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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Unsung Knick History – When the Dream Saved the Knicks from a Seventh Game Nightmare

This is the latest in a series 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.

Four days ago, former Knick Dean “The Dream” Meminger passed away. I thought it only fitting that we discuss his greatest moment as a Knick, the day that he helped the Knicks turn the tide in Game 7 of the 1973 Eastern Conference Finals.

Many Boston fans will quickly try to affix an asterisk to the Knicks’ victory over the Celtics in 1973 since Celtics star John Havlicek played the final four games of the series with a partial tear in his shoulder after a strong pick by Dave DeBusschere in Game 3 of the series and if that’s what they want to do, they can go right ahead. However, I don’t see many observers putting an asterisk over the Pacers victory over the Knicks this past season even though Carmelo Anthony was also playing with a tear in his shoulder from a pick by Celtic Kevin Garnett earlier in the playoffs.

In any event, after taking a 3-1 series lead, the Knicks lost back-to-back games against the Celtics, including a brutal loss in Game 5 where the Knicks stormed back from a 91-79 fourth quarter deficit to take a 97-96 lead with sixteen seconds left to go in the game. Jo Jo White then badly missed an off-balance shot. It missed so badly, though, that Celtics power forward Paul Silas was able to get the rebound (He recalled after the game, “Everyone thought it was going to hit the basket, but I saw it coming and I knew it was short. I leaped and got it”) and then made two free throws for the Celtic lead and then blocked Willis Reed’s prayer at the end of the game to seal the victory (did you know that up until 1982…1982, people!!!! players got three attempts to hit two once a team was in the penalty? Silas made the first, missed the second and made the third).

So going to Boston for Game 7, where the Celtics had never lost a Game 7, things looked relatively bleak. It was even worse when the Celtics took a quick lead and held a 22-19 lead into the second quarter. A problem for the Knicks all series long had been that one half of their star-studded backcourt, Earl Monroe, was playing injured himself. Knicks coach Red Holzman tried to use Dean “the Dream” Meminger as a substitute but Meminger seemed to be afraid to shoot the ball and it really stalled the Knicks offense when he came into the game. However, with Boston’s star Jo Jo White feasting on Monroe, Holzman had to do something so he went to Meminger.

Some quick background on Meminger. He was drafted in 1971 by the Knicks in the first round (16th overall) from Marquette where Meminger had won the MVP of the 1970 National Invitational Tournament, leading Marquette to a victory over St. Johns in the final. Meminger attended Rice High School in Harlem (alma mater of Felipe Lopez and Kemba Walker – it was recently closed down by the New York City archdiocese) and won a High School basketball title there, too. At 6 feet and 175 pounds, he was slightly undersized for the NBA but he was quick and very intelligent on defense. When he played with fellow back-up guard Henry Bibby, they would wreak havoc on the opposition with their pressing defense.

So now Meminger’s defense was needed once again to slow down White. In addition, Meminger entering the game allowed Walt Frazier (the other half of the Knicks’ star-studded backcourt) to not have to bring the ball upcourt, so he could concentrate more on initiating the offense in the halfcourt set (which also meant being able to concentrate more on offense – Frazier barely scored in the first quarter). Meminger shut White down and surprisingly began to take (and make) the same open jumpers he had passed on in earlier games. He ended up scoring 9 points in just a six minute span. He also stole the ball twice. The Knicks ended the half up 45-40 and then pulled away in the third quarter to blow the Celtics out. Frazier ended up with 25 points and 10 rebounds and Meminger finished with 13 points.

Holzman remarked after the game that the defense by the Knicks was the best they have ever played during the playoffs. He singled Meminger out for praise, stating “Meminger played great. Once he was in the lineup they moved the ball really well.” Meminger noted that they made a point of “putting pressure on the Celtics guards. We tried to set up a play each time we went down the court. We played really well.” He also noted that “We knew we had to play physical and aggressive from the start, and we did. In the last couple of games, we played well enough, but weren’t physical enough and lost.”

The Knicks would go on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for their second (and so far last) NBA Championship. Meminger played the Lakers’ Gail Goodrich strong during the Finals. Meminger played one more season for the Knicks before being taken by the New Orleans Jazz in the 1974 NBA Expansion Draft. The Jazz dealt him to the Atlanta Hawks, where he played for two seasons. He signed with the Knicks as a free agent for the 1976-77 season but was waived by the Knicks following the season and he never played again in the NBA.

So while it is true that Meminger will likely not be remembered as a Knick great, per se, for one game, the biggest game of the 1973 season, he was there to help stem the tide and for that alone, he’ll always have a place in Knick history.

Rest in peace, Dream!

If you enjoyed this story, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Urban Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at bcronin@legendsrevealed.com!

10 comments on “Unsung Knick History – When the Dream Saved the Knicks from a Seventh Game Nightmare

  1. Hubert

    “did you know that up until 1982…1982, people!!!! players got three attempts to hit two once a team was in the penalty?”

    I did not. That’s astounding.

    Thanks for the great work here, it was a joy to read.

  2. Brian Cronin Post author

    I did not. That’s astounding.

    Right? To think that that rule was around for so long that people were taking four foul shots to make three for a few years (as the rule lasted into the three-point era) is just nuts! I dunno how I missed it until now. I guess it didn’t come up a lot in the biggest games?

  3. GHenman

    Great job as usual Brian! I read this a couple of days ago, but didn’t comment since it didn’t seem to be getting much attention. This story reminds me of watching that Knick team on my 12″ black and white tv in my room as a child. This article also reminds me of Red Holzman, who always seemed to make the right substitutions based on the game situation. I hate the way coaches use set rotations these days instead of coaching based on what’s going on in the game.

  4. Nick C.

    It was nice job of fleshing out a story that was mentioned only in passing in his obituaries. I never really got how he had such a cool nickname, and semi-mythic status above and beyond his lines of black ink. Reading that nudged me further along to understanding.

  5. Brian Cronin Post author

    I believe he got the nickname back when he was at Rice. Sort of like how Magic Johnson got his nickname really young. Admittedly, it does seem kind of weird when you consider that the other famous player with the nickname “Dream” is one of the very best basketball players ever.

    Early nicknames are just sort of sacrosanct in the NBA. If you come to the league with a nickname, you pretty much get to keep it, even if it is a bit too grandiose. Can anyone recall a player who came to the NBA with a nickname that didn’t keep it when he got to the pros?

  6. Nick C.

    Somewhere along the way Jason Williams stopped being referenced as “white chocolate” but I don’t think that is quite the same thing.

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