Phil Jackson said he’s always considered Madison Square Garden “magnificent” as he returned to the arena as a fan for the first time in 27 years.
Jackson was one of 11 members of the New York Knicks’ 1973 championship team to return to the Garden last night to take part in a celebration of the franchise’s most recent National Basketball Association title. The group was honored at halftime before the Knicks scored 42 third-quarter points to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 101-83 for their 11th consecutive victory.
Winner of an NBA-record 11 titles as a coach, Jackson said it was the first time since 1986 that he had returned to the arena as a fan. In between those two visits, teams he coached played 42 times in New York, where the local fans often created a hostile environment.
“The first time I was booed here I was surprised,” Jackson said, recalling a playoff game when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls. “But one of those series when the floor was moving up and down and I was standing on the floor waiting during a timeout to talk to my team, I realized how special a place this is, and how much magic there was in this building.”
Players from the 1973 team were introduced one-by-one during the halftime ceremony, with family members representing deceased Hall of Fame forward Dave DeBusschere and coach Red Holzman. The arena’s sold-out crowd of 19,033 gave a standing ovation after Hall of Fame guard Earl Monroe, who won his only NBA title in 1973, thanked them for their support.
“We deserve you just as well as you deserve us,” Monroe said.
While the team has stayed in touch throughout the past 40 years, this week was the first time since their playing days that they were all in the same place, according to Jerry Lucas, a seven-time All-Star when he joined the Knicks in 1971.
“This is a family, I think of all of these guys as my brothers,” the 73-year-old Lucas said. “We have an incredible love for one another that has endured through the years. It’s a great feeling.”
That sense of family began on the court, according to the players, who said one of the team’s legacies was its ability to balance the egos and personalities of some of the NBA’s biggest stars, including Lucas, Monroe, Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Bill Bradley. The roster had seven future Hall of Famers, and six of the players have since had their numbers retired to the Madison Square Garden rafters alongside their championship banner.
“My recollection even to this day is the fact that we were a team,” Monroe said, emphasizing the final word. “And today we’re still a team.”
Jackson played with the Knicks from 1967-78, winning NBA titles with the team in 1970 and 1973. He coached Michael Jordan and the Bulls to six titles, and won five with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Mentioned as a candidate for coaching vacancies with both the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets this season, Jackson last night declined to comment on whether or not he was interested in returning to the sidelines. He said his focus was on his former teammates and what they accomplished 40 years ago.
“There’s a bond between the players,” said Jackson, 67. “I don’t know if we’d make it to 50, all of us together, so we wanted to do this.”
The Knicks are 49-26, in first place in the Atlantic division and second in the Eastern Conference behind the Miami Heat. While New York has not won a playoff series since 2000, Bradley said the team has greatly improved behind All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, who has 131 points in his last three games and leads the conference in scoring at 28.3 points per game this season.
“The team is a team, and he’s a great player that anchors the team,” the 69-year-old Bradley said. “They’ve learned to like to win, which I think is always the first step.”
There is a two-story billboard lining the entrance to the arena that shows the current Knicks huddled under the word “Now.” Members of the 1973 team said this is a good time for a new group of players to become the franchise’s most-recent champions.
The city is ready too, the 68-year-old Frazier said.
“These guys have no clue, man, this city would go crazy,” he said. “They have no clue what it would do to this town. People would go berserk.”
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