Allegany Communications Sports
Willis Reed, the Hall of Fame center of the New York Knicks from 1964 through 1974, died on Tuesday at age 80. And though I spent most of my Wonder Years in that time as a fan of the Baltimore Bullets, and not the hated Knicks (until Earl Monroe was traded to them), Willis Reed made an impression on me that lasts to this day.
He was drafted with the first pick of the second round by the Knicks after starring at Grambling State. He was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 1964 and was the Most Valuable Player as well as MVP of the NBA Finals in 1970, the Knicks’ first championship season. In 1973 he was again MVP of the Finals, leading New York to its second title in four years; meaning Reed was the biggest reason for the only NBA titles in Knicks history.
Reed played in the era of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the more celebrated centers of the time, but Reed was a skilled big man himself at 6-foot-9 and he was physical, which likely shortened his career to just 10 seasons due to injuries.
More than anything, Reed was a leader and he was the leader of those great Knicks teams. He was the heart and soul, and as he went, so did the talented Knicks of Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and, yes, later Earl Monroe.
When Reed arrived in New York in 1964, the Knicks were losers. He was named captain of the team in just his third season at age 24 and made it clear to his teammates that losing was unacceptable, then went about changing the culture of the team to help create what easily remains the greatest era of basketball in New York history.
When you think of Willis Reed you think of how tough he was and how he was willing to play with pain, particularly a torn right tensor muscle, which originates in the hip and extends to the thigh, in the decisive Game 7 of the 1970 Finals against Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers.
After missing the Game 6 win by the Lakers, in which Chamberlain scored 45 points, Reed stayed behind in the trainer’s room for treatment before Game 7 in New York as the Knicks went out to warm up. As everyone in Madison Square Garden anxiously awaited word on whether he would play, he made his way stiff-legged through the players’ tunnel and emerged to deafening cheers to join his teammates as they warmed up.
Limping noticeably, he hit his first two jump shots for his only points of the game, as Frazier carried the Knicks from there, with 36 points and 19 assists, and the Knicks, with a 113-99 victory, clinched the franchise’s first title.
All of these years later, when a player plays injured and inspires his team to an unlikely victory, he is said to have pulled “a Willis Reed.”
“It was the best example of inspiration by an individual in a sporting event I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar and Olympic gold medalist from Princeton, who was Reed’s longtime teammate and friend with the Knicks.
Of course, when I think of Willis Reed I think of the late great Wes Unseld and the wonderful rivalry between the Knicks and the Baltimore Bullets. Just as Reed changed the culture of the Knicks, Unseld changed it with the Bullets, as the 6-7 rookie center out of Louisville became just the second player in history (Chamberlain is the other one) to be named Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.
The Bullets had talent in Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery, Jack Marin and the great Earl Monroe, but they never made the playoffs. Once Unseld arrived in 1968-69, they never missed the playoffs.
With Reed and Unseld leading their teams, New York and Baltimore met in the playoffs every year, with the Knicks winning all of them but one. It was brutal and beautifully-played basketball all at once, and the rivalry and the respect on both sides for both sides was real, from the teams and from the cities.
All the games were close and they were seven-game series every year but one when the Knicks swept the Bullets in 1969. The Knicks then beat the Bullets in seven games the next year and went on to win the championship, before the Bullets finally took the Knicks in seven in 1971 to advance to the Finals themselves.
Reed’s friend and former teammate, the great Walt Frazier, said he wears two championship rings because of Reed, but that he would have many more if Reed had been able to stay healthy.
“The way this man played the game, the respect he had,” Frazier said. “Never had another leader like Willis. I always say he’s the greatest Knick of all time, because I learned from Willis. I owe a lot to that man.”
“Willis was a strong and selfless leader,” Bradley once said. “Even as the league’s MVP, he knew that the individual was never as important as the team, and that points were transitory, championships were forever.”
For an NBA fan from the ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly a little kid living during the real-life Wonder Years rooting for the Baltimore Bullets, the NBA itself can sometimes become transitory, even all of these years later.
That man Willis Reed, though, is forever.
Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT