This is a story that some know and many don't. It's a story that pre-dates the "Hoop Dream" and the Coney Island boys of The Last Shot, and it's a story that continues to resonate and disrupt. In some ways its located in the moral universe of Walton's World (discussed in previous post.) In some ways it undermines and challenges Big Red, for it adds an element of social injustice that is not central to Walton's worldview. And in some ways it's steeped in the language of Scoop Jackson.
But the Legend of the Puma Clyde claims a longer lineage. It dates back to a segregated America. It's a story with a triumphant narrative that harkens back to the Civil Rights era, to "Race Rebels," to the Olympics in Berlin and Mexico City, to Jesse Owens, to Thomas Smith and Lee Evans, to fur, to style, to Joe Namath and Pele, to the floor of Studio 54. And in this way, it is far different than the tragic disillusionment of the early '90s "Hoop Dream."
In some ways it's the story of the Puma Clyde. It's really, however, the legend of Walt Frazier.
Like any legend, the Puma Clyde's origins are diffuse. Let's begin with a bit of etymology. I was surprised to learn that a puma is actually no different than a cougar. "Cougar" from the Brazilian Tupi through Portuguese ("çuçuarana"); while "puma" comes from the Quechua of Peru through Spanish.
But Puma sneaks were actually German.* In 1924, in a small Bavarian town not far from Nuremberg, two brothers Rudolph and Adolf ("Adi") started the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) out of their mother's laundromat. Twelve years later, with a suitcase full of shoes, Adi trekked to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin and convinced Jesse Owens to wear his shoes. Well, Jesse did good and the the Dassler brothers' little shoe business exploded.
But, there was a problem. The brothers were Nazi Party members. And, as the story goes, when Allied soldiers arrested Rudolf, he "was convinced that his brother had turned him in." (from Barbara Smit, Pitch Invasion.) In 1948 the brothers split their company. Adi called his new company Adidas. Rudolf changed his company's name to PUMA Schuhfabrik Rudolf Dassler.
As Smit described, "More or less in the middle of the night, Rudolf Dassler packed his bags and moved on the other side of the little river...From there on in, the town was really split in two like a sort of mini Berlin with this little river as a partition in the middle...The town became known as the town where people tend to look down because you'd always tend to look at shoes the person is wearing before you strike up a conversation."
The first Pumas, the Atom, appeared that year on the West German soccer team and first landed in the US in 1950. The shoe battle raged on for decades as the brothers competed by throwing money at athletes to wear their shoes.
The Puma "King" was born in 1968, the same year the cat logo debuted. Its defining feature: suede. That year, wearing the "Kings," Black Power trackthletes Thomas Smith and Lee Evans won gold in the Mexico City Olympics. In 1973 the "Kings" were rechristened the "Clyde" named after the cool-catster ballericon, Walt "Clyde" Frazier. It was the first signature shoe named for a basketball player.
The brothers Dassler never reconciled. Ruda died in 1974, Adi four years later. "Although both are buried in the same cemetary, they are spaced apart as far as possible." Fittingly it was at the end of the Cold War--the year the Berlin Wall came down--that Ruda's sons sold off their shares and went public with the Puma company.
And though the Puma is often associated with style over substance in the bball world, the Puma reigns supreme in the world leagues of soccer. A little flagonometry from Wiki:
National football teams sponsored by Puma:
"At the 2006 FIFA World cup, in 36 of the 64 games, at least one team playing was wearing clothing sponsored and made by Puma."
Some notable Puma-wearers over the years: Pele, Joe Namath, Marcus Allen, and Lothar Matthaus.
But the Legend of the Puma Clyde is not really about mothers' laundromats, Nazi Party membership, a little river in Bavaria, or even shoes. It's about a baller, a "race rebel." It's the story of Walt "Clyde" Frazier. There are different tellings of Clyde's life, and they differ in some details. But the story is meant to function more as legend than historical reconstruction. A tale of upward mobility and insistent individuality. The individual who triumphs over social injustice.
Like Walton's World, the Clyde Legend is steeped in a melodramatic past. It's grounded in recollections better captured by flashes of memory than linear narratives. Writers don't try to reconstruct the facts about Clyde, they lay down impressionistic, metaphor-laden, "jazzy" prose. They try to capture the style in which he played and lived. And when taken together, these journalistic riffs build the legend:
From Wiki: "He learned basketball on a rutted and dirt playground, the only facility available at his all-black school in the racially segregated South of the 1950s."
From Stuffmagazine: "Walt Frazier, the Knicks
point guard/pop star was the city’s dapper don long before John Gotti
put his first stiff in a body bag. On the court, he called the shots
for a team that won two titles in four years. On the street, he was the
supreme emperor of suave. 'I defined a look,' he says. 'All of a
sudden, everybody was copying what I was wearing—and these weren’t
exactly low-key threads.' Unless you think of Huggy Bear as a
"Clyde was the poster child for an era. Part Superfly, part Shaft, he was all the rage to fans, the press and obviously the ladies. When Clyde cruised around town, a crowd inevitably came in tow. Even on the stylish and sometimes outrageous streets of Manhattan, he was hard to miss. When Clyde stepped out, it was on vertigo-inducing platform shoes and with a cane, which he used as a backup to make sure he didn’t break his neck. He was a six-foot-four-inch (6’8” in heels) mink-coat-wearin’ mountain, capped by the wide-brimmed hat that bought him the nickname [after Bonnie and Clyde hat] he still comfortably wears today."
From nba.com, "Part of Frazier's defensive success lay in keeping his distance. 'I don't believe in contact defense,' Frazier said in 1971. 'I like to keep them guessing where I am. I have the advantage because my hands are so quick. It's like I'm playing possum; I'm there but I don't look like I'm there. They're relaxed more than if you're up there pressuring them all the time. That's when they get careless.'"
From Hoopedia: "Monroe continued to be a key figure in the series of Bullets-Knicks playoffs that followed -- a bitterly contested, long-running saga in which the two clubs faced each other in six consecutive years from 1969 to 1974. The series offered exciting games and dream matchups, the best of all being the duel between Monroe and the cool, stylish Walt 'Clyde' Frazier. Both stars had entered the NBA the same year (Frazier was drafted by the Knicks three notches below Monroe) and each was called upon to guard the other during games.
"Defensive wizard Frazier often battled Monroe to a standoff, but he likened guarding Monroe to 'watching a horror movie.' After one skirmish Frazier marveled, 'You'd have to knock him out to stop him. He gets his body between you and the ball so you can't get at it. Yet, he seems so relaxed. He doesn't show a bit of pressure.'"
From Swindlemagazine: "When Puma first approached Frazier, asking him to endorse his own shoe in 1973, it was such a novel idea that his NBA friends didn’t even know enough to be jealous. 'It was no big deal because nobody knew what it would evolve into. Nobody knew I was getting paid!' Now well into its third decade of production, the Puma Clyde is as popular as ever, even if most of its wearers today don’t make the connection between Clyde the player and Clyde the shoe. 'People don’t always know what the Clyde means, but they know that the shoe is called the Clyde!' Frazier laughs. Basketball, ironically, is one of the few activities in which the Clyde hasn’t played a significant role over the years. Instead, it became an icon of hip-hop and European soccer, and its durable suede and grippy sole made it the first great skateboarding shoe."
And yet the story seemed destined for a sad ending.
From nba.com: In 1973 "Frazier was stunned by the trade but dutifully reported to Cleveland after a decade in the Manhattan limelight. The move did not, however, restore the on-court skills of his prime. Partly hampered by repeated foot injuries, Frazier played in only 66 games over portions of three seasons in Cleveland before the Cavaliers put him on waivers three games into the 1979-80 campaign...moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands and obtained a charter-boat captain's license. But he lost both a home and a boat to Hurricane Hugo."
But in one more reversal, Clyde returned to the commentary chair in the "most famous arena in the world," for the team that had made him a star. And this is an important facet to the legend. It was not about a cultural rebel who only found solace in the taste of an LSD tab. The story does not end with a misunderstood artist found destitute and dead in an alley, never appreciated in his lifetime.
No, the story is structured as a tale of the outsider becoming an insider. Not in the selling out way, but in that the moral is one of being accepted as an individual in the mainstream. According to this logic, Clyde would not have been satisfied sailing off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. Because as much as he aimed to remain true to his own style, his roots, his personality, Clyde wanted American culture to change for him, not for him to have to change. And, as the story goes, it did.
From the Basketball HOF: "With his Rolls Royce, knee-length fur coats, and stylish fedora hats, Knicks superstar Walt Frazier was the toast of New York City from 1967 to 1977. On the court, Frazier was super cool. His quick hands on defense combined with his calm, cool, and collected demeanor earned him the nickname "Clyde."
Of course there are many iterations of the Legend of the Puma Clyde. One centers not on Frazier, but on Earl Monroe, known in Walton's World as "the Pearl" but in Clyde's legend as "Black Jesus." While the protagonist changed, the story is the same.
As Mike Wise wrote in the Washington Post,
"Monroe was less a symbol of basketball's evolution than society's. He was not a free-flowing player as much as an ideal -- a pirouetting vision of black empowerment, who married sport and pop culture long before Jordan. Something about his loping gait, his easygoing, 'don't-worry-I-got-this-game' smile -- Monroe and teammate Walt Frazier's style and panache flat-out reflected the zeitgeist of 1970s New York.
"Clyde and the Pearl in fur on Friday night -- that was how to live.
"The Black Jesus tale isn't even my favorite Monroe story. No, you have to bring in Miles Davis for that one. The man who gave us 'Birth of the Cool' often would telephone the embodiment of cool courtside."
And so, with the bust in Springfield, his "pro-voc'a-tif" stylins on the MSG network, his own dictionary, his own shoe, Walt Frazier became an icon. And so the story ends?