The Knicks Unknown Mastermind Behind Their First Title
The sports bar at The Residences at Plainview is the perfect place for Lenny Ginsberg. Just talking to him for a few minutes, you can hear his love for sports through all of the stories he reels off, unprompted.
He is amazed by what he can remember, sometimes appearing in a dream-like state while reminiscing, and pulling out scenes from a life that he can’t believe he’s lived.
Through circumstance, connections, and perhaps luck – being in the right place at the right time – he received some incredible opportunities, one of them being a Knicks assistant coach, although you’ll never see him in any photos or team books.
But his contribution to the 1970 title-winning team is arguably a huge reason why the Knicks won. He analyzed each and every game, jotting down even the most subtle flaws.
IT STARTS IN THE SCHOOLYARD
Although his parents didn’t care for sports, Ginsberg found happiness through them, especially basketball.
Born in Kew Gardens, Queens, Ginsberg said his affinity for the game all started partly out of circumstance.
“I was poor and the high school didn’t have a football team,” he said. “You’d take the basketball, go to the schoolyard, and shoot by yourself.”
Ginsberg, #10, seen here in team photo at Forest Hills High School.
In the schoolyard, he was playing with boys who would eventually go on to play at top universities, including Ossie Schectman, who scored the first two points in the NBA.
Ginsberg sat on the bench at Forest Hills High School but did get his moments on the court.
He went to Queens College to be an engineer and then transferred to Adelphi, majoring in physical education.
Basketball had been an afterthought.
BASKETBALL STARTS TO TAKE EFFECT
It wasn’t until he started working at a Jewish sleepaway camp in the Poconos when he first realized his passion for the game.
“That’s where basketball really started taking effect,” he said. “That’s where I started getting my coaching experience – during the summers.”
At Camp Keeyumah, he was a counselor with the famed Brown brothers, Larry and Herb, who went on to coach together in the NBA, winning a championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004.
After graduating from college, he almost had no choice but to enlist in the Army due to military draft policy; recent college graduates were banned from teaching for one year if they were categorized as service class 1-A, denoting availability for military service.
During his time in Fort Hood, Texas, he joined the post’s basketball league. He said his team made it to the championship game and won, beating a stacked lineup of professional and college athletes including Brooks Robinson and Don Elston.
“We beat them and they shipped us out because we weren’t supposed win,” Ginsburg said, smirking while telling the story.
Once he was relieved of duty, he came back to New York and started teaching in Queens. He coached basketball for two junior high schools in Astoria and Flushing until a very attractive opportunity came calling.
His friend, Herb Brown, was the head coach at Stony Brook University and offered him a job as an assistant. So, he took it.
AN NBA CHAMPION
His summers, though, were still spent at camp. The Knicks would send some players for a week to teach the campers. One year, Ginsberg was asked to chauffeur the Knicks head coach at the time, Red Holzman, to Monticello Raceway for the day. He made quite the impression.
Ginsberg coached the freshman team at Stony Brook University in 1968-69.
Holzman offered Ginsberg a job with the Knicks not long after that encounter. The job was to analyze each game in real-time.
This was more than 50 years ago and considered a highly innovative position for sports during this time.
“[Red] was a tremendous, tremendous guy,” Ginsberg said. “He was 24/7. He was unbelievable. He would sit and he can talk basketball all day and night.”
Ginsberg would sit at the end of the bench throughout the season and take notes about the Knicks’ opportunities and threats. While the Knicks were running plays, he was responsible for catching mistakes.
He had a front row seat watching Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, and Bill Bradley. This was a year of Knicks history not yet understood, but soon was cemented as one of the most memorable teams in New York sports.
For many people, they remember Game Seven of the NBA Finals when Willis Reed played through a torn thigh muscle for almost the entire first half. It inspired his teammates and the Knicks were crowned the 1970 champions, their first title ever.
“It was the greatest team I ever saw in my life,” he said. “This was basketball – the old Garden. It was a way of life to kids like myself.”
STILL A COACH BUT IN BUSINESS
That was Ginsberg’s last season coaching basketball. He had to choose basketball or his wife.
“I wanted to be a college coach or professional coach,” he said.
But his heart had different plans. He wanted a family and to work a 9-to-5 rather than those late nights that he was used to.
After the Knicks, he worked for a financial firm, and then opened a Public Storage facility in Melville as the principal manager.
One year, while he was at a company convention in Phoenix, Arizona, he was asked to spend time with the guest speaker who was arriving early. Ginsberg had no idea who the speaker was going to be until John Wooden walked through the door. Wooden is known as one of the greatest minds to ever coach basketball, winning 10 NCAA titles with UCLA.
“I spent two of the most glorious hours of my life talking to this man,” Ginsberg said.
But that interaction didn’t change his mindset about his lifestyle. He was definitely retired from coaching basketball. That interaction, though, did provide enlightenment, he says, in making him a better businessman due to the motivational style and approach that he learned from Wooden.
“They called me coach when I was in business,” Ginsberg said. “That was my job. My job was to recruit, train motivate.”
After his branch went out of business, he started selling life insurance, frequently advertising on the radio and making guest appearances on a variety of shows.
And then up until his retirement, he owned laundromats around Long Island.
“I kept myself busy,” he said.
At 86 years old, He’s now staying busy during his time at The Residences at Plainview, joining the various events that the community hosts.
He said he specifically chose his apartment because the style reminded him of home. His entranceway is filled with artwork.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I have a sensitive side,” he said.
Part of that sensitive side is the love of his friendships that he’s gained because of the game he loves most.
His conversations with friends no longer revolve around basketball; it’s mostly about their well-being and personal lives.
But basketball definitely comes up, and sometimes he wonders if those years were just a fantasy that he lived.
“It goes by very quickly, it goes by very quickly,” he said.