When Rick Wrabel was 12 years old and living in Norwalk, CT nearly 50 years ago, he and his parents had lunch at a local International House of Pancakes (yes, long before it simply became IHOP). The restaurant’s paper placemats had pictures of the 1969-70 New York Knicks. Little did he know at the time that the free souvenir would see the world and take him on a 20-year odyssey.
Young Rick took the placemat home that day and then watched the Knicks win their first NBA championship. Twenty-seven years later, having carted it with him through 20 household moves, he decided to try and track down the ten players whose faces adorned the fornt.
“Over the years, I don’t know how in the world it survived,’’ Wrabel told The New York Post. “But it did.’’
He started in 1996 with Red Holzman, hoping the team’s old coach might know the whereabouts of his former players and could help with the project. Holzman only encouraged him to contact the Knicks but that effort went nowhere so Wrabel set out on his own.
Much like Merrill Shaffer, the Steelers fan who wrote a book about tracking down the 22 players who played on all four Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl teams in the Chuck Noll era, Wrabel hustled his way to success, but it took him 21 years. Some of his exchanges with players provided lifelong memories while a couple of others were less than smooth.
He missed out on Holzman, who died a couple of years after answering Wrabel’s letter but wasn’t pictured on the placemat anyway. The search for the players provided plenty of memorable moments.
Guard Dick Barnett, who became a professor, signed with his usual last name only signature of “Barnett” after Wrabel startled him in his makeshift office.
A pleasant meeting with Bill Bradley, then a U.S. Senator, turned testy.
Willis Reed regaled him with tales of the title team.
Prior to Dave Stallworth’s death, Wrabel found a gateway through the player’s old college-which put the placemat on display and then mailed it back.
He needed the help of John Warren’s family to get the last signature.
The Post caught up with Wrabel who told the tale of a project he says drove his wife crazy.