The Knicks really represented the core of the city. There were beautiful people, movie stars, black people from Harlem, outer borough working class white people. It was a certain “come together” feel for this team and I felt the meaning of that can’t be conveyed unless you have a full understanding of the sociopolitical aspects of that.
“I was just three years old when the Knicks won their last championship,” remembers Michael Rapaport. He appears in black and white and in slow motion, the camera behind him as he makes his way along a Manhattan sidewalk at the start of When the Garden Was Eden. Its title taken from the book by Harvey Araton on which it’s based, the film looks back at a time that’s much missed and not a little mythic.
Such nostalgia is surely seductive, given the sorry state of the Knicks recently and the world beyond, so full of chaos, distrust, and hopelessness. Back in the day, the Knicks might have embodied another perspective. This didn’t make them unique among sports teams — which frequently did and do fulfill exactly that purpose — but it did make them different from what they are today. Even if, as this documentary notes in its closing, Zen master Phil Jackson has at long last returned to the Knicks, the long stretch between his time as a Knicks player (1967-1978) and now only makes the coming challenge.
And still, the look back offered by When the Garden Was Eden — premiering on ESPN this week — is optimistic, lively, even jaunty. The Knicks were once rock stars, renowned and notorious, gritty and glamorous. They played well, certainly: as Walt Frazier asserts, “There’s no way [today’s Knicks] can get rid of the stigma of those championship years.” Rapaport speaks to another legacy, that the team represented the city itself “during an era of rapid social change, a melting pot of all races and creeds.” The team came together under the guidance of Red Holzman, coach of the year in 1970, following the team’s then unprecedented 18-game winning streak in 1969, along with their championship in 1970. As you might expect, the film remembers Reed’s limping return to the MSG court in 1970 against the Lakers, with requisite reverence, but it also includes some terrific playoffs footage you might not have seen, say, from the 1973 finals win against the Lakers that most of the East Coast didn’t see at the time.
While the game footage is terrific, When the Garden Was Eden offers other stories too, some less edenic than others. It was a team comprised of varied, sometimes rowdy talents over its championship years. Frazier observes, “We were considered to be the smartest team in he NBA,” as well as physical and clever, with Reed, Bradley, and Jackson, as well as Dave DeBusschere, the additions of Jerry Lucas and Black Jesus Earl the Pearl Monroe in 1972.
During this time, from the mid ’60s into the early ’70s, the players reflected, embraced, and sometimes acted out the political turmoil around them, from the civil rights movements to protests against the Vietnam war. “We were very cognizant of things going on around us, so we talked about it among ourselves,” says Cazzie Russell (1966-1971) and Bill Bradley, who came to the team with “box office appeal” as “the white hope,” saw himself differently: as the future senator puts it, “I had a deep commitment on the issue of race and here I was in a black environment,” which he took as a chance to learn.
Russell begins the film’s recounting of an infamous episode when he was stopped by a police officer and held at gunpoint on his way to a game in Detroit, 1970, because he looked like a reported “suspect.” On arriving at practice, Russell took out his anger on white teammates and Reed called him out, at which point Russell called him an “Uncle Tom.” The story goes that Reed responded, “This Uncle Tom is gonna be whoopin’ some ass if you don’t play some basketball.” The story made headlines when it appeared in Araton’s book and stands out here too, not so much for the contest between Russell and Reed as for the point it makes about how little has changed in US policing, as the institution reflects and shapes broader anxieties and desires.
This story that also speaks to other changes, some slow and some speedier, in the ways players understand themselves in relation to their employers and coaches, their communities, and each other. As it underscores a too familiar story of how black men are expected to respond to limits and hopes, to contain, channel or otherwise cope with their frustrations, it suggests that the metaphor of the American melting pot was never quite accurate. It is, however, mythic, at once persuasive and inspiring, exasperating and lingering, much like Eden.