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While most headlines focus on LeBron James winning his first National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, the average hoops fan may be unaware that a red-haired Jewish kid from the Lower East Side of Manhattan—who passed away in 1998—remains an impact player.
During the conference finals stage of this year’s NBA playoffs, sportscaster Marv Albert had said on the TNT network that the final four teams—James’s Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Boston Celtics—reminded him of the New York Knicks championship teams of the early 1970s. Those teams, coached by William “Red” Holzman, stressed pressure defense, moving the ball and hitting the open man.
Holzman’s Jewish immigrant parents called him “Roita,” Yiddish for red. His father came from Russia and his mother from Romania. But “Roita” was a New Yorker, born and bred. He first came to the attention of New Yorkers as a standout player for City College and the Rochester Royals, a team that beat the Knicks for the NBA championship in seven games in 1951.
Moreover, Holzman’s coaching skills earned him entry into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. According to Hall of Fame spokesman Matt Zeysing, Holzman was one of the great teachers of basketball.
“Holzman teams played basketball the way the game was meant to be played—hard, selfless, tough, and with a premium placed on teamwork and trust,” Zeysing told JNS.org. “He was one of the great minds in basketball and his championship teams helped earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. The Holzman era of basketball spanned five decades, and during that time Red touched the game at every level and the results were always spectacular.”
Heat general manager and former coach Pat Riley was inspired by Holzman, so much so that when he first took over as coach of the Knicks in 1991, the first thing he did was bring Holzman back to the organization.
Dennis D’Agostino, author of the book “Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks” and the team’s current historian and staff writer, knows the inside story about Riley and Red.
“Pat Riley was very instrumental in bringing Red back to the Knicks in a much more involved role as a consultant,” D’Agostino told JNS.org. “When Pat came in 1991 he even explored the possibility of bringing Red back to the bench as an assistant coach. Red declined because he didn’t want to take the thunder away from Pat. Pat actively sought Red’s advice and Red was involved in the draft and player moves. I remember Pat‘s first year we did a media guide with Red and Pat on the cover.”
In his 20 years working for the Knicks, D’Agostino had unparalleled access to key figures in Knicks history. Years of countless interviews and information gathering produced a candid, comprehensive insider's view of the Knickerbockers. Dozens of Knicks icons participated in D'Agostino's research and interviews, including Bill Bradley, Patrick Ewing and Phil Jackson.
Phil Jackson, who has won a record 11 NBA titles as a head coach, is “exhibit A” of Holzman’s inspiration, D’Agostino said. Jackson played on the 1970 and 1973 NBA champion Knicks, both coached by Holzman.
“Phil was hurt during the Knicks first championship year, so Red gave him things to do like scout and draw up a playbook. That’s how it started, ” D’Agastino said. “Red was Phil’s number one influence.”
Jackson told the New York Daily News in 2009 that Holzman is the reason he is a coach.
“He told me I would be a coach,” Jackson said. “He said, ‘You see the game.’ The one year I was sitting out injured, I asked him questions about coaching. He used to tell me, ‘It’s not rocket science, Phil. It’s not rocket science.’ He was pretty basic about his basketball: See the ball on defense and hit the open man on offense. But he also had a great feel for people and how to get them motivated.”
Holzman never forgot his teammates after their playing days were over. In a Knicks Now blog entry, D’Agostino wrote about the death of Holzman’s former roommate and friend Andrew “Fuzzy” Levane (who recently passed away at 92). Holzman and Levane were teammates in Rochester. In Milwaukee, Holzman hired Levane as his assistant and scout. Holzman would later succeed Levane as Atlanta Hawks coach in 1954, and when Levane joined the Knicks, he again hired Holzman as a scout. Holzman, of course, eventually won two titles as New York’s coach.
“It was Red Holzman who brought Fuzzy back to the Knicks, and that was only natural,” D’Agostino wrote. “Wherever you saw Red, you saw Fuzzy. They were inseparable, and the personal histories of the two New Yorkers were intertwined for half a century.”
While covering the NBA Finals in Oklahoma City, D’Agostino told JNS.org that he knew Holzman personally near the end of his life. Known for his sophisticated yet homespun humor, Holzman was a street philosopher, D’Agostino said, who uttered axioms like this gem: “Never let a bald barber cut your hair.”
In 1998, Holzman died at Long Island Jewish Hospital. His legacy persists not just on the courts of the NBA, but in the hearts of Knicks fans in the city and beyond—many of whom recognize that it takes hard work to succeed.
“Red Holzman embodied the immigrant philosophy of the work ethic,” D’Agostino said. “He was a product of where he lived, what his background was and the time in which he grew up. He was aware of the impact he had but he was so unassuming. You go, you do your job, and you go home.”