By Mark Vaccaro
May 8, 2020 | 7:01am
In a half-moment of fate, George Kalinsky was faced with a most difficult predicament. He’d been back to the home-team locker room a couple of times to check in on a friend of his named Willis Reed, his face a visor of agony, as he tried to find the strength to walk onto the basketball floor at Madison Square Garden.
Kalinsky was on his way back in when the door flung open.
There was Reed. He was upright, but looked like a man just breaking in new legs for the first time. Compassion was Kalinsky’s first instinct: Lend this man your shoulder, help him on his wobbly way through the dark tunnel, onto the court, into the brilliant canyon of sound that awaited him. Of course that’s what he wanted to do.
But Kalinsky, the Garden’s photographer, understood something else: History beckoned, and not just for Reed. Around his neck was a camera that in Kalinsky’s hands, for more than a half-century, has been this photographer’s equivalent of an artist’s palette and canvas.
Others might make history, but Kalinsky’s mission has always been to freeze those historic moments, whether it is Mick Jagger singing “Honky Tonk Woman” or Jesse Orosco flinging his mitt into the cold October sky, whether it’s Mark Messier’s eyes feasting upon the first Rangers Stanley Cup in 54 years or Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier exchanging haymakers in the first of their Fights of the Century.
“I had to let him pass,” Kalinsky remembers fully 50 years later. “I knew I had to follow him and stay behind him. Some of it is instinct. Some of it is sense. But I knew.”
The world had fully gone to hell that first week of May 1970. On Monday, four students had been gunned down by rifle fire on the campus of Kent State University, after gathering to protest the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. Saturday, President Nixon would make a surprise predawn visit to the Lincoln Memorial to talk with some of the 100,000 who’d gathered to march on The Mall that day, helping to ensure a peaceful demonstration.
But Friday, May 8, in all the places in basketball New York worth talking about, the only subject on anyone’s lips was the Knicks, slated to play Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers, trying to win the first championship in franchise history despite the thigh injury that had derailed their center, captain, and MVP two games earlier.
Kalinsky had captured that moment, too, a forever image of Reed’s face, in closeup, writhing in agony on the Garden floor.
“I’d figured that would be my best picture of the year,” Kalinsky says.
Kalinsky had already earned a seismic reputation with his camera. Three years earlier, in town to interview for a job at the Miami Herald, Kalinsky found himself outside the famed Fifth Street Gym and saw Howard Cosell, whom he knew from back home. Cosell brought him inside and introduced him to Ali, training for a fight with Ernie Terrell.
That friendship helped turn “from the lens of George Kalinsky” into six of the most familiar words to anyone who grew up at the Garden. A few years later, before a particularly huge fight in Zaire, Kalinsky would advise his friend, off the cuff, that maybe part of his strategy to defeat mighty George Foreman would be to tire him out.
“You want me to be a Rope-A-Dope?” Ali asked, incredulously.
So this was no twist of fortune for George Kalinsky, every bit as skilled as the subjects he shot. He let Reed pass. He heard the Garden nearly implode with a roar that’s never really left his ears, or his memory. And he clicked. Once. Just once. He had no idea what he had until a few hours later, but in the quiet of his darkroom he saw it was awfully good.
There was Willis, approaching the Knicks’ layup line, every fan on their feet. A photograph doesn’t come with a soundtrack, of course. Somehow, this one does.
“The loudest noise I’ve ever heard,” Kalinsky says.
He looked at the other side of the floor. Twenty minutes earlier, amid the will-he-or-won’t-he buzz, Wilt Chamberlain had approached.
“George,” the Big Dipper asked, “is Willis gonna play?”
Jerry West had heard the question, and he wasn’t pleased. Kalinsky told Wilt, whom he liked very much, “Wilt, you shouldn’t worry about him. Worry about you.” Later West would tell Kalinsky that was his worst moment, ever, on a basketball court.
“I knew we were dead,” he said.
They were, of course. Reed would, famously, only hit two early buckets but would elevate the whole building with his courage. The night belonged to Walt Frazier, another Kalinsky favorite (naturally, it was Kalinsky’s candid pictures that helped create, and popularize “Clyde”), who had 36 points and 19 assists.
The Knicks led by as many as 30, cruised home 113-99, and in the locker room Kalinsky got another famous shot, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere pouring champagne over the head of his friend, Cosell, working the game for ABC.
Also a good one. But Kalinsky had already snapped the photo of the year. Maybe a lifetime.