In Search of (Knicks) History: Knicks-Celtics Playoff Rivalry, Part 1

My God that man is cool - Marc Serota

Let's delve into some of the old-timey battles between these two legendary franchises.

I recently heard a bit of bad news from my dad - I told him I was excited to get back to America so I could watch some History Channel, when he broke the terrible news: "Trust me, you don't wanna watch the History Channel anymore. They don't play documentaries anymore...it's all reality shows about ice road truckers and garbage pickers."

I was heartbroken to learn that the History Channel I grew up with was gone forever. Do they still play the shows I used to kill time after classes? What about Modern Marvels? That was my jam, man! And how could I forget Engineering an Empire, hosted by Peter Weller, a.k.a. Robocop -air guitar riff-.

(I do have one bone to pick with that show, however. In the episode on China, Robocop says that the emperor who built the Great Wall was known as 始皇帝. Well I've visited the dude's grave, and I'm telling you that he's called 秦始皇, not 始皇帝. Get your shit together, Robocop!)

One thing these shows taught me is that true history isn't just going to walk up and present itself to you. You need to get out into the field, track it across the open savanna and shoot it full of rhino tranquilizers before you can really examine it. And NBA history, especially of the pre-Bird/Magic era, can often prove elusive, as we found out in this New York Times article about the long-lost tape of the Knicks' 1973 championship Game 5. It still blows my mind that the last championship of such a marquee NBA franchise all but disappeared for the better part of four decades. By contrast, here's some 100-year-old footage of the 1910 World Series. And check out this hauntingly beautiful color footage from the 1939 World Series. I guess people in the 70's weren't as interested in preserving their achievements for posterity. Cocaine is a hell of a dug!

With all that in mind, strap yourself in as I take you on a trip In Search of Knicks History.

-cue mysterious Middle Eastern music-

Our first stop on this whirlwind tour is the Internet. First constructed by the pharaoh Khufu in the Old Kingdom period, and later damaged during an invasion by Julius Caesar, the Internet has long provided provided researchers with a wealth of ancient knowledge.

My first stop was the Knicks' official website, where I came across an ancient text whose name roughly translates to "The Knickerbockers Story". Here is a photo:

Cuneiform_medium

via bookshopblog.wpengine.com

Or the link, if you prefer:

http://www.nba.com/knicks/history/knickerbockersstory.html

Though it makes for a fascinating look at a culture attempting to record its own history, the tablet appears to be incomplete. It ends with the following inscription:

In 2008-09, his first year at the helm, D'Antoni engineered a nine-game improvement in the win column for New York, instilling a trademark high-octane attack that enabled the Knicks to finish as the League's fourth-best offensive team. Off the court, Walsh presided over an extensive roster makeover that not only brought the likes of Al Harrington and Larry Hughes to the Knicks, but would also enable the team to have salary cap flexibility (in 2010) for the first time in more than a decade.

Under the leadership of Walsh and D'Antoni and with renewed spirit and youth, New York's Team faces the new millennium with the promise of even greater heights.

Archaeologists have long debated what development led to the scroll remaining unfinished. Was the bottom part of the text destroyed during an invasion or lost to decay, or did the Knicks simply lose the ability to read and write over time, as did the Indus Valley civilization around 1300 BCE?

Since the objective here is to find the history of the Knicks-Celtics playoff rivalry, we will need to delve deeper. We can divide the early history of the rivalry into two distinct periods: the Red Auerbach Era and the Red Holzman Era.

Red Auerbach Era: (Knicks series wins: '51, '52, '53; Celtics series wins: '55)*

*Otherwise known as the NBA's "We're not segregated...look at how many Jews we have!" era.

Believe it or not, the great Red Auerbach had a 1-3 playoff record against the Knicks as a head coach - of course, the Knicks being the Knicks, they translated all of these wins into zero NBA titles.

This was before Bill Russell, so the Celtics of this era were led by Bob Cousy. I remember watching a talk show interview with a comedian- I think it was Bernie Mac- who mentioned that back in the day Bob Cousy only dribbled with one hand. I've done the research, and I can say that it is definitely not true...he used his left hand at least 15% of the time. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if all the one-hand dribbling wasn't a kind of proto-crossover dribble, where Cousy would lull his defender to sleep: nothing to see here, just dribbling with one hand la-dee-da-dee-da-OH SHIT I JUST SWITCHED THE BALL TO MY LEFT HAND! SO LONG SUCKA!

Red Holzman Era: (Knicks series wins: '72, '73; Celtics series wins: '67, '69, '74)

The Celtics dominated the NBA for the better part of a decade with a coach named Red, and the Knicks responded by hiring their own Red. I'm sure the names are just a coincidence, but given all that I've seen from Knicks management, sometimes I wonder...

The Year is 1967, let''s check in on the Knicks front office.

  • Knicks President: "Say, our man Dick Mcguire just isn't cutting it as head coach. I think it's time to replace him."
  • Knicks GM: "Okay sir, who do you have in mind?"
  • President: "I've heard good things about this kid in Chicago, Isiah Thomas. I say we install him as head coach now, before another team snatches him up. Hell, we can give him your job to boot!"
  • GM: "Umm...are you sure that's a good idea? It says here he's only 6 years old. Don't you think that's a little young to coach a professional basketball team?"
  • President: "Damn! I guess we'll have to wait til he turns 16...stupid child labor laws! Okay, how bout we just hire someone with the same name as that Boston fella who keeps winning all those championships."
  • GM: "Fine idea sir!" -aside, to the secretary- "Get me Red Holzman on the phone right now...and as soon as he goes to the toilet, I want you to burn Isiah Thomas' phone number."

Thanks to that intrepid young secretary, Isiah Thomas wouldn't hurt the Knicks for another three decades. Even without him getting in the way, Red Holzman and the Knicks had their hands full with one Bill Russell. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that they never beat him in a playoff series, considering he only lost two playoff series in his career.

As far as the Knicks-Celtics rivalry is concerned, the pinnacle came in '72 and '73, when the Knicks won back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, including Game 7 in the Boston Garden in 1973. The Knicks were the first opposing team ever to win a decisive game on the Celtics home court, a fact that is mentioned all the time on MSG (though still not enough for my tastes).

Stay tuned for our next installment, when I take you through the 80's and 90's. Spoiler alert: Charles Oakley is a baaaad man.

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