By Joe Rini
The difference between being a sports immortal and a footnote can be as slim as a couple of foul shots.
As the 2019 NBA finals winds towards, hopefully, an exciting conclusion, I’m reminded of a dramatic New York Knicks playoff team. No, not that one. And no, not that one either.
Two decades before Willis Reed limped down the MSG runway to Game 7 of the 1970 finals and nearly a half century before Larry Johnson’s 4-point play, there was the 1950-1951 Knicks in the pre-shot clock Middle Ages era of the NBA.
The Knicks, only in the fifth year of existence for them and the league, finished third in the six team Eastern Division and found themselves in the NBA finals for the first time against the Rochester Royals. For you basketball genealogists, the Royals kept moving westward over the next 30 years to Cincinnati to Kansas City and ultimately became today’s Sacramento Kings.
The Knicks were looking at a 3 games to none deficit before victories in Game 4, 5, and 6 had them on the precipice of a historic comeback more than 50 years before the Red Sox made history against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
They were “thisclose” to being a team all underdogs could look to when championship prospects were at their dimmest. They were “thisclose” to having their names – Zaslofsky, Clifton, Boryla, McGuire, and Gallatin – especially emblazoned in New York sports lore like Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley, and Barnett.
But they lost Game Seven 79-75.
Down by 14 at one point, up by two with two minutes to go, and tied in the final minute, Bob Davies sank two foul shots for the Royals in the closing minute and ultimately Rochester prevailed. No monuments to the 1950-1951 Knicks.
If there’s an amusing footnote to this Knicks team becoming a sports footnote, it’s in reading the contemporary account of Game Seven in the New York Times. Not so much as the account of the game (though oddly, the phrase, “against seemingly insurmountable handicaps” was the closest the article came to saying the Knicks had been down 3-0 in the series) but the placing on page 1 of the sports page is surprising to the 2019 reader. It was either buried or there was a whole lot going on.
The top headline reported the Brooklyn Dodgers beating the New York Giants 7-3 and the Yankees topping the Senators 8-7 in the first week of the baseball season.
The bottom headline was split between Repertoire winning the Wood Memorial and Penn winning the Childs Cup in a crew competition. A crew competition was a bigger story than the NBA finals. I know the NBA was decades away from being the sports entertainment behemoth it is today but I doubt the patrons of my family’s luncheonette in Brooklyn or most anywhere else in Brooklyn were in suspense about the fortunes of Penn, Columbia, et al in crew. Even an account of the Palermo International Tennis Tournament was above the Knicks story. Would the Knicks story have made the headline if they had won? I don’t know the answer but at least the Knicks story was above Fordham’s 10-1 victory over NYU in baseball.