If you are a New York Knickerbockers fan, you might have a soft spot in your heart for the Wichita State Shockers in the upcoming Final Four of the NCAA Championship.
The last time Wichita State was in the Final Four was in 1965. Two of their players that season, Dave "The Rave" Stallworth and Nate Bowman, played on the Knicks’ first championship team in the 1969-70 season.
Wichita State lost to eventual champions UCLA in the semifinals in 1965. Ironically, neither Stallworth nor Bowman played in the NCAA tournament as Stallworth’s four-year eligibility had ended in the middle of the season and Bowman became academically ineligible in January of that year.
Dave Stallworth was an All-American at Wichita State. But to me he was more than just a great ballplayer. He was a great guy.
He was the first professional basketball player I ever met.
It was a thrill then, and a memory I cherish to this day. It was the summer of 1966. I was 13 years old at sleep-a-way camp—Camp Westmont in Ellenville, New York. Four Knicks came to camp for a day to teach us different basketball skills. Willis Reed, Dave Stallworth, Emmett Bryant and Henry Akin were there. They would earn extra money in the summer by going to many camps, driving through the Catskills in a station wagon.
The night they got there, I was in front of the dining hall going into dinner and Dave Stallworth was there with some of the counselors and senior staff. I started talking to him and he was so friendly. He made me feel like a million bucks. I became a fan of his for life. He had just finished his rookie season with the Knicks and had done really well. He was the Knicks’ first-round draft choice in 1965. As the sixth man, Dave had averaged 12.6 points per game and averaged more than 23 minutes a game.
Other vignettes I remember from that Knicks visit:
Willis Reed dunking two balls at one time, one with his left hand and one with his right.
Reed, sitting among a bunch of campers after the afternoon session, sweating, opening a can of soda and taking the zip-off piece from the top of the soda can and using it to scoop the soda foam and drinking it.
A thirsty Emmett Bryant after the morning session. I asked him if he wanted some water and he came to my bunk with me to the amazement of my bunkmates. As he drank water from my cup, I noticed a Chai on a chain around his neck. Chai are the two letters that spell the number 18 in Hebrew, the number that means life.
I asked him who he thought was better, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell. He said Wilt. Three years later Bryant wound up playing with Russell on the Celtics 1968-69 championship team and became an assistant coach to Russell with the Seattle Supersonics. I always wondered if he changed his mind as to who was better.
Henry Akin running the foul shooting drill. If you made two out of three you would get a certificate. I still have it and all four Knicks’ autographs.
Dave Stallworth continued playing well for the Knicks in the 1966-67 season averaging 13 points a game.
Near the end of the 1966-67 season, at the age of 25 with a career so full of promise, Dave Stallworth had a heart attack and had to retire from basketball. An incredibly rare event for such a young man. New York basketball fans were truly saddened.
The Jewish Festival of Passover this year just ended. The story of Passover is marked by miracles. For Dave Stallworth, his miracle came in 1969. After not playing for two years, Stallworth was cleared to play basketball again for the 1969-70 season.
You probably do not have to be a Knicks fan to know the story of Game 7 in the 1970 NBA finals. Lakers against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Nobody knowing if center Willis Reed would play due to a leg injury he suffered in Game 5. Reed had to leave the game in the first quarter of Game 5 and he did not play in Game 6.
In Game 6, Wilt Chamberlain was unstoppable, almost single-handedly tying the series at three games apiece. He scored 45 points and the Lakers won by 23 points.
Right before Game 7, Reed came out of the locker-room limping, painkillers having been shot into his leg. He started the game, hit his first two shots and inspired the Knicks to win their first championship.
And if you are a Knicks fan, you should never forget Game 5. At the half, the Knicks were down by 13 points. The series was tied at 2-2. If the Knicks lost Game 5, they would be down 2-3 going to L.A. for Game 6. At the end of the third quarter, the Knicks had whittled the Lakers lead down to seven.
In the fourth quarter, the 6’7" Stallworth came in and guarded the 7’1" Chamberlain for almost the whole period.
"Los Angeles had been forced into an incredible 30 turnovers for the game. In the second half, [Jerry]West didn't have a field goal and Chamberlain scored only four points, despite being guarded by much shorter players such as [Dave] DeBusschere and Dave Stallworth."
"The fifth game," DeBusschere said proudly 20 years later, "was one of the greatest basketball games ever played."
One of the lasting images of that game occurred with about two minutes to go in the game. Stallworth blew by Chamberlain on a drive from the right side of the court going under the basket and laying it off the left side of the glass on a reverse, giving the Knicks a commanding lead. Dave scored 12 points in the game, 10 of which were in the fourth quarter. The Knicks won Game 5 by a score of 107-100.
And finally, let’s remember the late Nate Bowman, who passed away at the young age of 41 in 1984. He was the backup center to Willis Reed on that first Knicks championship team, averaging nine minutes a game. Stallworth’s Wichita State teammate. Bowman was also a first-round draft pick. He was picked by the Cincinnati Royals, but his first year playing was in the 1966-67 season with the Chicago Bulls. The Knicks got him the next season.
For many years, including the 1969-70 championship season, the Knicks practiced at a local recreational center run by the New York City Parks Department in Rego Park, Queens, called the Lost Battalion Hall. It was two miles from where I lived.
Late one morning in January 1970, during winter recess my senior year of high school, the day after the Knicks beat up on a Boston Celtics team that no longer had Bill Russell or Sam Jones, a bunch of us waited to get into the Lost Battalion to play ball. We could not get in until the Knicks were finished practicing. As the players left the building, Bowman came out unhurriedly and was nice enough to take our questions.
Two friendly Wichita State Shockers who became Knicks helped give New York City its first NBA basketball championship. Knicks fans who were around then cherish that season and the way the Knicks played the game.