Catching Up with Walt Frazier

By Jammel Cutler #33

Before Russell Westbrook strolled into NBA arenas with his stylish outfits, Walt “Clyde” Frazier was the standard bearer for NBA fashion and swag off the court and dominance on the court. Frazier is a legend and is one of the most beloved Knicks of all time. A lot of young people today were too young to see him play, but he was a special player who put up monster stat lines in important games.

We haven’t seen a player like Frazier since he retired from the game. He’s one of the most old school players left in the world. He’s really the last of a dying breed. Players aren’t built from the same physical and mental cloth that Frazier came from. His toughness came from the time period he grew up in. Back then, especially during the Jim Crow era, African-Americans had to play with a mental toughness on the court and live with a mental toughness off the court.

Frazier was instrumental in most of the Knicks’ crowning moments when he led them to two NBA championships in the 1970s. He was part of a team that was built on defense, loyalty and continuity, something that is missing from the modern NBA. Another interesting aspect of his career was that he was part of one of the best backcourts in NBA history with Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. Frazier was before his time in many ways. He was one of the first mainstream players to have endorsements, a signature shoe (the PUMA “Clyde”) and even to this day, lives a lavish public lifestyle.

Some of Frazier’s greatest performances include a 44-point game in 1973 against the Lakers and a 29-point half against Cincinnati in 1972. But Frazier’s biggest game might be his 36 points, 19 assists and 7 rebounds in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals.

Recently, I sat down with the Hall of Famer and current Knicks analyst for MSG Network to discuss his upbringing in Atlanta, fashion, living in New York in the 1970s, the glory years of the Knicks and his Mount Rushmore of  Knicks.

 

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

A lot of people take their elders for granted. You grew up in Georgia during the days of the Jim Crow era. Did you experience any racism growing up?

Of course I did, but I didn’t know any different. When you’re young, you go to the back of the bus and sit down. We didn’t drink at the “white fountains” when we went downtown. It’s something that we learned about being black.

What led you into playing basketball?

The only thing we did was play sports. Sports was my whole life, football, baseball, basketball and football. I was always on the playground, if it rained we played ping pong and checkers. That’s all we did, play sports all the time.

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At Southern Illinois you were one of the best prospects in the country. What was it like to overachieve with that team?

We were a Division II team when we won the NIT. We were the first Division II team ever invited and we ended up winning. I was MVP, so that catapulted me into the limelight. Normally the Knicks drafted the NIT MVP and that’s how I ended up with the Knicks.

What was it like to play in the old Garden (the current Madison Square Garden made its debut in 1968)?

My first memory of the Old Garden was boxing. They had Friday night fights from Madison Square Garden. I used to sit with them and watch the fights. That was my first memory of Madison Square Garden. Just coming to New York was so overwhelming, the big city. We couldn’t believe we were going to be playing in the NIT. In those days, there were only eight teams in the NIT, so for two weeks, every game was sold out—18,000 and we never heard such vociferous fans; the yelling, screaming and cursing. We were like, “Man, these people are crazy,” but we captivated them with our defense. In the East, they played a lot of zone, but we played a very tenacious man-to-man defense. Our first school that we played was a local, St. Pete’s. We beat them by 58 points, which was a record until like three or four years ago. We played Rutgers—they had Jim Valvano on that team. Then we beat Duke, and then we beat Marquette. Marquette was the favorite to win because they were coached by Al McGuire. He grew up in New York and played for the Knicks and was a good coach of that time, so we ended up beating those teams. At that point I didn’t think I had pro potential because when I read the [sports] magazines, I wasn’t in them. We were Division II, so I read about guys from Duke, and all the teams that we beat. I didn’t think I had a chance, but after I was NIT MVP, I read the paper and the scouts were saying we think Frazier is going to be a No. 1 draft pick. In my mind, I was like, “Aww man, I can’t believe it.” I was calling my parents, and especially my uncle because he was the person who mentored me.

I was hoping that I would play in New York, but I didn’t think it would happen because they had so many backcourt guys. They had Cazzie Russell, they had Bill Bradley, Dick Barnett. They had a guy named Howard Komives, Emmette Bryant. They had five guards already, so I didn’t think the Knicks would draft me.

What were your first few NBA seasons like?

My first year, I was happy I signed a three-year contract. I was like, “Man, I’m not going to be here long.” I was a jack of all trades but I wasn’t mastering none of them. I was passing when I should’ve been shooting, and then I hated New York. People were so cold. I used to live right here at the New Yorker Hotel [Ed note: Now a Wyndham Hotel, the New Yorker is across the street from MSG.], and I’ll come home at night and see someone lying on the ground and people would walk right over him. I used to think to myself, are they dead? So then two or three or weeks later, I’m walking around them not thinking about them. I used to give panhandlers money. I was going broke doing that. My first two years I didn’t even stay here after the season, I went back home to Atlanta, and then after that, I started to find out more about nightlife and the lifestyle of the New York. That’s when I started to love it.

Walter Iooss/ NBAE/ Getty Images

Is it around this time that you transformed into “Clyde?”

My third year, the team improved. I was always into clothes, but I wasn’t playing so nobody really focused on me. Once I started to play and people noticed that I liked to dress up, then I had the Cadillac, and once we won the championship, I won the Rolls Royce, and that’s when the whole Clyde persona really skyrocketed.

I was the first guy to endorse a sneaker with Puma. In 1973, the Puma Clyde came out, that’s when all my endorsements and commercials pertaining to Clyde reached its peak. Right now, the Knicks are doing Clyde Tunes. It’s a coloring book people can get with all the different shots of me. You can see me doing yoga. I was one of the first guys to do yoga. In 1975, I had a bad back, and I used to go to this health food store. I told this Indian guy my problem and he sent me to this guru, and he gave me private sessions. It involved stretching and all that. Now the teams are doing yoga with the players, it became a big thing. I still do yoga everyday. I do it before I get out of the bed so I have my own routine that I do. It gave me a lot of flexibility. It’s enlightening and keeps you in touch with yourself, especially in this city with all the hustle and bustle. The thing that I like about yoga is, it don’t cost you anything. Now when I travel with the team to other cities I get on the floor in the lotus position and just do some breathing and concentrating.

Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

You mentioned beds earlier. I read somewhere that back in the day, you had a big round bed with a mink duvet. 

Yeah, in those days they had the bachelor pads, like Joe Namath with the mirrors on the ceilings. Round beds were en vogue so I had one of those. In 1970, Willis Reed and I were given fur coats to take a picture for an ad, and that’s how I got into the fur coats. When I used to get dressed, I had fur spreads, and if  I had something black on, it would get all over your clothes, so I asked what type of fur doesn’t shed, and he said mink, so that’s how I ended up getting the mink spread on my bed, because it doesn’t shed. It looked like a big cake, the bed was round, and the mink spread used to drape over it. I thought it was pretty sharp.

You could see something special was happening the season before the 1970 championship season. How did it feel to be a part of such a legendary group of players?

In 1968-69, the Celtics beat us in the playoffs, but I was injured, and it took them seven games to do it. After the season, we came back thinking championship. We thought we were on par with Boston at that time, so our whole focus was we can do it. Coach Red Holzman had us playing together on offense and defense. “Hit the open man” was our mantra and get back on defense. We made it happen in 1969-70 and we won our first championship

Cazzie Russell doesn’t get enough credit. He was an underrated player.  How important was he to the team?

We had a great bench, and Cazzie was an integral part of the bench. He was a prolific scorer. He was the best I ever seen. We didn’t have the three-point shot then, but most of his shots came from that range. He liked to shoot from the corner. We called him “Jazzy Cazzie.” He had a nice physique, he drank a lot of tea in the locker room. We also called him “Muscle Russell” in the locker room because he was so built, he was a fun guy. We had Cazzie, David Stallworth, so our bench was very potent. Cazzie led our bench, and he was a very underrated player of his time.

Before the 1970 Finals started, you had a tough road in the East. You had to go through Earl Monroe in Baltimore, and Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee.

Every year we had to get past the Bullets. They were our arch-rivals and I had to face “Earl the Pearl,” which for me was the most difficult guy to guard because he had the spin moves, all the Globetrotters dazzle-dazzle type of stuff. Their whole team was predicated on offense. They never played defense, they just wanted to outscore you. We beat them in the first round, and then we faced Kareem and Oscar and obviously that was a formidable task, trying to hold Kareem and the Big O, who was my idol at the time. We got past them and then we had to face the Lakers. They had [Wilt] Chamberlain, [Jerry] West and [Elgin] Baylor, three of the greatest players to ever play the game. It went seven games and we all know about Willis inspiring the team when he came out of the tunnel, he could barely walk. He inspired the team and we went on to win the championship.

Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

What was the team’s mindset in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals?

Willis didn’t play in Game 6, so everyone was wondering if he was going to play in game 7. In Game 6, Chamberlain had 45 points and 20 rebounds. Coming back to New York we didn’t know if Willis was going to play. Before the game everyone was asking, is Willis playing? We didn’t know about his status until he walked out on the court. He made his first two shots that really inspired us, the crowd got involved, I had the game of my career: 36 points, 19 assists, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. That wouldn’t happened if Willis didn’t show his courage. Once we saw him it was like, “our leader is here,” and we gained a lot of confidence.

Willis gave the team the emotional lift they needed by hitting his first two shots, but it was you that carried them to victory. You had 36, 19 and 7, but didn’t win the MVP. Did you have any ill feeling toward Willis because he won MVP, and you didn’t? 

When Willis won MVP, I told him it was bull, I thought I should’ve been MVP, it wasn’t nothing against Willis. He didn’t vote. He was the media darling, he was a tremendous role model and captain of the Knicks. I never had any malice toward him for that.

Right before the second championship, the team acquired your rival Earl Monroe from Baltimore. What was the transition like from heated rival to a teammate?

In 1972-73, we acquired Earl from Baltimore. I was surprised because we needed a center because Willis had been injured. When we brought in Earl, I was like, “wow,” because we needed a big guy. People were saying it wouldn’t work because we need two basketballs to play in the same backcourt. The public and the media were very critical of us. What they overlooked was our mutual respect for each other. I had respect for Earl as an opponent. We never trash talked, so I always enjoyed trying to deny him. He was one of the most difficult guys I had to guard. He respected my defensive prowess, so when he came to the Knicks, we never had a problem about who would shoot the ball or who would dribble the ball. We won a championship together. I think we were the best backcourt ever.

How would Clyde and Pearl fare against the explosive backcourts of today’s game? Let’s say the Splash Brothers in Golden State?

Yep, we were better than Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry has gained a lot of accolades, but Thompson has been denied. When you look at Monroe, when he came to the Knicks, he had all the individual accolades and I had some individual accolades. Then we won a title together. I think Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars are closer to us than Curry and Thompson. If they win one more title together, they’ll probably be up there, but we had Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, who were also considered  a dynamic duo in the backcourt.

Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images
Two of Frazier’s Knicks Rushmore, Earl Monroe (left) and Bernard King (center), sit beside him.

After the Knicks’ second championship, the team went on a steep decline. Monroe was slowing down, Willis retired, and you were sort of like the last man standing from the championship years. Since you were the star player, you got the blame for the team shortcomings. Then they did the unthinkable: they traded you to Cleveland. What was your initial reaction to the trade?

When they traded me to Cleveland, I wasn’t ready for that first game back. It was two weeks after I was traded, I was back in Madison Square Garden, I wasn’t ready—mentally, emotionally or physically. I didn’t know how the fans would react. They gave me a standing ovation. It couldn’t have been a better script for the game. It would go into overtime and we went on to get the win. The fans were torn on who to root for, me or the Knicks. It was a storybook game: I had over 20 points that night. I was happy that we won the game.

Who’s on your Mount Rushmore of Knicks? 

Not necessarily in any order, but a lot of my former teammates: Willis, Dave Debusschere, The Pearl, obviously guys like Bernard King and Patrick Ewing are up there. And of course I’m on there. Allan Houston is close, and so is John Starks. Even Richie Guerin. Today’s fans don’t know that he was putting up big numbers in the 1950s.