An Oral History of Knicks v. Sixers in a Gym Built for Kids
As times change, it’s hard to recognize how far the game has come. Players have more fame and recognition than even the early 2000's players. The NBA is still superstar driven, but many other players are recognizing their marketability.
It’s quite the contrast from how the league was in the 1960’s. My dad, Jim Devine, grew up in this era. He grew up playing in the snowy town of Scotch Plains, NJ at Union Catholic High School and eventually coached high school basketball for several years in central Florida. He also coached my rec team (shout out to the Ormond Beach Jazz, picture included for reference) for a few seasons which, by no fault of his coaching abilities, sadly fell short of the goals he set for our team.
I asked my dad about this time period in the NBA and he responded with an off-handed reference to an amazing story that forced him to elaborate on for this article. I asked him to describe the game, but what I received was far better than I imagined.
This is Jim Devine’s take on the exhibition game between the NY Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers that took place in a high school gym in small-town New Jersey.
“I attended an NBA pre-season exhibition game between the New York Knicks and the Philadelphia 76'rs in October of 1967. In those days NBA teams traveled out into the community to drum up interest for the season. This game was played at Roselle Catholic H.S in Roselle, N.J. Everyone from that area of New Jersey was a Knicks fan. These same people who would attend this game would attend regular season games at Madison Square Garden, the home court of the Knicks.
Another quirk of the NBA in that era was regular season NBA doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden. Usually, on a weekday night, fans would see two other NBA teams playing each other prior to the Knicks game.
Since this was over 50 years ago, I was trying to remember some of the details. The way I remembered the date was I knew that Phil Jackson was a rookie and this would be one of his first games as a pro. He had a different appearance; if that is the word, you couldn't forget seeing Phil Jackson. His shoulder blades and wingspan gave him the look of an eagle. No one even knew who he was because the Knicks had big-time players on the roster. Cazzie Russell and Dick Barnett were flashy players. Then you had Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley and Willis Reed who eventually formed the backbone of the Knick teams that had great success a few years down the road.
The opposing team from Philadelphia had perhaps the most famous athlete of the day In Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlin. Wilt was a big-time star and a massive physical specimen, especially for those times. He towered over everyone, and many were interested to see how Willis Reed would fare against Wilt in this exhibition game.
Reed was 6'9 compared to Wilt at 7'1. Reed was a physical player who took pride in his defense, so the matchup was always a classic.
Our "seats" for this game were on the floor, along the baseline, just to the right of the basket. Why we were allowed to sit there, I do not know or remember. What I do remember vividly from this game was a loose ball heading toward the baseline. I am not entirely sure, but I believe it was Cazzie Russell who came flying in, trying to save the ball and crashed into the fans seated just a few feet from where I was sitting. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it could have been severe as an NBA player at full speed landing on spectators was undoubtedly a high-risk situation, especially when they were seated directly on the floor.
The venue, Roselle Catholic High School, was unique. The gym had just been built in the early 60's. It was made for spectators; it could hold 2,500 fans in the bleachers, which was extremely large for the time for a high school. Most public high schools in the area had capacities around 1,000. As a result, this gym started hosting many big high school games and became the home of the Union County Tournament. Fans would have to be seated by 5:00 P.M. for a 7:00 P.M. game if they wanted to see any of the games in that tournament.
It would be hard to imagine today an NBA team having to barnstorm local high schools to play exhibition games. The ticket prices today for one ticket at NBA games, 25 or so of those tickets probably equaled the total take from this exhibition game sellout of 2,500. I don’t remember the price of the ticket that day, but I am sure it was less than $10.
Philadelphia was about an hour and a half from Roselle, so I imagine those players probably came over on a bus. Many of the Knick players lived in Northern New Jersey, so it may have been possible they drove their own vehicles, but there was probably a bus involved as well. Be hard to imagine players in today’s NBA jumping on a bus to play a game anywhere, let alone a local high school.
I don’t remember who won the game or the final score. NBA sources via Google search have the regular season results for this era, but I was unable to find pre-season results for the 1967-1968 season. What I did find interesting was that the 76’rs and the Knicks met in the first round of the playoffs that same season with Wilt and his boys prevailing. Red Holzman took over as coach midway in that season for the Knicks who would eventually lead the team through their glory days of the early 70’s.
I guess in the final reflection; we had no idea at the time how fortunate we were to view an NBA game in such a small venue. It was exciting to see all the big stars of the time, and I remember enjoying the time greatly with some of my high school buddies. We were basketball players ourselves and went to a lot of games, especially at Madison Square Garden. Tickets for college games and the Knicks games were affordable in those days. You could jump on a train in New Jersey, and it took you directly to Penn Station, the home of the Garden.
Nothing better though than a 20-minute drive to Roselle Catholic H.S to see Wilt battle Willis Reed. View the famous jump shot of Dick Barnett, almost a fallaway shot with a unique leg kick, his feet coming up quickly, his knees pointing to the hoop. Then there was Phil Jackson, looked like a lost white boy from North Dakota; the big eagle came swooping down for a rebound. I don't think anyone thought he would even make the roster, but he went on to be a great role player on the Knicks teams. The stoic Bill Bradley, great passer, and ball handler, flashy Cazzie Russell and perhaps one of the greatest point guards of all time Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
To be in the same place as all of these guys, even only one night, over fifty years ago, a great memory indeed.”
Today, fans want more access to these players than they probably should. In the 60s, kids were sitting baseline in high school gyms, narrowly missing concussion protocol from a loose ball and watching Hall of Fame giants go head to head. In some ways it’s sad that we have marketed this side of basketball away from the fan, but at the same time the game as come so far.
Big thanks to Jim Devine for his writing and memory skills. Thank you for helping us experience a side of the NBA that we probably never will again.