Dies at 78
By IRA BERKOW Published: November 15, 1998
Red Holzman, the Hall of Fame coach who led the New York Knicks to their only two National Basketball Association championships, died on Friday night at Long Island Jewish Hospital. He was 78.
Holzman, whose wife, Selma, died in July, died of complications from leukemia, their daughter, Gail Papelian, said.
When he retired from coaching in 1982, Holzman was the second-winningest coach in N.B.A. history, with a .535 winning percentage. His 696 victories in regular-season play were second then to Red Auerbach's 938, and the number of Holzman's triumphs as a Knick coach -- 613, by far the most in club history -- was retired on a Knick jersey and raised to the Madison Square Garden rafters in 1990.
Holzman was the molder, conductor and architect of one of the most unusual, most thrilling and, for the involved basketball fan, most gratifying teams ever assembled.
The 1970 and 1973 championship Knick teams -- the team lost in the finals in 1972 -- featured, in one or both seasons, Willis Reed at center; Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Cazzie Russell and Jerry Lucas at the forwards, and Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Dick Barnett at the guards. The teams brought an excitement to the Garden that the so-called Mecca of Basketball had rarely seen from hometown professional play.
The Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in a grueling seven-game series for their first title, and Holzman was named coach of the year. They beat the Lakers again in 1973, this time in five games.
Holzman was voted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1991, on the strength of his ability to successfully instill the basic precepts of the game into his team, and that was teamwork.
''I don't think there is such a thing as a coaching genius,'' Holzman said, ''just hard workers.''
Holzman's hard work revolved around the fundamentals of the game. ''I stressed defense -- pressure defense,'' he once said. ''And team basketball. And, on offense, moving the ball to hit the open man.'' In huddles he would sometimes let his players devise plays to create baskets. As for defense, however, he was the sole voice.
Holzman, a City College of New York all-American, a pioneer player in the N.B.A. with the Rochester Royals and a former coach with the Milwaukee and St. Louis Hawks, had been a scout for the Knicks when, in December 1967, the team president, Ned Irish, decided to replace the coach, Dick McGuire. The team was in last place, and Irish decided to reach out to the nearest candidate, which he presumed to be Holzman.
Holzman was not interested. ''I like scouting,'' he said.
But Irish persisted.
''And I realized that if I didn't take the coaching job,'' Holzman said, ''I might not have any job.''
Holzman began his Knick reign by fining several players for coming late to his first practice. The fines were for $10 each, but they set a tone. It might have been the only time a player had to smile when being leveled with a fine. But the other players were getting Holzman's drift.
To some, Holzman could be quite tough. ''During Red's early years, he was by design a super-authoritarian,'' Bradley said, ''and I was one of his targets for abuse. I would go for days without speaking to him. But his manner changed after we won the championship in 1970, and he became downright paternal and kind. Playing basketball became more fun than I had ever imagined.''
But on the sideline, the tail of Holzman's suit jacket flapping in the imaginary wind, he could be vociferous, particularly to referees. But he always seemed to keep his poise and sense of humor.
Bob Pettit, the Hall of Fame forward who played for Holzman as a rookie with the Milwaukee Hawks, recalled a halftime talk. ''He pulled out his wallet and showed us a picture of his young daughter,'' Pettit said. ''Red said: 'Isn't she pretty? Well, you guys are going to kill her if you keep playing this way. I'll get fired and I won't be able to feed her.' As I recall, we played a much better second half.''
After the Knicks made the playoffs in the season in which Holzman took over the club, he agreed to stay on as coach. In December of the next season, the team traded for DeBusschere, giving the Knicks a tremendous force around the basket, as a defensive forward and long-range shooter. It was the piece that made the difference.
Later, Holzman helped to engineer a trade that brought Monroe to the Knicks. Many thought the Knicks would need two basketballs, with Frazier and Monroe both needing to handle the ball in the backcourt. But under Holzman's guidance, the players fit in perfectly.
On the surface, Holzman seemed an uncomplicated man, but he had many layers. He liked to tell reporters that he was boring, and that they should look elsewhere for the good stories. One columnist wrote a piece in which he imagined Holzman disappearing in his office in a cloud of humility. But indeed he understood his value, and had a wide range of interests: he read history books and detective novels, and he was a lover of films, particularly the old ones, and of good food and drink.
He and his wife bought a house in Cedarhurst, N.Y., in the Five Towns section of Long Island in the 1950's, and stayed there all their lives, raising Gail, their only child in a 55-year marriage. But the house was as understated as Red Holzman's life seemed -- away from the basketball court, that is.
For a long time, the television in their den was not color. ''What's wrong with black and white?'' he said.
He had nine suits, he said, all the same color. ''Who's looking?'' he wanted to know.
He ordered his clothes by mail. ''They know my size,'' he said.
And he was a street philosopher of sorts, with such homemade axioms as, ''Never let a bald barber cut your hair.''
William Holzman was born on Aug. 10, 1920, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and moved with his family to a tenement in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn when he was 4 years old. His parents were Jewish immigrants, his mother from Romania, his father from Russia. His mother, Sophie, was, he said, ''a terrific cook and made every meal taste as if you were eating it for the first time in your life.'' His father, Abraham, was a tailor who discouraged his son from playing sports.
But ''Roita,'' Yiddish for Red, as the youngster was called -- Yiddish was the language Holzman grew up with -- became a standout athlete at Franklin K. Lane High School. In 1977, the school named its new sports facility the William Red Holzman Gymnasium.
Holzman was the tallest person in his family, at 5 feet 10 inches. He received a basketball scholarship to the University of Baltimore. ''But I missed the soul food that my mother made, and I was always hungry,'' he said. ''I missed my folks. I missed Selma. And after six months I transferred to City College of New York.''
He became an all-America guard for two seasons there for the legendary taskmaster-coach Nat Holman, whose basketball philosophies of aggressive defense, movement without the ball and hitting the open man formed the philosophies that Red would bring to perfection in his time as a coach.
In 1942, Holzman enlisted in the Navy and was placed in the morale unit on the base in Norfolk, Va. His job was to play basketball against other service and college teams, and he became friendly with a baseball player on the base, Phil Rizzuto. On one weekend pass, he returned to Brooklyn and married Selma.
Holzman went on to play nine seasons for the Royals, playing alongside such stars as Bobby Davies and Bobby Wanzer. He was an integral part of the N.B.A. championship team that beat the Knicks in a seven-game finals series in 1951 -- and was dribbling the ball, killing the clock and protecting the 4-point lead at game's end.
Holzman played briefly for the Milwaukee Hawks -- he finished his career with a 7.4-point scoring average and then took over as coach when the franchise moved to St. Louis in 1955 -- until midway through the 1956-57 season when, despite having taken the team to the playoffs the season before, he was replaced.
In 1959, Holzman was hired as chief scout for the Knicks, a move engineered by his pal Fuzzy Levane, then the coach of the Knicks. In an age before mass communications allowed for few secrets of prospects, Holzman beat the bushes, traveling across the country in search of talent. His recommendations included players like Reed and Frazier.
Holzman became general manager and coach of the Knicks and repaid a favor by hiring Levane as scout. But when the great Knick teams began to dissolve because of age and injuries, Holzman was fired in 1977 after the team missed the playoffs for the second straight year, and he was replaced by Reed. Two years later, he was brought back as coach and remained until after the 1981-82 season. With a new set of players, Holzman, then 62 and the oldest coach in the league, was unable to duplicate his earlier triumphs. He remained a consultant to the Knicks, and a valued elder statesman.
Besides his daughter, Holzman is survived by one grandchild.
Through the good days and bad, Holzman retained his sophisticated yet homespun composure. In winter he played mixed tennis doubles (''the women usually beat me, but I give them a workout''), and in summer he regularly went to an oceanside club near his home.
''I like to go to the beach,'' he said, lighting a cigar. ''It's a good life.''