A Fan’s Notes

From the May 14, 1973 issue of New York Magazine

While the Knicks have been taking on Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles in their quest for the championship of the National Basketball Association, Knicks addict David Halberstam has been on tour promoting his book on the Vietnam war, The Best and the Brightest. The problem of keeping up with the Knicks at long distance was clearly painful—as shown by these notes from the diary Halberstam kept while on the road. We join him on the day of the first game of the playoff between the Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets… .

Friday, March 30. En route from Minneapolis to Chicago. Dr. Atkins is still high on the charts and Louis Nizer is rising, but I am worried about Baltimore. The Bullets. Unseld and Hayes. Since Archie Clark came back they have been playing the best basketball in the league. In contrast, we have not; our groove this year has not been particularly good, the moments when we have played fine team basketball have been all too sporadic. Lucas is not shooting well, and Reed’s timing is bad. In addition, I am worried about my own availability for the playoffs; my book—and the by-products: appearances, lectures, fund-raisers, lunches with big spenders who want to talk about a musical version—have all gotten out of hand, and may knock me out of key playoff games. The whole thing has gone on for more than four months (the high point, an appearance with Jerry Lucas on the Cavett Show; he seemed very nice and between breaks we talked about his conservation of energy as a player. Very crafty). Just yesterday someone called to ask if I can make a fund-raiser in two weeks. I check the calendar—yes, if it is over by 7:45, but nothing any later. But it is harder with previously booked engagements: how can I tell the good people of the First Unitarian Church of Minneapolis that I will miss their lecture on Morality in Government because I want to stay home and watch basketball? I can’t, but my heart is not in the questions (Question: can a good and moral man survive in our government?) when what I am really thinking about is whether Earl Monroe can handle Archie Clark. After all, Monroe always has trouble with fast, small guards. I rush to the airport after the lecture, fly to Chicago, have a late drink with Michael and Alice Arlen and we phone a local sports desk for the score. The Knicks have won. I knew it all the time.

Sunday, April 1. In Chicago for a meeting of the Stevenson Institute. Wanted to cancel to watch the game but was haunted by guilt. Have tickets for the Sunday game, but must take an 8 a.m. out of Chicago to insure safe arrival in N.Y. Eight a.m. is canceled, which slices the margin of circling. I sit next to George Plimpton on the flight, and talk guardedly since Plimpton, while an estimable and obsessed fan, is an obsessed Celtics fan. Finally, with some misgiving, I tell him my draft plans—if nothing good is available in the first round, the Knicks to draft George McGinniss. Plimpton impressed by my wisdom and promises not to tell Red Auerbach. He tells me of taking publisher Tom Guinzburg’s young son—a devoted Knicks fan—to final Knicks-Celtics game; they visit Knicks dressing room before the game and an angry and snarling Holzman throws them out. Thence to the Celtics dressing room where Havlicek and Heinsohn are perfectly charming. Has Plimpton converted young Guinzburg from Knicks admiration to the Celtics? No way. Our flight makes it in time. Dick Steadman and I make the game and it is just lovely. I have, like many real Knicks fans, been somewhat uneasy with Monroe: his brilliance is often marred by a high number of court mistakes and he has a tendency to push the ball too hard. But today he is absolutely superb, original, flashing and yet totally disciplined.

Wednesday, April 4. I am lecturing in Philadelphia. Book and author lunch, Sigma Delta Chi in the evening. My cab driver assures me the game will be on TV and because he is black I assume he knows. He knows nothing. So my concentration that night while assaulting the press policies of the Administration seems somewhat lifeless, at least to me. My heart is elsewhere. I thought of canceling the lecture and taking the train back to N.Y. and then returning for a TV show the next day but it is too much. I have an idea where the obsession comes from. Certainly basketball is the sport I know best and played best (a brief moment when I went out for the Harvard freshman team and Floyd Wilson the coach said I was quite fast. But I was also out for the Crimson and kept falling asleep in the library and finally opted for the Crimson). So this is in part my own fantasy world: which brings up the question—if the Knicks are our fantasy world, what is their fantasy world? Part of it I think is also the decline in football’s excitement; too many teams and too many computers have balanced the talent pool and robbed teams of their identity, while the Knicks share, to a remarkable degree, a continuity; the same players year after year, with faces and characters. And of course they are a real aficionado’s team; when they are right they play the game as it was imagined—each player has that rarest quality, the ability to make other players better. Anyway, a late call shows that the Knicks have won their third.

Friday, April 6. Game four takes place while I am flying out to an Ellsberg fund-raiser in California. Gay Talese, out in California working on a book on sex, calls late at night to pass the news. What he really wants is a fill-in on the earlier games. He is restless with the lack of Knicks coverage in L.A; (earlier, during a Knicks-Lakers game which reached the West Coast on delayed tape, he impatiently called his wife Nan during the third quarter to get the final score—she, not watching, had to put him on hold and call around town to find out who had won).

Sunday, April 8. Talese comes by in the morning to watch the tipoff, and in the first half the Knicks play well. We are to drive to the outskirts of L.A. for a fancy lunch at Jean Leon’s; we try to synchronize our drive to the half-time but we are Easterners unused to Sunday California traffic and we get badly held up. Talese cuts in and out of lanes, but still we are bogged down. He tries the radio. No luck. The atmosphere in the car is tense. We know the third quarter is gone, and perhaps the fourth quarter. Should one hope for an overtime? We catch the last three minutes of a Knicks romp. On to Boston. Cowens worries me.

Sunday, April 15. The playoff worries me. It is hard to keep timing at a fine level in bastketball and we looked good in the playoffs. But Boston has bothered me all year: to tell the truth, they have played better basketball this year than the Knicks, indeed they look like the Knicks did in the championship season of ‘69-’70. What bothers me most of all is not just Cowens and Silas and Havlicek, but the fact that early in the year I sensed that Chaney played Frazier better than any guard in the league. Frazier is crucial to us; he is the best money player in the league and if he is even partially neutralized in a close series then we are in trouble. My friend Friedel Ungeheuer from Time comes by to watch the game; he is, as befits a German, a fine skier but knows little about basketball and tends to cheer on foul shots. I am not sure this helps. The Celtics wipe us out. I descend. My wife, Elzbieta, who is unmoved by all this, makes light mocking remarks about the Knicks. I snarl at her. The Ungeheuers depart. We fight.

Wednesday, April 18. In Boston for a book and author luncheon. I asked Fran Rosencrantz at Random House to make sure there is a color TV in my room. There is, but it doesn’t work. Or more specifically, it does not work in color on the channel carrying the game. Gloria Emerson, the great Times correspondent, takes time off from ministering to Vietnam vets to have dinner with me and she brings John and Rhona Kifner with her. Dinner specifically timed to end before the tip-off. Gloria is bothered by my obsession. I justify it by saying that it is the main release I have from the real pressures of my work, covering things like Vietnam and race. What bothers me of course is that it may be the other way around: covering politics is the release from the obsession of Knickophilia. Gloria is a marvelous person but cares nothing for the game; she does, however, like Jo Jo White’s name and cheers him throughout the evening. The Knicks are wiping them off the court and there is a certain balm in it. Still, I am worried about Silas and DeBusschere.

Friday, April 20. Back in Chicago for the Stevenson Institute. I go over to Murray Kempton and note that it is imperative that we find a good TV set for the night. Kempton says that Bill Polk, who heads the Institute, has a good color set and there is a buffet there that night honoring a visiting Russian dignitary and Lord Caradon. We get permission to come and watch—Polk obviously thinks we are charming and that we intend a few minutes of watching and a couple of hours of buffeting. We take over the set, the room, and gradually the party. I take great pleasure from Kempton—he is even more obsessed than I. He notes as we watch that he already feels guilty about looking since Beverly Kempton accuses him of spending too much time on the Knicks and neglecting his family. “But the Knicks are my family,” he told her. The Knicks win but I am not satisfied with the over-all play, particularly at center. I am also worried about overconfidence.

Sunday, April 22. I am to fly to Kingman, Georgia, today for a few days with the Michael Arlens and I have to put great effort into getting a late afternoon post-game plane (there is an early morning plane but I am wary of South Georgia TV reception). The only seat I can get is first class. It costs me $30 more. At noon I walk the bars of Chicago’s Near North Side checking to see if the natives will watch the game. They all plan to watch the Cubs. Joe Pepitone lives. I retire to watch it on a black and white set with dubious reception. It is godawful. Frazier plays the worst three quarters of his career. Still, early in the fourth quarter I think we can turn it around; we do, and Gianelli plays well (I am a secret Gianelli buff, feeling that he is the only center quick enough to handle Cowens). But in general I do not like our play. I arrive in Georgia, brief Arlen on the game. There is a message to call Dick Schickel in New York. He wants me to do a talk show in New York the next week. I begin to protest my unavailability. “We’re hoping to have you on with Bill Bradley,” he says. I’ll be there, I tell him.

Wednesday, April 25. The Knicks may draft Mel Davis. I am pleased, though there has been trouble with Davis’s knee. Arlen says there is no ABC in Kingman and so we make plans to drive to Jacksonville, Florida. Later we find we can get the game on UHF. The Knicks are terrible. I am worried about Bradley. He seems to have lost a step, and is committing silly fouls (in contrast to last year’s playoffs, when he simply took Jack Marin out of the Baltimore series and did a fine job on Havlicek). Both Arlen and I are in a foul mood and curse the wounded Havlicek as he plays exceptionally well. “But Dad, isn’t Mr. Havlicek a nice man?” asks young Jennifer Arlen. We lose. I am worried about our entire front line, which seems old and without rhythm.

Friday, April 27. Our flight from Jacksonville to Kennedy is scheduled to arrive an hour and a half before the game. Fortunately, no holding over the airport. We arrive home to be greeted by our friends from Nashville, the Zibarts. “A Mister Kempton called to say that he was worried about someone named Willis and will you please call him back,” says Grace Zibart. Carl Zibart and I watch the game. Reed is terrible; it is like watching a wounded animal. Every time he gets the ball the Knicks offense comes to a halt. Bill Russell notes that the Knicks offense is dying but refuses to trace it to Reed, so I am mad at Holzman, Reed and Russell. Lucas comes in for the second quarter and the Knicks gradually begin to move. The third quarter starts and Holzman goes with Reed—I scream at him. I want Gianelli, but Holzman doesn’t trust rookies. We are destroyed. I check the statistics. In six games Reed has shot a total of four free throws and made nine assists.

Sunday, April 29. Ungeheuer comes over. The pattern of the sixth game repeats itself in the first quarter. In the second quarter Lucas and Meminger come in and the flow begins. I scream at Holzman to leave Lucas in; this time he listens. Boston is finished. On to L.A. I am worried about Jim McMillian… .

Tuesday, May 1. Ungeheuer and Bob De Vecchi, an old friend who once played basketball at Yale, drop by. De Vecchi notes that most of New York seems to be walking the streets in order to stay up late enough for the game. This is not our night. Chamberlain psychs the Knicks and they completely change their style of play and shooting. It becomes a long night, but like most Knicks fans I am confident we will adapt and challenge Chamberlain by going to the basket more the next time.

A Fan’s Notes