Willis Reed, the Hall of Fame New York Knicks center who won two titles with the team and immortalized himself by playing on an injured leg to lead the team to victory in the seventh game of the 1970 Finals, has died at 80.
Reed never played with another team, spending 1964-1974 with the Knicks. He was named the league’s MVP for the 1969-1970 season, and made the All-NBA team five times as well as making seven All-Star teams. He won the Finals MVP for both the Knicks’ 1970 and 1972 title teams.
After scoring 37, 29, 38, and 23 points in the first four games of the 1970 Finals, Reed suffered a torn thigh muscle in the fifth game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Without Reed in the lineup, Lakers star Wilt Chamberlain ran amok in the sixth game, with a monstrous 45 points and 27 rebounds.
New York’s Bill Bradley admitted later of the seventh game, “We left the locker room for the warmups not knowing if Willis was going to come out or not.” But prior to the seventh game, Reed took painkiller injections in his thigh and limped onto the court for the start of the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the Lakers to stare at him during warm-ups.
“When I saw that,” Knicks guard Walt Frazier said, “something told me we might have these guys.”
One season-ticket holder who was at the game at Madison Square Garden recalled years later, “All of a sudden this guy comes out — not limping, I’m talking about dragging his leg. All over the arena jaws were dropping. I’ve never heard that kind of roar, an uplift, in the Garden: ever.”
Reed’s teammate Dick Barnett said decades later, “I would love to say that was all contrived, okay, his late arrival. But he was receiving treatment.”
Reed hit two early jump shots, and although he was 6’10” and Chamberlain 7’1”, harassed Chamberlain into numerous missed shots during the first half. The Knicks wound up winning 113-99.
“The fans are saying: Everything’s all right: the Captain is here,” Reed smiled years later. “And I’m saying, boy, this is a hell of a predicament to be in. Here I am, a guy on one leg, gonna play the greatest scorer ever, big man, the only guy to ever score 100 points in a game, and I’m going to try to do it on one leg.”
“Willis put his whole career on the line for his team,” teammate Bill Bradley said simply.
Reed briefly coached the Knicks, then coached at Creighton University from 1981-85. He later coached the New Jersey Nets in 1988, then led the front office there.