Willis Reed, who came out of the locker room minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals to ignite the New York Knicks to their first title and produce one of the sport’s most iconic tales of playing despite the pain, died Tuesday. He was 80.
The National Basketball Retired Players Association confirmed Reed’s death via his family. The reason was not disclosed, although Reed had been in bad health lately and could not go to New York Knicks‘ 50th-anniversary celebration of their 1973 NBA championship squad during their game versus New Orleans on Feb. 25.
The Knicks shared a picture of Reed from behind, stepping onto the court as his teammates warmed up for the 1970 finale, one of the most iconic moments in the history of the NBA and Madison Square Garden.
“While we grieve, we will always endeavor to keep the qualities he left behind – the unrivaled leadership, dedication, and work ethic that embodied him as a champion among champions,” the squad stated. “His is a legacy that will carry on forever.”
Reed, nicknamed “The Captain,” was the undersized center and emotional leader of the Knicks’ two NBA championship teams, with a soft shooting touch from the outside and the fortitude to compete with the era’s great big men on the interior.
He was remembered Tuesday arguably more for how he led the Knicks than for how well he played for them.
“Willis Reed was the quintessential team player and leader. “My earliest and greatest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who exemplified the winning attitude that distinguished the New York Knicks’ championship teams in the early 1970s,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He played the game with tremendous passion and commitment, and his epic comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the sports’ most legendary moments.”
Reed’s exploits, which included seven All-Star appearances and two NBA Finals MVP trophies, would have been enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame on their own. During 1969-70, he became the first player to win MVP trophies for the regular season, All-Star Game, and NBA Finals.
Yet his place in history was guaranteed simply by going onto the court on the last night of that season.
Reed experienced a thigh muscle injury in Game 5 of the Knicks-Lakers series, dropping to the ground in agony. He sat out Game 6 while opponent Wilt Chamberlain produced 45 points and 27 rebounds in a Lakers rout that forced a decisive game at Madison Square Garden.
Reed’s condition was unclear even to his Knicks teammates as he continued to get treatment until just before Game 7. As Reed emerged from the tunnel leading to the locker room, supporters rose and roared.
“Now here comes Willis, and the audience goes crazy,” radio announcer Marv Albert remarked.
The Lakers paused to observe Reed, who hit two short jump shots in the first few minutes of the game, racing back down the court with a visible limp after each. He didn’t score again, but the Knicks didn’t need it, with their captain’s comeback and Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists powering them to their first NBA championship, 113-99.
Frazier’s effort was one of the best in a deciding game, but it will always be remembered as a footnote to Reed’s comeback. It finished third in voting for the NBA’s 60 greatest playoff moments in 2006, to coincide with the league’s 60th anniversary, behind Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper for his sixth title in 1998 and Magic Johnson ending his rookie season by filling in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 finals to lead the Lakers to a championship.
Long later, a player’s recovery from injury has been compared to Reed’s, such as when Boston’s Paul Pierce was taken off the court with a knee injury in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals against Los Angeles before immediately returning. But Phil Jackson, Reed’s teammate, and former Lakers coach, denied it due to the severity of Reed’s injuries.
“If I’m not incorrect, I believe Willis Reed missed a full half and three-quarters of a game and had to have a shot — a horse shot, three or four of them — in his leg to come back out and play,” Jackson recalled.
Reed will only be able to recover from injuries slowly in the following years. He was restricted to only 11 games in 1971-72, but he returned strong the next season to lead the Knicks to a second championship in his last full season.
Even though his comeback made the 1970 championship more publicized, the ’72-73 team, bolstered by Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, stuck out to Reed.
“That, to me, was the finest squad,” he stated during the club’s 40th-anniversary celebration.
Reed would play just 19 games in 1973-74 before retiring due to a knee ailment after only ten seasons.
It was long enough to accumulate over 12,000 points and 8,400 rebounds, still in the top three on the Knicks’ career charts.
He had a successful post-playing career as a coach and executive, with 76ers coach Doc Rivers recalling playing for Atlanta while Reed was an assistant coach.
“He was a wonderful guy, a dude!!!” A winner!!!” Rivers used Twitter.
Willis Reed was born in Hico, Louisiana, on June 25, 1942. He remained in his home state for college, guiding Grambling State to the NAIA title in 1961 and a third-place finish in 1963. In 2022, the school retired his number and renamed its court after him.
As a second-round choice in 1964, he immediately demonstrated that his 6-foot-9 stature wouldn’t prevent him from becoming one of the league’s greatest centers. He was named Rookie of the Year and made his first seven consecutive All-Star appearances.
Reed was the anchor as the Knicks became one of the top teams in the NBA, featuring Hall of Famers such as Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere.
Reed had a career average of 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds, as well as a lot of toughness. In 2014, an ESPN documentary on the Knicks revealed a film of a 1966 incident in a game against the Lakers where Reed looked to throw punches at many opponents, with Jackson observing that Reed appeared to “decimate this squad.”
His No. 19 was the first number retired by the Knicks, and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1982.
Reed led the Knicks to a playoff spot in 1977-78 but just 14 games the following season. He was also a head coach at Creighton and the New Jersey Nets, but his greatest success after his playing career came in the front office.
He was their senior vice president of basketball operations when they selected Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, who became All-Stars and led the Nets to the playoffs in the 1990s.