Michael Rapaport is an avid Knicks fan, and one of the most passionately recognizable ones at that. Despite now making a home in Los Angeles these days, the actor can be found at The World’s Most Famous Arena all the time throughout the season, as he always finds time to support his team.
Since watching Bernard King and his other favorite players don orange and blue under the tutelage of a qualified coach like Hubie Brown, Rapaport too has suffered through the thick and thin of the team’s most recent struggles, much like the city’s other fellow hungry fans.
The team’s fan base undoubtedly desires to experience Knickerbocker success, perhaps in the form of a forthcoming championship. The organization is hoping that the recent hire of championship player turned Hall of Fame NBA coach Phil Jackson as President of Basketball Operations will ultimately spark something else special to follow in the near future.
But in the meantime, Rapaport has provided fans with a look back at those oh so memorable glory days back in the 1970’s, when the Knicks were champions, not only of the NBA, but their own city as well. His latest directorial effort, When the Garden was Eden, gives way to a nostalgic time, while also providing his audience with optimism for what’s to come.
The actor/director spoke with KnicksJournal.com and discussed the film, his thoughts on Jackson’s return, what he learned while making the film, and what he believes fans may go on to take away from it as well. For more, continue reading below.
Q: Your new film, When the Garden Was Eden, highlights the glory days and championship years of the New York Knicks. Despite the team’s recent struggles, you are able to provide fans with a bit of optimism by recognizing the recent hiring of Phil Jackson. How did that development work out with the timing of the film?
A: We couldn’t have predicted the timing [of Phil Jackson getting hired as it relates to the release of the film]. We started filming at the end of 2012-13 season. We started filming a year ago, so things were better with the team. We made the playoffs and had a solid record.
The timing of the film and the Phil thing works out, because by the time this comes out and everyone gets to see, the Phil Jackson frenzy will be at an all-time high. That’ll be at the beginning of next season. Expectations will be high and the hype will be there.
As a Knicks fan, I think that Phil coming back is what we needed. It’s the best case scenario. There’s been so much craziness and uncertainty. It’s been such a weird time. To have him come back gives us the most legitimate chance at becoming a title contender. That’s the only thing that’s acceptable. We’re not going to rebuild. We need to win a championship, Anything less than that is unacceptable, Phil is the best man to do it, at least in this tenure with Carmelo Anthony and this group of guys. It’s an exciting time. It’s been frustrating, but I think there’s hope and new energy. Changes will be made over the summer, so hopefully we’ll get ready to start moving forward.
Q: The Knicks have to find that ultimate formula for success once again. Having talked to so many champions while preparing to make this film, what would you say made those old school teams so great?
A: Going back and exploring, I was able to really learn about those teams. I think what made them successful was that they were just a group of guys who made the sacrifice. They did what was necessary to win. It came together organically. Guys were drafted and/or traded for, but it was well thought out and planned. I think it was a perfect storm of guys who just gelled and played the game the way it was meant to be played. They played to win. It was selfless basketball. The closest thing we have now, that is reminiscent of [those Knicks teams] is the San Antonio Spurs. I think they played in a system that was beneficial for a group, rather than one individual. Moving the ball meant hitting the open man.
Red Holzman is someone I think cannot be taken for granted. He had everyone’s respect. He had all their ears. They followed his lead. Those Knicks teams had a good mix of young talent and veterans. It was a perfect storm at a perfect time in the perfect place to become this legendary team.
Q: This story has been told before, so what do you think fans will be able to take away and learn from your prospective of it all?
A: As far as it basketball goes, the film goes into story details. I think the biggest thing that we got from the film was sort of being able to see the players, icons, and legends simply as humans. I’m very proud of the tone of our interviews. Everyone has seen Phil Jackson interview for years, but I feel like you get a sense for who he is.
Willis Reed has always been stoic and very serious in all his interviews that I’ve ever seen from him in my whole life. But in this one, he’s just joking around and was playful. Same thing with Walt “Clyde” Frazier. I think you get a sense of who they are as people. For me, I’m not revealing anything that hasn’t been spoken about before. But I didn’t realize the smallness of the league [at that time], and its salaries. These guys were drafted into the NBA thinking it was just sort of a side thing. This wasn’t the end-all, be-all, as far as making money in their lives. The pay was so low.
But you get a feel for who all these guys are as people. The interviews are very relaxed. There’s a real sense of humor from all the guys.
Q: What do you think winning the two championships, and that team in particular, did for New York City as a whole?
A: The impact that they had on New York is enormous. Before they won, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden were not a place to be. But the NBA wasn’t anywhere close to where it is today. College basketball was the king here. The NBA hadn’t gotten over the hump with people who really loved basketball. But when the Knicks won with those characters — Bill Bradley and Reed, and the drama of his moment, and Frazier, with his persona of Clyde —, they were able to manufacture something that was embraced in New York. The league took off, and that team’s [legacy] is part of the fabric and texture of New York City and NYC sports.
Q: You’ve had a terrific acting career over the years, but the two documentaries you’ve directed have reflected two of your passions. First up was Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest back in 2011. That expressed your love for hip-hop, and now this latest film helps you reflect on your love for hoops. From a personal perspective, was this most recent project a dream come true?
A: It’s definitely been a dream come true. Getting close to all of these guys and finding out more about what it takes to be a professional basketball player was something that I’ve always been curious about because it’s what I wanted to do as a kid. That was my dream. But to be a New Yorker and tell the story about this team was very fulfilling. It was challenging, but I’m very proud of it. I’m excited for people to see the movie when it finally airs. The Tribeca Film Festival was a great start and great presentation. Doing it here in front of New Yorkers was the best case scenario. It was a great start, and now I’m excited for the masses to see it and for that team’s legacy to live on.
Q: So, as a guy like Phil Jackson returns to the Big Apple hoping to recapture and bring back some of that same greatness, what are you looking forward to as a Knicks fan?
A: I’m looking forward to us winning, and winning in a way that’s classy and respectable. We can earn it. We’ve been through enough, so I’m looking forward to us turning the team around to something we can be proud of. It can something that represents the city. The city’s game is basketball, so the team should be something that represents us. That’s what I’m hoping will happen.
Obviously (hiring) Phil is a great start, but we need the players and some unified spirits next. The NBA is so competitive. It won’t be easy, but I think we can do it. If they can win a championship here in New York City, the parade would be something else!