Walt Frazier is arguably the best player in the history of the New York Knicks and certainly the most flamboyant. In the late sixties and early seventies, Frazier was the transcendent star of two beloved championship teams, the backcourt wizard known for his fast hands and his mask of unconquerable cool in the stylish persona of his alter-ego, Clyde. In an excerpt from the newly published, "When The Garden Was Eden: Clyde, The Captain, Dollar Bill, And The Glory Days of the New York Knicks" (HarperCollins), author Harvey Araton analyzes the life and death of Clyde, as well as the rebirth of Walt.
Walt Frazier lived in an off-campus trailer at Southern Illinois University, with his wife and their baby son, Walt III. He kept to himself. The man who would be Clyde hadn't yet developed an affinity for expensive clothes, fast cars, overhead bedroom mirrors, and after-hours parties. "He was the quietest guy on the team," said Clarence Smith, Frazier's college teammate. "You weren't going to see him at fraternity parties or even in the student union." Incubating beneath Frazier's reserved exterior was someone else entirely, a character--or some would say caricature--known as Clyde.
According to Frazier, the Knicks' trainer Danny Whelan gave him the nickname after seeing Warren Beatty in "Bonnie and Clyde." During his rookie year, 1967-68, when minutes were hard to come by but the money wasn't, Frazier would occupy himself sartorially. "I wasn't playing well, and in order to pacify myself I'd go buy clothes," he said.
A short man with a long needle, Whelan was unsparing in his ridicule when Frazier walked into the locker room one night with a brown velour hat. "Get a load of Clyde," he cracked. Everyone laughed, but Frazier was, as usual, unruffled. He was sure he looked good.
Clyde was more suited to the constant scrutiny and adulation of big-city sports fans than the congenitally shy Walt; he was a mask that alleviated the off-court performance anxiety and allowed Frazier to quiet the part of him that preferred being alone.
Frazier--as Walt or Clyde--was never much of a drinker. He didn't have a sip in high school and didn't know what to do all those years later when gratis alcohol came his way at famed hangouts like P.J. Clarke's, Jimmy Weston's and Elaine's.
"At first I would say, 'Hey, man, I didn't want a drink,'" he said. "But then a guy I knew told me, 'Don't ever turn one down, because these people will think you’re not a good guy.'" Bartenders caught on and kept his alcohol intake next to nothing, though Clyde bent his own rules when it came to entertaining the opposite sex. Divorced not long after he joined the Knicks, Frazier created a new ethos. "Clyde was wine, clothes, song, and a different woman each night," he said. Pressed for a statistical estimate of his scoring totals, he joked that he was nowhere close to Wilt Chamberlain (who, in a 1991 autobiography, claimed to have slept with 20,000 women).
Nobody appreciated Frazier's theatrical pose and natural stage presence more than the emerging director Woody Allen. "He'd come into Elaine's," Allen said of his longtime Second Avenue hangout. "There was this amazing aura about him when he'd step into a room."
Allen was, in effect, the perfect Clyde audience. He only wanted to observe the splendor of the man, not impose on him or so much as chat. When Ira Berkow was co-writing Frazier's book Rockin' Steady, in the early seventies, they went out to lunch one day at P.J. Clarke's, settling in at a backroom table on a slow late afternoon. There was one other patron nearby, reading a newspaper but stealing the occasional glance over the top of it. Every time Berkow looked over, the guy would defensively pull the paper up. This went on for a while, Berkow humored by the game of Clyde-and-mouse, until the fellow got up to leave. Only then did he realize it was Woody Allen.
But after all the big-city glamor and the only two championships in the history of the franchise, Frazier's last years as a Knick were not all that memorable. With Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere retired, the team was in decline. Frazier was criticized for indifferent play and traded to Cleveland in 1977. It was just as well. Clyde was wearing on him. "I kind of got fed up with all the material things, fed up with New York and that scene, the nightclubs and the cars," he said.
The year before he retired from basketball, 1979, he had taken his son, Walt III, on a vacation to St. Croix. Coming from most places, the lush St. Croix terrain would have been breathtaking. From Cleveland, Frazier felt the sea breeze on his face and found it intoxicating. He called a real estate broker and within days had purchased a Caribbean-style one-story house with four curved columns that looked like a spaceship. The house was on one acre and built into a hill overlooking the water.
Initially, St. Croix was just a getaway destination from the New York scene. "I would come and just chill, do nothing," he said. But whenever he gratefully stepped off the prop jet from San Juan or Miami, he felt as if he were exhaling. He began to adjust to the slower pace, the island rhythms. He took a sailing course, got his captain's license and purchased a boat. One morning, he started out for St. Thomas at 4 a.m. Out at sea, Frazier looked up at the sky to see the first rays of light and thought, "I've found paradise."
But there was peril in paradise. Almost a decade after he had left the game, soon after he began his broadcasting career, Frazier was watching football at his island retreat on Sunday afternoon, September 17, 1989, when the first terrifying winds blew the awnings off his home. The television went dark. The living room windows blew out. He and his lady friend raced for the bathroom, hunkering down for a long, fierce night.
"We sat there, in the dark, hungry and cold, water coming from under the door, wind howling, hearing crashes sounding like freight trains running down the track," he said. Bizarre thoughts rush through your brain in such moments of peril. Frazier recalled how his mother liked to tell him, "You don't know what it's like to not have a roof over your head." He wondered if he was about to find out. The hurricane's full force arrived in the wee hours of September 18. "All we could say was, 'Hold on, house. Hold on,'" he said.
The next morning, Hugo having left $1 billion in damages to the island, Frazier warily opened the bathroom door, sidestepping the refrigerator that had hurtled from the kitchen. He surveyed his residential wreckage--rooms bathed in water, glass everywhere, furniture gnarled and blown outside. His boat was gone, sunk in the cay. But he found himself strangely fascinated by the chaos, by forces so far beyond human control that he could only wonder about how he had lived his life in the fast lane, about all the material things he had pursued and collected and what they all were really worth.
Emerging from the tiny St. Croix airport terminal on February 24, 2010, I walked outside and there he was, standing along the curb, arms resting on the driver’s-side door of his GMC light truck. Before I took another step in Walt Frazier's direction, it occurred to me how far I had come, literally and figuratively, from our first professional encounter, when I took a deep breath and approached him as a wide-eyed reporter for the Staten Island Advance.
"Excuse me, Walt?"
He didn't look up.
He still didn't look up.
Finally, three words.
"Get lost, chump."
Granted, I would experience even worse first impressions of my other idols: Mickey Mantle was stone drunk in the clubhouse after a Yankee Stadium event in 1976. Reggie Jackson met my outstretched hand with an icy glare before turning his back to me and cutting a loud fart. At least Frazier, I later came to realize, had good reason to be grumpy. In his final discontented days as a Knick, he was understandably in no mood to jabber with reporters, much less a greenhorn like me.
We would laugh about the episode years later when I confessed that I'd gone home and contemplated flinging myself out the fifth-floor window of my apartment, clutching my dog-eared copy of Rockin' Steady. He told me I shouldn't have been too insulted. In those days, chump was a common insult around the team, reserved for friend and foe alike.
A little more than a month from his 65th birthday, he was still remarkably youthful, despite thinning hair and the faintest hint of midriff expansion. He wore a baseball cap, off-white jeans with painter’s pockets and a pair of flat canvass sneakers--his brand Clyde Pumas. By the second day of my stay, I would learn that this was Frazier's island uniform. His current girlfriend, Patricia James, had grown accustomed to asking him on the way out to dinner, "You're not going to change?"
This was no longer the stylish and image-conscious night stalker she had adored while growing up in the north Jersey suburb of Montclair. Frazier of the island was a homebody who had long ago ditched the Rolls and preferred his truck, who couldn’t remember the last time he had been out in a club (on this island or the Manhattan version), who tried to avoid trips to the neighboring St. Thomas because it was "too commercial, just like New York."
So who, then, was the nattily dressed legend on the Knicks radio and television broadcasts since the late eighties? He looked like Clyde. He sounded like Clyde. But he was merely a vestige of the past, Leonard Nimoy putting on his Spock ears for a Star Trek convention. On St. Croix, where he camped out when his broadcasting duties were finished and to which he escaped whenever he could during the season, the locals knew him more as "Frazier the tree guy." He loved the melodious sound of the extended name; it affirmed what he felt about growth, nature’s and his own, from renowned hedonist to home-building horticulturist.
"People in New York who saw me here would probably be disappointed in me," he told me as we eased our way down a shady path and began a tour of his property--which he had transformed from a largely barren single lot to roughly five acres of tropical paradise. He was wrong about that, dead wrong. Old Knicks fans would be fascinated, I told him.
As we walked the grounds, stopping to admire a veranda or a view, he admitted that he often found himself looking around, asking: How did I do all this?
There were hundreds of plantings--fruit trees and palms and colorful flowers that could match Clyde's most ostentatious outfits. Nurturing them reminded him of running an offense, educating himself about his teammates' needs, knowing what to feed them and when.
He built an intricate system of cisterns that tapped into the well he had discovered on the property but also utilized rainwater. He hired a gardener to help him, to teach him how to plant and nurture. "Every morning I'd work with him," he said. "He'd pick, I'd shovel." The more the property bloomed, the greener his thumb became and the more determined he was to upgrade and expand. He began buying up the one and half-acre surrounding lots, most with run-down houses he knew he would want to re-do.
He perused home and garden magazines, attended home shows in Miami and New York, scoured outlets and home appliance stores for furniture and fixtures--it became an obsession. In the spirit of the island, there was no urgency to any of these plans. About half the houses already had renters, but he seemed in no rush to finish the others. Most important, Frazier said, was getting a project right. He finessed the details the way he fussed over Clyde's wardrobe and fine-tuned his game, telling me, "I always thought I was the consummate player, that I could do everything." The man was not without humility. He snickered and added, "Except maybe go to my right."
He admitted he was not easy--and occasionally impossible--to work for. He hired to look after the property while he was on the road with the Knicks during basketball season, and fired him for excessive partying. He obsessively scrutinized the work of painters and handymen, distrusting their willingness to cover every spot and their ability to properly wield a squeegee. Walt did windows.
Sitting on a terrace at one of the unfinished homes on a warm, breezy afternoon while Frazier was off watering his trees, I remarked to James how beautiful the property was. She nodded and after a pause of several seconds became teary-eyed. "Until you come here, you don't know what this place means to him," she said.
And there was the rub. Rare was the person who knew Frazier in New York, around the Garden, who had ever set foot on this place he had poured so much of himself into, including much of his earnings as a broadcaster and Old Knicks legend. To them, St. Croix was no more than a rumor, a gleam in their old teammate's eye. He admitted to me that he sometimes wished they could all spend a few days, walk with him up the hill to the one undeveloped tract of his property.
Here was where he was planning to build his dream house, the one he would live in when he was completely done with New York. York. He could already envision the open-air living room, alongside a pool, with breathtaking views of Christiansted Harbor on one side and the Caribbean on the other.
When that day might come he couldn't say--possibly never--but the view of Walt Frazier in St. Croix was nonetheless one of a man at peace. When a basketball-savvy tourist did a double-take at a nearby table at dinner out, he would smile, sign his name, but never look pained that the attention was for something long ago.
As we walked down the hill, Frazier told me he had found the secret to a life without cheers for him on the basketball court. It was really the same philosophy that had allowed him to share his prime real estate in the Knicks' backcourt with Earl Monroe.
"The main thing is controlling one's ego and being creative in any way you can," he said. He tugged on his baseball cap, pulling it low to shield his eyes from the sun. "Nobody watches me anymore, but that's okay. I get pleasure from what I do. It's what you feel inside."
We stopped for a while at the deck of a clubhouse under construction, where one of the builders was operating a backhoe, clearing weeds from a space nearby. Leaning against the rail, Frazier drifted away from our conversation, into a trancelike state. I figured he was scrutinizing the builder's work, until he pointed to a flock of egrets bobbing for worms in the path of the backhoe.
"It's amazing how they compete with each other, how they jockey for position and then jump out of the way as the shovel comes down," Frazier said. He studied them for several minutes, as if they were neighbors playing a set of tennis. "They're survivors, he said. "They get what they want and then they get out."
Harvey Araton is a longtime sports reporter and columnist for the New York Times, New York Daily News and New York Post.