Frazier, Walt, II ("Clyde")

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FRAZIER, Walt, II ("Clyde")

(b. 29 March 1945 in Atlanta, Georgia), professional basketball player whose quick hands and unflappable demeanor led the New York Knicks to two world championships in the 1970s and earned him entry to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Frazier was the oldest of nine children born to Walt Frazier, Sr., and Eula Frazier. Walt, Sr., a hustler, was not around much for his children, forcing Frazier to become a surrogate father to his seven sisters and one brother. He grew up in a modest duplex in segregated Atlanta, playing basketball on dirt playgrounds with older children. Frazier attended Howard High School, captaining the baseball, basketball, and football teams. He was an All-City player on the basketball court, but it was his ability to throw a football sixty yards on the fly with pinpoint accuracy that most attracted the college scouts. He declined several scholarship offers because they came without the assurance that he would play quarterback. "There wasn't a big market for black quarterbacks," explained Frazier, so he chose basketball and, on the advice of a man he knew from church, attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale on a scholarship.

After averaging twenty-five points per game for the Salukis during his freshman year (1963–1964), Frazier feuded with the basketball coach Jack Hartman during his sophomore season. Despite being benched for much of the latter part of the year, he earned Division II All-America honors for the second consecutive year. Frazier's schoolwork began to suffer, and he stopped going to classes and considered dropping out of college. In the summer of 1965 he married his college girlfriend, Marsha; they had a son. The marriage lasted one and a half years. Frazier never remarried.

Frazier's poor academic record precluded him from playing basketball in the 1965–1966 season. While studying to restore his eligibility, Frazier was allowed to practice with the Salukis. There was one caveat: Coach Hartman forbade Frazier to touch the ball on offense. "I had to play defense every day," recalled Frazier. He learned that playing strong defense required more than just quickness, reflexes, and instinct. Frazier later noted, "You had to be smart to play defense. You had to watch your man, see what he does." Frazier resumed playing for the team in the 1966–1967 season. He averaged 18.2 points per game and was named as a Division I All-American. He also was chosen as the Most Valuable Player of the then-prestigious National Invitation Tournament when Southern Illinois defeated Marquette University at Madison Square Garden to gain the championship.

Months later Frazier was selected as the fifth pick in the first round of the 1967 professional basketball draft by the New York Knicks. Forgoing his final year of collegiate eligibility, the six-foot, four-inch guard signed a three-year, $100,000 contract with New York. Frazier started slowly, but was energized when the coach William "Red" Holzman took over for Dick McGuire midway through the 1967–1968 season. Holzman's emphasis on an aggressive defense and penetrating guard play utilized Frazier's strengths as a player, and his court time and confidence soared.

Frazier became the anchor of a Knicks team that included the future Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere. "The Knicks were the first team where everybody played defense, and played it all over the court," recalled Frazier. With hands described by an opponent as "quicker than a lizard's tongue," Frazier captured his first of seven consecutive selections to the National Basketball Association (NBA) All-Defensive First Team in 1968–1969. "The flies have heard about me, and don't come around anymore," said Frazier, referring to opposing guards who adjusted their game when facing him. "They had to think about where I was and change the way they operated."

On the strength of their team defense, the Knicks reached the Eastern Conference finals in 1968–1969 and the NBA finals in 1969–1970. In the latter season, they won eighteen straight games, setting an NBA record. New York finished the season with the NBA's best record (60–22), despite ranking only ninth in the league in scoring. They allowed just 105.9 points per game, nearly six points fewer than their closest competitor. It was during that year that Madison Square Garden fans initiated the popular roar "Dee-fense, Dee-fense." With 36 points, 19 assists, 7 rebounds, and 5 steals in game seven of the 1970 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Frazier led the Knicks to their first-ever championship. Although his play was somewhat overshadowed by that of his injured teammate Willis Reed, who limped onto the court during warm-ups and scored the game's first two baskets, Frazier gave one of the best performances ever in a championship game.

Knicks fans not only admired Frazier's defense and penetrating drives—they loved his cool, calm on-court demeanor. He never argued with officials and, according to his teammate Bill Bradley, the guard played with a "smooth and effortless grace, as if he were a dancer revealing the beauty of a body in movement." Off the court, Frazier was also the embodiment of cool. He became well known for his after-hours partying, Rolls-Royce car, and stylish, eye-catching wardrobe, which included expensive furs and wide-brimmed hats. After the movie Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967, Frazier's affinity for outlandish headwear led the team trainer Danny Whelan to nickname him "Clyde."

Frazier blossomed into a major scoring threat in the 1970–1971 season, averaging 21.7 points per game, his highest scoring output as a Knick. In the middle of the 1971–1972 season, the Knicks traded for Frazier's long-time rival, the guard Earl Monroe. Many thought the two could not coexist, but the Knicks returned to the NBA finals that season (where they lost to the Lakers). The next year, Frazier continued to flourish offensively, notching a career-high 23.2 points per game. With Frazier and Monroe in the backcourt for a full season, the Knicks beat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals and then defeated the Lakers to capture the 1973 NBA title.

Although Frazier continued to excel, earning three straight All-Star selections, the Knicks declined, missing the play-offs in 1975 and 1976. On the eve of the 1977–1978 season, Frazier was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers as compensation for the signing of the guard Jim Cleamons. The flamboyant guard who had fallen in love with New York City was devastated by the move. Hobbled by a chronic foot injury, Frazier suffered through two subpar years with the Cavaliers before being released just three games into the 1979–1980 season. Frazier retired, and in December 1979 the Knicks raised his number 10 jersey to the rafters at Madison Square Garden.

Based in Atlanta, Frazier worked as a player agent before moving back to New York to serve as the host of an upscale sports bar. He spent much of his retirement in tranquil Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands, purchasing a house and a thirty-eight-foot trimaran and earning his captain's license. In 1989 Frazier was hired as an analyst on Knicks broadcasts. The colorful commentator delighted fans with a stream of creative, often rhyming phrases. To Frazier, a Patrick Ewing basket became a "Ewing doing"; a guard driving toward the hoop was "orchestrating and penetrating"; and a team that scored after an unselfish possession was "swishing and dishing." Frazier remained an active sports broadcaster into the new century, and vividly described his love of language in Word Jam: An Electrifying, Mesmerizing, Gravity-Defying Guide to a Powerful and Awesome Vocabulary (2001).

Frazier was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987 and was named as one of the NBA's fifty greatest players in 1996. He brought the role of the guard into prominence both on the offensive and defensive ends of the court. An excellent defender, a fine scorer, and a solid rebounder, he also possessed the unselfish ability to make his teammates better players. But when the situation demanded it, Frazier knew how to take control. After scoring forty-three points in a 1970 game he said, "I always look for the open man and tonight I was the open man." As always, Frazier's personal and professional personas were one and the same—cool.

An early look into Frazier's persona on and off the court, including an inventory of his wardrobe, is his own Rockin' Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool (1974). His autobiography is Walt Frazier: One Magic Season and a Basketball Life (1988). For details of the magical 1969–1970 Knicks season see Knicks: New York's 1970 NBA Champion (2000), a collection of articles from the New York Daily News. Stan Isaacs, "The Voice of Rhyme and Reason," Newsday (4 Mar. 1990), looks at Frazier's emergence as a colorful radio and television analyst. Bob Raissman, "Clyde's Mentors Won't Be Forgotten," Daily News (20 Nov. 1998), describes Frazier's relationships with Red Holzman and Jack Hartman.

Danny Massey