It was not a game, but a crusade. From the moment Willis Reed came through a cordon of police to join the warmup, to the moment he was introduced to the standing, cheering multitude, this was a vendetta of emotion.
The Knicks had come so far, they wanted so much and it was nearly unfair the Lakers had to be there at all last night. A team that built tradition on losing causes was a victim of the Knicks before it took the court.
The score, 113-99, was totally irrelevant. What the Knicks did was terrible to behold, yet marvelous. Operating around a lone-legged man, they devastated the visiting team and thus became champions of the National Basketball Association for the first time.
The Knicks rushed downcourt in the early moments and Reed, hobbling in their wake, came up to them, took the ball and sank two set shots, one of them a floating arc over Wilt Chamberlain’s straining hands.
It was all the offense the Knicks required of a crippled man who worked 27 minutes in horrible pain. Bent on destruction, the swept the Lakers out of their path, scoring on ridiculously long shots, stealing the ball and scoring again and again from far away.
They came on in wave after wave, Walt Frazier leading and Reed trailing, and Frazier was superb. In the opening period he delivered mortal blows — five baskets on five long, high shots and five points from five foul shots, these the results of personals that put young Dick Garrett in trouble and forced him to keep clear of Frazier.
And it went on, the score reaching absurd proportions in favor of a team that gained inspiration from a crippled man. It was 51-31 and 61-37 and 69-38. Frazier picked the ball from Jerry West’s hands. Dave DeBuscchere and Bill Bradley intercepted. Mike Riordan stood chest to chest with West at halfcourt. In the ultimate indignity, he forced West into the backcourt under a crescendo of joyous noise from 19,500 people.
By the half, the Knicks led, 69-42, and while they waited for the game to resume the people batted a half-dozen baby blue balloons around the Garden.
When it was time to begin again, the Knicks came out without Reed. As referee Mendy Rudolph prepared to toss for the jump, Reed appeared. He walked along the aisle to the baseline, cut under the basket to the bench and walked out to replace Nate Bowman.
He lasted five minutes more, committed his fourth foul and left for good, his job done.
Frazier said, “Just his presence was the turning point in the game. To see him comeout and when he made his two baskets . . . We were worried, man. A couple of guys tried to tell jokes before we came out, but nothing was funny.”
DeBusschere said, “You work so hard to get something liek this. People who weren’t here can’t appreciate how wonderful it really was.”
And later David Stallworth stood against a wall, away from the champagne that Bowman was squirting everywhere. And Stallwirth said, “There wasn’t no way possible he (Reed) could play. He was limping so bad. The guy is beautiful, just beautiful. To me, personally, he showed so much guts you had to gut it with him. You had to do it, too. You got to go mad when a man who ought to be in a wheelchair comes out there. Deep down in his heart he know he shouldn’t be out there. But if his presence could give us what we needed he had to do it. He’s a helluva man.”
Reed set picks, beautiful picks, and the Knicks scored off them. He blocked out and the Knicks rebounded. Reed had three rebounds at the half, but that was as many as Los Angeles’ corps of forwards — Elgin Baylor, Keith Erickson, Happy Hairston and John Tresvant — had combined.
There were numbers that told the story: 12 for 17 shooting and 19 assists by Frazier that equalled the playoff record held by Chamberlain and Bob Cousy; 69 points for the Lakers after three quarters, the same number the Knicks accumulated in a half; 17 rebounds for DeBusschere to offset the 24 by Chamberlain. Wilt played well but was limited. The Lakers could not get the ball inside through the swarm of Knicks who helped Reed stalk the big man.
And afterward Reed sat on his stool, rising to embrace DeBusschere. He said, “I couldn’t move at all. I almost hurt myself on the opening jump and I hurt when I collided with DeBusscher in the first quarter. It was bad. Red called timeout and I sat down and it felt better. But it was bad for a while.”
A few feet away, Cazzie Russell hugged Bowman and screamed, “World champions!”
Dick Barnett said, “I’ve played a long, long time for this. I lost two of these with them (the Lakers). I told Elgin near the end, ‘I had to come to New York and beat you to get my championship.’”
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When the bubbles have all gone flat, there will still be the money. The Knicks’ total take for regular season finish and playoff games is $118,000. The Lakers earned $87,000.
Enter Willis; Exit LA
Blue-shirted police were in the end seats receiving their instructions and the ushers were gathered high in the third section. Willis Reed walked onto the court, carrying a ball. Don May followed, so did a doctor and maybe 20 newsmen.
At 6:30 p.m., Reed laid the ball in the basket. He took a few steps back and made another shot. The ushers applauded. Reed moved slowly, shooting while May was retrieving. The doctor, James Parkes, watched and said, “He’s the finest patient a doctor could hope to have. He’s done everything he could to get ready.”
Wilt Chamberlain stood in the runway and watched. Lakers coach Joe Mullaney sat quietly and watched. Reed took two dozen shots, jumped a little and went back inside. He had survived his first trial.
At 7:10, the Knicks came out — without Reed. At 7:19, Cazzie Russell came out. The people mistook him for Reed at first and cheered wildly.
Reed was inside, Parkes working on him and waiting until the last possible moment to shoot his strained thigh muscle full of pain-killing carbocaine — 200 milligrams of it — and cortisone.
Bill Bradley said, “We knew he would be there. And he didn’t come. And he didn’t come. I said, ‘He’s out,’ but it was Cazzie. And he didn’t come. There was another ovation. They pulled the roof down when he finally came out and I almost felt I should do that (cheer). The man was hurting and he showed me something I never knew anybody could have inside. He made those two early shots . . . .” Bradley shook his head in wonder.
Willis Reed came out to play at 7:34. The championship was won.