by Dennis D’Agostino
For better or worse, there was a hardscrabble edge, a New York beat, to every aspect of Dean Meminger’s life.
His game, his life, belonged at once and forever to the city long before he wore a Knicks uniform. New York already knew him. . .from the streets and the gyms, to Rice High School (where he was named All-City three straight years), to Marquette University, where he played for another New York gym rat, Al McGuire. . .to what was then called the New Garden, where he won MVP honors at the 1970 NIT and a year later put one of the few blemishes on Fordham’s fabled 26-3 year by leading the Warriors to an overtime victory before a packed house.
When he was drafted by the Knicks in 1971 and wound up deep on the backcourt depth chart behind Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and Dick Barnett, his style was already well-established. Not silky-smooth like Clyde nor a ballhandling wizard like Monroe nor a pure (if unorthodox) shooter like Barnett, Meminger was much more of a pest, at 6-foot-1 a persistent supergnat who would get into an opponent’s head (and jock) on the defensive end while altering the game’s tempo offensively.
And all the while, purely a city kid, one of the very few from the New York streets who was a part of the Knicks during the glory days of the early ‘70s. That in itself made him special. He was the toughest of competitors, yet had a little-boy quality that endeared him to his teammates and those around him.
“I never had a car in New York,” he would say decades later. “Why would I need a car in New York? I had a relationship with people. I was an All-American in high school, I was an All-American in college. So the same people that saw me play, I have a relationship with them. So why am I hiding? What do I have to hide from? They would think I’m crazy if I did that.
“And my relationship with New York was a little different from Clyde’s and Earl’s. They were out-of-towners.”
Meminger’s defining moment as a Knick came in his second season. The stat line from his signature game --- Game Seven of the 1973 East Finals against the Celtics --- is pretty pedestrian: 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting, six rebounds and three assists in 36 bench minutes.
But the legend far overshadows the numbers: How the Knicks, down by three after the first 12 minutes, had already committed seven turnovers. How Jo Jo White, who had driven the Knicks in general and Monroe in particular nothing less than crazy over six games, already had six points. How the Knicks, who were on the verge of blowing a three-games-to-one lead against a team which had never lost a Game Seven of a Playoff series, were searching for an answer, any answer, amid the ghosts that lurked in the old Causeway Street barn. And how it took a kid right from the New York streets to say, I got this.
“During the timeout, in between the first and second quarter, I checked in, came back to the huddle, and said, `Look, we got ‘em. We got ‘em just where we want ‘em. And I got Jo Jo. He’s mine.’ “ recalled Dean. “And I knew if we could lock down Jo Jo, we’d win.”
Meminger related this story nearly 30 years later in the old Garden press room, when he suddenly ordered his interviewer to his feet and proceeded to demonstrate the defensive technique that turned Game Seven around on that long-ago Boston Sunday. Hand-checking was legal back in 1973, and three decades later it was demonstrated --- painfully --- on an unsuspecting witness.
“I learned to play people’s tendencies,” said Meminger. “And they had hand-checking then. So one of the things I did with Jo Jo was hand-check him on the right and make him go left.”
Dean the Dream was in and Monroe was out to start the second quarter. He scored nine of the Knicks’ 26 points in the period, holding White to just two, drawing an offensive foul from Jo Jo as well as a steal, as the Knicks headed into the half with a five-point lead. They never trailed again en route to the 94-78 win that put them in the Finals against the Lakers and on the fast track to their second championship. The pest had prevailed.
Another enduring Knicks legend is how The Dream and his roommate, Monroe, celebrated the title-clinching Game Five win in Los Angeles, which ended around 1:30 a.m. New York time. . .with room service and late-night TV in their hotel room prior to the next day’s equally-subdued flight back home.
Meminger parlayed that afternoon in Boston into a six-year NBA career, with two separate Knicks stints wrapped around two years in Atlanta. He spent the next decade trying to gain a foothold within the game.
He popped up again at the Garden as the head coach of a long-forgotten women’s team called the New York Stars, who played most of their home contests as preliminaries to Knicks games. In his one year as coach, he led the Stars to the championship of the WBL (the forerunner of today’s WNBA) in the very last game the franchise played before it folded.
Then came an ill-fated stint in the CBA in Albany, where he was fired as coach and then talked his successor, an old teammate named Phil Jackson, into giving him a tryout as a player. Those days were gone, but Meminger moved on to college coaching jobs that were all too brief.
Dean could always come back to New York, and so he did. And those same streets that embraced him later conspired to consume him.
He was never far from the Garden, often spotted roaming the halls on Knicks game nights, searching for familiar faces. He was always ready with a smile and a hug and a small quip, but now his life had taken a hard turn.
Often, when Meminger’s name came up, the reply was “How did he look?” or “Is he OK?” For now the drugs had taken hold and would never fully let him go. Dean would put up a brave front, get clean for long periods and raise the hopes of those who loved him, and then would drift off again.
He could never shake the demons, and he would never recover from losing his Bronx home in a ghastly fire a few years back. But this past April, he stood amid his teammates from that 1973 Championship team on the occasion of its 40th anniversary and smiled that Dean smile at center court, one more time.
And those who could not attend that night invariably asked “How did he look?” and “Is he OK?” The answers came with grim finality in late August, when they found him in a Harlem hotel room. He was 65.
Dean the Dream was a city kid and the city’s own, in the best and worst sense. The city never stopped cheering him. Maybe now he hears the cheers again.
by Dennis D’Agostino