The New York Knicks won their first championship behind Willis Reed, who miraculously appeared from the locker room minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals and set one of the league’s most iconic examples of playing through pain. Willis Reed passed away on Tuesday, 21 March. He was 80.
After getting family confirmation, the National Basketball Retired Players Association announced Reed’s passing. Although the reason for their dea†h was not made public, Reed had recently struggled with his health and could not attend the Knicks’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of their 1973 championship team in New York in February.
— NBA Alumni 🏀 (@NBAalumni) March 21, 2023
With a delicate sh00ting touch from the outside and the toughness to compete with the superstar big men of the era on the inside, Reed, also known by the moniker “The Captain,” was the undersized center and emotional leader for the Knicks’ two NBA championship teams.
The Knicks’ said in a statement:
“The Knicks organization is deeply saddened to announce the passing of our beloved Captain, Willis Reed. As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standard he left behind – the unmatched leadership, sacrifice and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions”.
“His is a legacy that will live forever. We ask everyone to please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”
His accomplishments including seven All-Star selections and two MVP honors in the NBA Finals—would have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame on their own. He made history by winning the MVP trophies for the regular season, All-Star Game, and NBA Finals in the 1969–70 season.
But, simply stepping onto the court on the season’s last night was enough to cement his place in history. In Game 5 of the series between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, Reed went down on the field in discomfort after pulling a thigh muscle.
He sat missing Game 6, a rout by the Lakers that forced a decisive game at Madison Square Garden thanks to his opponent Wilt Chamberlain’s 45 points and 27 rebounds. Reed had treatment until just before Game 7, and even his Knicks teammates were unaware of his condition.
Fans cheered and rose to their feet as they saw Reed emerge from the tunnel leading to the locker room as both teams were warming up. Radio announcer Marv Albert said:
“And here comes Willis and the crowd is going wild.”
The Lakers halted their play to watch Reed make two fast jump jumpers in the game’s opening minutes. Reed returned to the floor after each sh0t with a pronounced limp.
He would not score again, but the Knicks didn’t require it as Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists, together with the return of their captain, propelled them to their first NBA championship with a score of 113-99. Although Frazier’s effort was one of the best in a crucial game, Reed’s return overshadowed it forever.
In 2006, in honor of the NBA’s 60th anniversary, it came in third place among the 60 greatest playoff moments, trailing only Magic Johnson’s substitution of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 finals to lead the Lakers to victory and Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper for his sixth title in 1998.
Reed wouldn’t be able to return from injuries in the upcoming years as rapidly. In 1971–72, he could only play in 11 games, but he bounced back the following year to lead the Knicks to a second championship in his final season.
Although his comeback always made the 1970 championship the more enduring, Reed was more impressed with the 1972–73 group, which Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas had strengthened. He said during its 40th-anniversary celebration.
“That, to me, in my mind was the best team.”
After just 10 seasons in the league, Reed would play just 19 games in 1973–74 before retiring due to a knee injury. For the Knicks, that was long enough to accumulate more than 12,000 points and 8,400 rebounds, which continue to rank in the top three.
At Hico, Louisiana, on June 25, 1942, Willis Reed was born. He continued to attend college in his home state, helping Grambling State win the NAIA championship in 1961 and take third in 1963. In 2022, the school decommissioned his number and renamed Reed’s court.
Being selected in the second round of the 1964 draft despite being undersized for his position at the time (6 feet 9 inches), he rapidly established himself as one of the league’s best centers. He won the Rookie of the Year award and was chosen for the first of his seven consecutive All-Star games.
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