Could Walt Frazier Have Been the Mahomes of His Day?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The basketball great’s first love was the gridiron.
By Jon Gold
The Year of the Black Quarterback was officially cemented in February, as Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes claimed Super Bowl MVP honors, just one day after fellow African American signal-callers Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray claimed league MVP and Associated Press offensive rookie of the year honors, respectively. It was the first time three Black quarterbacks have won all three awards in the same season, and all three are under 25 years old. A new era, it seems.
Fifty years ago, this would have been unheard of.
Even one prominent Black quarterback would have been. Before 1970, only two African American quarterbacks had started games for NFL teams: Denver’s Marlin Briscoe and Buffalo’s James Harris.
Standing outside the visitors’ locker room in Madison Square Garden 10 days after Mahomes, Jackson and Murray were crowned, the man who might have predated them all can only shake his head and laugh.
Walt Frazier, the New York Knicks legend and the greatest Black quarterback you’ve never heard of, has just finished regaling Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse with one of his million stories. Nurse is in hysterics; Frazier is in a jacket-and-tie combination that manages to feature every color in the prism.
Right now, the only thing brighter than Frazier’s suit is his smile.
More than five decades after his football dreams were squashed, Frazier beams, even as he talks about a life that could have been his.
Before blossoming into the greatest Knick of them all — Sir Clyde — Frazier was but a high school quarterback with a dream and a powerful arm. He played for David T. Howard High School in Atlanta, the school that had graduated Martin Luther King Jr. and Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson.
Frazier’s heroes in those days were not on the hardwood of the basketball court but on the high grass of the football field. There was no one sweeter than Johnny Unitas.
“If you kicked it to us, and we were past the 25-yard line, I was throwing that bomb, like Johnny U, man,” Frazier says.
His was a good team; his football teammates his closest friends.
“We had some tenacious guys,” Frazier says, wistfully. “A little running back. They had no fear, the way they played the game. And I was an extension of the coach. When the coaches taped my knee, he always gave me the game plan. ‘Walt, do this. Try this today.’”
In Beginnings: Walt Frazier, a 2018 mini-documentary on his childhood for MSG Networks, the Knicks great said, “I actually liked football better than basketball. Especially in the South. Football is king here.” In 1975, he told the New York Times that “football was my favorite sport and I had more scholarship offers for football than for basketball. But I decided to concentrate on basketball, because I wanted to be a pro athlete, and there were no Black quarterbacks in the NFL at the time.”
Basketball might not even have been the second choice for Frazier, also an accomplished baseball player in his day.
But football was always No. 1, and it would’ve been his calling, if he had seen a path forward. College coaches tried to recruit him for a different position, but Frazier didn’t think it would have suited him. He was born to be a leader, born to be a quarterback. But …
“They didn’t let us play quarterback,” Frazier says. “They’d switch us to wide receiver or defensive back, and I wasn’t fast enough. I wanted to go pro. I’m the oldest of nine kids; I used to pray at night, ‘God, please let me be a football player, a basketball player, a baseball player to help my mom.’ That was my only thinking. If there are no Black quarterbacks, I’m not going to make it to the NFL. It was an easy decision for me, when I went to college, to stick with basketball.”
As Frazier talks about the greats of today’s game, he has an appreciation for what Black quarterbacks have overcome. Some of the same ill attitudes remain. Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens’ terrific second-year star and unanimous MVP, faced questions about his quarterbacking abilities in the lead-up to the draft.
“In the ’70s, ’80s, they would’ve been stigmatized for being runners only,” Frazier says. “That’s how the game has changed now. Everything is speed.… Unitas would have trouble playing today.” Could Frazier have become one of football’s pioneers? Was he even good enough? History would never find out.
Frazier chose to attend Southern Illinois University, becoming a Division II All-American twice in his first two years. After the Salukis moved up to Division I, in 1967, he led the team to an NIT championship over Marquette at Madison Square Garden.
Frazier went on to become a two-time NBA champion and seven-time All-Star for the Knicks, a fashion icon and a King of New York. As consolation prizes go, his wasn’t half bad.
“It was timing,” he says. “Timing was everything, being in the right place at the right time. It was my destiny.”
- Jon Gold, OZY Author Contact Jon Gold