It was a leading question, nearly rhetorical, and Walt Frazier was on to it fast when he was asked if there were any one player from his glory days with the Knicks that James Harden reminded him of.
He needed only a second or three before taking a figurative look in the mirror.
“Yeah, me,” Frazier told The Vertical while sitting courtside before a recent game at Madison Square Garden. “Because he makes it look so easy. He’s so composed, so in control, and it’s so rare now to see a guy, especially of his caliber, that’s not going all helter-skelter.”
Frazier, also a defensive stalwart, was referring strictly to the offensive end when he spoke of Harden’s minimalist grace, his canny and seemingly effortless knack of getting to where he needs to go. In his day, that was how Frazier operated, to the point where critics accused him of loafing, not caring, all the way to the only two titles the Knicks have ever won and ultimately into the Hall of Fame.
Millennials may be interested to know that Frazier – a lead guard (before there was such positional designation) who helped define NBA chic during the late 1960s and throughout the loud sartorial decade that followed – also wore a poker game face that included a stylish beard.
Just one not as long, noticeable and certainly less marketable than that rabbinical tangle of growth stretching far south of Harden’s chin.
As much as we are tempted to make this about appearance, it is more about aura, about a throwback approach to the days when it was constructive to be calm, cool to be cool, and the blank expression and penetrating eyes gave away nothing. Now basketball, in step with a greater culture of audacity and showmanship that knows few limits, is largely inhabited by serial chest bumpers, fist shakers and primal screamers.
This is no get-off-my-lawn condemnation, and not even that determined of a complaint, just a wistful concession that so many players in too many sports feel the need to punctuate their brilliant athleticism with a choreography of gyrations. They react and overreact to the 24-hour television highlights cycle and, especially in basketball arenas, to the pulsating, pounding, bleating and adrenalin-overdosing phenomenon known as the NBA in-game experience.
When, exactly, did it become so uncool to be cool, a behavioral transgression to be punished by banishment to the Tim Duncan School of Proper Comportment in San Antonio? Hard to say, though we all have a memory or two of when it was obvious that the pendulum had swung too far in one direction, creating a vacuum in stylistic diversity.
Here’s one that comes to mind: In early 1996, Magic Johnson made a brief comeback to the Lakers, debuting on a January evening against the Warriors. Early in the game, he missed one of his long unorthodox jumpers from the right wing. The rebound went high into the lane to Vlade Divac, who quick-touched a pass back to Magic.
With the young Latrell Sprewell in his way, Magic faked a shovel pass in the direction of the baseline, where no one was present. Sprewell lunged, nearly out of bounds. Magic dribbled into the vacated space, laid the ball in gently off the glass and jogged casually up court with barely a glance back.
Had that scenario been reversed, Sprewell would no doubt have seized the opportunity to read Magic the riot act, howl to the retired jerseys in the old Great Western Forum. Even two decades ago, at that moment, Magic stood out as an anachronism, a fading, dying breed.
How understated on the court was Walt Frazier? He never was hit with a technical foul. He didn’t even retaliate when clocked in the back of the head by the Baltimore Bullets’ Phil Chenier, who was aiming for Bill Bradley.
He was the oldest of nine kids, the one in control. And a school coach gave him, as a temperamental young teen, a good piece of advice. “He said, ‘Frazier, don’t lose your head, your brains are in it,’ ” Frazier said.
His practiced poker face served him well against the greats of his day, Jerry West and Oscar, too. But he has watched the game evolve the past three decades with bemusement from his perch in the Knicks’ television broadcast booth.
“I’ve wondered if I’d be doing the same things these guys are doing,” he said. “I have to say I don’t think I would be showing all that emotion, caught up with hoopla and pageantry, all the three fingers to the head thing, like Carmelo [Anthony].”
In the ranking of committed stoics, Harden is no Kawhi Leonard, the model Spur now that Duncan has retired. Compared to Leonard, Harden is Russell Westbrook. In early December, after Leonard canned a decisive jumper in the final seconds against the Wizards, he went crazy, for him, with the wimpiest of fist pumps on his way back to the bench for a timeout.
“And look at the Spurs,” Frazier said. “No tattoos. No yelling. No controversies. They just win, and nobody cares about them.”
That’s an overstatement of sorts. Leonard, an MVP candidate along with Harden, Westbrook and LeBron James, is increasingly recognized as the best two-way player in the league. But Frazier’s point that “it’s easier to get attention when you have the gimmicks and glitz” is well taken.
With his commercial popularity soaring, can Harden – perhaps along with an emerging Leonard – pull that pendulum back some, impress upon a fair share of young wannabes that there may be a price to pay for all the screaming and styling? Can they convince the kids that cool is not only cool, it’s practical?
“Harden, he might play another 20 years the way he rarely wastes emotion or energy, is always under control,” Frazier said. “Every move he makes has a purpose. In that respect, mostly, he reminds me of me.”
Frazier, wearing a sports coat that looked like it was peeled off a leopard, got up to leave, reminding us that clothes don’t make the man, or at least the player, and to understand his likeness with Harden, one must go beyond the beard.
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