Willis Reed was worth idolizing, and he always lived up to his sterling image
The old saying “never meet your heroes” is mostly true. The realization quickly comes into focus that the athlete or artist you idolized from a distance is all too sadly human, with all of the flaws and foibles that remove the sheen of stardom.
True in most cases for sure, but I am just the right age that I was 9 years old when Willis Reed came hobbling out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. And with a father who was a New York City product, playing on the playgrounds and then crowding into the various incarnations of the Garden, he made sure I was a fan, too, learning the game by watching Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnett, reading the books chronicling those magical times.
So it was odd and intimidating when my first professional beat as a sportswriter came in the early 1990s covering the New Jersey Nets and the general manager came up to introduce himself, shaking my hand (which almost disappeared in his huge grasp). From that first introduction, Reed welcomed me into his world and never once disappointed me by hurting the image that I had of him as a player.
With Reed’s passing this past week, so many memories have been recounted, and even among his most ferocious competitors, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad word uttered about him. He was the same person to the end that he was as a player — a leader, a teammate and, to those of us fortunate enough to work with him later, a friend. He was kind to the young reporters but also would interrupt a pregame talk near the court to sign countless autographs and pose for pictures with fans of all ages.
Reed never enjoyed the success as a coach or a general manager that he did as a player, when his combination of fire and skill was enough to overcome any obstacle and forge a Hall of Fame career. I’ve never forgotten the way an executive described him to me once when he was recounting Reed’s tenure as a general manager.
“Willis is a great judge of talent,” the executive said, “but not great as a judge of character, because he expects everyone will play as hard as he did.”
No one did. No one could. So Reed accumulated talented players in Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and Drazen Petrovic but never reached the lofty heights as an executive that he did as a player.
But that didn’t matter to anyone who crossed paths with Reed as he aged, retreating more and more to his true love — his family and home back in the woods of Louisiana.
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, 65, who was raised in Connecticut, recalled the same sort of memories. He had grown up watching Reed and briefly met him in his early days as an assistant coach in New York. Then he got to spend time with him in New Orleans in 2008 when the All-Star Game was held there. Reed was a part of the festivities and Thibodeau was an assistant coach from the Boston Celtics, serving as a coach in the rookie-sophomore game.
“They brought joy to so many people because of the way they played the game but also the way they carried themselves,” he said of Reed and Frazier and those championship teams. “I think oftentimes when you're a kid and you’re looking up to someone, you have them on such a high pedestal that eventually when I had the opportunity to meet him — and I met him in the '90s as an assistant, but I spent two days with him.
“Obviously, I knew how great of a basketball player he was, but getting to know him as a person, he exceeded all my expectations, and that’s rare, because I had them really high. But he personified class. He embodied everything that you want a Knick to be. He was smart, tough, fierce, all those things, but the thing that really stood out on top of all that is he was also very humble.
“I watched the way he connected with everyone at that All-Star Weekend,” he added. “Whether it was an NBA legend, a current All-Star or a young guy, he was phenomenal with everyone. And that really stood out. Just hearing all the things — I think when you win a championship, it ties you together with the team, the city and everybody, and I know from the people I’ve been around, my father, everyone, how they spoke about him — I think that generation, the championship will always be connected to each generation of Knicks fans and what he means to our league, the way he carried himself. So it’s a sad day in some ways, but it’s also an opportunity for us to continue to celebrate him.”
When the news of Reed’s passing at age 80 came Tuesday, it wasn’t a shock. He had to skip the 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1973 championship team last month at the Garden, sending a video message instead that showed the decline in his health. An acquaintance told me at that time that Reed had decided before then that when he got out of a recent hospital visit, he’d decided he wasn’t going back, instead staying at his home with his wife to the end.
But if it wasn’t a shock, it still shook those who knew him best. Frazier was devastated by the news, losing the friend who had taken him under his wing when he arrived in New York as a rookie, guiding him through his career and remaining a friend to the end more than 50 years later.
“Yeah, it’s the personal things,” Frazier said. “We know about his exploits as a player, but as a person, he was even better. You always had the rookie room with him, taking him under his wing. Even with me, he’d take me out. He’s a big guy on going out, wining and dining, taking me out, telling me about the nuances of the game early on — how he’s going to kick my butt if I didn’t guard Oscar [Robertson]. So he kept us disciplined, man. That was the main thing. There was never a downtime.”
There was a downtime this past week for those who met him, but it also was a chance to remember. And I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t kind, and that image is as lasting as his appearance out of the tunnel in Game 7 in 1970.