This book, which is described on the dust jacket as "The Candid Story of the Champion 1969-1970 Knicks -- Their Collective Triumphs and Individual Fates," clearly aspires to be "The Boys of Summer" of professional basketball. The recipe is simple: Take a team that fans remember with affection, dip deeply into the bucket of nostalgia, then top things off with a "where-are-they-now?" update. Roger Kahn made a national best seller by giving the Brooklyn Dodgers this treatment; Lewis Cole obviously hopes to do the same, but if there's any justice in this world, he won't.
"Dream Team" is a dull, self-indulgent book by a writer who finds himself a great deal more interesting than in point of fact he is, and who therefore insists on belaboring the reader with his own story as well as that of his subject. This is an increasingly common phenomenon in sports journalism, especially sports books. Earlier this year there was Barry Gifford's horrid little book about the Chicago Cubs, "The Neighborhood of Baseball"; a more recent example is Stanley Cohen's self-absorbed "The Man in the Crowd: Confessions of a Sports Addict." The Me Decade has married the New Journalism.
True to the genre, Lewis Cole insists on using the opening chapter to go on and on about his college years at Columbia, his participation in the radical politics of the '60s and '70s, and his involvement with the Knicks as "a new devotion" in his life. On the first page he uses the first-person singular 17 times, which may be a world record in the Me Journalism division. This gets the book off to an unpleasant start from which it, and the reader, never recover.
Which is too bad. The 1969-70 Knickerbockers were a good team, and an interesting group of men, and they deserve a better book than Cole has given them. No one who saw the seventh game of their championship series against the Los Angeles Lakers, as millions of us did on television, will forget the injured Willis Reed, who had not been expected to play, hobbling out to the court just before the game began and, in so doing, inspiring his teammates to an upset victory. It was one of the great moments of American sport, no doubt about that, and a stirring reminder of the fragile emotions that can often control contests between extraordinarily talented athletes.
Those Knicks were special. Reed, at center, was less "dominant" than his contemporaries Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, but he was physically intimidating and a ferocious rebounder. Dave DeBusschere was the prototypical "power forward," and Bill Bradley gave the team movement and surprise at the other forward. The guards, Dick Barnett and Walt Frazier, gave the Knicks scoring and playmaking. The bench was deep and versatile. The coach, Red Holzman, was a respected strategist and, more important, a skilled psychologist who knew how to spread the playing time around.
Holzman accurately described the team to Cole: "They played the game the right way . . . What was good about them was that they won with all the old-fashioned virtues -- unselfish, good team basketball. They helped each other, they had the smarts, they did all the sacrificing things, which was good for them because some of them were older and couldn't be running around all the time, so our style of play made them shine -- but still, they achieved it that way. They weren't that flashy. Some individuals were -- Barnett, Frazier -- but we really worked on just getting the thing done. We had no guys who were in the top 10 players. We had great players, but the balance was there."
No doubt the nostalgia that fans feel for these Knicks is explained in part because this unselfish, coordinated style of team play has largely disappeared from the pro game. With the notable exception of the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers (sensitively recalled in "The Breaks of the Game" by David Halberstam, who doesn't use the first person once), today's game is a freewheeling affair in which individual performance is of greater consequence than team character. The championship Knicks of 1970 deserve to be remembered both for their unusual cohesion and for the great surge of interest they helped awaken in the pro game -- a surge that the magnates of the game, in their infinite wisdom, managed to squander within a decade.
They were a splendid team; but to describe them, as Cole does, as "the great myth of modern basketball," is hyperbolic and fanciful. It's a manifestation of a publishing-industry mindset -- particularly, for some reason, when it comes to sports books -- that says: If it happened in New York, it had to be important. The Knicks were influential, but hardly as influential as the 1960s Boston Celtics with Russell, Auerbach and company. To give his book a theme, Cole has overinflated the importance of the Knicks and in the process demeaned them. This happens all the time in Me Journalism.
Readers who are interested in such things will be interested to learn that Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere have become successful in business, that Dick Barnett has in effect vanished, that Cazzie Russell misses the game badly, that Nate Bowman is a model for TV commercials. There is much about Bill Bradley, the president-to-be, though none of it is especially revealing. The where-are-they-now part of the book is mainly a tape recording.
But players talking to a tape recording are a goal more interesting than Lewis Cole at his typewriter. "Dream Team," a quite unnecessary book, only comes to life when they are talking.