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Autumns in the Garden
The Coach of Camelot & Other Knicks Stories
By Ira Berkow
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Ira Berkow
All rights reserved.
I. King Red and Some of His Knights
* * *
The Coach of Camelot
May 10, 1986
Sometimes it seems like Camelot, as if it might have happened only in our imagination: the Knicks of the very late 1960s and the first part of the 1970s. The champion Knicks of 1970 and 1973. King Red and the Knights of the Round Ball.
But surely it all occurred. The history books tell us that, and, as if for added confirmation, last Tuesday William "Red" Holzman was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Every game night at Madison Square Garden, in that time almost before memory, was bursting with a sellout crowd of 19,500. People of recent times who were lost and wandered in off the street and found themselves witnessing a basketball game of the depleted Knicks in an often-hollow Garden must have wondered what it was like in those storybook days.
"You make a few steals or work for a few good plays," Walt Frazier once said, "and you have the feeling that it's going to be one of those nights. The whole team gets into it, and then the crowd picks it up, and you come to the sidelines for a timeout and listen to that standing ovation, and it just makes you jingle inside."
And at the sideline was Holzman, the coach, an average-sized man in an oversized world, a man with a receding hairline and conservative dark suit and tie, a man who originally didn't want to be coach of the Knicks, who had turned down the job a few times, and was finally convinced in December 1967 that he had to take it. He was then a scout for the team, and had been for 10 years. He had seen six Knick coaches dismissed in that period, and understood how uneasy lies the head that wears the coach's crown. He was dismissed once as a coach himself — he had been shown the door as coach of the St. Louis Hawks in 1957.
But Holzman took the Knicks, then in last place, and began to build a winner, constructing the parts of Frazier and Bill Bradley and Willis Reed and Dick Barnett and Dave DeBusschere, and reviving, it was said, the concept of team play. To basketball lovers, the Knicks were not only a treat, they were a clinic.
Holzman was a man of little outward ego, trying often not to call attention to himself, other than for aphorisms he coined, such as: never take a haircut from a bald barber; never make a point with your finger raised when the waiter is bringing the check; and the best feeling in the world is to wake up early in the morning when you don't have to go anywhere.
Shortly after Holzman had begun to win with the Knicks, this interviewer had what he hoped would be a discussion with him on how he worked his coaching magic.
"What have you done to help your team's success?" he was asked.
"Some stuff I've done has evidently appealed to them." "What do you mean 'stuff'?" "Offensive and defensive stuff," he explained.
The conversation continued in this fashion, and as it did, Holzman began to slowly disappear in a cloud of his own modesty. As if, now, he were not King of the Court, but Merlin.
The "stuff" Holzman employed, in fact, was a large dependence on defense, a mastery of matchups, diligent repetitions (during one 25-day stretch in the earliest days, the Knicks played eight games and had 21 two-hour practices), and he had the ability with that team to communicate and motivate.
"The real genius of Holzman lies in his handling of players," Bill Bradley once wrote. "Most men would have failed as coach of the New York Knickerbockers. Great college coaches often cannot make the adjustment from coaching boys to controlling men. Holzman does not beg players to do good deeds, nor does he set up elaborate codes of conduct. He expects everyone to act as a responsible adult, and he treats players accordingly."
They were terrific players in those days, and some of them became coaches and general managers and memory experts and one would become a star of tax reforms. "But as smart as they were," said Danny Whelan, who was the Knicks trainer, "I remember Red sometimes over his Scotch wondering if he'd ever be able to teach 'em what he was always hollering, 'See the ball,' 'Hit the open man.'"
Eventually, that team did. But times and players changed, and a group began arriving with whom Holzman couldn't make his notions stick. With this group came the long, long nights at the Garden, when Micheal Ray Richardson and Ray Williams were a backcourt of coachly impenetrability, when Bob McAdoo was firing away as if in a gym alone, and when Spencer Haywood made plays such as the following: he picked up a loose ball near half-court with a defender on him. Frazier, then at the end of his Knick days, was under the basket by himself, arms outstretched. But Haywood decided that he was going to score himself instead of passing the ball. He took about five giant steps, and dunked. But the basket didn't count. He was whistled for traveling, and Frazier's shoulders slumped, and his eyes twirled in his head.
Holzman was dismissed in 1978, Reed became the coach for a year and a few games, and then Holzman was urgently called back, and dismissed again. His last year was 1982, and when he finished, he had more victories, 696, than any coach in National Basketball Association history other than Red Auerbach, who had 938.
After 41 years in professional basketball, as a player (he was a guard with the Rochester Royals on two championship teams), scout, coach, and general manager, Holzman is currently a quiet consultant for the Knicks, doing little in the Hubie Brown regime. And, at 65, he seems to be taking his semiretirement contentedly.
Holzman recently spoke about a recurring dream he once had.
"I dreamed I was playing in a league and not doing well," he said. "My passes were bad, my shooting was off, and the man I was guarding was scoring. But teams I had played for, Rochester and Milwaukee, still wanted me. And I thought, well, I guess it's not so bad, how many people at 57 years old are still playing in the league?"
Holzman smiled. "When I turned 60, the dream mysteriously ended. In my dreams I finally retired."
Red Holzman's Secret
August 8, 1981
"Did you see the Knicks signed Red Holzman to a new two-year contract?" a fan asked the other day. "I don't know why. The parade has passed and he's still waving at it."
That's one view held by a number of people on Holzman as a basketball coach. There's another. "Red's amazing to have stayed this long and still be a great coach," said Al Cervi, a teammate of Holzman's with the old Rochester Royals and a former National Basketball Association coach. "The players today are so individually inclined, I get tired watching them. I don't know how Red does it. If it was me, dear God, I'd be put in jail." On Monday, Holzman celebrates his 61st birthday. He is the oldest coach in the league, the oldest in point of service — 17 seasons on the bench, plus 18 as a player (one of the league's pioneers), scout, consultant, and general manager — second only to Red Auerbach in coaching victories (Holzman has won 663 games to Auerbach's 938 in 20 seasons) and the only coach active who has won more than one NBA championship.
The Knicks under Holzman won titles in 1970 and again in 1973. But in the following few years they deteriorated. The championship players retired or slipped, the new players couldn't match their team skills. No one doubted that. But then fingers began to point at Holzman: he's tired, he can't handle the new breed of player, he's a fossil. He was fired as coach.
Once considered a certified genius for the delicious team concept the Knicks had used with such success, Holzman was now forced to hand in his certified genius card. And before the 1977–78 season, Willis Reed became the new coach. Reed was big and strong and young and black — the majority of Knicks were black and it was believed he would relate well.
As a rookie coach, Reed had reasonable success. But Knick management felt he should have done better. Reed was dropped. Many coaches were considered. Then, to the surprise of most, Red Holzman, who had been relegated to a small, distant "consultant's" office in Madison Square Garden where he remained without complaint — the ultimate company man — was brought back as coach of the Knicks.
Last season, the Knicks won 50 games and made the playoffs, though they were soundly beaten by Chicago in the opening round. "We'll do better this season," said Holzman, sitting down to dinner at Pippo's, a favorite restaurant near his home in Cedarhurst, Long Island. He was with Selma, his wife of 39 years.
"I know people miss those championships, so do I," he said, "but people forget that we won with a veteran team, and those guys had been together for some time. This team is young, and most of the guys are now just getting to know how to play together. And physically, they're more talented than the guys used to be. They're capable of so much."
The waiter appeared with drinks, compliments of an acquaintance of Holzman's at a nearby table. Holzman waved thank you. He now talked about the current players. "I enjoy coaching them because most of them like to play, and want to learn," he said. He said it's frustrating for them and for him when, after working hard in practice, one of them will make a costly mental error to lose a game. "You want them to squeeze the ball, and they lose it," he said. "You've got to be patient. That's what they've taught me — patience. I've just got to keep talking to them."
Nevertheless, he still longs for a game he once knew. "I envied the Celtics last season," he said. "You love to see a team that can pass and think. Bill Fitch did a great job. I don't think he's been given proper credit for it. And Larry Bird. He's one of the best players I've ever seen. He's not fast, he's not a great jumper, but he's a winner."
The mention of Bird recalled Bill Bradley. "Another great team player," he said. "And people didn't realize how good Bill was, or how tough. I remember one night in San Diego he had a terrible virus but insisted on playing, and he played well. Most guys would have stayed home. He came to the bench about four times and threw up."
On occasion, Holzman will shoot with a player after practice. At 5'10", he is still trim. One day Marvin Webster, the Knick center, and Holzman put $10 apiece on the floor for a shootout from the top of the free throw circle. "Marvin went first and made nine out of 10," said Holzman. "He went to pick up the money. I said, 'Just a minute.' Then I shot. I still shoot the old two-hand set. I made nine out of l0. He couldn't believe it. I don't know if Marvin had ever seen a two-hander before."
"I remember you telling me about that," said Selma. Did he think he could get the two-hander off in a game today? "I bet Walt Frazier I could. We played one-on-one. He blocked every shot. I faked every way I could, but I never got a single shot off."
"Red," said Selma, "you never told me that!" Holzman shrugged. She laughed. "People talk about the game changing," he continued. "It doesn't change as much as it might seem. The basics are still there. You've got to play good defense. You've got to hit the open man. You've got to pass and think. And the players still take pride in winning, no matter how much money they make. You try to tap that pride. Coaching today is as simple as that."
Holzman tries to keep things as uncomplicated in his private life. "People say, 'Red, how come you only have one suit?'" he said. "Well, I've got a bunch of suits. They just all look the same. Why change?"
When Selma wanted to buy a color television set, he resisted. "You'll get used to it," she promised. He has. Holzman relies on several life axioms, in and out of basketball. "If you come late, you play late," he says. He is a stickler for promptness. He also says, "Never talk money with your wife at night." That last one is crucial, he says. "Otherwise you'll get no sleep."
The meal finished, he lit up a long greenish cigar and suddenly remembered something. He hailed the waiter. Holzman told him he wanted to buy the people at the next table a drink. They had bought earlier.
"Hey, Red," called his friend at the table. "Just when we're leaving, you buy us a drink?" He looked embarrassed only for a moment. "I'm not so dumb," he replied genially. And that, basketball followers, is how he does it.
Recalling Red's Wit and Modesty
November 27, 1998
In an early scrimmage in the Knicks training camp in the mid-1960s, the chief scout, Red Holzman, watched one of the rookies he had scouted — the team had followed his enthusiastic advice to draft the player high — and now anticipated that he would be a productive member of the team. On the sideline, Scout Holzman noticed a flaw in the player that he hadn't noticed before. He had trouble getting through screens on his left. During a break in the action, Holzman went onto the court to demonstrate to the player how it's done.
"You have to look out of the corner of your eye and then fight through the screen," Holzman told the player.
"I can't look out of the corner of my eye," the player said.
"You can't?" Red said, skeptically. "What's so hard?"
"I'm blind in the left eye," the player said.
Holzman looked around to see if anyone was in earshot. No one was.
"C'mere," he said, and led the player to a corner of the gym. Holzman whispered, "Don't ever tell anyone you can't see, okay?"
"Okay," the player said.
This story is revealed for the first time, since Holzman, even some 30 years after the incident, and after enough successful draft suggestions — from Willis Reed to Walt Frazier — and enough successes as the coach of the Knicks to win two National Basketball Association championships and earn him a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, even after all that, was still a little embarrassed about the player, who never played in the league. But in a relaxed moment at dinner one night he told the story, with the self-effacement and humor that had become as much a part of him as was Selma, his wife of over 55 years.
This week, the MSG Network has been broadcasting a half-hour retrospective on Holzman who, as every basketball — and perhaps sports — fan knows, died on November 13, at age 78, losing a battle to leukemia. His death came just four months after Selma died.
To say that he missed Selma would be a gross understatement. Just a week before he died, he attended the wedding of George Kalinsky, the longtime official photographer at Madison Square Garden. Holzman had not been feeling well, and Kalinsky called to inquire after him. "I'm okay," Holzman said. "But I was thinking about the gift I gave you and June. I don't know if it was appropriate. Selma would have done better."
What made Holzman a successful coach? The reason as I see it, and I covered the team in its glory years and grew in friendship with Red after he left coaching in 1982, was that he gave people a boost, was sensitive and thoughtful of their feelings, left them with their dignity and even when being critical did so with an underpinning of humor.
But he could be tough. And many years after he had coached Phil Jackson, the former Bulls coach called Holzman with condolences after the death of Selma. Holzman recalled Jackson saying, surely recalling his days as a player for Holzman, "Red, if you need someone to scream and holler at, call me any time."
If a friend hadn't called him in a while, he'd phone the friend. "Where've you been?" he asked. He wouldn't put the guy on the defensive by saying, "How come you haven't called?" It was more like, You must have been lost in the wilds of Borneo and couldn't get to a phone.
At dinner one night in a restaurant in Madison Square Garden, the waiter and Holzman greeted each other. "Is your soup hot tonight?" Holzman asked. The waiter said, "Of course, Mr. Holzman, absolutely." I wondered about that question, never having heard it before. Then I realized what the coach had done. The soup wasn't hot the last time he was there, he didn't want to embarrass the waiter, but wanted to make sure the soup was hot this time. When the soup arrived, it was piping hot.
Sometimes, though, his humor could be wry. Even on his deathbed. His daughter, Gail Holzman Papelian, recalled that when her father was admitted to the hospital for the last time two weeks ago, he was put into a bed in a room with another man. The other man kept talking and talking. Red turned to Gail, with an irritated nod toward the man. "Doesn't miss a detail," Holzman said quietly.
Excerpted from Autumns in the Garden by Ira Berkow. Copyright © 2013 Ira Berkow. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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