He was one of the best basketball players of his generation. Among the many highlights in his ten-year career he won one MVP, was a seven-time All-Star with one All-Star MVP, and led his team to two championships with two finals MVPs. But, his true value to the Knicks transcended his physical talent on the court. In addition to his talent he was one of the best leaders the game has ever seen. He didn’t merely lead by example; as you will see below, he also led by the force of his character and personality. He led a group of mostly good, but not great, players [with the notable exception of Walt (Clyde) Frazier] to two championships over more talented teams. How did they accomplish this? Simple. They played as a unit, a classic example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. The team mantra was play ferocious defense and “hit the open man.” Sublimate your individual talents for the good of the team. Many teams preach this, but very few actually do it consistently. It requires strong leadership to keep everyone in line, leadership that must come from the players, not just the coach.
Willis Reed, Jr. was born on June 25, 1942 in tiny Hico, LA, which is located in Lincoln Parish. Hico was so small that Reed often joked that “they don’t even have a population.” He grew up in nearby Bernice, LA. He attended college at Grambling State University, one of the many historically black colleges in the segregated South, which, at the time, afforded southern Blacks one of the few paths to a higher education. In four years he led Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles and one NAIA title.
He was particularly dominant in his senior year averaging 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds per game. In those days before national tv and the internet it was not easy for a player from a small school, especially a small black school, to attract the attention of the NBA. This may have been the reason why Reed lasted until the 2nd round of the draft (8th overall pick). Nevertheless, it was the Knicks’ good fortune to draft him in the second round in 1964. [Quiz question #1: can you name who the Knicks took in the first round that year? See answer below.]
Reed was an instant star. He was Rookie of the Year and made the All-Rookie First Team. In an era in which centers routinely stood 7 feet or more he was an undersized center at 6’10”. He started out playing power forward, which was not his natural position, while Walt Bellamy played center. The Knicks mostly struggled in Reed’s first few years. Then, on December 19, 1968 they made the blockbuster trade with Detroit – Bellamy and Butch Komives for Dave DeDebusschere. Arguably, this was one of the most dynamic and one-sided trades in NBA history.
It enabled Reed to shift over to center, his natural position. As I said, Reed, at 6’10”, was a little undersized, but he made up for it with his strength, toughness, determination and defensive prowess. He could also shoot and score, both inside and outside. Literally overnight, the Knicks were transformed into a dominant team, especially defensively. They went on to lead the league in defense for five of the next six years. They routinely held the opposition to fewer than 100 points. The savvy NY fans appreciated their efforts. They began to chant “deefense, clap clap deefense clap clap,” a chant that has persisted to this day at Knicks games. The Knicks became a perennial playoff team and won championships in 1970 (the franchise’s first) and 1973. Reed was Finals MVP in both. The 1970 team won a league best 60 games, including a record 18 straight.
Game # 7 of the 1970 finals was a game Knicks fans will never forget. It was one of if not the most iconic and dramatic games in NY sports history. And, it played out before a national tv audience. Ironically, in accordance with NBA policy at that time the game was blacked out in NYC and its suburbs, which was a huge injustice to long-suffering Knicks fans. (Nancy and I were visiting her family in PA, so we did get to see it.)
In any event, Reed had been injured during Game # 5, which the Knicks managed to win. He was unable to play in Game #6, a Lakers blowout. That set up a decisive winner-take-all Game #7 in NY. Reed was doubtful for the game, and the consensus was that if he didn’t play the Knicks had virtually no chance. He did not appear on the court during the warmups, and it looked like he would not play. And then, in dramatic fashion he emerged from the tunnel accompanied by a tremendous roar of the sellout MSG crowd. In Frazier’s words, all the Lakers “stopped what they were doing [to look]. I said to myself, ‘man we got these guys.’ ” Bill Bradley remembers that “when he [Reed] came out it was like electricity coursed through the whole arena.” Longtime broadcaster, Marv Albert, recalls that during a pregame interview Reed had told him “I’m gonna play tonight.” But, most of the players on both teams did not know. When he came limping out the Knicks players were elated; the Lakers players were stunned.
It might be an exaggeration to say that the Knicks won the game right then and there, but that’s how it felt. Reed scored the first two baskets, and the Knicks took off from there. Frazier played the game of his life scoring 36 points with 19 assists and seven rebounds. The Knicks jumped out to a huge lead, and they were never threatened.
Reed became the first player to win the All-Star Game MVP, the regular season MVP, and the Finals MVP in the same year. [Quiz question #2 – Can you name the other two who have done so?] See below.
Reed was the captain and undisputed leader of the Knicks. Several of the players have stated that they don’t remember any vote or official designation. He just assumed the job and responsibilities, and beginning in 1966 everyone recognized him as such. As Walt Frazier said “I don’t ever remember anyone ever telling me Willis was the captain. He just was the captain.”
Reed could and did provide leadership physically, mentally and emotionally. Bradley said he was not afraid to take the last shot (as many players are), and if someone else took the last shot and missed he was the first one to console him. In addition, the players knew that if any of them “got into trouble out there on the court for any reason Willis had [their] back.” For example during one game with the LA Lakers some of the players started pushing and shoving, and a big scuffle ensued. Reed defended his teammates by challenging the entire Lakers team to a fight. No one would take him on, and the matter was resolved peacefully. Moreover, Reed would not hesitate to “call out” a teammate who was not giving 100%.
Reed played ten seasons until injuries forced him to retire in 1974. However, he remained active in the game. He served as head coach of the Knicks, the Nets and Creighton University. Furthermore, he worked as General Manager of both the Nets and the New Orleans Hornets. Finally, he mentored various players such as Patrick Ewing.
Some of the many honors he earned:
- He was the first Knick to have his number (19) retired.
- He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1982.
- He was named one of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History.”
- He was named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.
Since his passing Reed has been eulogized by many, many former players, teammates and outside observers, too many to include all of them. For example:
- Frazier recalled how Reed took him and other rookies under his wing and helped them acclimate to NY and the NBA. Furthermore, Frazier said that as great a player as he was “he was even a better person.”
- Bradley stated “I was lucky to know him. Forget the championship(s), just as a human being.” He added, “he was the backbone of the team. He was the guy that took us to the first championship by his courage and by his unselfishness.”
- Longtime Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert remembers “he (Reed) was so well respected not only by his teammates but around the league.”
- Following the 1970 championship win the loquacious commentator, Howard Cosell told him on national tv “you exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer.”
- Reed became so synonymous with playing through injury that NFL commentator, Cris Collinsworth once described NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers who at the time was having a good game while injured as “having a Willis Reed kind of night.”
Reed was married twice and had two children. He passed away on March 21, 2003 from heart failure.
Rest in peace “Cap.” You are gone, but your legacy will live on as long as basketball is played.
Answers to quiz questions:
1) Jim (Bad News) Barnes from Texas Western. Barnes’ parents had saddled him with the unusual first name of “Velvet.” Good thing for him he grew to be 6′ 8″ and 200 pounds. Barnes’ career was cut short by injuries, however, he eventually was part of the deal by which the Knicks acquired Walt Bellamy who, as we all know, later became the key piece in the deal for Dave DeBusschere.
2) Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal