Belatedly Learning That Father Knows Best, Walt Frazier III Tries to Be a Clyde Off the Old Block

updated 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

A primal scene is unfolding in a gym on New York's Upper West Side. A father and son are playing, or shall we say waging, a game of one-on-one basketball. As they fake, grunt and battle for position, Walt "Clyde" Frazier, 43, a member of pro basketball's Hall of Fame, is talking trash with his son, Walt Frazier III, a 21-year-old Ivy League point guard.

"This will be fast and painless," promises Clyde, drilling a jumper. Still lithe at his playing weight of 205 lbs., the 6'4" former New York Knicks captain pulls up and shoots. Yes, he hits. "That's a familiar scenario," he crows.

"You talk a good game," says Walt, wasting no breath. He fakes left, goes right and bulls his way to the basket. Although he doesn't have his father's finesse, the 6'2", 190-lb. Walt has youth and strength on his side. A senior at the University of Pennsylvania, Walt, the team's captain, leads Penn in scoring, assists and minutes played. "He's our leader," says coach Tom Schneider. "All the kids really look up to him."

Yet good as he is, Walt III knows he's no Clyde. "You're the only Division I player who can't whup his old man," needled one classmate recently. For years the younger Frazier, awed by his father's achievements, found it easier to mimic Clyde's cool than to embrace his fierce, nearly puritanical basketball work ethic. "A lot of kids want to make it," says Clyde. "The question is, are they willing to sacrifice?"

Until recently, that was a question Walt preferred to avoid. An economics major with a 3.2 grade-point average, Walt had been thinking M.B.A. after graduation. Now he's thinking NBA.

"You're looking at history," says Clyde, going up for a shot. He misses, and Walt pulls down the rebound.

"You are history," he says with a laugh.

In his junior year at the University of Southern Illinois, Walt Frazier Jr. married Marsha Clark, his college sweetheart. Soon afterward, Walt III was born. But just after Frazier graduated, the couple filed for divorce. Marsha moved to Chicago with the baby and became a teacher. Walt Jr., chosen by the Knicks in the first round of the 1967 draft, moved to Manhattan and became the toast of the town. Within a year or two, he was emerging from his white Rolls-Royce with gorgeous women on his arm, delighting photographers with his mink coats and trademark Bonnie-and-Clyde Borsalino—the hat that gave him his nickname. But Clyde wasn't all show; he had the numbers to match the life-style. Seven times an All-Star in his 13-year career, he led the Knicks to NBA championships in 1970 and 1973 and still owns team records for career points, assists and minutes played.

There was a price, of course; father and son could spend time together only during the summer. They, would see movies, ride horses or pedal through Central Park on a bicycle built for two. And, from the time Walt was 15, they'd test their relationship in the crucible of one-on-one. "The thing that made it frustrating," says young Walt, "was not so much that he always beat me, but that he'd always be saying, 'Walt, you know you can't beat me.' "

Though Clyde neither encouraged nor discouraged him, Walt took up basketball at Chicago's Whitney Young High School. The first time his dad saw him play, Walt was in 10th grade. "I was so touched, all I could do was cry," Clyde says. "There was so much of me in him."

Like his father, Walt could shoot, pass and think on his feet. But those feet moved as if clad in cement. "I told him he was slow and needed to lose 15 lbs.," Clyde says. "Trouble was, he loved to pig out."

Hunger, real and metaphorical, became the issue dividing father and son. Clyde had grown up poor, the oldest of nine kids in Atlanta. "When you opened my refrigerator," he says, "you were blinded by the light." Walt grew up middle class. "When you opened his refrigerator," says Clyde, "all you saw was food."

Hard as he partied, Clyde always worked harder. Not so Walt. Clyde gave Walt a jump rope to quicken his feet. It went unused. He gave him exercises to improve his lateral movement. Nada. He encouraged Walt to eat fruits and vegetables. "He laughed." says Clyde.

"I guess I'm like any other kid," says Walt. "I didn't really take heed."

But don't get the idea that Walt was a wastrel. "I always stressed his being a good kid and a good student," says Clyde. From an early age, Walt was both.

With superior academic credentials, Walt was accepted at Penn. But during his first two years on the basketball team, he rarely was allowed off the bench. When he asked his father for sympathy, he got the sort of hectoring he was used to—and was used to ignoring. "He thought I should work harder," says Walt.

The summer before his junior year, "the light really went on," says Walt. "The coach didn't have any plans for me. A lot of people were saying I couldn't do it." It was like his father's flinging down the one-on-one gauntlet. Only this time it was in public, and it hurt. Walt started running and working out. He and his girlfriend, Tanya McRae, went on diets together, and he quickly lost 15 lbs. Walt had always been a savvy playmaker. Now he could execute what before he could only envision. "There was a tremendous difference in his play," Clyde acknowledges.

In his junior year Walt became a starter, averaging 13 points and four assists a game. This season Penn is in contention for the Ivy League crown. The pro draft is in June. Clyde, a TV analyst on Knick and Atlanta Hawk broadcasts, isn't holding his breath. "I don't see Walt's future in the NBA," he says frankly. Admits Walt: "It's a long shot. But I'd just like the opportunity to try out."

Father and son are bathed in sweat. Frazier fils seems to be getting quicker—or is it just père pooping out? Even though he jogs two to six miles a day, Clyde's legs are clearly going. Yet his needling is as pointed as ever. "Remember that game in Chicago where you almost fainted?" he rasps. "I can't hear you," calls Walt, banking in a nifty reverse lay-up.

Suddenly it's over. For the first time ever, Walt III has beaten his old man in a match, four games to three. "I think I got him now," Walt exults, throwing his arm around Clyde. "Got him for good!" Clyde beams. There's a hungry look in the kid's eye. His dad has waited a long time to see it.

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