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Walt Frazier on his Hall of Fame career, his way with words and his suit game

‘When I go to a tailor, I say, show me something you think nobody would ever wear’

OAKLAND, California — Walt Frazier is a two-time NBA champion with the New York Knicks, a seven-time NBA All-Star, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and his retired No. 10 Knicks jersey is hanging in the rafters in Madison Square Garden. But the 13-year NBA veteran is known more today for his flashy suits and his outstanding vernacular as a Knicks color analyst.

“When I’m at the Garden I hear kids say, ‘Dad, there is the Knick announcer. There is the guy that wears the crazy suits,’ ” Frazier said. “They rarely know my past. If they are 8 or 10 years old, they know me as the Knick announcer.”

Frazier recently sat down with The Undefeated before a Knicks game against the Golden State Warriors to talk about his Hall of Fame basketball career, how he got the nickname “Clyde,” his suit and word game, winning championships with the Knicks, and more.

Where did your love of fashion come from?

My dad. My dad was a good dresser. My brother is into clothes too, but he is not flashy like me. That is where it all started. And of course, I live in ‘The Mecca,’ New York City. When we played, everybody wore a suit and tie to every game trying to outdress each other.

[Knicks teammate] Dick Barnett was sharp. I used to copy where he went and got his suits made, his shirts made. Then, what set me apart was the hat. I bought the ‘Clyde’ hat at that time. As a rookie, I wasn’t playing good. So, to pacify myself, I would go shopping in every city. One day we were in Baltimore and I was looking in the window at a baseline [hat]. But it had a wide brim. Like, today they wear it narrow.

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So the first time I wore that hat, everybody laughed at me, my teammates, guys on the other team. So the next week [the movie] Bonnie and Clyde came out, so then people were saying, ‘Hey, Clyde.’ ‘Look at Clyde.’ That became my fashion image even until today with my endorsements.

What do you remember about your dad’s wardrobe?

He used to wear the coveralls with one [suspender] hanging over. Whatever he wore was pretty stylish. Shoes. He used to wear Stacy Adams. He was already dressed up.

Is your father who your clothing confidence comes from?

Yeah. And being in New York, you can be creative. They might look, but they don’t really say too much. But then, like with the hats, if I would have listened to them [my teammates and opponents], I would have stopped wearing the hats.

How many suits do you own?

Hundreds of suits. I haven’t gained that much weight, so I can still have them altered. I probably make 15 suits a year. I have lots of closets. What I do is put one rack high and one rack low so I can double the amount. I fold them and hang them in the same closet.

Do you have a journal to keep track of what suit you wore on what day?

There is a guy that critiques me every game for the last three years. The website is called ClydeSoFly. He grades me from A to D, so I have to make sure I don’t repeat myself because of this guy.

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How much money do you think you’ve spent on suits?

A lot. Fortunately, I have been able to endorse [the suit makers]. Most guys are paying $1,000. I am getting them for $500, $200. It depends. For most of these, I find my own fabric. I have a Chinese company. I selected this suit. Take the fabric to them and they make it. If I bring my own fabric, it may be half the price it normally would be to make a suit.

I like fashion. I like dressing up and mixing unusual combinations. So many people are paying attention. I’m like, ‘Hey, man, I am going to try it.’

Where do you like shopping for suits when you are on the road with the Knicks?

I just shop in New York. I don’t shop on the road anymore. I did back when I was younger as a rookie. But now, in between Seventh and Eighth avenues, Third and Fourth streets to 39th [in New York City] in the offseason, I just walk in and out of fabric stores. All those stores are old and have just fabric. Sometimes it takes me weeks, months sometimes, before I find anything.

I have so many. It has to be something provocative that I’m really excited about. Sometimes they recognize me. Sometimes they don’t. So what I do, I get swatches of the different fabric and take them all home and look at them. Once I get a different jacket, then you have to find a tie. Then once you get the tie, you get the shirt.

It’s a lot of fun. My tie maker, they all know what kind I like. When I go to a tailor, I say, ‘Show me something you think nobody would ever wear. That is probably what I’m leaning towards.’ They always think nobody would ever wear it.

Do you and fellow Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, color analyst of the Houston Rockets, have a suit competition going?

Yeah. We always chat when I’m down there. I told Calvin that he’s the best. I think he got me beat. He’s flamboyant. I don’t know where he comes up with his stuff in Houston. He doesn’t have the selection like I do in New York with the fabric houses. That is why I give him the kudos to pull that off in Houston.

What has been the key to your creative vernacular on the air?

With my style and creativity, I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want to use the same clichés. When they were using, ‘the man,’ I came up with ‘the catalyst.’ So I have books and books of words and phrases. When I first started I was on radio, which was the greatest thing for me, because on radio you can’t look at any notes. It’s about spontaneity. You have to spit it out.

Most radio color guys, you don’t even know they’re there. So that is why I had to come up with the words. So the guy I was working with, if I stumbled, he would say, ‘Excuse me, Walt.’ He would walk right over me. So when the team was doing something I would say, ‘They’re dishing and swishing. They’re bounding and astounding.’ That would be all I could get in before he would jump on me.

How do you reflect on your Hall of Fame basketball career? What kind of imprint do you think you have made?

It has totally changed now. My game was defense. Harassing people all over the court. Guys don’t play that kind of defense anymore. There is no hand-checking now. The game is all gone with the 3-ball. It is more offensive. But still, in order to win one of these [NBA championship rings], you still have to play some defense.

How did you fall in love with defense?

When I was [a freshman] in college [Southern Illinois], I was ineligible to play, so every day at practice the coach made me play defense. And I fell in love with defense. The way I would get back at the coach, it was me and four guys against the varsity. I would be creating so much havoc that the coach would say, ‘Frazier. Sit down.’ They couldn’t run any plays. I was stealing the ball, talking trash.

That is when I mastered the technique. The stance. If you ask me about any guy, I know whether he had that one step, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Earl ‘The Pearl’ [Monroe], Dave Bing, [Nate] ‘Tiny’ Archibald. I perfected the system.

What was it like to win an NBA championship in New York as you did with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973?

For the Knicks fan, it was the greatest. It’s been 45 years and counting. It will be almost 50 years in a couple of years. So for the Knicks fans, it was heaven. They had always been the Sixers’ and the Celtics’ doormat. Then the Knicks were finally on that level winning a championship.

We were on that level for like five years. We were in three Finals in five years. We beat the [Los Angeles] Lakers twice. They beat us once. I couldn’t spend any money in New York. Even now, I can’t spend any money. When the team is playing good, they’re like, ‘No, you can’t spend any money.’ They end up giving you everything.

What do you remember about the championship parade in New York?

We didn’t do like baseball did. We went to City Hall. A lot of people were there. The mayor, everybody. It was pretty phenomenal. But I never was all that enthralled with winning championships. … I won in high school. I won in college. So I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

My whole thing was I wanted to make it for my parents and take care of my family. I am the oldest of the nine kids. I have seven sisters and one brother. I really wanted to be an athlete. Working hard. Discipline.

The other thing about my dressing was the civil rights movement. Whenever we went out of town, we had to have our best clothes. You were not only representing yourself, you were representing your race. It’s etched in your mind everywhere you go. These guys with their pants hanging off their butts, they wouldn’t be in the league [back then] if they did that. You had to be a person of character.

Dennis Rodman couldn’t have played when we played in the ’60s. That type of black guy would have never been in this league [then]. You had to conform to the rules and be a nice guy no matter how much talent you had.

Did you deal with any racism in the NBA outside of New York?

Once you leave New York, just subtle stuff. [Ex-Knicks teammate] Willis Reed and them did. They had to go through segregation when they went to the South. I didn’t really have to experience that when I came in the NBA in ’67.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.