Walt Frazier, the Knicks’ greatest guard, remembers the day, 35 years ago, when he bought the hat that made him Clyde. “It was 1968, my rookie year,” says Walt. “We were in Baltimore, and I wasn’t playing very well. I always pacified myself by buying clothes. So there was this hat, a Borsalino wide-brim, in brown velour, about $45. Everyone else had these little narrow-brim hats. My teammates made fun of me.” But after everyone had seen Bonnie and Clyde and Warren Beatty in those hats, he recalls, “Danny Whelan, our trainer, and Nate Bowman started calling me Clyde. I became emboldened. Soon I had my animals, my raccoon, my mink, my sea otter. They took a picture of me with my Rolls-Royce and my black mink, and that clinched it: I was Clyde.”
Frazier, now 58, is still Clyde, even if very, very few fans remember why. Outside of a few dreary years of exile in Cleveland at the end of his playing career, Walt has stayed in New York, currently employed as the alliteration-intensive, thesaurus-toting “thrilling and chilling, dishing and swishing, Sprewell the recipient” foil to Marv Albert on the team’s TV and radio broadcasts. But all those fabulous passes and lovingly fractured metaphors aside, perhaps Frazier’s most lasting contribution to the game was that hat, becoming Clyde. “Before then, guys didn’t really step out. I always try to make a statement of personal creativity.”
From John McGraw, Babe Ruth, and Casey Stengel on, New York has always had its flamboyant sports figures, but for the most part they were baseball players and they were white. It took Clyde, the black rookie from Southern Illinois, to put a different face on things. Basketball was always “the city game,” but Clyde made it cool. He opened the style floodgates, through which passed several thousand more, Dr. J and Jordan included. Basketball street culture would eventually filter down to every grammar school in the country.
This does not mean that Clyde, vast flair aside, endorses every aspect of modern ball (especially all the missed free throws). “I wouldn’t say our pants were extremely short and tight. Magic Johnson liked that look because no one could grab you on the pick-and-roll. But these drawers they wear now, I call them beachcombers. Some guys wear them off their butt. They go for a rebound and they’re trying to pull up their pants at the same time.” Clyde, still looking extra-slick in his maroon pants with a gold watch fob and belt buckle, appreciates the fusion of hip-hop and basketball but fears the onrush of “uniformity.” “This afternoon they played the high-school championships upstairs. Every male in the stands, every single one of them, was dressed like a rapper. It looked like they wanted to acquiesce into the mass. To me, that reveals a certain lack of confidence. That’s not how we were. We wanted to stand out. If you’re going to be Clyde, you’ve got to be confident.”