Almost 50 years ago today, Willis Reed made his NBA debut for the New York Knicks. Most fans from younger generations know him only for his heroic Game 7 performance in the Knicks first championship season, but his entire Hall of Fame career should’t be forgotten.
With the eighth overall pick of the 1964 NBA Draft, which oddly was the first selection of the second round, the New York Knicks took a young man named Willis Reed, who put up astounding averages of 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds in four years at Grambling State University. It turned out to be a steal.
Despite being a bit undersized, Reed was a force from day one in the NBA, especially on the glass. In his first season, he earned Rookie of the Year honors by putting up 19.5 points and 14.7 rebounds a night. He would become a staple at the NBA All-Star Game, appearing there in each of his first seven seasons, and bringing home an All-Star Game MVP in 1969-70, the same season he won the league’s MVP Award too. New Yorkers had seen tons of great athletes pass through over the years, but Reed wouldn’t etch his place in New York history until the playoffs of that season.
A NEW YORK HERO
By 1970, the Knicks had built a title contender around Reed, adding a Hall of Fame coach, Red Holzman, and a Hall of Fame player, Dave DeBusschere, to one of the best defensive duos of all-time, in Reed and Walt Clyde Frazier. Reed was in the midst of one of his best postseasons ever with averages of 25.9 points and 14.2 rebounds when tragedy struck in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, against a Lakers squad led by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.
The first championship in franchise history was so close, the whole city could smell it, but Reed would leave the pivotal fifth game after tearing a large muscle in his leg, an injury that left him writhing in pain while championship aspirations seemed to fly out the window. The Knicks would rally back in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, but a Reed-less Knicks team stood no chance in Game 6 at The Forum.
The atmosphere for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden was beyond intense. Fans were ready to burst with emotion whether Reed took the floor or not, but when their general was spotted limping towards the court, pandemonium ensued.
Reed would score the first two field goals for the Knicks that night before exiting early, and although those were his only two makes, that was all he needed to do. He was able to lift the Knicks to their first title mentally, even though there was only so much he could do physically. To this day, it’s known as the gutsiest performance in NBA Finals history.
Reed enjoyed a few more prime years for the Knicks, and helped take home another title for the in 1973. However, he didn’t end his career how we all hoped. Constant knee injuries forced Reed to retire in 1974 after “only” 10 NBA seasons, but he wasn’t ready to leave the sport just yet. By 1977, he found himself as the head coach for the franchise he brought so much success to. However, only 14 games in to his second season with the Knicks, he was let go. He wouldn’t get another NBA head coaching gig until he crossed the river in 1987 to preside over the New Jersey Nets. Two seasons later, his coaching career ended with a record of 82-124. Reed would go on to be the Nets GM, where he built a team around Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman, and Drazen Petrovic. He was also their Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations when the Nets made consecutive runs to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.