Willis Reed of the New York Knicks happily trots to...

Willis Reed of the New York Knicks happily trots to the dressing room at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., after the Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers, 102-93, to capture the NBA title on May 10, 1973.  Credit: AP Photo

The man was a Hall of Famer, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a league MVP and a seven-time All-Star, but you are forgiven for remembering him primarily for a single iconic moment.

That is the legacy of Willis Reed Jr., who died Tuesday at age 80. Reed's death was announced by the National Basketball Retired Players Association, which confirmed it through his family.

And why not? There are worse fates than to be forever appreciated for an inspirational display of grit that lifted a franchise to its first championship and completed an unparalleled 16 months in New York sports.

The Jets and Mets already had won it all in 1969 when the Knicks took the court at Madison Square Garden on May 8, 1970, hoping to beat the Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and join the others in glory.

But there was a problem: Reed, 27, a  6-9 center who would be named that season’s NBA MVP, still was hobbled by a severe thigh injury he suffered in Game 5.

The Knicks had lost Game 6 in Los Angeles without Reed, 135-113, as Wilt Chamberlain recorded 45 points and 27 rebounds for the Lakers. Now, the question before the finale was whether he would give it a go.

Reed decided he would, something that reporters knew and that radio announcer Marv Albert shared with his listeners as tipoff neared.

But the crowd inside the Garden first learned of Reed’s status when he belatedly came out of the tunnel and limped onto the court for warmups, stunning the Lakers and prompting an ovation that Albert, in 2020, said he considered the loudest he ever heard in the arena.

 "I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man,"  Knicks guard Walt Frazier told ESPN. "When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!"

Reed would score only four points that night — the Knicks’ first four — in a game in which Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists led a 113-99 victory that was not nearly as close as the final score suggests (the Knicks led 69-42 at halftime).

But Reed widely was hailed then and since for charging up the team and its fans, not to mention playing fierce defense on Chamberlain.

"I wanted to play," Reed told ESPN. "That was for the championship, the one great moment you play for all your life. I didn't want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play."

In the locker room afterward, ABC’s Howard Cosell told Reed, “You’ve offered, I think, the best that the human spirit can offer.”


 

A recording of Albert’s call is extant. The ABC telecast is on YouTube, with analyst Jack Twyman famously pointing off-camera in the pregame and saying, “I think we see Willis coming out!”

“On every basket and every defensive play, the Garden was going berserk,” Albert said in a 2020 interview with Newsday.

The crowd noise is evident in the background of Albert's original call of Reed taking the court, so much so that he later recreated a clearer — and different — version that often is heard over highlights of that moment.

After the game, Reed said, “I couldn’t move at all. I almost hurt myself on the opening jump . . . It was bad for a while.”

Said Frazier: “Just his presence was the turning point in the game.”

Willis Reed, center of the New York Knicks, takes a...

Willis Reed, center of the New York Knicks, takes a brief pause to look at the scoreboard against the Buffalo Braves in Madison Square Garden on October 16, 1973. Credit: Getty Images/Ross Lewis

“The Knicks organization is deeply saddened to announce the passing of our beloved Captain, Willis Reed,” the team said in a statement. “As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standards 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.”

“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader. My earliest and fondest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who embodied the winning spirit that defined the New York Knicks’ championship teams in the early 1970s," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports. As a league MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP and member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Willis was a decorated player who took great pride in his consistency.

"Following his playing career, Willis mentored the next generation as a coach, team executive and proud HBCU alumnus. We send our deepest condolences to Willis’ wife, Gale, his family and his many friends and fans.”

Reed was born on June 25, 1942, and grew up in tiny Bernice, Louisiana, before attending Grambling, which he led to an NAIA title in 1961.

Drafted 10th overall with the first pick of the second round in 1964, he became an immediate star for the woeful Knicks, securing NBA Rookie of the Year honors.

He used his physically intimidating style to overcome his relative lack of height for his position and averaged 19.5 points and 14.7 rebounds, both among the top 10 of all players in the league.

Reed continue to produce through four losing seasons before the team began to turn it around in 1967-68 under coach Red Holzman and broke through in ’69-70, a season that included an early 18-game winning streak.

By ’72-73, age and injuries were catching up to Reed, and he averaged only 11 points in the regular season. But the Knicks made it back to the Finals and beat the Lakers again, and Reed again was named the Finals MVP.

He retired after the 1973-74 season having played all 650 of his regular-season games as a Knick and averaging 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds.

Needing a third operation on his left knee, Reed refused. In an interview from his mother’s home in Bernice in July 1974, he told a young Newsday sportswriter named Tony Kornheiser, “I just cannot go through all the pain and suffering again. It isn’t worth it.”

That hardly marked the end of his time in basketball, though. He coached the Knicks for parts of two seasons in the late ‘70s — going 49-47 — coached at Creighton and worked as an NBA assistant coach. He also worked as an assistant at St. John’s under Lou Carnesecca, a longtime close friend.

NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed attends the Great Sports Legends...

NBA Hall of Famer Willis Reed attends the Great Sports Legends Dinner to benefit The Buoniconti Fund to Cure Paralysis at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 2016. Credit: Thos Robinson

He coached the Nets to a 33-77 record in the late 1980s but found greater success as an executive with the team, serving as senior vice president when the Nets reached the NBA Finals in 2002 and ’03.

He was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.

In the decades after 1970, whenever someone in sports needed a touchstone to describe someone playing through injury — particularly when doing so with a dramatic flourish — Reed’s name and that long-ago night often would come up.

But even in the immediate aftermath of that game, those involved grasped its import.

“There wasn’t any way possible he could play,” teammate Dave Stallworth marveled. “He was limping so bad. This is beautiful, just beautiful.”

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME