Chapter 4: The Myth of the Garden, May 8, 1970 (Overview)
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Shortly before retiring after the 1969 season, Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to their eleventh championship in thirteen seasons. En route, they defeated the New York Knicks in the Eastern Division Finals. But neither Knicks fans, nor journalists covering the team, nor players despaired. On the contrary, they eagerly looked forward to next season. The series had been close and several key Knicks’ players were either out with injuries or ailing. What’s more, many predicted with Russell’s retirement the Celtics dynasty would finally come to an end, so the road to the NBA title appeared wide open. Meanwhile, the Knicks had improved steadily in each of the previous few seasons. With a healthy roster of young players, the right coach, and the full support of New York City basketball fans, the team seemed set to take the next step and assume what many saw as their rightful place atop the basketball world. And so they did, just a little over a year after bowing out to Russell’s Celtics, the Knicks cruised through the regular season and knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers to win the team’s first NBA championship on May 8, 1970. More than a few in the galvanized “Mecca” of basketball believed the team was making good on forward Dave DeBusschere’s hopeful proclamation, made after the Boston loss of the previous year: “We’re in the process of building a dynasty.”
Already in the wake of the title, numerous books heralded the team and its individual players, lauding, in particular, their unselfish style of play. As recently as 2011, New York Times columnist Harvey Araton described the squad as “the most democratic team in professional basketball history.” This phrase is representative of what I call the myth of the garden (after Madison Square Garden, the legendary venue that was home to the Knicks). The myth of the garden consists of a celebratory narrative that combines praise for the Knicks’ style of play and an emphasis on the racial and socio-economic diversity of the teams’ roster, all lightly contextualized in reference to the American social, cultural and political landscape of the time and set atop a nostalgic pre-history of basketball in New York City.
This myth emerged and has operated such that the early 70s Knicks are remembered as among the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, alongside other teams that sustained similar levels of success over longer periods of time (the Celtics of the 1960s and 1980s, the Lakers of the 1980s and 2000s, and the Bulls’ of the 1990s). The myth of the garden advances the gratifying fantasy that the so-called purist style of play is not only superior in competitive terms, but also that its ostensible values of unselfishness and hard work resolve both racial and class conflict.[v] Whether or not this may be the case in specific instances, the coherence of this particular fantasy rests upon both marginalizing racially stigmatized elements and styles of play eschewed by the Knicks but thriving at the time in the newly formed, rival American Basketball Association (ABA). These elements and styles would endure, shape the NBA through to the present day, and, finally, offer a more inclusive avenue by which basketball play may respond to issues of racial injustice.