New York native Michael Rapaport, directed, produced and narrated the ESPN 30 For 30, When The Garden Was Eden, his impassioned tribute to a Knicks team that personified the city with grit, teamwork and a never-say-die attitude.
Based on the book by Harvey Araton, the film not only tells the story on the court, with interviews from Knicks greats Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley, Jerry Lucas and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, but also the climate away from it. The fires were just cooling from the civil rights movement, but this was also a time of marginal interest in NBA basketball, as the Knicks weren’t even the top draw at Madison Square Garden.
Rapaport spoke with SLAM about the film and the blue and orange.
SLAM: How important was it for you to tell this story?
Michael Rapaport: It was very important, I grew up in New York City loving basketball. As I started telling the story, I just realized it wasn’t just that the team won, it was how they won and who they were that resonated with New Yorkers at that time. This wasn’t something that was planned by the Knicks and those teams and the characters on the teams, the racial mix, the class and backgrounds of all these guys really represented New York. The guys are from all over the country and you have the Bill Bradley’s, to the Dick Barnett’s to the Willis Reed’s, it really represented a melting pot of characters and personalities and class.
New York is a basketball city, it’s the only city that I’ve ever been to where if you walk anywhere in any part New York, 20-30 blocks you’re going to see a basketball court, that’s unlike most cities, Chicago is a great basketball city, Los Angeles has enormous talent that comes out of there, but because the structure of New York City and of the make up of what it is, there’s basketball courts all over New York City and it is the city’s game.
SLAM: As a Knicks fan, was this the 30 For 30 you knew you were going to do or did you have other ideas?
MR: At one point, I was discussing with Phife from A Tribe Called Quest doing one on Chris Jackson from LSU, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. We were going to do that as a 30 For 30, but that just didn’t work out for whatever reason, and then we brought them the Knicks thing and that worked out.
SLAM: Which Knicks team do you think was better, the ‘69-70 squad or ‘72-73?
MR: I think the ‘72-73 team had more firepower. I think we had five left-handers on that team, that’s one of the things I regret not having in the film, there was like five left-handers on that team, you can’t plan that. I think the team had more depth, and they were more seasoned, they had Jerry Lucas, and we brought in Earl, so let’s go with the ’73 team.
SLAM: Who was your favorite interview?
MR: The thing about talking to all of them that was good is when you know you’re talking to them about the time of their lives. Even Phil Jackson, who has done so much in the NBA and outside of the NBA, when you talk about that time, it really is the time of his life. It meant to so much and it formed him to what he became. Bill Bradley was great, he ran for president, but the time of their life was that 8, 9, 10, 11 years with that team and that group of guys.
SLAM: Who are your top-five Knicks of all time?
MR: I would put Pat. I would put Willis at power forward, I’d have Bernard, I’d have Walt and I’d have Earl.
SLAM: You brought the film full circle with Phil Jackson’s hiring. What do you think it will take to bring the garden back to Eden?
MR: The only thing that will bring the garden back to Eden is winning. What we did in the 90’s won’t be enough at this point, the 90’s was close but no cigar and it was gut wrenching. The last 10 or 12 years have been horrifying at times, literally horrifying at times. The only thing that will do it, that will bring respect and dignity to the mecca of basketball is to win. We got to win a championship and if we can’t do it with Phil Jackson in his tenure, I don’t know what the fuck we’re going to do.
When The Garden Was Eden air son ESPN Tuesday October 21 at 9 p.m. EST.