Willis Reed, legendary Knicks Hall of Famer, dead at 80


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Willis Reed, the heart and soul of the Knicks’ most recent NBA championship teams, and the man who gave New York City sports one of its most iconic moments, died Tuesday, The Post has confirmed. He was 80.

Known simply as “The Captain” years before Derek Jeter was born, Reed played 10 seasons in the NBA, all with the Knicks, for whom he also served as coach and general manager after his playing career ended in 1974. He also coached and was an executive with the Nets when they played their games in New Jersey and was an executive with the New Orleans Hornets from 2004-07.

The first member of the Knicks to have his number retired, Reed was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982 and was named among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history during the 1996-97 season.

But it was during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals that Reed carved his name in the hardwood history of Madison Square Garden and the league.

Injured late in Game 5 against the Lakers when he fell hard to the floor on a drive to the basket — a game the Knicks would manage to win without their leader who had scored 37, 29, 38 and 23 points in the series’ first four games — Reed missed Game 6 in Los Angeles as the Lakers evened the series at three games each.

Willis Reed, the Knicks Hall of Famer who won two NBA championships with the club, has died at the age of 80.
NBAE via Getty Images

And when the series returned to the Garden for Game 7, no one — not even his teammates — was quite sure whether Reed, who had injured his right thigh in that fall a few days earlier would be able to play — even his teammates. In fact, the Knicks hit the floor for pregame warm-ups without him.

“We left the locker room … not knowing if Willis was going to come out or not,” Bill Bradley, a forward on those championship teams, said years later.

Some 15 minutes later they had their emphatic answer. The Garden erupted when Reed limped out of the tunnel — it would forever after be known as “the Willis Reed tunnel” until it disappeared when the building was remodeled some 30 years later — and onto the court. Reed’s arrival drew the rapt attention of the Lakers as they warmed up. Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, hearing the ear-splitting ovation, all turned their gaze toward the other end of the floor where Reed had joined his teammates.

“I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man,” said Reed’s teammate Walt Frazier, who would erupt for 38 points and 19 assists that night. “They stopped doing what they were doing to look and see how Willis was. Something told me then man, they’re very concerned. We may have these guys.”

Years later, Reed, who endured a pregame cortisone injection, said he never doubted he would play.

Willis Reed grabs a rebound during the 1973 Eastern Conference Finals
Willis Reed grabs a rebound during the 1973 Eastern Conference Finals.
NBAE via Getty Images

“This was something we all wanted very badly,” he said. “It was so close you could touch it. It’s one game. It was what I dreamed of as a high school kid. It was what I worked so hard in college for. Not only me, but everyone in that locker room. The coaches. Management.

“For me to not go out there to try and be a part of that, to try and give whatever I could — and I didn’t know what it was — then I would be letting them down and letting myself down. If I tried and failed that’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t want to be a guy who didn’t come out and show he had the guts and grit to be there. … That was the moment to try.”

The left-handed Reed, his thigh heavily wrapped, scored the game’s first basket from the top of the key. He would hit another 20-foot jumper the next time down the court and the Knicks, who would lead by as many as 29 points in the first half, were on their way to a 113-99 win and their first NBA title. Reed wouldn’t score another point. He wouldn’t need to.

“I thought the game was over at that point,” he said. “Once I made those two shots … if there was ever any doubt in our minds, there was no doubt. I didn’t score any more points but from that point on Clyde and [Dave] DeBusschere and the rest of the guys took over.”

Willis Reed Jr. was born June 25, 1942 in the tiny town of Hico, La. — “They don’t even have a population,” he once said — and grew up on a farm in nearby Bernice, La. He attended Grambling State University where he led the Tigers to an NAIA title and three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. The Knicks, perennial losers in those days, selected him with the first pick of the second round in the 1964 NBA Draft — the eighth selection overall.

Willis Reed passed away at 80 years old
Willis Reed passed away at 80 years old
NBAE via Getty Images

With Walt Bellamy at center, the 6-foot-9 and 235-pound Reed played power forward for several seasons as the Knicks continued to lose. When Red Holzman replaced Dick McGuire as coach during the 1967-68 season, the Knicks finished 43-39, their first winning season since 1958-59.

On Dec. 19, 1968, the Knicks traded Bellamy and Howard Komives to the Pistons in exchange for power forward Dave DeBusschere. That deal allowed Reed to move to center.

“Since that trade, I feel like a new person,” Reed said at the time. “Center is my position.”

The Knicks, buoyed by a much-improved defense, would win 54 games and make the playoffs that season, setting the stage for their world championship the following year. They would win the title again in 1972-73, besting the Lakers in five games. Reed was again named Finals MVP.

He appeared in seven All-Star games and averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game during his career, was named rookie of the year following the 1964-65 season — the first member of the Knicks to win that honor — and the league’s MVP after that 1969-70 season.

He would play in just 19 games during the 1973-74 season and did not play at all the following season before officially retiring. Reed replaced Holzman as coach in 1977, guiding an aging team to a 43-39 record. He was replaced as coach 14 games into the next season.

Reed, who briefly served as an assistant coach at St. John’s, was head coach at Creighton for four seasons in the early 1980s and was an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings.

He took over as coach of a bad Nets team in late February 1988 and coached them through the following season when he joined the front office. In 1993, he was named the team’s general manager.

“Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t remind me of that game,” Reed said of that memorable night in 1970. “It was our moment in time.”

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