There was a time when being a Knicks fan wasn't as achingly painful, frustrating, and disappointing as it is these days. We're still not over this year's terrible season, but we digress. The time was 1970 and 1973. The Knicks won two championships with one of the most legendary teams ever assembled and were just as loved as the Yankees. The squad included the likes of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, and Phil Jackson.
Meanwhile America was going through one of its darkest periods in its history with the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate, and Vietnam taking the headlines. When The Garden Was Eden, the new Michael Rapaport directed documentary about the fabled Knick championship teams of the early '70s, premiered April 17 at the TriBeca Film Festival. The last showing is tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Buy tickets now.
We spoke to Harvey Araton—seasoned sports writer and author of When The Garden Was Eden—about the new documentary based on his book, and how Phil Jackson was destined to come back to his old stomping grounds.
What made you decide to write this book?
It wasn’t anything I was thinking of doing. Somebody called me from ESPN, who knew my background, and said, ’We’re interested in doing a book on the old Knicks. Would you be interested in writing it? You seem like the perfect guy because you grew up with that team and you’ve written about basketball for so many years.” And I said, ’Well, let me think about it.” I didn't think I could offer something new because most of the players had written books. I went and re-read Dave DeBusschere’s The Open Man and there was one passage in that book when Cazzie Russell was racially profiled out of Ann Arbor, Mich. Apparently there was a black escapee from prison and when Russell went to practice and started taking it out on his white teammates.
He wound up calling Willis Reed an Uncle Tom. DeBusschere mentioned it so casually in passing. Willis said, ‘This Uncle Tom is gonna be whoopin’ some ass if you don't play some basketball.’ I thought, ’God, that was 1969 and we’re in the middle of the Civil Rights era and it was a racially integrated team that could've been split apart if not for the quick thinking on the part of Willis.
Also, I grew up rooting for the Knicks, and started covering them in 1979 as a young reporter. Willis Reed was the coach. Earl Monroe and Phil Jackson were still playing. Walt Frazier came back. I developed relationships with all these guys. I felt, in terms of getting cooperation, that I had a foot in the door because I knew them all.
I didn’t want it to be a straight history of the team. I wanted it to be more of a social primer on what the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were like because I thought the team kind of represented this ideal of what America imagined itself to be at its best
What was the writing process like?
These guys—they’re like old soldiers who get together for war remembrances. They want to be remembered. Each time I called somebody and said, ‘I want to do this book. I want to do a really comprehensive look back on those years.’ They were touched that somebody wanted to spend that kind of time so they all agreed to cooperate. Then it was a matter of connecting with all the lesser parties involved. I spent three days in Louisiana with Willis [Reed] because he was the Captain and the heart and soul of the team. I interviewed Walt Frazier in St.Croix, which was so difficult [Laughs.]
I didn’t want it to be a straight history of the team. I wanted it to be more of a social primer on what the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were like because I thought the team kind of represented this ideal of what America imagined itself to be at its best, but never could be, or wasn’t back then. Civil Rights, Vietnam, Watergate...all these milestone things happened during that team’s run which made it part sports, politics, and social history. I also thought, ’How do I write it and how much do I include myself in the story?’
In this case, it was appropriate to insert myself because these were my childhood icons and I got to work with them and know them. Being a fan back then I could also make the comparison to being a fan now. In 1970, there was no ESPN, no Twitter. We didn’t know if Willis [Reed] was going to play in Game 7, and that’s what made it so exciting when it was announced on the radio.
How was it like talking to the more behind the scenes people and piecing together this story from their anecdotes?
Famous people see things from an elevated platform and they’re also experiencing the actual event. They often miss the more nuanced part of things, whereas people that are involved in a more peripheral basis like the secretary or the trainer aren't playing, they’re observing. When you observe you tend to see and retain a lot more. So when Gwen [Madison Square Garden Secretary] told me the story about Reed throwing his sneakers into the trash and her saying, ’Wow. This could be worth something someday. If it’s not, it's a memento for me to show my grandchildren someday.' For her to take the sneaker and make it a planter was funny. Those kinds of stories enrich everything.
To me, one of the most interesting stories of the book came from George Lois, whose son died. When he told me that story I got chills. Willis [Reed] walking out of the tunnel was the moment everyone else remembers but for Lois, it’s that photo that captures his son in a moment of joy and it’s the way he wants to remember his son. That chapter—piecing together the night of Game 7 [of the first championship]—is my favorite in the book because there’s so many personal stories. Whether it was Lois or Richard Lapchick whose father [Joe Lapchick] was an old coach. Richard watched it from graduate school in Denver, happy that his father who had a number of heart attacks lived to see the Knicks win before he passed three months later. To me, those stories really make the story.
Who pitched When the Garden Was Eden as a documentary?
Early on, my agent said, ’We could possibly get a documentary done out of this.’ And I said, ’Yeah,right.’ A friend of mine, who’s a Hollywood guy, called me and said, ’I really like the book. I’d be interested in making a documentary.’ I said,’Knock yourself out.’ He was gonna do it by trying to raise money on Kickstarter. He was in that process and then my agent called one day and asked, ’Did you commission somebody to make a documentary out of When the Garden Was Eden?’ and after I said yes he said, ’Well, I hate to tell you, but I’ve got people calling me from Creative Artists Agency telling me they want to do a film for HBO.’ They hooked me up with Michael Rapaport and the creator of Entourage Doug Ellin.
They said, ‘We want to pitch this to HBO, but we need to sign purchase the book.’ I called my friend and he was very understanding. HBO was interested, but weren’t ready to make a decision so they went to ESPN and they said what about a 30 for 30? And that’s what happened.
Were you hesitant since adaptations are often not as good as the books themselves?
I think anyone who has ever had a book turned into a film there's always a thought of apprehension of what it’s going to look like. For the most part I said, ’Well, I’m not making the film.’ The director, Michael Rapaport, made a film about A Tribe Called Quest and my son saw it with my wife. So I called my son, Charlie, and asked what he thought about it and he said it was great. So i knew that Michael had experience making documentaries and I know he’s a Knicks fan because I’ve seen him around the Garden so he knows his basketball. Jim Lefkowitz's father or grandfather played in the NBA and Doug Ellin, I know is a basketball fan. I knew that they would work really hard to produce something that was good.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the film is going to be able to translate all the smaller stories. I’ve seen a rough cut of it and I think they’ve done a good job telling the story, but a film in 77 minutes couldn’t possibly touch as many people and as many bases as the book because they just don't have the time.
You have to make these difficult decisions of what’s included and what’s not included. They interviewed George Lois, but they didn’t ask him about his son. If I were doing the film I would’ve eliminated all the principal guys and I would’ve just done it from the smaller people telling stories about that team. I would show footage of the game, but I would’ve had people sitting around at a deli or something. Like something out of an old Woody Allen film. But I’m not a filmmaker. I told them what I thought and they took a lot of what I said to heart and they included some stuff.
As I said in the book, here on this stage was this team of black and white players working together. Bill Bradley, a banker’s son, and guys like Cazzie Russell and Dick Arnett from the housing projects of the Midwest. Willis Reed, a guy from the Jim Crow South and Mike Riordan who grew up in suburban Long Island. The team itself united the city in ways that were almost impossible for other teams.
What suggestions did you make?
I said, ’In my opinion, which might be more anecdotal than scientific, young people I know who read the book, including my son, were most interested in the sociopolitical aspects because if you’re 20, 25, even 30 years old in 2014 you may know that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 and you may have a sense of what Watergate was, but the story of the team and what the team symbolized to me was all encapsulated in the era.
As I said in the book, here on this stage was this team of black and white players working together. Bill Bradley, a banker’s son, and guys like Cazzie Russell and Dick Arnett from the housing projects of the Midwest. Willis Reed, a guy from the Jim Crow South and Mike Riordan who grew up in suburban Long Island. The team itself united the city in ways that were almost impossible for other teams. If you were a Mets fan then you weren’t a Yankees fan and if you were a Jets fan then you weren’t a Giants fan. 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.
To me, that was the part I felt the film needed to cover. When I make suggestions I preface it with, ’I know this is what worked for the book and I think this is important to the story.’ But ultimately, it’s their film.
How involved in the documentary process were you?
I reached out originally to all the principal guys and I said, ’These are the guys who want to do it. This is who they are. It’s either going to be on HBO or ESPN. I think Willis Reed asked, ’What did senator Bill Bradley say?’ I said, ’He said he’s in,’ and Willis said, ’Okay,’ then Phil Jackson said, ’Okay,’ then Walt Frazier said,’Okay.’ Forty years later, what’s really interesting to observe is that they still operate the way they did when they were a team. They listen to their leaders. They still call Willis [Reed] ‘Captain.’
I did several sessions Mike Rapaport. We had lunch a few times and he would throw questions at me about different things. Then there were the couple of times where I got to do interviews because Michael was busy shooting. That was fun. I watched the rough cut and made suggestions. There are a couple of parts where I’m on camera. They used it for certain things that the players wouldn’t say like, if you asked Willis Reed about being called Uncle Tom. It’s uncomfortable for him to talk about that. Especially on camera because these were things they were never asked before.
They needed me to say it was the pivotal moment in the history of the team because if Willis [Reed] had lost it and beaten the heck out of that guy, they’d emasculate him and lose him as a player. They needed me to say that because the player isn’t going to say that.
Forty years later, what’s really interesting to observe is that they still operate the way they did when they were a team. They listen to their leaders. They still call Willis [Reed] ‘Captain.’
Besides talking to secondary people you spoke to a lot of celebrities for the book. I wasn’t surprised to see you spoke to Spike Lee since he’s a very vocal Knicks fan, but I was surprised you spoke to Woody Allen since he's notoriously press shy. How’d that happen?
I knew they had a core of celebrity fans from Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Elliott Gould, Dustin Hoffman. Knowing how difficult it is to get people like that I thought if I could get three or four, that’ll do it. So I reached out to several business managers and publicists. I’ve always been a big Woody Allen fan. [Not regarding the recent months accusations].
So I reached out to his publicist and she said,’We’ll see what we can do. It probably wouldn’t be for any more than five minutes if he could do it.’ We ended up talking for a half hour. It was a great conversation. Then there were some people like Dustin Hoffman’s manager who never answered my e-mail. I had other celebrity fans like Spike Lee that filled out the story. I know Michael [Rapaport] was trying to get Spike to appear, but he refused to do it.
How do you think the story is culturally relevant today?
I think things repeat themselves and from a sports point of view we constantly have the debate about teams that play the right way, that set good examples, that are the essence of teamwork. This year’s Knicks team was seen as selfish. Obviously, they paid the price for that. There are lessons to be learned from teams that are selfless and that put collective achievement above individual achievement. Culturally I think we're still dealing with the themes of haves vs. have nots in terms of social justice like voting rights being taken away. I think its important for young people to be in touch with important chapters of American history and to me that was one of the most tumultuous chaotic times socially and politically.
I think the more people watch this and see it will realize just how difficult a period that was and how that team idealized a lot of the values we hold and ultimately look up to.
Is that what you want them to take away from the story?
When the book was reviewed in The New York Times, the reviewer, Jeff Greenfield—who had written a book about the great Boston Celtics of the ‘50s and ‘60s—criticized the book a little bit saying it was another example of a New Yorker making it out to be more important than it was. In the book I say several times there’s no way you can compare the achievements of the two teams, but the Knicks' story was more about their place in time and being on Broadway and getting the attention of Madison Avenue.
The Celtics were the first team to put five African-American players on the floor at the same time and they accomplished amazing things, but unfortunately for them, it took place in a city that was more racially polarized so they weren’t as popular and before Madison Avenue really started to recognize the NBA as entertainment and not just a sport. So much of what the NBA has become, for better or for worse, started with that Knicks team. Madison Avenue noticed all the celebs that came out to the games and understood that they could put their corporate power behind it. Then years later you had Larry, Magic, Michael Jordan and Nike emerge. The roots of all that were all laid with those old Knicks teams.
When the book was reviewed in The New York Times, the reviewer, Jeff Greenfield—who had written a book about the great Boston Celtics of the ‘50s and ‘60s—criticized the book a little bit saying it was another example of a New Yorker making it out to be more important than it was.
How does it feel that the film is appearing in the TriBeca Film Festival?
It’s exciting! I know the filmmakers were really excited about getting accepted. I think for me personally anything that you can inject that’s new into your career and different is kind of a kick. Honestly, I’m happy for the guys that were on that team. Not that they haven’t been immortalized. A bunch are in the Hall of Fame. They’re all recognized for their greatness, but to have a film devoted to them 40 years later is a way to hook into the youth of America.
Even in the book when Earl Monroe’s wife says, ’It’s sad that there’s very little footage of Earl when he was with the Baltimore Bullets.’ He was such a great one-on-one player. He was the Michael Jordan of his day. Young people now around the world who follow basketball can’t visualize it. The film is for all those young people to get a better understanding of what that Knick team was about. I think several of the players will be at the premiere and the fact that it’s coming out at the exact time that Phil Jackson has returned to the Knicks. It kind of feels like destiny. I’m not usually big on that kind of stuff, but it’s kinda hard to deny.