New York Knickerbockers’ star center Willis Reed died Tuesday at the age of 80. He was the heart and soul of a Knicks team that made it to the NBA Playoffs for seven years in a row from 1967 to 1973—winning the Championship twice in 1970 and 1973.
I’ll never forget that joyous night in May 1970 when the injured Willis Reed emerged from the Madison Square Garden tunnel to spur the Knicks to their game-seven victory over the Los Angeles Lakers to secure the first ever NBA Championship for the Knicks.
It was a time when the New York metropolitan area fanbase was split between the loyalist fans of the Yankees and the football Giants and the upstart fans of the Mets and Jets. Us loyalists were devastated by the recent demise of our storied Yankees and Giants as they plummeted to futility in the late sixties and early seventies. Our stars like Mickey Mantle and Frank Gifford were gone. Humiliation then set in when matinee-idol Joe “Willie” Namath and the Jets stunned the world with a Superbowl victory in January 1969 and Tom “Terrific” Seaver led the Mets to a startling World Series Championship later in October.
But then came our Knicks to the rescue. The ABA was in its infancy, so all eyes were on the NBA, and it seemed everyone; Yankee fans, Mets fans, Giant fans and Jet fans were all rooting for the Knicks. And the Knicks came through in thrilling fashion.
It is an understatement to say that Reed was the heart and soul of the Knicks. He was more than that. He was the glue that kept the team together. He was the Captain that made his talented teammates; Walt “Clyde” Frazier, “Dollar” Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnet, Phil “Action” Jackson and later Earl “the Pearl” Monroe and Jerry Lucas play a brand of team-oriented winning basketball rarely seen.
At 6-10 and 240-pounds Reed was a powerful presence at center for the Knicks. Yet he had the sweetest mid-range jumper of any center playing at that time. In his ten-year career with New York Reed averaged more than twenty points five straight seasons. He was an All-Star seven straight years. He won the NBA MVP in 1970 and was twice named the MVP of the playoffs. He was the first player to be named MVP for the All-Star game, the playoffs, and the NBA all in one season.
But he will always be remembered for that night in May. Reed sat out game six due to a deep thigh injury and the Lakers behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 45-point performance trounced the Knicks setting up the pivotal game seven in the garden. For us loyalist fans the game meant everything. But how could our team win without Willis? Our prayers were answered when Reed came limping out from that MSG tunnel, ready to tough it out on the court. He hit his first two jump shots and the garden crowd was electric. Reed inspired his teammates to a thorough 113-99 drubbing of the Lakers. And with star point guard Walt Frazier “dishing and swishing” his way to 36 points the Knicks were NBA Champions. Us loyalist fans had a measure of redemption, and the New York fandom was united in our jubilation.
Reed would go on to lead the Knicks to another Championship in 1973. The Knicks won that series against the Lakers in five games, and after his game five performance of 18 points and 12 rebounds Reed said, “it was my best playoff performance since the championship in 1970”. New York has not had another championship.
Born in Lico, Louisiana in 1942 Reed was a star player at Grambling State and a second-round pick by the Knicks in 1964. Reed retired after the 1974 season due to a severe case of tendonitis. His New York Knick teams are considered the best teams ever in New York basketball. Reed went on to have a successful coaching career leading the Knicks to the playoffs in 1978. He also coached Creighton and the New York Nets and then had successful working in the front office.
But Reed will always be remembered for that night in May 1970. That night of redemption.
RIP # 19.
A personal anecdote.
While reminiscing about Willis Reed a friend of mine told me a story about that night in May. He and a group of classmates were in Boston for a student council convention. They had gone through a grueling day of workshops covering such riveting topics as; the history of bicameral governing, Roberts Rules of Order and how to select a prom queen in the modern world of women’s lib. Prior to settling down in their hotel to watch game seven they agreed some liquid refreshment would be in order.
But this was 1970, our senior year (two years removed from the tumultuous year of my novel Mickey Mantle’s Last Home Run) and there was one problem. No one was old enough to purchase any beer. Fortunately, one member of the group looked older than his age, partly because he was trying to grow a goatee. He reverently referred to his emerging facial hair as his “Willis whiskers” in honor of his favorite basketball player Willis Reed. Sure enough he was able to successfully purchase several six pacts, flashing only his Willis whiskers and a big smile—no ID required. The group then sat back and enjoyed, in style, what forever will be known as “The Willis Reed Game”.
Yearbook, Official Guide and Record Book of the New York Knickerbockers Basketball Club 1973-74