This is the twenty-eighth 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.
With the NCAA Basketball Tournament into full swing, I thought it would be fun to spotlight a point in history where a team’s success in the tournament directly led to the Knicks drafting a player who would turn out fairly well for them (well, depends on what you think about two NBA championships). The player in question is Walt Frazier, and the way that the Knicks were able to develop a relationship with him was due to the interesting way that college basketball programs were considered “small” back in 1967.
In 1967, the NCAA had a rule about basketball programs. If you played less than half your games against “big” schools, you were considered a “small” school. Thus, the Southern Illinois Salukis were considered a “small college” by the NCAA during the 1966-67 college year (they were in the “College Division,” what we would call today Division II). As a result, they were not ranked with the big teams (even though they actually defeated the 2nd-ranked team in the country, Louisville, during the season, as well as Texas Western, the defending NCAA champions) and were ineligible to participate in the 1967 NCAA Tournament. As we have learned over the years (especially from the work of Dave Berri), one of the top ways that a basketball player becomes a heralded professional prospect is if he does well in college postseason tournaments. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago I discussed how the President of the Knicks, Ned Irish, picked the first Japanese-American player in the NBA after seeing him perform in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), back when the NIT was the premier college postseason tournament.
So Frazier was deprived from getting a chance to showcase his talents on the biggest stage in college basketball, but he had the fortune of still being able to perform in the NIT, which was held, naturally, in Madison Square Garden.
Frazier grew up in a poor area of Atlanta, the eldest of nine children. He had to play basketball on a dirt playground. He became a star athlete in high school. He actually turned down football scholarships to some major schools for a basketball scholarship at Southern Illinois University. After his sophomore year, Frazier’s grades dropped to the point where he was ineligible to play basketball in the 1965-66 season. He re-dedicated himself, and returned for the 1966-67 season and made SIU one of the hottest programs in the country – very impressive considering Frazier was really the only “ready for the pros” prospect on the team (the center, Andy Kukic, was a whopping six foot eight inches tall), although Frazier’s back court partner, Dick Garrett, would be drafted after two more years of college seasoning.
The 1967 NIT was notable for another reason – it was the first year that the Atlantic Coast Conference allowed its teams to participate. This was back when only the conference winner would advance to the NCAA Tournament. So the deal was that whichever team was the runner-up in the ACC Tournament would get a first round bye in the NIT. Duke lost to North Carolina and thus became the first ACC team to participate in the NIT. Of course, since they had just finished the ACC tournament, they were going to be playing their fourth game in five days while still “mourning” their elimination from the ACC tournament, so Duke was easy prey for SIU, who defeated them, 72-63.
The interesting thing is that the favorite team by the fans in the NIT that year was Rutgers, who were making their first tournament appearance with their star back court of Bob Lloyd and Jim Valvano. Lloyd was a particular favorite, as he scored in bushels. So the local fans actually booed Frazier during the NIT, but boy, what a show did Frazier put on! In the NIT Final, the Salukis were matched up against the former Knick, Al Maguire, and his Marquette Warriors (who would later win the 1970 NIT and the 1977 NCAA Championship) and Frazier led his squad to victory. Frazier was named the MVP of the tournament.
Naturally, seeing this performance on their home court, the Knicks were very interested. Their head scout, Red Holzman (who had not yet taken over as head coach) wanted Frazier and the Knicks had a trump card. You see, Frazier had one more year of college eligibility left (due to the year he missed because of his grades), and the Knicks knew that Frazier could use the money that being a pro would bring (you know, being the eldest of nine children in the Atlanta ghetto will do that to you), so they convinced him to forgo his final year if they drafted him. So the Knicks had the inside track on Frazier and drafted him with the fifth overall pick. If the Salukis had won the NCAA Tournament (or at least given John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins a run for their money), who knows how things would have turned out? If SIU was a “big school,” Frazier might have gone third to the Chicago Bulls or fourth to the Detroit Pistons (Jimmy Walker and Earl Monroe likely would still have gone #1 and #2). So the Salukis being a “small school” sure worked out well for the Knicks.
Then again, I guess it worked out pretty well for both parties, don’t you think?
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!