Willis Reed: Always a Hero on Our Sports Scene

He led the Knicks to their only two NBA Championships. His gutsy performance in Game 7 of the championship finals at the end of the 1969-70 stands as one of the great testaments of all time of playing hurt and putting team before person.

| 22 Mar 2023 | 02:56

In the last half-century or so of New York sports annals, a few moments stand out brilliantly.

* Mookie Wilson’s ground ball going between Bill Buckner’s legs to give the Mets life in the 1986 World Series.

* Reggie Jackson’s three swings, three HRs in the sixth and final game of the 1977 World Series vs. the LA Dodgers.

* David Tyree’s “helmet catch” to propel the Giants to a stunning victory over the then-undefeated New England Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl.

* Mark Messier triumphantly skating around the Madison Square Garden ice while holding the Stanley Cup over his head on June 14, 1994, as a fan unfurled a banner saying, “Now I Can Finally Die in Peace.”

But it’s fair to say that no memory burns brighter than the spectacle of New York Knicks captain Willis Reed limping on to the Garden court on May 8, 1970, inspiring the Knicks to win game 7 over Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Reed passed on March 21, at the age of 80. The New York Times noted that he had had heart issues. Former teammate Bill Bradley said Reed had been under treatment at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. Reed was missed when Madison Square Garden recently honored the 50th anniversary of Reed’s 1973 championship Knick squad.

Reed was the rare sports start who somehow stood for something beyond athletic glory. He was a hero.

Today, The Cap’n seems like a throwback to an earlier age when players didn’t dance in the end zone or taunt their opponents. They just took pride in doing their jobs well.

Reed will always be beloved for his durability, his clutch play, his selflessness, his willingness to play hurt.

For those reasons, Reed will always be fondly remembered as a blue-collar star. He was a man of Louisiana, who enjoyed hunting and fishing. He played a fundamentally sound game. He did his job. He did whatever was necessary for the Knicks to win the franchise’s only two NBA championships (the Knicks also won it all in 1973, again over Chamberlain and the Lakers). In game 5 of the first round in 1970, Reed scored 36 points and had a mind-boggling total of 36 rebounds–all against his rival, the also-admirable Wes Unseld of Baltimore Bullets.

In that scintillating game 7, Reed was the ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation. He had played brilliantly in the first four games of the series. Then in game 5, he crumbled to the court while driving to the hoop against Chamberlain, the victim of a knee injury. He missed the remainder of that game, which the Knicks somehow won while playing a small but aggressive lineup to nullify the powerful Chamberlain. The Knicks were then routed in game 6 when Reed sat on the sidelines.

Before game 7, the city had only one question: Would Willis play? Remember, this happened before WFAN came into existence and before the Internet was a thing. We could only go on word of mouth.

Reed, giving us maximum drama, hobbled on to the court just before the tip off in game 7. The ovation was explosive. Every Laker turned to watch him limp onto the court. Reed once remarked that he could feel the building vibrating and said that that was what it must feel like to be in an earthquake. Then, struggling mightily, he boosted the Knicks by defending Chamberlain effectively and scoring on the Knicks’ first two shots. The Garden, of course, went wild. The Lakers were as good as gone, even though the Knicks had scored only 4 points a minute into the game. With Walt Frazier going on to record one of the most dazzling lines in NBA playoff history–36 points, 19 assists, 8 rebounds–the Knick s routed the Lakers, 113-99.

Yes, Frazier was the star of the game. But without Reed’s inspirational play, who knows what the outcome might have been that night. Reed rightly was named MVP of the series.

Reed emerged in New York at a golden age. He more closely resembled another no-frills legend, Mets ace Tom Seaver, than his flashy teammate Walt “Clyde” Frazier or Jets idol quarterback Joe Willie Namath.

It was inconceivable that Willis would seek the limelight. He was the captain on a team that sported players who put indelible marks on the franchise: Dave DeBusschere, another strong and silent star; Bill Bradley, the Princeton graduate who was covered by the local media as something of a Great White Hope; veteran guard Dick Barnett and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, one of the most charismatic players of his era.

In his book “Life on the Run,” Bradley wrote admiringly of Reed when the two of them gave a clinic to Native American kids in 1974: “In closing, Willis gives the group a little lecture about hard work, responsibility, and the need to set goals. He says practice and study go hand in hand with a clean life. He speaks with the assurance of a man whose life has been built upon moral certainties.”

What else do you need to know about Willis Reed? What else can someone add to those fine words? Bradley said it all.

“He says practice and study go hand in hand with a clean life. He speaks with the assurance of a man whose life has been built upon moral certainties.” Bill Bradley in his book “Life on the Run” speaking about The Captain, Willis Reed