat of ’72, when they had lost to the Lakers 4-1, with three of the L.A. wins decided by 10-plus points. When the ’73 series began, it seemed like déjà vu. West lit up the Knicks’ dream-team backcourt of Clyde and The Pearl in an effort that racked up 24 points. On D, Chamberlain blocked seven shots, and his backup Mel Counts, another seven-footer, joined the party with nine rebounds. Spurred on by 26 fast-break points, the Lakers ran up a 20-point lead in the first half. That was too much for the Knicks to overcome, even with a late-game surge that came about in part because West fouled out with three minutes to go. The Lakers held on to win, 115-112.
Two days later, the Knicks had a new strategy. New York played to its strengths and worried less about the Lakers’ advantages. As the late great Chamberlain pointed out at the time, “The Knicks are so well-balanced, and have tremendous passing and so many good shooters, you can’t concentrate on one man. The key to the series was that their defense stopped our running game.”
Looking back, West concurs: “New York had a very cohesive team at both ends of the court. They played a certain way offensively as a team, and defensively did the same; they knew how to help each other out. It was a game of contrasts; we had the up-and-down game, while the Knicks had a control-type game. There were so many smart players in those games. Experience is the most wonderful teacher.”
With the Lakers halted, the Knicks concentrated their offense on attacking the Stilt. “We ran more plays at him,” says Frazier. “Wilt was one of those guys that was more dangerous when you didn’t see him. You’d think you had a clear shot, and then he’d block it, coming out of nowhere.”
So in Game 2, Bradley started challenging Chamberlain with continuous drives to the basket. The Big Dipper picked up a handful of blocks, but Bradley knocked down a few baskets; he would finish the series as the Knicks’ leading scorer with 18.6 ppg. When the other Knicks started following the Senator’s lead and forced Chamberlain to divide his attention, the game suddenly opened up for Reed.
Injuries had made Willis Reed miss the 1972 NBA Finals, but in ’73 he played as if he’d never been hurt and garnered the NBA Finals MVP award. He was unstoppable, scoring off pick-and-roll layups, pick-and-roll jumpers and – when Chamberlain stayed on him – dealing out pick-and-roll assists. Reed finished the series with 16.4 ppg and 9.2 rpg.
“Basically, the media had written me off – being too old, being unable to play because of injuries,” Reed recalls. “But I never let anyone else define me. That’s what made winning the NBA Finals MVP, winning the championship that much sweeter. It’s an unbelievable feeling winning it all. It’s like having your first girlfriend. It puts you in a different class among players, too. Champion: there’s nothing like it.”
Despite a valiant defensive stand by Wilt and the Lakers, the Knicks took a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter, a result of their own great defensive efforts. They stopped the Lakers’ fast breaks and made West and Chamberlain look like the 35-and 36-year-olds they were. Part of coach Red Holzman’s plan was to keep his Hall of Fame centers Reed and Lucas as fresh as possible while playing the most physical pivot of their day. Holzman knew he needed them both to defend Chamberlain; his season-long strategy was to alternate between Reed and Lucas, using Reed in a game one night and Lucas the next, creating a powerhouse combination known by one name, “Willie Lucas.”
Thanks to their basketball acumen – and the fact that they used 7.2 fouls per game combined on Chamberlain during the NBA Finals – “Willie Lucas” prevailed. Reed had already made NBA history with his hobbled heroics in the 1970 NBA Finals, while Lucas would be known as the one with a beautiful mind. (He once memorized a phone book and later wrote The Memory Book, which sold more than two million copies.) This change in defensive tactics against Chamberlain resulted in a 99-95 Game 2 victory and finally gave the Knicks a blueprint on how to defeat the Lakers.
“There were a lot of great minds on those teams,” says Frazier, agreeing with the assessment that this was one of the most cerebral NBA Finals and pointing to people like Jackson and West, two men who went on to become what many consider the greatest NBA coach and general manager ever. “It epitomized play back then. A lot of savvy players, backdoor plays – any weakness was exploited. It reminds me of the way the Utah Jazz played with Stockton and Malone.”
In Game 3, the Lakers adjusted accordingly. They made the Knicks struggle by focusing their team D on the Knicks’ two biggest attackers, Bradley and DeBusschere; they combined for a dismal 8-for-27. Both teams played tough defense, as they would for the rest of the series; it was the lowest-scoring and closest-margin NBA Finals in 27 years.
But while some players were stopped, others, like The Pearl, made the most of their time to shine. Previously, Earl Monroe had taken the backseat when he arrived in New York at the tail-end of the ’71-72 season; it had been his intent not to disrupt the chemistry of a squad that at the time was considered Frazier’s team.
“It tells you what type of man Earl was to come off the bench in ’72, when he first got here,” says Frazier. “But in ’73, he was one of the main reasons we won.”
Nothing illustrated this better than Game 3. When other Knicks struggled from the field, Monroe helped close out the game by scoring nine fourth-quarter points, finishing with 21 in the Knicks’ 87-83 win. Even though he didn’t have the ring yet, his teammates knew he had what it took to win.
Game 3 was when the Knicks realized that the two biggest Laker threats were vulnerable. West, who had scored 56 points in Games 1 and 2, was no longer 100 percent because of hamstring injuries. With Chamberlain having trouble at the free throw line – he was 14-of-38 for the series – the Lakers became a much easier team to guard. The key: hold the Lakers under 100 and you win. That was easier said than done, since Los Angeles averaged 112 points during the regular season, but the Knicks knew it could be achieved. They knew they could win as long as they notched some more scoring performances like the one Monroe gave them in Game 3.
They got it in Game 4 when DeBusschere broke out of his slump with an electrifying 11-for-15 shooting display in the first half to give the Knicks a cushion … and the eventual 103-98 victory.
In a tight Game 5, the Knicks again kept the Lakers under 100 (L.A. averaged 92 in their four losses – 10 points fewer than their season average in losing efforts). As long as one Knick heated up, that’s all it took. So who better than Monroe to continue his fourth-quarter heroism? He scored eight of his 23 points in the last 2:15 to secure a 102-93 Knicks win and the NBA title.
It was a fitting conclusion to the series. Each team now had a ring, and basketball had been indelibly marked by the two “capitals of the world.” Those two teams of champions would become the models for the next generation of NBAers.
But like all legendary stories, this one has an ending. Chamberlain retired after the ’73 series, and one year later, Reed, Lucas, DeBusschere and West did the same. But the style they brought remained. Nowadays, when you see players GQ’d up in sleek suits, think about Clyde and Wilt. When you think of A.I. bringing the street to the League, make sure you give a nod to The Pearl.
They were unique. They were ahead of their time. And 33 years later, their legacy – and style – lives on.
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