This is the twelfth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
I don’t think I would get very many arguments out there (perhaps a crazed Jeff Van Gundy fan) if I were to state that the late, great William “Red” Holzman was the greatest head coach in New York Knick history. Holzman coached the Knicks to both of their only two National Basketball Association (NBA) titles in 1970 and 1973. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Holzman’s career in professional basketball is a bit of a strange one. Amazingly enough, Holzman owes what were likely the three biggest breaks in his career to one man – his longtime friend, Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane. Bizarrely, on three separate points in history, Levane brought Holzman into situations where Holzman would end up lasting longer than Levane himself at each place!
Read on to see how important Levane was to Holzman’s career in the pro basketball, including his time with the New York Knicks!
Born a few months apart in 1920, Holzman and Levane knew each other all the way back in their high school days. They even worked at the same resort during the summer (Levane was a bus boy and Holzman a waiter). Both teenagers went on to play basketball in college – Holzman for the City College of New York and Levane for St. Johns University. They were both guards, with Levane having about four inches on the five foot ten inch Holzman.
After they each spent time in the military for World War II, Levane was signed to play for the Rochester Royals, a somewhat professional basketball team (more professional than what you would call “semi-pro,” but not much more) that had decided to join the National Basketball League (NBL) (one of two leagues that eventually merged to form the NBA). Levane brought in Holzman and together they were part of the 1946 NBL champion Royals.
While on the Royals, they played one season (1946-47) with one of the first African-American players to play professional basketball, William “Dolly” King. The three men became friends and when King was refused service at a hotel restaurant in Indiana, Holzman and Levane refused to eat without them (so they all ate together in their room). Levane would look back upon this friendship in 2001 when David Kamp did a profile on early African-American professional basketball players for GQ, including Bob Wilson Jr., who accused Levane of cutting him in the early 1950s because of the color of his skin. Levane replied, “Jesus, I’m just the opposite! Oh shit! Hey if she was good enough to play, I woulda played my grandmother! Tell him I cut a lot of white guys too!” Levane then reflected upon the friendship he had with Holzman and King in Rochester, “A paesan, a Jew [Holzman was Jewish] and a black and we all got along famously.”
For a few years in the late 1940s, Holzman and Levane actually shared a house together along with their wives. However, while both men stayed with the Royals as they moved to the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1948-49, Levane did not stick around the next year, when the NBA was formed. Levane went to another NBA team, the Syracuse Nationals, so he missed out on the Royals’ 1951 NBA Championship (a title won over, interestingly enough, the New York Knickerbockers).
After taking a break of a couple of years, Levane returned to the NBA to become the player-coach of the Milwaukee Hawks in 1952-53. He retired as a player and became just the full-time coach for the 1953-54 season. At this same time, Holzman’s playing career was coming to an end and he was considering leaving basketball completely. Levane convinced him to come to Milwaukee to play for him and be his assistant coach. Holzman agreed. Well, about two/thirds of the way through the season (Levane’s second losing season for the Hawks), the Hawks fired Levane and hired, yep, you guessed it, Holzman!
The Hawks moved to St. Louis the next year (Holzman retired as a player and became a full-time coach) and drafted Bob Pettit, so the next couple of years were a lot better, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 1955-56. The 1956-57 season did not start so well for Holzman and the Hawks, though, so in January 1957 the Hawks fired him as their coach following a highly disappointing 14-19 start (the Hawks would go on to win the NBA Championship the very next season!).
Meanwhile, Levane had landed a job coaching the New York Knicks for the 1958-59 season. Holzman was planning on returning to New York City to become an insurance salesman. Once again, Levane reached out to his old friend and offered him a job as a scout for the Knicks. And also once again, Holzman lasted a lot longer than Levane. Levane was fired after the one season in New York, while Holzman was the Knicks’ top scout for years, until he was cajoled into becoming the head coach of the team in 1967-68.
Finally, though, Holzman was in a position to help Levane! He hired Levane as a scout (Levane would always joke, “I did such a good job that Red wound up as the coach and I wound up scouting for him.”), a position Levane would hold (in one form or another) until, well, I dunno, really. For all I know, he’s still scouting for the Knicks at age 88! I wrote awhile back about how Levane, at the age of 71, discovered Anthony Mason, so who knows, maybe he’s still got it!
So there you have it, before the Knicks had Red, they had Fuzzy to thank! What a great guy, eh? Harvey Araton once asked Holzman to describe Levane (back in the early 1990s, when Levane suffered a stroke and was near death) and Holzman came up with a great line – “No one ever said, ‘Here comes that asshole, Fuzzy.’” Well said, Red, well said!
Thanks to Araton and the aforementioned David Kamp for their great quotes, plus thanks to both Levane and the late Holzman (who have both been, and in Fuzzy’s case, are quite vocal over the years about their days in basketball) for the information about their past!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!