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Echoes of an Era: Willis Reed, 1942-2023

“There we were knocking on the door of a National Championship. I was always taught to try my best, and after all the hours of practice and soreness, there was no way that I would not go for it.”

Willis Reed

1970 NBA champion

“There we were knocking on the door of a National Championship. I was always taught to try my best, and after all the hours of practice and soreness, there was no way that I would not go for it.”

—Willis Reed on his iconic
appearance in the 1970 NBA Finals

Willis Reed, the New York Knicks basketball legend of the 1970s, has died at 80 years old. Initial reports suggest he had congestive heart problems. At 6 feet 10 inches, Reed helped them win two championships and assisted in the National Basketball Association’s rise to media prominence through his emotional performance in what became known as “The Willis Reed Game,” during the 1970 Championship Finals.
Born and bred in rural Louisiana, Reed partook in the traditional pastimes of fishing and hunting, while adhering to the academic and moral discipline provided by his parents and teachers. A gifted athlete, he was recruited by legendary Grambling State University football coach Eddie Robinson, but chose that school’s basketball team under coach Fred C. Hobdy from 1960 to 1964. While their basketball program paled in comparison to their storied football powerhouse, they performed well enough to win one National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) title, behind his 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds per game (he graduated with a B.A. in physical education and a minor in biology in 1964).
Selected by the Knicks in 1964, Reed established himself as a dominant force in an era that featured big men like Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry Lucas, Bill Russell and Nate Thurmond.  As Rookie of the Year, he became a fixture on NBA All-Star teams from the duration of his career alternating between center and power forward.
The Knicks initially struggled during the 1960s before settling on a lineup featuring forwards Dave DeBusschere, Phil Jackson, and Cazzie Russell, swingman Bill Bradley, point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, and sixth man Dick Barnett. Hall of Fame head coach William “Red” Holzman guided them through the best regular season record in the team’s history as they reached the NBA Finals for a showdown with their cross-continent rivals, the star studded Los Angeles Lakers.
The Knicks demonstrated resilience, as “Mr. Clutch” Jerry West made an inhuman buzzer-beating 63-foot shot to tie the series in Game 3, before New York rebounded to win in overtime, 111-108. Los Angeles bounced back by winning #4 to even the series 2-2, as New York pulled ahead in Game #5 besting the west coasters 107–100, but the win was a Pyrrhic victory as Reed sustained a tear in his right thigh in the first quarter, forcing him to sit out the next game at the Fabulous Forum.
This  enabled Laker Chamberlain to ravage New York by scoring 45 points and collecting 27 rebounds, setting up an ominous finale as they returned to Madison Square Garden (MSG) for Game 7. Reed’s status remained doubtful even as both teams dressed for the championship.
Filled to its 19,500 capacity, the tension inside MSG was palpable as the players assembled on the hardwood for a warm up ritual.
New York sports fan Spike Lee remembers that climactic moment as the hobbled Knicks captain made his way onto the court.
“When Willis Reed came out of the tunnel, it was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard.”
He established the tone with two jump shots, his only points of the night. Walt Frazier turned in a stellar accomplishment with 36 points and 19 assists, but the night belonged to Willis as his team sailed to a 113-99 victory.
Afterwards in the locker room before a televised audience, provocative sports personality Howard Cosell gave him the ultimate tribute “You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer.”
For the Knicks, it was their first NBA title in franchise history. They replicated this championship in 1973 with Reed’s selection as Most Valuable Player both years, but 1970 remains a moment for the ages.
He continued his ties to basketball with positions in coaching and management for the rest of his life. Married twice with two children, Reed is survived by current wife Gale I. Kennedy, and was a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
The Knicks organization issued the following statement upon receiving news of his passing:
“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.”