Despite being a charter members of the NBA, which formed in 1946, the Knicks never won an NBA championship before the 1969-1970 season.
They made three consecutive trips to the finals in the early 1950s, but were defeated each time. The Knicks then missed the playoffs for 10 of the next 15 years.
But slowly, things turned around — and they did so more quickly after Red Holzman became head coach during the 1967-68 season. New York went 43-39 — its first winning campaign since 1959 — and reached the postseason for a second consecutive season.
Yet there was still need for an upgrade, as the Knicks were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs both years.
It came in the form of a trade, which sent standout center Walt Bellamy and guard Butch Komives to the Detroit Pistons for forward Dave DeBusschere midway through the 1968-69 season. The Knicks were straddling .500 before the trade, but went 36-11 after DeBusschere joined the team.
They finished 54-28, and shocked the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs. New York was ousted by the eventual league champion Boston Celtics in the East finals, but the Knicks finally had the core of a championship team of their own.
DeBusschere was the missing piece of Holzman's puzzle. The 29-year-old was a tough, shrewd 6-foot-6 player who had served three seasons as player-coach of the Pistons. DeBusschere could fill a variety of needs — scoring, rebounding, leadership, and perhaps most of all, tenacious defense.
Bellamy's departure cleared the way for Willis Reed to play full time at center. The 6-foot-9 Reed made the All-Star game ever year since entering the league for the 1964-65 season, but had played forward for three-plus seasons.
Hozman had two former college players of the year to add scoring punch at forward — Princeton graduate Bill Bradley, and Michigan alum Cazzie Russell.
Dick Barnett brought veteran savvy and a unique jump shot to one of the Knicks guard spots. The other was filled by young Walt Frazier, just launching a Hall of Fame career. Key reserves were foward Dave Stallworth, guard-forward Mike Riordan and center Nate Bowman.
The Knicks won 23 of their first 24 games, the best start in NBA history. Included in that stretch was an 18-game winning streak — then a league record. The Knicks, who employed firce pressure defense and brisk ball movement, comfortably won the East with a 60-22 record.
The physical Reed averaged 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds and was also a daunting defensive presence. The flamboyant Frazier added 20.9 points, six rebounds and 8.2 assists, and Barnett, who famously kicked back both legs when shooting his jumper, hit enough of them to average 14.9 points per game.
DeBusschere averaged 14.6 points and 10 rebounds, and Bradley (14.5 points) and Russell (11.5 points) were also double-figure scorers. Stallworth added 7.8 points per game, Riordan added 7.7, and the 6-10 Bowman provided valuable relief for Reed. Others to see action were forwards Bill Hosket and Don May, and guard John Warren.
In the playoffs, the Knicks overcame the Bullets in seven-game, first-round series, then defeated super rookie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in five games to advance to the league finals. There, the Knicks faced a Los Angeles Lakers team that featured a Hall of Fame trio in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
The teams split the first two games in New York, then went to overtime in two contests in Los Angeles. The third game saw West beat the buzzer with a 60-foot heave to send the game into OT, but the Knicks pulled out a 111-108 win. In the fourth game, the Lakers evened the series with a 121-115 victory.
Reed was sidelined by a thigh injury early in the fifth game, and the Knicks trailed by 13 points at halftime. But Holzman switched to a small lineup, with DeBusschere being the tallest New York player on the court. Swarming the 7-foot Chamberlain and forcing a slew of turnovers, the Knicks rallied for an improbable 107-100 win in front of their home fans.
But the magic didn't carry over to Game 6. Reed sat out and Chamberlain's 45-point, 27-rebound performance powered the Lakers to a 135-113 victory in the Los Angeles. L.A. had the momentum entering the decisive seventh game in New York.
Reed was not with his teammates when they first took the floor for pre-game warmups and questions persisted over his health. So when the captain walked out of the tunnel alone to join his squad, the home crowd erupted.
It did so again when Reed hit the first two field goals of the game. Reed didn't take another shot and his stint lasted less than a half. But by then, the Knicks were on their way to a blowout win.
Thanks to Reed's inspiration and an electrifying 36-point, 19-assist effort from Frazier, the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 win. Reed was named finals MVP, adding to his league and All-Star game MVP honors.
The Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games in 1972-73 to win another title — after holdovers Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley, Reed and Barnett were joined by guard Earl Monroe, center Jerry Lucas and a reserve forward named Phil Jackson. But that team was not as dominant the 1969-70 squad, winning 57 games and placing second in its division.
The club never claimed another title. It did win 60 games in 1993, but was eliminated by the eventual champion Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals. New York came close in 1994, losing a seven-game series to the Houston Rockets. The Knicks also reached the finals in 1999, falling to the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
Holzman, Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere and Bradley are members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Bradley, a former Rhodes Scholar, went on to become a U.S. Senator from New Jersey.
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