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The indomitable spirit of Willis Reed

The former Knicks big man made the most of his moment and connection to New York

By the time I moved to New York in 1982, Willis Reed, the New York Knicks’ legendary center, had been retired for eight years. A decade earlier, Reed had led the Knicks to the NBA title. By 1982, the Knicks’ championship glory days were long gone and would stay gone, except for a spell in the 90s. The Knicks lost in the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999.

Yet, largely because of Willis Reed, who died Tuesday at age 80, the spirit of those championship Knicks team has been remarkably resilient.

With Reed’s death, the NBA has now lost the three most dominant centers of his era. Bill Russell died in July 2022 at age 88. Wilt Chamberlain died in 1999 at age 63.

I never thought of Reed as being a dominant force like Russell or Chamberlain. They seemed to be on another planet. Russell was distant, Chamberlain seemed larger than life. Reed was far more accessible, not so otherworldly. He was the perfect heartbeat of those Knicks championship teams and possessed intangible qualities the franchise has been unable to duplicate: heart and inexhaustible effort.

My professional interactions with Reed came when he was a head coach and team executive. Reed retired in 1974 at age 31 and would spend several years trying to find his place in the basketball world. He coached the Knicks for the 1977-78 season. The year I arrived in New York to work at The New York Times , Reed was in his second season as head coach at Creighton. Reed served as assistant for the Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings. He became the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 1988-89. Reed served as the Nets general manager and vice president of basketball operations from 1989 to 1996. As senior vice president of basketball operations, he was part of a Nets resurgence that led to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.

Like so many stars who retire, nothing he accomplished in so-called civilian life matched his exploits in the arena.

From left to right: The New York Knicks’ starting five of Dick Barnett, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed rejoice in the locker room after winning Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970.

Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

So why has Reed’s spirit been such a presence in Madison Square Garden for all these years?

He didn’t carry the franchise to multiple championships as Russell did with the Boston Celtics. At 6-feet-9, Reed did not tower over opponents with a larger-than-life presence as Chamberlain had.

So why?

It’s all about a moment.

Some seasons are only worth a moment, some moments are worth an entire season. Some moments define a career.

In Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, Magic Johnson played center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He led the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship with a 42-point performance. In Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan, fighting a 103-degree fever and the flu, scored 38 points to defeat the Utah Jazz in what had become known as the “Flu Game.”

Reed had his moment on May 8, 1970, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in Madison Square Garden. The story and the clips are repeated to this day.

Reed suffered a torn thigh muscle that forced him to miss Game 6 of the series and he was doubtful for Game 7. The Knicks’ hopes for a first NBA title seemed bleak. Reed was shot up with pain-numbing drugs like a racehorse in the Knicks locker room before the game. The injections allowed him to drag himself onto the court for pregame warmups. His presence alone began a slow boil of emotion among Knicks fans. The Lakers players looked as though they had seen a ghost. Reed became he the living embodiment of medieval knight El Cid, the general whose corpse — which was tied to a horse and sent into battle — terrified the opposition.

Reed hit his first two jump shots and the Garden exploded. The Knicks went on to win, in large part because Walt Frazier had a legendary performance of 36 points and 19 assists.

But while Frazier had the monster game, Reed had the moment.

New York Knicks legend Willis Reed attends the game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Knicks on Oct. 29, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

I related to Reed because, like me, he attended a historically Black college, Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana. The Knicks selected Reed with the first pick in the second round of the 1964 NBA draft.

During my freshman year at Morgan State in 1968, our football team traveled to New York City to play Grambling at Yankee Stadium. Years later, James “Shack” Harris, the star Grambling quarterback, told me that Reed arranged for the Grambling players to attend a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden while the team was in New York.

That was also the year the Knicks began to turn around after several losing seasons. The Knicks finished 43-39 that year, their first winning record since the 1958-59 season.

With Reed providing muscle in the post, and Frazier providing defensive force at point guard, the 1968-69 Knicks held opponents to a league-low 105.2 points per game. A season later, the Knicks won their first NBA title. In 1971-72, the Knicks won a second NBA title. They have not reached the conference finals since 2000.

A couple of years ago I gained valuable insight into Reed from Frazier while editing a book about New York City basketball. Frazier grew up in Atlanta and played college basketball at Southern Illinois University. When Frazier came to the Knicks in 1967 at age 22, Reed took the rookie under his wing.

“When I came to New York, Willis was my mentor,” Frazier recalled. “He picked me up at the airport, got me my first date. We went out that night.”

More importantly, Willis introduced Frazier to Harlem via the legendary Rucker Park summer basketball tournament. Reed had a team entered in the Rucker and drafted Frazier to play. “He was like, ‘Hey, Frazier, come on, man, you’re going to be playing with us in the Rucker.’ ”

Frazier knew nothing about Harlem or the legendary Rucker tournament. It was an eye-opening experience, an important rite of passage for the Knicks’ first-round draft pick.

“It was like a circus, I never saw anything like it,” Frazier told me. “It was like a video game. I was like, ‘Who are these guys?’ I never heard of any of these cats. Guys jumping all out the gym, all over the rim. Willis went up, they were blocking his shot. It was incredible, my first time up there.

“Coming from Atlanta, we never had anything like that. People were all on the fences, they were all up on the buildings. You could hardly get on the court, there was no room. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West. I was the No. 1 pick, so these guys all wanted to show me up. And Willis was a pro, he was the man in New York. I remember that scene like it was yesterday. That’s a scene I’ll never forget.”

Reed knew how important it was for the Knicks’ young African American rookie to connect with the community, to let them see him and touch him, as they had seen and touched Reed. You should never stray too far from your roots.

That’s why Reed had such an enduring presence at the Garden and in New York. Reed spent his entire professional basketball career, 1964 to 1974, with the Knicks. He made the most of his moment.

After Reed’s heroic performance in 1970, the legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell told him in a postgame interview, “You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer.”

Amen to that. And Reed’s mighty spirit lives on.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.