By Brian Mahoney | Associated Press
NEW YORK — Willis Reed, who dramatically emerged from the locker room minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals to lead the New York Knicks to their first championship and create one of sports’ most enduring examples of pain play, died Tuesday. He was 80.
Reed’s death was announced by the National Basketball Retired Players Association, who confirmed it through his family. The cause was not released, but Reed had been in poor health lately and was unable to travel to New York when the Knicks celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1973 NBA championship team during their game against New Orleans on February 25.
The Knicks tweeted a photo of Reed walking onto the floor from behind as his teammates warmed up for the 1970 Finals, one of the most memorable moments in NBA and Madison Square Garden history.
Our Captain. pic.twitter.com/2Bg1ro4y37
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) March 21, 2023
“As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standards he left behind – the unparalleled leadership, sacrifice and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions,” the team said. “He is a legacy that will live forever.”
Nicknamed “The Captain,” Reed was the underpowered center and emotional leader of the Knicks’ two NBA championship teams, with a soft-shooting sense on the outside and a toughness to wrestle with the era’s big men on the inside.
His accomplishments—seven All-Star selections, including two NBA Finals MVP honors—would have warranted a Hall of Fame entry in and of itself. During the 1969-70 season, he became the first player to win regular season, All-Star Game, and NBA Finals MVP awards.
But his place in history was secured simply by walking the floor on the last night of that season.
Reed injured a thigh muscle in Game 5 of the series between the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers and tumbled to court in pain. He sat out Game 6 as counterpart Wilt Chamberlain had 45 points and 27 rebounds in a Lakers romp that forced a game-breaker at Madison Square Garden.
Reed’s status was unknown even to his Knicks teammates, as he continued treatment until shortly before Game 7. Both teams were warming up when Reed emerged from the tunnel, fans stood and roared when they saw him emerge from the tunnel come leading to the changing room. .
“And here comes Willis and the crowd goes wild,” radio announcer Marv Albert said.
The Lakers stopped to watch Reed, who then made two quick jump shots in the opening minutes of the game and ran back off the field after both with a noticeable limp. He wouldn’t score again, but the Knicks didn’t need it, with the return of their captain and Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists energizing them for a 113-99 romp and their first NBA title.
Frazier’s performance was one of the best ever in a tiebreaker, but it was forever a footnote to Reed’s return. In 2006, to coincide with the NBA’s 60th anniversary, it finished third in voting of the league’s 60 Greatest Playoff Moments, behind Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper for his sixth title in 1998 and Magic Johnson who ended his rookie season by filling in for Kareem Abdul. -Jabbar center stage in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals to lead the Lakers to a championship.
Long after, a player’s return from injury is sometimes compared to Reed’s, such as when Boston’s Paul Pierce was carried off the floor with a knee injury in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals against Los Angeles before making a swift return. But Phil Jackson, a teammate of Reed’s and then Lakers coach, rejected that because of Reed’s serious injury.
“If I’m not mistaken, I think Willis Reed missed a whole half and almost three quarters of a game and literally had to have a shot – a horse shot, three or four – in the thigh to get out and play again,” Jackson said.
Reed wouldn’t be able to recover as quickly from injuries for years to come. He was limited to just 11 games in 1971-72, but came back strong the following season to lead the Knicks to a second title in what was his last full season.
While his return always made the ’70 title the most celebrated, it was the ’72-73 squad, bolstered by Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, that caught Reed’s attention.
“That was the best team in my opinion,” he said during the celebration of the 40th anniversary.
Reed would only play 19 games in 1973-74 before retiring after just 10 seasons due to a knee injury.
That was long enough to rack up more than 12,000 points and 8,400 rebounds, both of which still rank in the top three on the Knicks’ career charts.
Willis Reed was born on June 25, 1942 in Hico, Louisiana. He remained in his home state for his college career, leading Grambling State to the 1961 NAIA Championship and a third-place finish in 1963. The school retired his number and named the court after Reed in 2022.
Picked in the second round in 1964, he quickly proved that standing just six feet tall would not stop him from becoming one of the league’s top centres. He was named Rookie of the Year and earned the first of his seven consecutive All-Star selections.
Reed was the anchor as the Knicks became one of the top teams in the NBA, featuring Hall of Famers such as Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
Reed gave them a career-high 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds, along with plenty of toughness. A 2014 ESPN documentary on those Knicks showed footage of a 1966 fight in a game against the Lakers in which Reed appeared to punch at multiple opponents, with Jackson commenting that Reed appeared to have “decimated this team”.
His number 19 was the first number retired by the Knicks and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1982.
Reed then coached the Knicks to a playoff berth in 1977-78, but coached them for only 14 more games the following season. He also served as head coach for Creighton and the New Jersey Nets, but his greatest success after his playing career came in the front office.
He was their senior vice president of basketball operations when they drafted Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, who became All-Stars and led the Nets to the playoffs.