“Here is what I thought,” Red Holzman would say some 20 years later. “Here come those SOBs again.”
This was almost a year after Holzman had coached the Knicks to their first championship in 1970. He was talking to a Rochester, N.Y., reporter putting together a story on the 20th anniversary of the Rochester Royals’ only NBA title — the only one, in fact, collected during the Royals’ permanently peripatetic journey from Rochester to Cincinnati to Kansas City to Omaha to Sacramento.
And he was talking about the Knicks, the Royals’ opponent in those ’51 Finals, who’d gone a pedestrian 36-30 during the season but had upset Boston and beaten Syracuse to secure their first-ever bid in an NBA Finals — and then promptly lost the first three games to Rochester by an average of 16 points.
“But we let ’em off the hook in Game 4,” Holzman — who played point guard for the Royals from 1945-53 — recalled of the Knicks overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit at Madison Square Garden, “and then we kept letting ’em off the hook.”
The Knicks surprised the Royals in Game 5, at Rochester’s Edgerton Park Arena, then stumbled in Game 6, too, back at the Garden. Then the Royals had cruised to a 14-point lead over the Knicks early in Game 7, and the 4,200 people who stuffed into the Rochester arena breathed a sigh of relief.
But the Knicks stormed back behind Max Zaslofsky and Sweetwater Clifton and Harry (The Horse) Gallatin, and with two minutes left they held a 74-73 lead. It was still 75-all as the clock ticked under a minute when Bobby Davies, the ex-Seton Hall star, surveyed the Knicks’ defense.
It was nine years earlier when the Toronto Maple Leafs had roared back from a 0-3 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final, the only time in hockey, basketball or baseball when a team had managed to do that. Still, 3-0 leads in best-of-sevens were still considered a sure thing, and with good reason. Now, the Knicks were poised to join the Leafs on a rarefied roster.
Everyone in the cigar-smoke-choked arena expected Davies to bleed the clock of most of the final 44 seconds in that era before the invention of a shot clock. But Davies saw an opening, cut through the Knicks’ defense, and Dick McGuire had to foul him to prevent a layup. Davies coolly swished two free throws as the man who would invent the word “swish,” Marv Albert, listened to Marty Glickman’s description on WMGM radio, 1050-AM.
The Royals would survive.
Seventy-two years later, only two other NBA teams — the 1994 Nuggets and the ’03 Blazers — had even forced a seventh game before the Celtics did that in these Eastern Conference Finals, and only the Celtics had the benefit of getting Game 7 at home, as they did Monday night against the Heat.
Oh-three down is still the most daunting proposition in sports, as both the Celtics and Dallas Stars learned Monday, both teams getting smoked at home — the Celtics by the Heat in Game 7, the Stars by Las Vegas in Game 6, a pair of comebacks reduced to dust, and in their own backyards to boot.
The two cities who have experienced the rare sensation of 3-0 turning into something special are — as probably it should be — New York and Boston.
The Knicks came achingly close to pulling off those ’51 Finals, after all. Twenty-four years later the nascent Islanders — in just their third year of existence — roared back from 0-3 down against the Penguins in the Cup quarterfinals, joining the Leafs as the only North American team to ever pull that off … and then nearly duplicated the feat a round later, forcing the defending-champ Flyers to Game 7 before Philly trotted out Kate Smith to halt the Isles’ storybook.
“It wasn’t just trying to win one game at a time, or one period at a time,” Chico Resch, the nexis of those Islanders, told me a few years ago. “It was one shift at a time. One minute at a time. You can’t do the bigger thing till you do the little stuff.”
In 1999 the Mets became the first baseball team in 96 years of postseason play to actually force a sixth game after being down 0-3, then lost a gut punch of a Game 6 in Atlanta after leading in both the eighth and 10th innings. It would be five years later when the Red Sox pulled off their forever 0-3 coup by winning four straight ALCS games.
And lest Boston feel too good about that — or about the Celtics still having a season to play for Monday night — there was 2010, when the Bruins not only blew a 3-0 lead in games but a 3-0 lead in Game 7 against the Flyers (though they’d earn some vindication a year later, finally ending a 39-year Cup drought).
New York even played a peripheral part of the other 0-3 rescue, when the Kings turned the tables on the Sharks and wound up going all the way — knocking off the Rangers in the Cup Finals.
“We played with fire,” Holzman said back in ’71, “and we nearly got burned. A good team makes it that far, they’re good enough to hurt you until you put them away. You’d better put them away.”