The Legend That Was Willis Reed

In May 8, 1970, a beleaguered New York Knicks team was playing against the star-studded LA Lakers led by a trio of future Hall-of Famers in Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor in Game 7 of the NBA championship. It had been a tightly-contested NBA Finals, with the Knicks now staring at an impending loss following an unfortunate thigh injury to Willis Reed, the Knicks captain and spiritual leader. The Knicks had led the series 3-2 before Reed injured his thigh. Without Reed in Game 6, the hulking Chamberlain would wreak havoc in the shaded lane, producing monster figures of 45 points and 27 rebounds – both series highs – in a 22-point blowout win over the Knicks.

With sports medicine still in its formative years, no one really knew if Reed would be available for the deciding Game 7. There was anxiety all over New York, as the city had never tasted a NBA championship yet, and this was now the city’s closest-ever chance to win the crown. Without Willis Reed though – who was not just their captain but their best player on the court – Knicks fans knew this would be next to impossible. Despite the homecourt advantage owing to their superior regular season record, the Knicks would be the underdogs in this all-or-nothing 7th and final game of the season.

As the Knicks team streamed out of the training room, there was no Willis Reed on sight. There was gloom in Madison Square Garden as fans foresaw a sad ending to their sterling season once again. And that’s when Reed would limp gingerly on court to join the team take their warm-up shots. Pandemonium would rock the Garden. Fans started cheering. Suddenly, the Knicks were competitive once again. Suddenly, like a god coming down from heaven, Reed would fill the arena with hope for the home team, and totally distract the physically better-skilled team in the Lakers.

No one had thought that Reed would make himself available for this game. He was obviously in
pain by simply walking. Yet here he was, dragging himself to play with his iron will, despite the excruciating pain he must have been enduring at that time.

Walt Frazier, the Knicks’ Robin to Gotham City’s Batman in Reed, recalls not knowing whether
Reed would play or not. And he remembers trying to psych himself up for a game without their
spiritual leader. And he still gets goose bumps reminiscing the sight at the arena when the big
man strode into the court.

The New York Knicks’- and the Captain’s – finest moments. (YouTube)

“I’ll never forget (Jerry) West, Chamberlain, (Elgin) Baylor, three of the greatest players of all time, they stopped doing what they were doing and just started staring at Willis,” Frazier said. “I said to myself, ‘Man, we’ve got these guys.’” That gave me so much confidence. They were so concerned Willis was going to play.”

And then, it was time for the starting line-ups to be announced. “At center. Number 19. Captain. Willis Reed.” There was pandemonium in the stands. There was a standing ovation and wild cheering in the stands which lasted all of 28 seconds, the type of cheer that would send shivers down the spines of the opponents, and shower supreme confidence on the home team.

But Reed had actually needed a pain-killer in his thigh to keep him going. At the opening jump ball, he could barely jump. He was hobbling up and down the court. Given a pass from Frazier on the Knicks’ first possession, he would put in the team’s first points of the game. To the wild cheers of the mesmerized crowd. The team’s confidence was now soaring high. Two possessions later, he would drop another 2 points, thus putting his indelible mark on the game.

The Knicks would win Game 7 of the 1970 NBA championships by the score of 113-99. Reed would score only 4 points in that championship-clinching win, but his physical presence was so powerful, the Knicks would take a whopping 69-42 halftime lead. And the Lakers would not have enough time to reverse that big lead. This game has since been labeled The Willis Reed Game.

Reed had succeeded in inspiring his teammates, energizing the Garden fans and stunning the Lakers, casting a temporary spell on them. He gave the Knicks an emotional lift – an intangible high – that would make them believe in their invincibility, and elevate their level of play. It is an uncanny thing that has come to dramatize athletic prowess in the most difficult times.

Reed would win the Finals MVP, and become the first player in NBA history to win All-Star Game MVP, league MVP and Finals MVP in the same season. He may have scored only 4 points in that game, but it was, by his recollection: “Well, it wasn’t the greatest game I’ve ever played. But it definitely was the most important game I’ve ever played.”

Willis Reed. The captain. The heartbeat of the Knicks’ championship team. NBA Hall of Famer. A seven-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA selection, two-time Finals MVP and the MVP of the 1969-70 season. He also earned a spot on the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Team. In an era of Iron Men, men who would force themselves to play and not worry about load management or playing back-to-back games, Reed epitomized true grit. His love for the game was paramount. His exemplary action in the 1970 Finals will certainly be one for the books.

Reed died last March 21, at the age of 81 years old. The Knicks organization was “deeply saddened” by Reed’s passing. “As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standards he left behind — the unmatched leadership, sacrifice and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions,” the team said. He will be remembered with great fondness.

Cover photo care of YouTube. Other photos care of, the LA Times, Fadeaway World, NPR, Sporting News, ESPN, the Museum of the City of New York, NBA Photo Store, Posting and Toasting and Sportsnaut.


    1. Yes, that era had a lot of outstanding big men, from Bill Russell to Wilt Chamberlain to Willis Reed to Wes Unseld to Dave Cowens, etc. Those were the guys who loved to do the dirty work down low.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. One my favorite players during the Knicks golden era in late 60s to early 70s. Him, along with Walt Frazier, Dave Debusschere, Bill Bradley, Phil Jackson, Mike Riordan, joined later by Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, were the star players of NY.

      Liked by 1 person

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