The defining moment of the 1970 NBA Finals is undoubtedly the night of May 8, when New York Knicks superstar Willis Reed limped onto the court right before the start of Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
Reed only scored two baskets in 27 minutes, but the true grit he showed while attempting to play through a leg injury inspired his teammates to find their inner strength as they captured the NBA title over the mighty Los Angeles Lakers.
While Reed’s appearance was a defining moment of the on-court battle between the Knicks and Lakers, a group of local high school students were able to experience a memorable moment during that series that they’ll never forget.
Just before the final game of the series, the Lakers needed a place to hold a workout, and Bishop Ford H.S., Park Slope, answered the call.
At the time, current CHSAA President Ray Nash was the athletic director, head basketball coach and chairman of the Physical Education Department at Bishop Ford. His good friend Roger McCann, whom he met at St. Francis Prep, Williamsburg, in 1956, worked at Madison Square Garden.
During the finals, McCann called Nash saying the Lakers were looking for a basketball court to hold a workout but were having trouble finding one. He asked Nash if Bishop Ford’s gymnasium would be available for the day.
“They’re the Lakers … of course!” said Nash, who received permission to hold the practice from the school’s principal, the late Brother Hugh McGrath, O.S.F.
The one condition, McCann said, was that the practice had to be kept a secret. Nash and Bill Leary, younger brother of late St. Francis Prep basketball coach Tim Leary and a Bishop Ford physical education teacher at the time, each drove a school van to the Lakers hotel to pick up the team.
That Lakers team was stacked, with stars Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Happy Hairston, Dick Garrett and Mel Counts. However, the team’s brightest star was Wilt Chamberlain, who only played in 12 regular season games but was an unstoppable force in the playoffs, averaging 21.4 points and 22.3 rebounds per game.
As a mega superstar of the time, Chamberlain wasn’t all that happy when Nash picked him up and explained where the team would be going to practice.
“From the second we left until the minute we got there, Wilt Chamberlain was complaining and moaning about playing in a high school gym in Brooklyn,” Nash said.
When the two vans pulled up to the side en- trance of the gymnasium thinking they wouldn’t be seen, hundreds of Bishop Ford students were outside waiting, chanting “Knicks Are One!” So much for a secret practice!
Yet when Chamberlain stepped out of the van, the students became silent.
“It was like the parting of the Red Sea,” Nash said. “All these tough guys from Brooklyn took a step back and didn’t know what to say.”
The Lakers then used the school locker room to get ready. Everything seemed fine until Nash received a knock at his door from Brother Hugh, saying the students were going crazy in the cafeteria wanting to catch a glimpse of the Lakers.
Nash approached Lakers head coach Joe Mullaney, who said he was fine with having the students walk through the gym during the team’s warm-up routine. Nash then went back to the cafeteria and told the students they’d be able to see the Lakers if they remained quiet and moved through the gym quickly and orderly.
About 600 kids — half the student body — proceeded from one end of the gym to the other without making a peep as they watched in awe as the Lakers took part in stretching drills.
“The kids were fantastic,” Nash said. “They’d do anything to see the Lakers. They walked around the gym, and not one kid said a word. I was very proud of them.”
Following the practice, Nash had sandwiches from the famous Defonte’s Sandwich Shop on Columbia Street — which is still serving up delicious sandwiches in Brooklyn — waiting for the Lakers.
“Wilt Chamberlain took two extra sandwiches and put them in his bag,” Nash said. “When he got in the van, he said, ‘At least the food was good if we had to come all the way to Brooklyn.’ ”
It turns out the Defonte’s sandwiches slowed down the Lakers just enough for the Knicks to win their first-ever NBA championship by turning in a 113-99 performance in Game 7.
Many of those Bishop Ford students were Knicks fans, so they were thrilled to see their team emerge victorious on the NBA’s biggest stage. Yet for just a few hours in their high school’s gym, the students were secretly rooting for the Lakers, who were working out right in front of their eyes.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.