Saturday, March 18, 2017

Dave Stallworth, 1941-2017

When you're a Knicks fan, and they haven't won an NBA Championship in your lifetime (or, in the case of myself, not a Knicks fan, in my memory), you hang on to those 1970 and 1973 titles tightly, as examples that it is possible. (See also: Nets' 1974 and 1976 ABA Championships, Jets' Super Bowl III win in 1969, Mets' 1969 and 1986 World Series wins, Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup win, Islanders' 4 straight Cups ending in 1983.)

So when you lose one of the men who won it, it touches your heart.

David A. Stallworth (neither his Wikipedia entry, nor his Basketball-Reference.com entry, nor his New York Times obituary says what the A stood for) was born on December 20, 1941, in Dallas, and went to that city's James Madison High School. (It also produced Neiman-Marcus co-founder Stanley Marcus, Hollywood producer Aaron Spelling, Kansas City Chiefs retired-number honoree Stone Johnson, and Pittsburgh Steeler All-Pro defensive end Dwight "Mad Dog" White.)

He went to Wichita State University in Kansas, leading them to their 1st NCAA Tournament bid, the 1965 NCAA Final Four, being named All-American twice, setting their career record for points per game, and earning the nickname Dave the Rave.

The New York Knicks took him with the 3rd pick in the 1965 NBA Draft. Wearing Number 9, he got off to a good start, finishing 2nd in the Rookie of the Year voting to Rick Barry of the San Francisco Warriors. But in March 1967, only 25 years old, he suffered a heart attack. He missed the next 2 seasons, but was cleared to play for 1969-70.

It's a good thing that he was. The Knicks reached the NBA Finals for the 1st time in 17 years, with a team featuring future Hall-of-Famers Willis Reed, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, and coached by another, William "Red" Holzman. Dick Barnett, while not yet elected to the Hall of Fame, would, like those others (save for Stallworth), have his uniform number retired by the Knicks: Frazier, 10; Barnett, 12; Reed, 19; DeBusschere, 22 and Bradley, 24. That Knicks team also had a young reserve forward named Phil Jackson -- yes, that Phil Jackson -- but he missed the entire season due to back surgery. (He would earn a ring in '73, though.)

But their Finals opponents would be the Los Angeles Lakers, with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich -- and a young backup guard named Pat Riley. Hall-of-Famers all. The Lakers hadn't won the NBA title since moving to Los Angeles in 1960. Counting their last Finals appearance in Minneapolis, they had lost their last 7 NBA Finals, including 4 of them in 7 games, including the previous year on their home court. They were every bit as motivated to finally win a title as the Knicks.

In Game 5 at Madison Square Garden, Reed, the Knicks' Captain, went down with a hip injury. This left Holzman to call on Stallworth to guard Chamberlain, the greatest basketball player who ever lived. (Don't tell me Michael Jordan and LeBron James were better. They weren't.) The Knicks trailed by 16 points. But Stallworth held Wilt off, and in the closing minutes, drove past him to the basket to make a layup, 2 of 10 points he scored in the 4th quarter, helping lead the Knicks to victory.

After the Lakers won Game 6 in Inglewood, Reed started Game 7, psyched the Lakers out, and the Knicks won. Dave the Rave had won a Championship, and he was not "just along for the ride," like Jackson: He was a key figure in that Finals.

On November 10, 1971, the Knicks traded Stallworth, Mike Riordan and cash to the Baltimore Bullets (the team now known as the Washington Wizards) for Earl "the Pearl" Monroe. He helped them win the 1973 title, and was also elected to the Hall of Fame, and also had his number retired (10 by the Bullets/Wizards, 15 by the Knicks). That Knick team also picked up another future Hall-of-Famer, Jerry Lucas (although he's never had a number retired, including his 32 by the Knicks).

The Bullets, who moved to Washington for the 1973-74 season, were a team in transition for more than that reason. Stallworth didn't help them much, and he was traded to the Phoenix Suns in 1974, but was released without playing for them. He returned to the Knicks for 7 games in the 1974-75 season, but that was the season after Reed, DeBusschere and Lucas retired, and they were in decline, too. Stallworth retired at age 33.
He went back to Wichita, and worked for airplane manufacturer Boeing. He died this past Thursday, March 16, 2017. He was 75 years old, and left behind a wife named Gloria.

His death leaves 10 surviving players from the 1970 NBA World Champion New York Knicks: Reed, Frazier, Bradley, Barnett, Jackson, Riordan, Cazzie Russell, Don May, John Warren and Bill Hosket. Nate Bowman died in 1984, and DeBusschere in 2003.

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