“In the locker room,” Clyde Frazier said, “no one knew if Willis Reed would play or not.”
Reed, the New York Knicks’ starting center, tore a muscle in his right leg in Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals and missed the Knicks’ Game 6 loss in Los Angeles. The Knicks were a “team” in the truest sense of the word, but Reed was the league’s MVP that season.
And not wanting to ever look back at that night with regret, Reed took a cortisone shot and walked out onto the Madison Square Garden floor to join his teammates in their pregame warm-ups.
It’s the most iconic moment in Knicks franchise history.
“Here comes Willis!” Marv Albert announced on the radio broadcast. The MSG crowd was jubilant. The Los Angeles Lakers … not so much.
“At that moment,” Dave DeBusschere said, “I looked down at the Lakers, and they all stopped shooting. And as the roar got deafening, I remember looking at [Jerry] West, looking at [Wilt] Chamberlain … I looked at [Elgin] Baylor. And they all … like their faces dropped. And at that moment, I felt, ‘They’re defeated.’ In my mind, they were defeated then.”
The game still had to be played, and Reed scored the first two points, draining an elbow jumper on the Knicks’ first possession.
He sunk another jumper and Frazier (36 points and 19 assists) took over from there. With Reed hobbling up and down the floor for 27 minutes, the Knicks blew out the Lakers in Game 7 to win their first championship.
Reed’s resume goes well beyond the toughness he displayed on May 8, 1970. But that night certainly speaks to his value as a leader.
Reed grew up on a farm in Louisiana and attended Grambling State University, winning an NAIA championship as a freshman. After averaging 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds as a senior, he was selected by the Knicks with the eighth pick in the 1964 Draft.
When Reed entered the league, he bet on himself, negotiating a rookie-year bonus with Knicks general manager Fred Podesta.
He more than earned that extra $2,500, averaging 19.4 points and 14.7 rebounds and earning Rookie of the Year honors, as well as the first of seven-straight All-Star selections.
Reed was an undersized center at 6-foot-9, but it was his move to the five (when the Knicks acquired DeBusschere in 1968) that turned the Knicks into a championship team. And Reed was, arguably, the best shooting big man of his era, with his ability to space the floor key to the Knicks’ egalitarian offense.
But Reed still played the role of traditional pivot man. He was a center who could shoot from the perimeter, but also play big on both ends of the floor, protecting the rim and scoring inside. His career highlights include monster blocks and post work against some of the best players in NBA history.
Of course, Reed’s value to the Knicks went beyond what he did on the court. Countless players in the history of professional sports have been named captain of their respective teams. But few have retained “The Captain” as a permanent nickname. Reed is one of those chosen few, attesting to the reverence he earned from his teammates and fans.
“Willis was our leader,” Bill Bradley said. “He was the big man. He was the enforcer. He was the guy who had the unusual combination of delicate touch and awesome strength.”
In Nov. 1970, Reed outdueled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor), scoring 34 points on 15-for-27 shooting as the Knicks beat the eventual-champion Bucks in Milwaukee.
The Knicks would lose to Baltimore in the Eastern Conference finals that season. And Reed played in only 11 games the following season. But New York returned to glory in the 1972-73 season, and Reed was once again named Finals MVP as the Knicks eliminated the Lakers in five games.
Injuries limited Reed to just 30 games (including playoffs) in the 1973-74 season. He retired in
1974 and just two years later, was the first Knick to have his number retired. He served as coach of both the Knicks (1977-79) and the New Jersey Nets (1987-89) before moving up to front offices of the Nets and New Orleans Hornets. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.