Remembering Walt Clyde Frazier’s ‘The Game’

On a Sunday night at Staples Center, just over four years ago, as I made my way through a conversation between Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson – and beyond the flirtatious smile of Lindsay Lohan – I caught the urge to do something I almost never do: Take a photo of a celebrity.

But this was no ordinary moment. Walt Frazier stood courtside, wearing his ubiquitous grin, trademark sideburns and, oh yes, a leopard-print suit.

He was, as he often is, in a statuesque posture and teeming with confidence. As he scanned the court while the Knicks warmed up for their game against the Lakers, his vibe could have been the motivation behind The Most Interesting Man in the World ad campaign:

“When he drives a new car off the lot, its value increases.”

“The circus ran away to join him.”

“He lives vicariously through himself.”

“He once had an awkward moment – just to see what it feels like.”

“Confidence exudes him.”

And so on…

The Legend of Clyde wasn’t born that day, of course. It started back in the early 1970s, with a Borsalino, a Rolls and the creative imagination of famed Garden photographer George Kalinsky. To future generations, Clyde is known more for his threads almost as much – or perhaps even more – than his game.

He’s a walking time machine with the coolest brand name in sports. He doesn’t follow the ever-changing fashion trends. He created his own – and wears it like that Cheshire cat grin and his two NBA rings. The latter he’ll flash with two fists forward like Radio Raheem in “Do The Right Thing”. Only this story isn’t about Love and Hate. This story is about a long lost fundamental in the game he loves.

“I got these,” Clyde often says, “because of defense.”

Clyde is living proof that when you win in New York, you can be just about anything you want to be. He went from being shy to loquacious, from offering brief, modest observations to being vociferous with his vocabulary on Knicks telecasts.

In the years of hip-hop’s adolescence, he freestyled his commentary – with phrases like “dishing and swishing” – well before the beloved Stuart Scott made it his trademark on ESPN’s SportsCenter.

And then for a while, he felt like he became just another piece of furniture. Through the late 1990s, NBA Style as we know it today didn’t exist. Baggy jeans and oversized shirts with backwards caps were the common gear for players.

It reached a point where former commissioner David Stern created a rule that players had to wear suits to and from the arena and, more importantly, on the bench if they were not in uniform. Players grumbled and threw on basic suits with untucked shirts and, at times, black sneakers.

Fast-forward to January 4, 2011, when the Knicks hosted the Spurs at Madison Square Garden. All along, Frazier had maintained his Clyde style: Throwback suits of various materials and flashy colors, and wide ties with thick Windsor knots. But on this night, inspired by some recent furniture shopping that led him to direct his tailor to some unusual material, he took a fashion risk. OK, it was more like a fashion leap.

That night saw the debut of the famous “Cow Suit”, which was so outrageous, even he opted to just wear the jacket and pair it with black pants.

A week later, with the Knicks in Los Angeles, he stepped out again with a daring look. This time, in full leopard print, with a black shirt and brown tie.

He was, as he would say, resplendent.

So I asked him to pose while I clicked his picture on my Blackberry. I then posted it to Twitter and within minutes, it became a worldwide trending topic.

The photo was used in newspapers and on websites all around the country. Interview requests came flooding in. The Legend of Clyde was reborn – or perhaps just discovered by yet another generation.

“You made me famous again,” Clyde said when we met again at The Garden shortly thereafter.

Hardly. If you know the Knicks, you know Walt “Clyde” Frazier. No matter what generation you’re from, every fan can connect with the very approachable and affable franchise icon. He either promotes vivid and cherished memories of the great teams from the championship era or evokes fun basketball rhymes from his career as a broadcaster on MSG Network.

But really, he should be both. And the fact that he is remembered now more for his striking, colorful fashion efforts than for his performance on the basketball court is, to me, somewhat maddening.

Consider this: What if a player today scored 36 points, dished out 19 assists, grabbed seven rebounds and hit all 12 of his free throws in a Game 7 to win the NBA Finals?

Now that would be a worldwide trending topic.

And that’s exactly what Clyde did on that unforgettable night: May 8, 1970.

Of course we remember that game for injured captain Willis Reed hobbling out of the tunnel and hitting his first two shots to spur his team to the win. But there is no legend without Clyde.

In fact, let’s compare it to some of the greatest NBA Finals Game 7 – the ultimate moment – performances in history:

  • 2013 – LeBron James: 37 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists in the Heat win
  • 2005 – Manu Ginobili: 23 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists in Spurs win
  • 1994 – Hakeem Olajuwon: 25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 blocks in Rockets win
  • 1988 – James Worthy: 36 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists in Lakers win
  • 1970 – Clyde Frazier: 36 points, 7 rebounds, 19 assists in Knicks win
  • 1962 – Bill Russell: 30 points, 40 rebounds in an overtime Celtics win

Look at it this way: Clyde directly contributed to 74 of the 113 points the Knicks scored in that Game 7. Or for today’s analytics, he factored in 65.4% of the team’s offense.

When you consider the stage, the pressure and the opponent, it can be argued that Frazier had the greatest game in NBA history.

And yet, over four decades later, among the few Knicks to ever approach him for advice or just to talk basketball, he recalls once being asked, “Hey man, did I read you had 36 points and 19 assists in a game once?”

Yeah, in a game. Once.

He also went on to wear both the jacket and pants of the cow suit. And somehow that has been more unforgettable.

But while his incredible performance may have been lost in time – since the dawn of the Jordan Era it seems anything accomplished before 1984 is somehow diminished by the argument of physical evolution – we can still, at least, trace the origins of today’s NBA Style to the man who set the standard.

Since the Leopard Print Suit photo went viral, we’ve seen many NBA stars in their own fashion exploits and taking risks. There’s Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Nick Young, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire and the Knicks’ own Carmelo Anthony (who brought back the Borsalino among his collection of men’s millinery) who turned the pregame stroll into a Zoolander runway strut.

“A lot of the young players credit me with bringing the bling into the NBA,” he told me recently.

Perhaps, but let us never forget that he also brought bling to New York with the greatest accessories in the history of fashion. These are must-have items that go with anything and are far more salient than even the leopard or cow print jackets. These are exclusive pieces that the aforementioned NBA stars can’t buy.

They would be, of course, those two beautiful championship rings.