Today’s NBA is a lot more about stars. It’s a league that has been promoted by stars. The league went along with the shoe company mentality of making players who were larger than life. That all started with Jordan of course. Sometimes you get the sense, when they say Michael won six rings or Magic won five, that they did it all by themselves.
I think that mentality is anathema to the players from the old days, certainly the old Knicks, who understood that it was about the whole team and they all had their contributing roles.
I think the marriage of television with corporations like Nike was the most impactful thing. In the decade after Jordan, a lot of the young stars who came into the league thought they could be the Jordans of their markets.
What we saw in the decade after Jordan was that a lot of guys had difficulty co-existing as superstars on the same team. Shaq and Kobe, even when they were winning championships, couldn’t co-exist in L.A. A lot of that had to do with media, the way television shaped superstars and the way that they all needed to have “their team.” There wasn’t room for two great players on one team, and that damaged the sport.
It’s not until the last year or two that the sport has begun to rebound. The younger generation of players saw how difficult it was to be the lone star on the team and have to carry all that burden if the team doesn’t do well. We’re moving back in the other direction now.
The Knicks were practicing in Detroit when Russell burst into the gym in a foul, angry mood. Coming out of Ann Arbor, where he had been visiting his old school, he was pulled over by the police, ordered out of his car with a gun to his head. The explanation he was given after producing a license and being recognized as the famous former Michigan star was that an African-American man had broken out of prison in the area. Russell had a mustache and so, apparently, did the convict.
Russell’s teammates sympathized with him when he told them of how he had been profiled — at least until he began throwing sharp elbows around during a scrimmage, mostly in the direction of the team’s white players.
Reed, who often acted as Holzman’s cop on the court, recognized what was happening and stepped toward Russell, asking what the heck he thought he was doing. Before Russell could edit himself, he spat out, angrily and regrettably:
“Be quiet, Uncle Tom.”
He told Russell, “This Uncle Tom is gonna be whippin’ some ass in a minute if you don’t keep quiet.”
In effect, if defending his teammates and being everyone’s captain — starters and scrubs, black and white — meant Reed was an Uncle Tom in Russell’s eyes, so be it.
Decades later in Louisiana, his explanation to me was short and to the point: “You can’t hurt one of our guys. You can’t hurt me.”
Of course, those words did hurt, but Reed’s quick thinking allowed the team to escape unscathed, perhaps grow stronger. Had he reacted violently, had he physically embarrassed Russell, the Knicks might have lost their best bench scorer. Given the time to back off and apologize — and not for the last time — Russell remained a vital player and in fact proved indispensable in two key playoff games that spring: Game 7 against Baltimore and Game 5 of the finals against the Lakers.
“I came to see it as a character-building situation, not just for me but for us as team,” Russell said when I called him in Savannah, Ga., where he is an associate church pastor. As for how Reed handled their confrontation, Russell said, “Willis Reed is an amazing man.”