A Conversation with Basketball Great Walt "Clyde" Frazier
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BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Okay, Bob warned me that this next interview might be too New York and maybe not so media, but it is with a man who’s spent his life navigating the media, who proved you can have second acts, if you want them. His first act brought down the house, or at least Madison Square Garden in 1970. I wasn’t a sports fan but his speed, his cool, his name was in the ether: Walt “Clyde” Frazier, New York Knick.
CHRIS SCHENKEL: - Frazier, cuts to his left, now stops and jumps. Yes, Frazier out of the back door, and all looking very – west, across to the clubhouse – loses to Frazier!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With his mutton chops and his Fedora, he rolled on fancy wheels through New York City, an icon of laconic cool. In that historic 1970 championship game, Knicks’ team captain Willis Reed, playing with a terrible injury, was the hero but Frazier’s lethal steals and stealthy buckets clinched the win.
WALT FRAZIER: Well, Willis provided the inspiration and, you know, in a way I provided the devastation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Frazier’s little rhyme there foreshadows his second act, the one you may not know if you don’t live in New York. He’s a Knicks color commentator on the MSG Network, famous for his truly astonishing suits, coordinated ties and pocket squares, and for his vocabulary, his rhymes. That’s what got me.
WALT FRAZIER: Mauling and appalling, splendor on the glass.
Erratic, dramatic, charismatic, acrobatic, that’s JR.
Penetrates, creates, risin’ on Petulia and the left hand, ain’t that peculiar?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m still not a sports fan, but drawn into the hoopla over then-Knicks prodigy Jeremy Lin, I found a legend of my youth, now voluble and amiable but still cool. I read about his childhood in segregated Atlanta, changing the diapers of his many sisters, playing on dirt courts, his passion for yoga, his retreat in St. Croix, his restaurant, Clyde Frazier’s Wine and Dine. How did he manage it without combusting like so many superstars, without even a surgical repair?
We invited him to WNYC’s Jerome L. Greene Space and asked NPR sports reporter Mike Pesca to kick it off with his own meeting with the man.
MIKE PESCA: The year was 1994, and I had just seen a game at Madison Square Garden, got outside, bought a pretzel on the street and was walking away. My friend and I turned around and there was Walter “Clyde” Frazier. And so, I kind of smeared the mustard off my face and I put the pretzel in my other hand. I felt that I rebounded and then I proceeded to astound by extending my hand and saying, “Clyde, it is a pleasure to be meeting and greeting you.”
And he said, “Nah, nah, nah, meeting and eating.” [LAUGHS]
And I turned to my friend like a giddy schoolgirl and we just said, “Clyde rhymed to us! Clyde rhymed to us!”
And now, at five foot three, hailing from Park Slope, Brooklyn, the host of On the Media, author of The Influencing Machine, Brooke Gladstone!
And at six foot four, Basketball Hall of Famer, commentator for the MSG Network, he played in college ball at Southern Illinois, he’s a seven-time NBA All Star, two-time NBA Champion, Walt Clyde Fra-zier!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ladies and gentlemen, Walt Frazier.
I started off by asking Walt about the genesis of his nickname, “Clyde.”
WALT FRAZIER: When I was a rookie, I wasn’t playing well. So in order to pacify myself I went shopping. [LAUGHS] So I’d dress up in my room and go in the mirror, "Well, I’m not playing good but I still look good." [LAUGHS]
And so – so one day we were in Baltimore. It was a hat store, and I see this Borsalino hat, brown velour, but it had a wide brim. And like today, they were wearing – everybody was wearing the narrow brim, So the first time I wore this hat everybody laughed at me – my teammates, the opposition,. Two weeks later, the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” [LAUGHS] comes out.
So I walk in the locker room where everybody go, “Hey, look at Clyde.”
So that shows you kids that if you have something you believe in, don’t listen to nobody else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A former teammate said that the legend of Clyde, your legend, was partly a media creation but that you happily went along with it.
WALT FRAZIER: Yeah, that’s true. Clyde is an alter ego of mine which operated between 12 and 4 am. [LAUGHS]
So the rest of the time I’m Walt, nice guy from Atlanta, Georgia that changed diapers and did all that stuff. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Harvey Araton, in his brilliant book, When the Garden Was Eden, said that you put on Clyde the way that Leonard Nimoy puts on his Spock ears, that it’s comfortable, if alien, or maybe it’s comfortable because it’s alien. Did it help you deal with the - the scrutiny?
WALT FRAZIER: Normally, I’m home alone, I never had an entourage. And, you know, when I was Clyde I had a driver.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And that was quite a car.
WALT FRAZIER: Yeah, yeah, the Rolls Royce.
But normally, I’m a very quiet and shy person. People laugh when I say that but –
- I’m – I’m a shy guy that likes to walk around in mink coats and [LAUGHS] a Rolls Royce.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let me ask you about the style in your game. You, more than anyone, monumentalized the steal. Stealing on the court, as you describe it, “Demands cool, playing possum. It’s like poker at 100 miles an hour.”
WALT FRAZIER: I’m playing possum. I’m lulling you to sleep. I give you room so you think that you can do something. So sometimes in the – early in the game I could steal the ball but it wouldn’t have the same impact. So now, you’re dribbling the same way and all of a sudden I come and I make the steal that could turn the momentum of the game. And then –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re describing a pool hustle, [LAUGHS]
WALT FRAZIER: It’s a cat and mouse game that I played on defense. And defense was my favorite part of the game primarily because when I – when I was in college, one year I was ineligible to play because of poor grades. So as a punishment the coach made me play defense every day and practice. For a whole year [LAUGHS] I never played offense. So I said, well, if I’m going to be a defensive player, I’m gonna be the best damn defensive player here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were talking in the green room about the earliest rules of the game. You said the game was very, very boring when it started. And – and why was that?
WALT FRAZIER: Because, you know, they started on the peach-basket but it had the bottom in it. [LAUGHS]
So every time you scored, they had to get on a ladder and go and take the ball out of the peach-basket.
So it took them seven years to figure out to take the bottom from beneath the basket. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But it, it seems like the, the game in, in recent years has changed a lot too. I was watching the Knicks game last night and it seems to be built very much around star shooters. It wasn’t team play, like the, the Knicks of the 1970s.
WALT FRAZIER: Well, that’s true. That’s one of the, the more blatant changes in the game, shooting a lot of threes and dunks and nothing inside of the arc. To me the most glaring difference in the game today, other than – the money – [LAUGHS]
- is the size of the players. Like when I played, I was a big guard at six four; today, I’d be a shrimp. I’m a point guard today [LAUGHS] because the average height of an NBA player is six seven.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you wish that the three-pointer had never been invented? I mean, do you find it dispiriting that everybody focuses on taking these really long shots?
WALT FRAZIER: Well, it’s a blessing and a curse. But today the game is entertainment. Today it’s who’s in the stands and celebrities and that type of thing so it’s more focused on getting the young kids to buy the video games [LAUGHS] and the merchandising, the jerseys, and ESPN. We never had ESPN.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
WALT FRAZIER: So these guys know today if you do something, a good dunk, you’re gonna be number one or number two on ESPN. The only time you’re gonna see a good defensive play is if you block a shot to win a game. Other than that, it’s all embellishing offense.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you find it boring?
WALT FRAZIER: No, I’ve – I’ve accepted it. When I first started, I – I was like, these guys can’t play. [LAUGHS]
I was like nobody can shoot, what are they doing?
Today a guy would rather make a stupendous dunk shot and go 0 for 10, just the way the game has evolved.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The three-point shot, it’s cinematic. You say it’s changed because of TV, but has it actually changed the rules of the game?
WALT FRAZIER: Oh yeah. They took away the hand check. Why? Because they wanted more continuity, they wanted more ball movement. Nobody liked the game. People were complaining the game is too rough, there’s no movement and not enough shooting. So television pays the cost to be the boss. I think other than that, the rules have been better. Like, when we played the shot clock was on the floor, and I attributed a lot of my steals to guys trying to find that shot clock.
And the last-second shot and they’re trying to look for that clock and they’re not having the volley going the other way. But today –
- both shot clocks are above the basket. So it’s much easier. You don’t have to try to look for it. So I like a lot of the changes making the game more popular. It’s an international sport now. When you look at basketball, when I played in the seventies everybody was from the US. Today, a third of the players are from all over the world. It’s like tennis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WALT FRAZIER: So it’s a very popular game. I mean, look at Dennis Rodman. He’s become a political [LAUGHS] –
He’s gonna bring peace to the world. [LAUGHS]
[BOTH AT ONCE/OVERLAP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, you mean, America’s great dip – diplomat, yeah.
The seventies, New York in the seventies, America in the seventies, this was an incredibly racially-charged time. Did it get to you?
WALT FRAZIER: Well, I actually came along at the right time. Guys like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, those were the guys that really kind of paved the way. So when I came into the NBA, black players, we never had to stay in separate hotels, like Russell and those guys had to do. So, you know, I – I really pay homage to them for making those sacrifices, and then having guys like Bob Cusey and "Hondo" Havlicek, the white players also supporting the effort to integrate basketball.
Basketball has come a tremendous way now, when you look at maybe it’s 80-20 black now, [LAUGHS] compared to 60-40 white when I came into the League. And I’m from the South, so I still believe that if not for sports, the South would be segregated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really?
WALT FRAZIER: Yeah. It, it really propelled them to, to look at people differently. They wanted to win and they knew the black players would dominate in the game, and they started integrating the schools, and, and that made it happen. But, as far as when black and white meet, there’s no color. It’s just respect. And when you’re playing – and that’s why guys accept each other more in sports than in any other venue, because of the respect of the talent when guys compete.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You once said, “I was never afraid of being an individual, even if it meant I was going to be ostracized for it,” though that’s never gonna happen. But the wide lapels, the wild colors, not the austere style of the third millennium we’re currently in, you couldn’t care less, right?
WALT FRAZIER: I think when you’re a visionary, you can’t be concerned with –
- what people think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
WALT FRAZIER: So I used to just walk up and down Fifth Avenue, look at how women were dressed, how men were dressed. And my tailor was only a few blocks from there, so I’d see different color combinations and I’d run to my tailor and I’d have things made up. And a lot of times I talk to kids and I say don’t be afraid to veer from the path and leave your own footprints. You know, I think today, when I go in our schools, everybody walk alike, they all talk alike, [LAUGHS] they all look alike. There’s no individuality, you know. Everybody’s a follower. There are not too many leaders. So we’ve got to get back to not being afraid to, to do what you want to do.
But the other part of my, my always being cognizant of dressing for success was growing up under the oppression of segregation. And being the oldest of nine kids, so whenever I went downtown, I was not only representing my family, my neighborhood, but my race, as well. So my mom was always telling me, Walt, you, you got to set a good example for the kids. So whenever I went out, I was aware of that.
And even today, I'm still aware of that, especially when I got into broadcasting. So many of you know I wasn't using, they say 100-dollar words when I was a Knick player, but once I got into broadcasting I didn’t want to embarrass myself, my family or my friends, so right away I knew as a man I have to improve my vocabulary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did you do that, “bounding and, and astounding, creating, penetrating –
- erratic, acrobatic, certainly charismatic? But –
- where did it come from?
WALT FRAZIER: I started on radio, so the guy that I was working with, he never gave me a chance to talk. And radio –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the radio, that’s a definite disability.
WALT FRAZIER: [LAUGHS] So sometimes I, I started talking and I couldn’t shut up. He’d go, “excuse me, Walt.” He’d just run right over me.
So then I was getting bored and I just – I, I just came up with - like if the Knicks were making passes and, and I knew he had to catch his breath, and I’d go, “They’re dishing and swishing.” [BROOKE LAUGHS]
You know, that was about all I could get in, you know.
“They’re ubiquitous.” [LAUGHS]
“They’re provocative!” [LAUGHS]
So to improve my vocabulary, I, I used to get the Sunday Times, the “Arts & Leisure” section, when they critiqued the plays.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, the plays?
WALT FRAZIER: Yeah, “riveting, mesmerizing, provocative, profound.”
So people think I’m a voracious reader, but I have books and books of words and phrases. I – when I first started, I’d just study these books over and over and - and, ironically, you can use clichés and no one will ever say anything but if you use “ubiquitous” twice, they’ll go, “He’s used that word twice already.” [LAUGHS]
And then all of a sudden, I fell in love with words. Words are like people, the more you see them, the more you relate to them. And even today, like – just like fashion, I’m always looking for new words and how I can incorporate them into my style.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We took audience questions, and one woman asked about how pro athletes make the transition from the limelight.
WALT FRAZIER: That is a daunting task that I would say 80 percent of professional players never make. Their marriages dissolve, drugs and alcohol problems. Many of the players I played with or against are destitute now. Sometimes the players are so bad the teams have to bury them when they die. Sports Illustrated did an article, I guess, two or three years ago: about 80 percent of the guys, once they leave the game, professional players, seven, eight years after they leave the game, they’re broke.
And I think the best thing that happened to me was getting traded [LAUGHS], leaving New York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Going to Cleveland?
WALT FRAZIER: Going to Cleveland. I was all dressed up and no place to go. [LAUGHS]
I used to get dressed up and go out and wear my mink, guys’d go, “Clyde, where are you going?” [LAUGHS]
So I became a homebody. I was reading a lot of self-help books, you know, ‘cause I knew I only wanted to play a couple of more years. So I was reading books that would help me make that transition into not playing, and it still took me a couple of years to get over that.
So you can imagine today how players – we used to fly commercially, we stayed in Holiday Inns. Today these guys are in the Ritz-Carltons, the Four Seasons. They have their own private plane, and they’re making millions of dollars. So how do you come down from that? How do you make that transition from that, after you squandered your money?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many players do you think, like you, never received a technical violation, never mouthed off at a ref, never got tossed out of the game?
WALT FRAZIER: Maybe 1 percent. I give kudos to my coaches for that. In grade school, high school, college, they never allowed the teams that I was on to talk back to the refs. We never had prima donnas. Everybody had the same rules, you know, in college, that’s the –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you also didn’t like the fines.
WALT FRAZIER: Phil Jackson asked me once, “Clyde, you – how could you pay $50 for a pair of alligator shoes?” You know, back in that day the alligator shoes cost $50. And I’d go, “How can you pay $25 for a technical?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHING] Okay.
[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE UP & UNDER]
This was just part of a much longer conversation. To see Clyde’s dazzling suit, my pathetic attempt at free throws and the evolution of his inimitable style, watch the video of the event on our blog at onthemedia.org. You’ll hear about how he helps kids conquer fear, why his plants don't die and the cabinet post he would have held in Bill Bradley’s White House.
[CBS CLIP/NBA THEME MUSIC]
Give it all you've got,
Take your very best shot
And may the best team win.
The time is now, the name of the game is action.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. Thank you to WNYC archivist, Andy Lanset. We had more help from Khrista Rypl, Ravenna Koenig and Alex Hall. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rick Kwan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.