SLAM: Were you always a flashy dresser?
CF: No. Believe it or not, I wore penny loafers and button-down shirts in college, but when I came to the fashion capital of the world, I went a little wild. I always had the taste but not the money and on the team we had good dressers like Willis and Dick Barnett, so they inspired me.
SLAM: Willis told me that the whole Clyde thing is an act and you are really a nice, quiet conservative guy.
CF: Yeah. I’m two different people. Walt is basically quiet and shy and Clyde was a guy who came on at midnight and thrived from 12 to four. He liked the limelight and liked to have a good time. But most of the time I’m Walt. You’re talking to Walt right now.
SLAM: Walt, what would have happened on your Knicks team if someone shot 2-for-18 in a final game of a championship series, the way John Starks did in ’94?
CF: That wouldn’t have happened. If someone were that off and kept firing away, Willis would have pulled him aside and put an end to it immediately. He would have said, “You’re not hitting any shots, so do something else. Pass the ball, rebound, play defense.”
SLAM: So that type of thing was left up to Willis and the other players, rather than coming down from Red?
CF: For the most part. Red was a player’s coach. He treated us like men. He let us put in plays and call shots, as long as we were winning-he could be a real tyrant if we were losing. And off the court, he respected us. He didn’t want to know what we were doing and we never had curfews. And we didn’t need them. I remember one time in the playoffs, I was coming back into the hotel late and I ran into Willis in the hall. He said, “Where you coming from, man? You’re messing with my money.” I slipped back into my room and knew not to do that again. Problem solved.
SLAM: You had one of the first shoe endorsement deals, with Puma, wearing what became known as the Clydes.
CF: This guy came to me and said they would give me $5,000 to wear shoes, which was unheard of. Companies gave guys free shoes, but not money. But I thought the shoes were dreadful, very clunky, hard and inflexible. They told me they’d make some up especially for me, and right after that we started winning and the shoes came out in the rainbow of colors and became very popular.
SLAM: The guys on your Knicks team have had a lot of success in life, doing different things. Looking back, is the path that each individual has taken predictable?
CF: I’d say yes with one big exception: None of us would have predicted that Phil Jackson would be where he is today, because he was a maverick, very anti-establishment guy. He was a mediocre player and he’s become one of the best coaches ever. He had the knowledge, but would he make the sacrifice? I would have said no. He had problems with anything rule-oriented, like dressing up on the road. I didn’t really see him wanting to get into a team concept, being in charge of a team and having got imposed discipline, though I think he idolized Red Holzman and learned a lot from him.
SLAM: You averaged two points more per game in the playoffs than the regular season. How do you explain that?
CF: Yeah, if you look at most superstars that wold be the case. I also scored more on the road than at home. That’s what separates a very good player from a great player-they’re going to step up when other guys aren’t comfortable doing so: on the road, in the last five minutes of a game and in the playoffs.
SLAM: Who did the best job defending you?
CF: Jerry Sloan, with whom I had a great rivalry since college, when he was a star at Evansville, Norm Van Lier and Joe Caldwell, who played for the Hawks.
SLAM: When you were a player, you were quite vocal about no enjoying returning to the South due to the racism. Do you still feel it when you go back down there?
CF: Yes, though certainly not as much. I’ll tell you this: Sports have done more to desegregate the country than anything. If not for sports, I think it would still be the way it was. That has brought people together for a common goal: Winning.
SLAM: You once had 15 steals in a game. Is it true your hands were so fast that you could steal the hubcaps of a moving car?
CF: That was just a rumor. [laughs] I was blessed with fast hands. There was nothing I did to improve that, but most of my steals came when I was out of position and I was able to gamble because of the great team defense we played. And I would set guys up. Say I know I can take the ball off someone at the start of a game. It won’t have an impact so I’ll let him do that all game and get comfortable and when the game’s on the line, I’ll make a steal that will change the momentum. So many people think that talent is the key to being great, but everyone in the League has talent. To rise above, you have to be smart.
SLAM: Willis limping onto the court in Game Seven of the ’70 Finals is one of the most famous moments in hoops history. What is your strongest recollection of it?
CF: The Lakers standing around flabbergasted. West, Baylor and everyone standing there staring at Willis. That’s when I said to myself, “Hey, we got these guys.” It should have been an advantage to them really, because Willis could barely move. They should have just smothered him and made him dribble, but I think they were kind of shell-shocked. Anyhow, I think it was destiny. If we played the Lakers five more times, I don’t think we would have beaten them once.
SLAM: You’ve said that Wilt was the greatest ever. Would you rank Jordan second?
CF: No. I’d go with Jabbar. What are the criteria for the people who say Jordan is the greatest? He doesn’t have the most championships-Russell does. He doesn’t have the most points-Kareem does. He wasn’t the most versatile-Oscar Robertson was. And he wasn’t the most dominant-Wilt was.
SLAM: Who would be your all-time top five?
CF: If I could just pick guys regardless of position, it would be a lot easier, because I’d have to go with Chamberlain, Jabbar, Russell, Robertson and West. But how would I leave out Elgin Baylor, Bird, Magic and Jordan? All these guys are right in there.
SLAM: It’s also hard to compare eras. How can you compare George Mikan to Shaq, Bob Cousy to Magic Johnson?
CF: Those guys couldn’t play today. George Mikan would be too slow and awkward. I’m not sure about Cousy; he was great but he shot a set shot! How are you going to get that off today? From the 60′s on, people could compete and still be great today. In fact, we’d be better because we scored with guys clinging to us. They could shove you. Now they can’t touch you. Who’s going to guard Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or myself without being able to put a hand on us? No one. And we could hit that midrange jumper, which nobody can do today. It’s always wide open, and we would not miss those shots. Today there’s no way to stop any great offensive player. That’s why Iverson can score so much while shooting 42 percent, and it’s why Shaq has run amok.
Every team has four or five coaches and what do they all do? Free throw shooting is atrocious. Perimeter shooting is a joke. Don’t they ever work on that stuff?
SLAM: What made you one of the 50 greatest players of all time?
CF: I shot almost 50 percent from the field, and they weren’t layups. Today, if you shoot 42 percent from the backcourt, that’s good. I took 15 shots a game to average almost 20 points, and I was happy with that because I was into team play, playing defense and winning.