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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Remembering Willis Reed, the Heart and Soul of the New York Knicks

Willis Reed, the spiritual and physical leader of the great New York Knicks teams of the early 1970s, passed away earlier today. Here is the scouting report on Reed that I wrote in one of my articles about the NBA's 50 Greatest Players:

Willis Reed is the first player to win the All-Star Game MVP, regular season MVP and Finals MVP in the same season (1970). Michael Jordan (1996 and 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000) are the only other players who accomplished this feat. Reed also finished second in the 1969 regular season MVP voting and fourth in the 1971 regular season MVP voting. His trophy case includes the 1973 Finals MVP and the 1965 Rookie of the Year award. Reed made the All-NBA Team five times, including one First Team selection (1970, the year he earned his only All-Defensive Team selection, also to the First Team). His New York teams advanced to the NBA Finals three times (1970, 1972-73) and won two titles (1970, 1973).

Reed never led the league in a major statistical category but he averaged at least 11.6 rpg in each of his first seven seasons and his career average of 12.9 rpg ranks 13th in ABA/NBA history. While Reed could post up and he had a good hook shot, his New York Knicks often ran an inverted offense featuring guards Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe attacking the hoop while Reed and forwards Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas bombed away from outside. Reed did not display three point range--which, of course, was not necessary or desirable at a time that the NBA had not adopted the three point shot from the ABA--but he had a reliable shot in the 15-18 foot range. Reed was an excellent defensive player and he had great physical presence. He was not a great passer but he contributed offensively not only as a scorer but also as a screen setter.

While Reed put up impressive statistics during his prime, he is most famous for a game during which he scored just four points: in game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals versus the L.A. Lakers, a hobbled Reed limped on to the court after missing game six due to a hip injury and he made his first two shots from the field, providing inspiration as the Knicks rolled to a 113-99 victory. Walt Frazier had 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds in game seven but Reed received the Finals MVP after averaging a team-high 23.0 ppg plus 10.5 rpg during the series (Reed averaged 26.8 ppg during the first five games of the series before suffering the injury). 
Many current NBA players talk like they are tough and act like they are tough. Reed proved that he was tough through his actions, not through words or false bravado. He not only played through injury, but he never backed down from any challenge; not that fighting should be glorified, but during an era when real fighting--not the "hold me back" posturing that we see so much today--was common in the NBA there may not have been a more feared/respected player than Reed, perhaps best exemplified by a 1966 melee during which Reed took on multiple Lakers in succession "and just decimated this team," as his teammate Phil Jackson later put it. 

Reed made the All-Star team in each of his first seven seasons, but he fully hit his stride in 1969 after the Knicks traded Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives to the Detroit Pistons for Dave DeBusschere. The departure of Bellamy and addition of DeBusschere enabled Reed to shift from power forward to center while DeBusschere took over the power forward duties. In 1969, Reed earned the first of three straight top four finishes in regular season MVP voting as the Knicks went 54-28 before reaching the Eastern Division Finals for the first time since 1953. 

That set the stage for the Knicks' storied 1970 season, when they were the top overall seed in the NBA playoffs with a 60-22 record before defeating the Baltimore Bullets (4-3), Milwaukee Bucks (4-1), and L.A. Lakers (4-3) to capture the franchise's first NBA title. So much has been written and said about how tough Reed was to come back from a painful hip injury to play in game seven of the NBA Finals that it is often forgotten how dominant he had been in the 1970 playoffs before he got hurt. Reed averaged 21.3 ppg and 17.7 rpg versus the Bullets, who featured Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson in their frontcourt, plus Hall of Famer (and future Knick) Earl Monroe in the backcourt. Reed then averaged 27.8 ppg and 12.2 rpg versus the Bucks while battling Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who also had an excellent series, averaging 34.2 ppg and 17.8 rpg); Reed may not have outplayed Abdul-Jabbar, but he was productive enough to balance out that matchup, which enabled the Knicks to exploit matchup advantages at other positions. Then, as noted above, Reed averaged a team-high 23.0 ppg in the NBA Finals versus Wilt Chamberlain despite scoring just four points in game seven while hobbling around with his hip injury.

The iconic call by Marv Albert--"Now here comes Willis--and the crowd is going wild!"--combined with the footage of Reed walking through the tunnel on to the court before game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals is one of the classic moments in NBA history. Reed's willingness to play through pain and to sacrifice his individual statistics to help his team win stand in marked contrast to the "load management" and veneration of individual statistics over team goals that characterize so many of today's most talented NBA players.

Reed later said, "This was something we all wanted very badly. 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."

In my chapter about the NBA in the 1970s in the anthology Basketball in America, I mentioned that it takes nothing away from what the Knicks accomplished in 1970 to point out that, contrary to the mythology that has developed regarding the 1970 NBA Finals, the Knicks were not plucky underdogs but rather a young team stacked with Hall of Famers facing an aging Lakers team whose three main cogs--Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor--were all in their 30s: "It is true that by the conclusion of the 1970 playoffs West (3708 points, 30.9 points per game) Baylor (3623 points, 27.0 points per game), and Chamberlain (2990 points, 25.8 points per game) were the three leading scorers in NBA playoff history. That is impressive and unprecedented, but it also reflects the fact that all three players were past their primes. Baylor's chronically bad knees would soon force him to retire and, as noted above, Chamberlain had not completely recovered from his early season knee injury. West still had plenty of great games left, but his body was also battered and bruised from so many years of battling deep into the playoffs. The Knicks were hardly an underdog team without a chance; there is a reason that they had homecourt advantage for game seven. None of these facts diminish Reed's courage, Frazier's clutch game seven performance and the overall greatness of the 1970 New York Knicks. Quite the opposite: the 1970 Knicks should be remembered as a great team, not as an underdog."

Reed was the undisputed leader of that great 1970 Knicks team. 

In 1970-71, Reed had another excellent season, but the Knicks' bid to win back to back titles ended with a seven game loss to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals. Reed battled injuries in his final three seasons, but he won the 1973 Finals MVP while leading a balanced attack that defeated the defending champion L.A. Lakers, 4-1. Reed played in just 19 regular season games in 1973-74 before retiring.

After his playing career ended, Reed had a brief stint as the Knicks' head coach (1977-1979). He was Creighton University's head coach from 1981-85, and then worked as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings before becoming the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 1987-89. During his time as the Nets' general manager in the 1990s, the Nets drafted Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson while also signing Drazen Petrovic. Those three players helped the Nets become a playoff team before Petrovic's tragic death in a car accident. Reed was the New Orleans Hornets' Vice President of Basketball Operations from 2004-07.

Reed received many honors after he retired, including induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, selection as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players, and selection to the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:52 PM



At Wednesday, March 22, 2023 4:42:00 PM, Anonymous Eric said...


Phenomenal tribute post on the late, great Willis Reed. Thank you again for a pleasant read and providing us great context especially with regard to the 1970s Lakers legends.

A true titan of NYC basketball has passed. I hope younger basketball fans are able to appreciate the greatness of Willis Reed that went beyond his stats.

At Wednesday, March 22, 2023 7:43:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you!


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