When the Garden Was Eden
Directed by Michael Rapaport
It was Game 5 of the 1970 NBA finals. A tight series between the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks might have turned when Knicks star Willis Reed went down with a leg injury. Reed—the captain of the team, the league MVP, and the toughest bastard in basketball—missed the rest of the game (a Knicks win), as well as the next won (which the Lakers took), and he was officially listed as unlikely to play in the seventh and deciding game of the series.
It wasn’t Reed’s style to give in so easily, however. During warmups, he hobbled onto the court at Madison Square Garden, and the crowd went bananas. The call from ABC announcer Marv Albert (a lifelong Knicks fan) is iconic: “Here comes Willis!”
Reed scored the first two baskets of the game as he truly struggled up and down the court. While he didn’t do much else, he galvanized a capacity crowd and inspired his teammates—exactly like a good captain should. New York won the game and the series, which gave the franchise its first title in history. The moment, meanwhile, became so iconic, so straight out of a storybook, that one wonders if it didn’t actually inspire cinematic sports fiction that would follow.
It’s also the dramatic high point of a terrific documentary from director Michael Rapaport (yes, the actor who happens to be New York personified). When the Garden Was Eden is Rapaport’s love letter to the basketball players and culture that defined his youth and, for a while, defined his city. It’s repeated many times throughout the film—by Rapaport’s narration and some of the players interviewed (Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Bill Bradley among them)—that the Knicks of the late 1960s and early 1970s played “New York basketball.” They were hard-nosed and scrappy, not afraid of a fight against their opponents but very warm and brotherly toward one another.
From a filmmaking perspective, When the Garden Was Eden fits very much within ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 framework. A dazzling array of basketball talents have been assembled; in addition to the three Knicks superstars mentioned above, the film features interviews with Knicks reserve and the greatest basketball coach of all time Phil Jackson, the puzzling and bizarre Jerry Lucas, and Lakers great Jerry West, who played against the Knicks in the 1970 championship series. Somewhat ironically, the film’s Tribeca premiere occurred mere hours after the television premiere of Bad Boys, another new basketball-themed 30 for 30, which surpasses When the Garden Was Eden in terms of natural drama in its story but falls a little short in the good, clean fun department.
If When the Garden Was Eden is lacking anywhere, it’s in parlaying to its audience why the Knicks were so important to New York at that time. It’s a theme that’s spoken of often, but it never gets fleshed out in any meaningful or resonant way. Off-court excitement isn’t completely absent, mind you; there are great segments on the players’ pitiful salaries in the 1960s and their mandatory public service during the Vietnam era. Mostly, though, When the Garden Was Eden wants to tell (which it does successfully and satisfyingly) a story of a great basketball team somewhat forgotten by time. In doing so, it gets at the origins of things like Phil Jackson’s coaching career and the immense pressure New Yorkers have placed on their (sometimes pitiful) Knicks’ shoulders over time.
— John Gilpatrick