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Willis Reed, Knicks Hall of Famer who played through pain for title, dies at 80 | New York Knicks


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Willis Reed, who dramatically emerged from the locker room minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals to spark the New York Knicks to their first championship and create one of the league’s most enduring examples of playing through pain, died on Tuesday. He was 80.

Reed’s death was announced by the National Basketball Retired Players Association, which had confirmed the news with his family. The cause of death was not released, but Reed had been in poor health recently and was unable to travel to New York in February when the Knicks honored the 50th anniversary of their 1973 championship team.

Nicknamed “The Captain”, Reed was the undersized center and emotional leader on the Knicks’ two NBA championship teams, with a soft shooting touch from the outside and a toughness to tussle with the era’s superstar big men on the inside.

“The Knicks organization is deeply saddened to announce the passing of our beloved Captain, Willis Reed,” the Knicks’ said in a statement on Tuesday. “As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standard he left behind – the unmatched leadership, sacrifice and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions. His is a legacy that will live forever. We ask everyone to please respect the family’s privacy during this difficult time.”

His accomplishments – seven All-Star selections, two NBA Finals MVP awards among them – would have warranted Hall of Fame induction by themselves. During the 1969-70 season, he became the first player to sweep the MVP awards for the regular season, All-Star Game and NBA finals.

But his spot in history was secured simply by walking onto the floor on the final night of that season.

Reed had injured a thigh muscle in Game 5 of the series between the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, tumbling to the court in pain. He sat out Game 6 in which his counterpart Wilt Chamberlain had 45 points and 27 rebounds in a Lakers romp that forced a deciding game at Madison Square Garden.

Reed’s status was unknown even to his Knicks teammates as he continued getting treatment until shortly before Game 7. Both teams were warming up when Reed came out of the tunnel, fans rising and roaring when they saw him emerge from the tunnel leading to the locker room.

“And here comes Willis and the crowd is going wild,” radio announcer Marv Albert said.

New York Knicks
The New York Knicks’ starting five – Dick Barnett, Walt Frasier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and Willis Reed, from left to right – celebrate in the locker room during their 1970 NBA playoff run. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News/Getty Images

The Lakers stopped to watch Reed, who then made two quick jump shots in the early minutes of the game, running back down the court after both with a noticeable limp. He wouldn’t score again but the Knicks didn’t need it, with their captain’s return and Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists energizing them to a 113-99 victory and their first NBA title.

Frazier’s performance was one of the finest ever in a deciding game, but it was forever a footnote to Reed’s return. In 2006, to coincide with the NBA’s 60th anniversary, it finished third in voting of the league’s 60 greatest playoff moments, behind Michael Jordan’s championship-winning jumper for his sixth title in 1998 and Magic Johnson ending his rookie season by filling in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the 1980 finals to lead the Lakers to a championship.

Reed wouldn’t be able to recover so quickly from injuries in the coming years. He was limited to just 11 games in 1971-72 but came back strong the next season to spark the Knicks to a second title in what was his last full season.

Though his return always made the 1970 title the more memorable one, it was the 1972-73 squad, having been fortified by Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas, that stood out to Reed.

“That, to me, in my mind was the best team,” he said during its 40th anniversary celebration.

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Reed would play only 19 games in 1973-74 before retiring because of a knee injury after just 10 seasons in the league.

That was long enough to collect more than 12,000 points and 8,400 rebounds, both of which still rank in the top three on the Knicks’ career lists.

Willis Reed was born 25 June 1942, in Hico, Louisiana. He stayed in his home state for his college career, leading Grambling State to the 1961 NAIA championship and a third-place finish in 1963. The school retired his number and named its court after Reed in 2022.

A second-round pick in 1964, he quickly proved that standing at 6ft 9in – undersized for his position at the time – wouldn’t keep him from becoming one of the league’s top centers. He was voted Rookie of the Year and earned the first of his seven straight All-Star selections.

Reed was the anchor as the Knicks became one of the best teams in the NBA, with Hall of Famers such as Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.

Reed provided them with 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds for his career, along with plenty of toughness. An ESPN documentary in 2014 on those Knicks showed footage of a 1966 fight in a game against the Lakers in which Reed appeared to throw punches at multiple opponents, with Jackson noting that it appeared Reed “decimated this team.”

His No 19 was the first number retired by the Knicks and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1982.

Reed went on to coach the Knicks to a playoff berth in 1977-78 but coached them only 14 more games the following season. He also was a head coach at Creighton and the New Jersey Nets, but his greatest success after his playing career came in the front office.

He was their senior vice president of basketball operations when they drafted Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, who became All-Stars and led the Nets to the playoffs.



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