The New York Knicks are at the start of a lengthy rebuilding project. Any realistic chances of title contention are at least a few years away, so it’s fitting that ESPN is looking to the team’s much rosier history to kick off its coverage of the 2014-15 NBA season. Michael Rapaport’s second documentary feature, When the Garden Was Eden, will air as part of ESPN’s “30 For 30” series this fall. The film, which Rapaport narrates with his unmistakable New York accent, focuses on the Knicks’ championship runs in the 1969-70 and 1972-73 seasons. While Eden is interested in the larger historical significance of these championships, contending that they helped move professional basketball from the margins to the mainstream in New York, it is more inclined to study the characters that populated the roster. Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Phil Jackson, and other players lend considerable insights and anecdotes, helping the film stand out just enough from the barrage of other remember-the-good-ol-days documentaries that have cycled and recycled on ESPN Classic for the last 15 years. The contributions from pundits are mercifully limited (especially in light of Bob Ryan’s involvement). Instead, the players are given control of the storytelling, and the result feels like reminiscing with old friends at a bar.
Eden opens to a Madison Square Garden and an NBA that look nothing like what we see today. The old Garden had a battered floor and barely managed to maintain regulation playing conditions. The smoke-filled stands were occupied by gamblers, who were opportunists rather than true fans. In New York, baseball, football, and even college basketball outpaced the NBA in popularity; NBA Finals games aired on tape delay well after primetime hours. But Willis Reed’s 1964 arrival caught the public interest, and the Knicks spent most of the rest of the decade assembling a team around him. The film introduces each new player one by one, building anticipation for the moment when the team would come together in excellence.
Walt Frazier is a standout, his decades of broadcasting experience helping him tell personal stories with charm and humor. But Jerry Lucas turns in the most memorable performance, demonstrating his knack for “spelling words alphabetically” (“cat” spelled alphabetically is “A-C-T,” he informs us without skipping a beat) and detailing his knack for memory tricks that led him to co-author a bestselling book. Lucas, Frazier, and other personalities guide us through the two championships of their era, and through the Knicks’ transformation from a second-class organization beloved by old, white gamblers, to a city-wide phenomenon that captured the hearts of women, children, and minorities.
Unlike many of ESPN’s other “30 for 30” documentaries, Eden opts not to present any darker facets of its overwhelmingly joyous narrative. There is very little exploration of social or cultural issues (other than fleeting references to the military draft and the Martin Luther King assassination), and no emotional turmoil is brought to light. Perhaps no compelling conflicts were there for the taking, but it’s more likely that Rapaport and company chose not to delve too far beneath the surface. Rapaport is no stranger to projects that look beyond the glory of professional sports. He had a prominent and memorable role in 2009’s dark comedy Big Fan, which portrays the psychological breakdown of an obsessed New York Giants fan.
As much as it would have been nice to see some complications explored (such as the financial hardships experienced by all but the most decorated old-school NBAers), the documentary is effective as a crowd-pleasing romp. For nostalgic Knicks fans, it’s required viewing. Others may find that it’s a bit scant, or that it wears it hometown bias a little too obviously. But Rapaport is wise to let the players do the talking, and this is the film’s saving grace. After all, most of these men are in their late sixties or early seventies, and this may be the last time we see all of their perspectives coming together. When the Garden Was Eden is a fun 80 minutes, and a worthy addition to ESPN’s slate of documentaries.