The last time the New York Knicks won an NBA Championship they had two all-star guards in their back court. If Carmelo Anthony and the 2013 Knicks want to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy again, they would do well to study the history of these two remarkable Hall of Famers.
Although everyone over 50 remembers the 1969-1970 Knicks because of Willis Reed's famous hobbling on to the court during game seven against the Lakers, there is much more to learn about basketball by examining the 1972-1973 Knicks season. Two years earlier, they landed Earl Monroe in one of the more famous and one sided exchanges in NBA history. The Pearl ( a long time rival of Knick superstar Walt Frazier) had been a rookie of the year, a prolific scorer, and one of the most exciting players in NBA history. In college he was also known as Black Jesus for the miracles he performed on the court. Nevertheless, despite being surrounded by significant talent, including league MVP Wes Unseld, the Bullets never won a championship while the Pearl was there.
In Baltimore, Monroe was asked to score, shoot, and then score and shoot some more. He did this successfully one year averaging more than 25 points a game. Upon being traded to the Knicks, there was immediate question whether the Pearl and Clyde could work together. Frazier was one of the best guards in the league, was thought to have a serious ego, and was unlikely to play second fiddle to another superstar guard on the same team. The same was thought to be true of the Pearl.
In his first year in New York, Monroe was often injured and never could play at full potential. It was also unclear what was expected of him and how he should fit into the Knicks "team first" mentality. Nevertheless, the Knicks made it to the finals losing to a powerful and dominant Lakers team that included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich (and had won a record 33 games in a row during the regular season).
Much healthier the next year, Monroe was asked to guard the other team's best scorer to free Frazier to gallivant on defense to steal the ball and block the passing lanes. The Pearl was also asked to pass more, fit into a team-oriented offense, and to accept Frazier as the team leader since Willis Reed was now seriously injured and played only sparingly during the regular season. As Willis himself said, "it was Walt's team, and Earl didn't try to change that."
The result was magic and a team many consider still to be one of the finest of all time. The Pearl accepted his role graciously, played much better and more consistent defense, and was willing to give up the ball although when the need arose he could return to his old ways and single handedly take over and win games. One night at the Garden, the Knicks were down by 18 points with five minutes left against the Lew Alcindor led Bucks, and they came back to win with the Pearl doing most of the scoring. But that kind of game was the exception rather than the rule. Frazier and Monroe "found harmony" and combined to create one of the most formidable guard tandems in history, the rest of team bought into the concept of a back court driven offense, and the Knicks beat the Lakers in five games to win their last NBA Championship.
Earl Monroe went from being a one-on-one superstar averaging over 20 points a game and always being his team's first offensive option to being a superlative passer, an under-rated defensive player, and most importantly, a prodigious talent who decided winning as a team was much more important than individual success. And Walt Frazier accepted that some nights the Pearl needed to be the star in order for the team to win. In the NBA finals that year, Clyde and the Pearl both averaged 16 points a game and had roughly the same number of assists.
There is nothing to indicate that Carmelo Anthony has absorbed these important lessons. It appears that he'd rather score 40 or 50 points and roll the dice on his team winning than making the other players around him better. This is a shame because in terms of raw talent, he is bigger, faster, and stronger than either Walt Frazier or Earl Monroe. But they knew something he does not. The role of the star is to make the whole team better otherwise individual stats are meaningless. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan (in his own Machiavellian way) knew that and between them garnered over 15 championships.
Carmelo needs to learn to pass better, focus more on defense, and, above all, be willing to use his amazing talent to make the rest of the team better. Otherwise, he is just today's Dominique Wilkins, a great scorer and highlight film maker with little more to show for his basketball career. Absorbing the lessons of Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe would make it much more likely that the Larry O'Brien trophy might some day return to Madison Square Garden.