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Honoring the life and career of Harthorne Wingo

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RIP to a New York champ.

New York Knicks v Washington Bullets
Always a Knick.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Harthorne Wingo, a fan favorite for four seasons in the 1970s who ultimately became immortalized in a Beastie Boys song and is one of only 20 Knicks with a championship ring, has passed away at 73-years-old.

The unfortunate news was first reported by the New York Post on Monday and then confirmed by PolkSports.com, which is a sports news provider based in Polk County, North Carolina, where Wingo grew up.

Wingo, a 6’6” forward, was a bench guy on the 1972-73 championship squad. He played in 13 games during that regular season and got off the bench for three games in the playoffs, none of which were in the finals. Still, since he was part of the team, he is forever a New York Knicks champion.

Wingo’s NBA career wasn’t individually spectacular (in 212 total regular season games with New York he averaged 4.8 points on 46% from the field, plus 3.5 rebounds), but as any Knicks fan knows, you don’t need to put up crazy stats to become beloved. Not to mention, his legend extends far beyond what he did in the NBA.

Wingo’s Remarkable Youth

Born on Sept. 9, 1947, Wingo’s life began in Tryon, North Carolina. He made history as a senior by being part of the first integrated class at Tryon High School, according to Polk Sports.

“The tall, gangly youngster had already begun the integration process on the basketball court at Tryon High well before his official invitation to attend school there. He began playing pickup basketball at the invitation of legendary Tryon High standout Duke Fisher, befriending players who would soon be his teammates at Tryon.”

He actually played football at Tryon High before realizing his true calling was basketball, and once he switched gears it didn’t take long for Wingo to show serious skills. His debut for the Tryon High Tigers came in the team’s second game of the season, with Wingo posting 20 points in a victory over Brevard High School.

The Tigers were extremely successful with Wingo on the squad, going on a 15-game win streak and winning the Foothills Conference regular season and tournament championships.

Following high school, Wingo took his talents to South Carolina’s Friendship Junior College for one year before returning to Tryon. After playing basketball in an independent league, he became determined to make a name for himself in this world, so Wingo took a Greyhound bus to New York City, where he discovered a little place called Rucker Park.

Everyone from Willis Reed and Earl Monroe to Dr. J and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have made waves at Rucker. Wingo’s time as a streetballer — one time he dropped 69 points in a game at Rucker — is what led to him getting to the NBA, according to his obituary in the New York Daily News.

But before he was a Knick, he played in the real mecca of basketball, Rucker Park, where his talent was actually discovered by ex-Knick Dave Stallworth, a member of the 1970 championship team.

Stallowrth played in the Rucker Park Pro League, according to commissioner Bob McCullough. “He played against Harthorne Wingo and he was so impressed that he went to (Knicks coach) Red Holzman,” McCullough told the Daily News. “He asked Holzman to give Harthorne Wingo a tryout and Harthorne Wingo made the team.”

To be more specific, according to Polk Sports, Wingo received an invitation in 1970 to join the Harlem Wizards, but the Knicks convinced him to join the Allentown Jets of the Eastern League before later signing him as a free agent in 1972. As a member of the Jets, Wingo was awarded the Eastern League MVP for the 1971-72 season.

His stats for that MVP campaign don’t seem to be available, but if anyone can dig them up, please feel free to post the numbers in the comments.

Wingo’s NBA Career

Wingo’s debut for the Knicks came on Feb. 2, 1973 against the Baltimore Bullets, according to basketball-reference.com. He played one minute and amassed no statistics. Still, that’s one more minute of NBA action than most people can even dream of. For what it’s worth, the Knicks lost that game by 17. Maybe Red Holzman should have given Wingo more run.

His first NBA points didn’t come until six games into his career. In a 28-point blowout of the Buffalo Braves, Wingo played 15 minutes, notching 4 points (2-7 from the field) and 6 rebounds. Walt Clyde Frazier led the way in the win with 25 points (11-14 shooting), 8 assists and 6 boards.

Overall, in 13 regular season games that year, Wingo totaled 20 points. His single game high was 6, in a 23-point victory over the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. Wingo played in three postseason games that year, including a 7-point, 2-rebound effort in a 33-point walloping of the Boston Celtics in the Conference Finals. Although he didn’t see the floor in the finals, he will forever be remembered as a member of the second Knicks championship.

He played three more seasons with the Knicks, with his best campaign coming in 1974-75. That’s the only time he played in all 82 games of the regular season. He posted 7.4 points (46% shooting) and 5.6 rebounds in just over 20 minutes per game. The Knicks finished 40-42 that year, losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Houston Rockets, which were part of the league’s Central division at the time.

On December 14, 1974, Wingo had a career-high 19 points, plus 8 rebounds and 2 assists, in a loss to Buffalo. He also fouled out. That served as the start of a three-game stretch in which Wingo scored at least 12 points (he had 19, 12 and 17 in those games, respectively). That season, he scored at least 10 points in a game 30 times.

Life After The NBA

After the 1975-76 season, Wingo went overseas, playing professionally in Italy, Switzerland and South America before retiring and moving back to New York City, according to Polk Sports.

“Italy was good,” he said in a 2017 interview. “We traveled all throughout Europe. Spain, France, Italy, Bucharest in Romainia. Had a great time. To win the Euro was good. We were the first Italian team to go back-to-back. That’s the second-best team in Europe. First is the Cup of Champions.

“I enjoyed it because I had the chance to play the whole game. I did great. I had a double-double, 21 points and almost 13 rebounds, leading scorer and rebounder. That’s what I wanted more than anything, to play. But, it’s not the NBA. No matter where you go, it ain’t the NBA, simple as that.”

Wingo’s status as a Knicks folk legend lived on in the years after he was no longer playing basketball professionally. In 1989, the Beastie Boys named-dropped Wingo in a song called “Lay It On Me.” The lyric can be heard around the 20-second mark.

Honestly, being mentioned by the Beastie Boys in 1989, more than a decade after his time with the Knicks had concluded, says it all. Wingo was a beloved figure in New York sports history. May he rest in peace.