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Friday, October 31, 2014

Unsung Knick History – The Curse of Dancing Harry?

This is the 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.

In 1945, a Cubs fan by the name of Billy Sianis was not allowed to bring his pet goat into a Cubs World Series game. The outraged Sianis supposedly cursed the Cubs, and the team has not made the World Series since then.

In 1958, the Detroit Lions traded away star quarterback Bobby Layne, who supposedly angrily remarked that the Lions would “not win for 50 years.” It has been over 50 years now, and the Lions have never made the Super Bowl and have the worst winning percentage of any team over that stretch (winning only a single playoff game in the last 52 seasons).

In 1983, upon the death of her father, George Halas, new Chicago Bears owner, Virginia McCaskey (Halas’ daughter), decided to get rid of the Bears’ cheerleading squad known as the “Honey Bears.” They had a contract through 1985, however, so she had to wait until after that season to get rid of them. That season, of course, included a Bears Super Bowl victory. McCaskey still got rid of the squad, and the Bears have not won a Super Bowl since (they lost in the Super Bowl once in that timespan).

Can you add the New York Knicks and Dancing Harry to that list? Read on and find out more (including just who the heck is “Dancing Harry”?)

When star players change teams, they often bring people with them to their new team. Like their cousin might get a low level job from their new organization, or a bench player that they are friends with might be signed (yes, David Wingate and Jack Haley, I’m looking at you). But few players bring with them anyone like “Dancing Harry.”

Marvin (or Edward, I’ve seen both reported as his first name over the years) Cooper was a Baltimore Bullets fan who more or less invented something that pretty much every NBA team does today. During timeouts, the traveling sausage salesman would run to the sidelines and do goofy dances, including a bit where he would try to put “hexes” on the opposing teams. You have to understand, NBA games in the late 1960s/early 1970s were a much different time – the level of access fans had to the arena was astonishing. Bill Simmons writes about this a lot, as well, about how he would be able to go up to Celtics players as a kid and just hang out by the bench before the game. In addition, the NBA, not being the most popular league, was also open to as many wacky promotional things as they could get. In a lot of ways, the NBA actually somewhat resembled the world of the Flint Tropics from Will Ferrell’s comedy, Semi-Pro (not that bad, of course…now, the ABA, on the other hand…). So while it was unusual for a six foot two sausage salesman to do dances on the sidelines during timeouts, it was not unusual that he would have the access to do so.

In any event, a few games into the 1971-72 season, the Knicks made a blockbuster deal. They picked up disgruntled Baltimore Bullets star shooting guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in exchange for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth and cash.

With the flashy guard off of the team, the Bullets became a less dynamic team (interestingly enough, the team still made the playoffs in 1972, with a 38-44 record) and Cooper grew restless. The Bullets games just were not as fun anymore, especially since Cooper actually had gotten somewhat friendly with Monroe. So, during the 1971-72 season, he actually called the Knicks management and asked if he could dance at Knick games. They told him no. Despite the rejection, Cooper still traveled up to New York late in the season and began attending Knick games. During a game against the Celtics, with the Knicks trailing by 20 points, Willis Reed noted Cooper in the crowd. He told him to start dancing to get the crowd pumped up. Cooper retorted that the Knicks front office didn’t want him dancing. Reed replied, “The hell with the front office, Harry. Do something!” Cooper complied and “Dancing Harry” made his Madison Square Garden debut. Coincidentally enough, the Knicks roared back for a dramatic comeback victory.

From that point on, Dancing Harry was a stalwart addition to the Knicks sideline, supporting the Knicks on their 1972 playoff run, which stalled out in the NBA Finals.

In the 1972-73 season, Dancing Harry was a permanent fixture at MSG, becoming a local celebrity in his own right, doing ads for local businesses (including a chain of sneaker stores called Sneaker Circus). He also would make money by doing appearances at local night clubs (sort of like the Jersey Shore cast nowadays, only back then we’re talking a couple hundred dollars an appearance, not ten gazillion dollars, or whatever the Jersey Shore kids make for their club appearances).

Here’s an example of Dancing Harry’s shtick at the time (in his later years, he would get even more elaborate)…

He’d come up on the sidelines and throw his body down into a crouch…

at which point he would wiggle his fingers at the other team as he stood up, thereby putting a “hex” on them…

Yes, it’s not exactly Bob Fosse choreography, but in the days before any dance squads at NBA games, it was definitely something different. Amusingly enough, one of the games Dancing Harry put his “hex” on the other team (and in fact, the game where the above screen shots come from) was the legendary comeback the Knicks made against the Milwaukee Bucks in November of 1972, where the Knicks outscored the Bucks 19-0 in the last 5:11 to eke out a one-point victory. Dancing Harry’s “hex” sure worked its magic there!

The Knicks would go on to win the 1973 NBA Championship, but things did not go as well for Dancing Harry. The Knicks management already was more “tolerating” him than actually enjoying his presence (for instance, unlike later dancing NBA fans, like the Rockets and Lakers’ “Dancing Barry,” Cooper never received free tickets to the games) and after the 1972-73 season, Knicks owner Ned Irish had had enough. A traditionalist, Irish objected to what he saw as buffoonery. When Cooper showed up at MSG for the 1973-74 season, ushers told him he could not dance. When he tried to anyways, they threw him out of the building (of course, just like every other team out there, the Knicks later ended up adding dance squads to dance during timeouts, so in retrospect, their concerns seem silly).

Dejected, Cooper took his act to the Long Island Nets, where Dancing Harry supported the Nets on their way to the 1974 ABA Championship. Cooper then traveled to Indiana, where he supported the Pacers on route to the 1975 ABA Finals, where they fell short of a title. He danced in Indiana for four years (his outfits becoming more and more elaborate) before eventually returning to Baltimore to take care of his mother, who was ill at the time.

Now in his mid-60s, Cooper lives in Baltimore and, at least a few years back was working as a skycap in the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In a 2003 interview with the Daily News’ Joel Siegel, Cooper remarked about the Garden, “I loved it there. I think I once said they won’t win [a championship] until I come back.”

In that case, come back, Dancing Harry, come back!!*

Thanks to Joel Siegel for his great article, including that nifty quote!

*Curses, of course, do not actually exist, but are merely just amusing coincidences. Still, the coincidences are amusing!

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 cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

5 comments on “Unsung Knick History – The Curse of Dancing Harry?

  1. Z

    Cool.

    Being as big a Cub fan as I am a Knick fan, I’m happy to know of the “Curse of Dancing Harry”… Helps explain Charles Smith’s 4 missed layups… and Ewing’s missed finger roll of 1995… and Isiah Thomas…

  2. Nick C.

    I was at the smith game opposite side, you could barelt see him for the swarm of bulls around him IIRC. As for the story, very cool especially since I don’t think I ever heard of him.

  3. jbug187

    Where did you get those screen caps from? I could swear I’ve seen them in a basketball commercial recently.

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