October 23, 2019

Life in Sports and Sports in Life with Red Holzman and the Knicks

By Stuart Mitchner

With the World Series in the air and Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s biography of legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman on my bedside table, I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball and basketball this week.

The Open Sesame to Zachter’s book, however, was Holzman’s wife Selma, “a girl from Brooklyn without any pretenses,” who was also “loving, kind, thoughtful, generous, genuine, funny, and interesting,” could “see through phonies, and didn’t suffer fools.” While Holzman “tended to be guarded in what he said publicly, Selma spoke her mind.” Zachter rounds out the chapter starring the coach’s wife of 55 years (“The Best Thing I Ever Did In My Life”) with some anecdotes too lengthy to be quoted here, unless you count the one about how whenever she “learned one of her husband’s Knicks players had a cold, she prepared homemade chicken soup for him.”

Admittedly, my chicken-soup soft spot for Holzman’s wife is due to my fondness for her namesake from Queens, who shared the same qualities along with an ability to make the culinary equivalent of a three-point shot from mid-court every time she cooked a meal. Our friend Selma, our son’s godmother, died ten years ago September, a year after Selma Holzman.

Kitchen Hoops

I could have used some coaching in the kitchen the other night. Making gougère (defined by wikipedia as “a puff of choux pastry flavored with cheese”) should have been a slam dunk. The basic game plan laid out by Coach Craig Claiborne, formerly of the New York Times, usually sees me through, but not when the flour sifter’s jammed, it’s crunch time, the clock’s running out, I’m losing, falling behind, furiously cranking the lever, shaking the sifter, particles of flour falling like snow all around me as I sift and sift and sift for 10 minutes, a full-court press that’s making me dizzy, the coach shouting at me (like Red Holzman in full roar on the cover of the book), “Keep sifting! You need a full cup!” No use, even though the batter’s gloppy, I spoon it on to the baking pan and stick it in the oven 15 minutes late as my wife storms into the kitchen (“What’s taking so long?”), sees the state of play, and grimly throws together her own meal. Ah, but the mess in the oven makes a golden comeback, I eat it and it’s good. Even a half-risen gougère is better than nothing.

A day later when my wife’s speaking to me again, she says, “Who needs a sifter? Nobody uses sifters any more!” It’s good to know that Holzman’s Selma also questioned coaching moves she didn’t like, saying “Why did you play that guy [cook that gougère] for so long?” When he’d say otherwise, she’d say, “You played him for an hour.” There goes the buzzer. Game over.

Just Kids

I grew up in the pandemonium of Indiana basketball rightly known as Hoosier Hysteria. Since I spent grades 4 through 6 in a two-room schoolhouse with no athletic facilities (and no indoor toilets), I was bussed with my classmates to sectional showdowns in high-school gyms packed-to-the rafters booming with a noise level equal to a gale-force wind. Moving into town for junior high, I teamed up with one of the tallest kids in 7th grade for dozens of two-on-two basketball games played on the asphalt court behind a fraternity house. We called ourselves the Mercurys and according to the careful records we kept, we lost only twice, a feat mainly accomplished by my ability to get the ball to my friend, who had a virtually unstoppable hook shot.

The most remarkable thing about the makeshift, spontaneous games of basketball, baseball and football I played with kids from the neighborhood was the absence of adults: no pressuring from parents or coaches. Once we moved on to organized athletics in high school, the joy of playing, the simple Huck Finn innocence of it, was gone. By sophomore year, I was covering sports for the school paper and my former teammate was playing varsity basketball.


The only college coaches I saw in action were the tall, austere, greyhaired, bespectacled Branch McCracken, who led the Hurrying Hoosiers to two NCAA championships, and the red-sweatered, notoriously hands-on Bobby Knight whose I.U. teams captured three titles in a ten-year span before he was fired. I only saw Knight on television, but that was enough to bring back the old adolescent sinking feeling — what Huck Finn called the fan-tods — caused by the intrusion of a bullying adult.

One thing that made me curious about Zachter’s book was the fire and fury suggested by the cover photo, captioned inside, “The often even-keeled Holzman shouts disapproval of [a] referee’s decision as the Knicks lose Game Four of the Eastern Division finals against the Boston Celtics on April 13, 1969, putting them down three games to one.” Zachter offsets the image of the fire-breather not only with reference to his marriage but by quoting testimonials from various players as well as articles like the one linking his success to the fact that he gave his players “a boost, was sensiitive and thoughtful of their feelings, left them with their dignity, and even when being critical did so with an underpinning of humor.”

Enter Bill Bradley

A few pages later Zachter explores Holzman’s handling of the rivalry between Cazzie Russell and his Knicks teammate, former Princeton All-American Bill Bradley. “Red had to play the role of Solomon, deciding who started and who sat. In practice, Bradley and Russell went hard at each other, but Holzman was the real target of their frustration.” Zachter goes on to quote from Bradley’s Life On the Run: “I had never felt about anyone in my life the way I did about Red …. If he wanted to keep me on the bench forever he could. It’s always the tyranny of the unspoken. I feel helpless before his power over my life.”

I found those last sentences among the most stunning in the book. Since it’s hard to think of Bradley without reference to John McPhee’s A Sense Of Where You Are (a connection Zachter makes), I had another look at my column from January 2006, which begins with a hypothetical storyline taking Bradley from a small town in Missouri to basketball stardom, politics, and the presidency. I thought McPhee’s profile illustrated “the qualities that make the storyline credible as well as the virtues that would have worked against Bradley’s achievement of the ultimate goal. It’s probably too easy to say that his decency got in the way, but given the nature of the Democratic primary process, it had to have been a factor. While the Princeton hero described by McPhee might have felt the requisite ‘fire in the belly’ when the game was on the line, he was more often the consummate team player, as brilliant and motivated a passer as he was a shooter. Even his sportsmanlike attitude (referees respected him) could be read as a political liability. No showing off, no glory-mongering, no compulsion to become his own lobbyist.”

Samuel Hynes

Reading about Holzman, I found myself thinking of teachers as coaches, and of how the closest to a great coach I ever saw in action was the I.U. English professor — a red-headed grown-up Huck Finn from Virginia named Jim Cox — who brought American literature to life for us, put it in play, made it real. Which may be why a quote in Sunday’s New York Times obituary for Princeton professor emeritus and author Samuel Hynes, who died October 10, caught my attention: “I loved him, and I loved what he made us study.” So said Leonard Barkan, a Princeton professor of comparative literature who recalls taking a freshman course from Hynes and proudly turning in his first paper, “which was returned with a C+ and a very brief comment: ‘No thesis, no argument, hence no paper.’”

In The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), Hynes points out that the romance of being a fighter pilot in the Great War was viewed by young men, many of them from Ivy League schools, as “wonderful sport,” “a glorious sport,” “the best game over here,” “the sporty side of war.” Hynes, who flew 68 combat missions as a Marine pilot in World War II, puts it in perspective: “They’re right …. Only in the air will small groups of players acting together oppose other small groups — like two football teams. But to make the big game analogy really work, you’d have to imagine a Harvard-Yale game in which both teams are armed with lethal weapons. In that game the players would not simply be athletes; they’d be gamblers, taking risks with their own lives.”

Sports and Life

That passage from Hynes suggests a term usually associated with basketball: the “sudden death” overtime. Imagine imposing such language, however casually, on kids playing free on paved courts and sandlots. Welcome to the unreal reality of baseball, where the Yankees fall from the heights of a 100-win season to the depths of a sudden-death loss to the Astros. So there’s a kind of consolation for Cardinal fans like myself who lived through an erratic season crowned with a division championship and a back-from-the-brink play-off victory, only to be swept by the Nationals. Hey, it’s better than nothing. It still tastes good. Sort of like a half-risen gougère.