Willis Reed has left the building. Minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, he famously emerged from the locker room to assist the New York Knicks to win their first NBA championship. It is a well-known illustration of persevering through physical pain to achieve success in a sport. He was 80.
The Knicks published a photo of Willis Reed joining his squad for pregame warmups before the 1970 NBA Finals. To say that this was a historic event for the NBA and Madison Square Garden would be an understatement.
As we grieve, we will always attempt to live up to the standards he set,” the Knicks stated in a statement. His leadership, selflessness, and work ethic were unparalleled, and as a result, he was considered “the best of the best.” Something he created will live on in perpetuity.
Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, called Reed “the ultimate team player and consummate leader.” Also, he said that Reed “embodied the winning spirit” that propelled the early 1970s Knicks to championship status.
Silver remarked that Bird’s “amazing comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is still one of the most famous moments in all of the sports” because of his “passion and determination” on the court.
Reed’s demise, which was confirmed by his family, was also reported by the National Basketball Retired Players Association. Reed’s health has been declining, thus he missed the Knicks’ 50th-anniversary celebration of their 1973 NBA championship team at their game against the Pelicans on February 25.
Tiny center and passionate leader Willis Reed led the Knicks to two NBA titles. He was called “The Captain” because he could shoot gently on the outside but was tough enough on the inside to combat the giants of his day.
The sum of his accomplishments, like his selection to seven All-Star teams and his selection as the NBA Finals MVP on two separate occasions, would have been sufficient to warrant his induction into the Hall of Fame. He made history in the 1969–1970 season by being the first player to earn the Most Valuable Player awards for the regular season, the All-Star Game, and the NBA Finals.
But even before he stepped foot on the floor on the final night of the season, he had become a part of the legend.
In Game 5 of the series between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, Reed pulled a muscle in his thigh. In agony, he collapsed on the floor. Wilt Chamberlain led the Lakers to victory against the Knicks in Game 6 of the NBA Finals with 45 points and 27 rebounds, yet Wilt did not participate in that game.
Reed continued his counseling sessions right up until the day of Game 7. No one, not even his fellow Knicks, knew how he was doing. Reed emerged from the tunnel as the two teams were amid pregame warmups. When his fans saw him emerge from the locker room tunnel, they began to shout wildly.
And here comes Willis, and the audience is going berserk,” radio presenter Marv Albert said.
The Lakers stopped playing to observe Reed. Reed drained two quick jumpers in the opening minutes. With a noticeable limp, he returned down the court after each. Even though he didn’t score again, the Knicks won 113-99 and claimed their first NBA championship because team captain Walt Frazier returned and scored 36 points while dishing out 19 assists.
Though Frazier had a historic performance in the decisive bout, it will be remembered just as a footnote to Reed’s return. After Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper for his sixth title in 1998 and Magic Johnson’s substitution for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 finals to lead the Lakers to a championship, this moment ranked third in a poll of the NBA’s 60 best playoff moments in 2006, the NBA’s 60th anniversary year.
Many have drawn comparisons between Reed and other players who have made speedy recoveries from injury. In Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals between Boston and Los Angeles, Paul Pierce of Boston was injured in the knee but returned shortly thereafter. Lakers player and current coach Phil Jackson believed the comparison was absurd given the severity of Reed’s injuries.
To play again, Jackson said, “Willis Reed had to have a shot—a horse shot, three or four of them in his thigh.” Reed had been injured during the first half of the game.
If Reed were hurt in the future, he wouldn’t be able to recover so quickly. After missing much of the 1971–72 season with an injury, he returned strong the following year to assist the Knicks to win a second championship in his final full season.
Reed’s return made the 1970 championship more well-known, but the 1972-73 squad, which featured Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, was the one he was most proud of.
That was the finest squad, he said during the 40th-anniversary celebration.
After 10 seasons, Reed retired due to a knee injury sustained in 1973–74, when he played in only 19 games.
In that time, he amassed almost 12,000 points and 8,400 rebounds, both of which are among the top three in Knicks franchise history.
On June 25, 1942, Willis Reed entered the world in Hico, Louisiana. A native of Louisiana, he attended college there and was instrumental in Grambling State University’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship teams in 1961 and 1963. In 2022, Reed’s jersey number was retired and the school’s basketball court was dedicated in his honor.
He was the second player chosen that year (1964). With his early success, he proved that his short stature (6 feet, 9 inches) wouldn’t prevent him from becoming a top center in the NBA. He was named the league’s Rookie of the Year and was quickly named to the first of seven consecutive All-Star squads.
While players like Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere contributed greatly to the Knicks’ success, it was Reed who served as the team’s undisputed captain.
Reed provided them with a lot of toughness in addition to his career averages of 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds. A clip of a scuffle that occurred in 1966 during a game between the Knicks and the Lakers was shown on an ESPN program on the Knicks in 2014. According to Jackson, Reed “decimated this team” with his fists, and it appeared that he punched more than one opponent.
After being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1982, his former team, the New York Knicks, was the first to retire his number 19.
Reed coached the Knicks for the entirety of 1977–78 when they made the playoffs, and for 14 games into the next season. He also coached the NBA’s New Jersey Nets and Creighton University. After hanging up his cleats, though, he flourished in managerial roles.
When the Nets selected Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, both of whom became All-Stars and helped the team to the playoffs, he was serving as the team’s senior vice president of basketball operations.