Willis Reed – when heart is bigger than statistics


willis-reed-featureToday the NY Knicks aren’t exactly the team that you’d bet on to go into the playoffs, let alone win an NBA championship. The team currently is 10-22. Hopefully, they will improve.

Perhaps, the current Knicks should, from time to time, raise their heads to look at some of the jerseys that are hanging in the Madison Square Garden. There should be a #19 jersey, with a name “Reed” on it…

Reed, who played for the Knicks for 10 years, should probably serve an example of leadership and courage to the current NY Knicks team. Reed gave 10 years to the NY team, got elected to All-Star games 7 times, won 2 NBA titles and got inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Reed averaged 18.7 ppg and 12.9 rpg in 35.5 mpg, appearing in 650 career NBA games.

There were however two cases, when Reed showcased what kind of “Captain” he really was. For those of you who don’t know, check them out below.

“…when Willis Reed fought the entire Lakers bench and won…” (from KnickerBlogger.net, by Brian Cronin, 2011)

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Surprisingly, both cases include the LA Lakers team. First case happened during the early 1966-67 season. This is so unbelievable, too bad there isn’t a video footage of the incident, so just read below.

During the game against the Lakers at Madison Square Garden, Reed was matched up against veteran forward/center Rudy LaRusso. Throughout the game, Reed took exception to what he felt were an inordinate amount of elbows thrown his way by LaRusso as the pair jockeyed for position in the low blocks. Reed complained to the referees, who he later noted looked at him as though he was nuts, so Reed determined that if they were not going to take care of things, he would.

During the third quarter, a Knick was shooting two foul shots. After the second shot went up, naturally, LaRusso and Reed began jockeying for position and Reed felt that LaRusso hit him with one elbow too many, so after LaRusso turned to head up court, Reed tangled up with him a bit. LaRusso responded by throwing a haymaker at Reed. The problem for Reed was that this was taking place directly in front of the Lakers’ bench, so quickly a bunch of Lakers race on to the court.

When Reed turned to respond to LaRusso’s missed haymaker, Laker center Darren Imhoff grabbed Reed from behind, ostensibly to break up the fight. Well, LaRusso took this opportunity to tag Reed with a punch. This enraged Reed. He slugged Imhoff, dropping the big man to the ground. He then chased LaRusso to the Lakers bench and got in two mighty shots in LaRusso’s face. At this point, Laker rookie forward John Block ran up, also ostensibly to play peacemaker. Well, Reed responded with a left hook that broke Block’s nose.

Imhoff came up again and Reed punched him in the eye, sending a bleeding Imhoff into a bunch of Lakers. By this time, Reed’s Knick teammates had arrived, as well, and it was a full-fledged brawl. Reed caught LaRusso one more time, knocking him to the ground. Reed was also throwing any other Laker who came at him to the ground, including Laker center Hank Finkel.

Both Reed and LaRusso were ejected, and were each fined $50. Head of the NBA referees Dolph Schayes (who was also featured in a recent Unsung Knick History piece here) debated suspending Reed, but luckily for Reed, the Knicks had footage of the encounter and it was clear that LaRusso had started it, so Reed was cleared.

Reed later told his teammates that they should never try to restrain him in a fight, and his reasoning would explain why he became so enraged when Imhoff restrained him while LaRusso took a shot at him and that was that he was restrained once during a fight when he was in college and someone in the crowd took the chance to throw a bottle at him. So Reed warned his teammates that if they ever tried to restrain him, well, they could expect a little of what he gave to the Lakers.

Limping Reed’s 4 points was enough to defeat Chamberlain and the Lakers (via NBA.com)

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This particular history piece has been well documented, and there’s even a video of it – as Madison Square Garden exploded with ovation, seeing injured Willis Reed limping down the court, getting ready for the Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals.

In advance, no one knew if Reed would play. The center and captain of the New York Knicks had suffered a torn muscle in his right thigh during Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers, and had not played in Game 6 when Wilt Chamberlain’s 45 points and 27 rebounds enabled the Lakers to tie the series at 3-3.

When the teams took the floor for pre-game warmups, Reed was not with his New York teammates. He remained in the lockerroom, deep in the bowels of the building.

“I wanted to play,” Reed recalls. “That was for the championship, the one great moment you play for all your life. I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play.”

Reed took an injection to dull the pain in his leg, and just moments before tipoff he limped through the tunnel and onto the court. Waves of cheers cascaded down from the Garden stands as fans caught sight of the Knicks’ captain, a sight that was not lost on New York’s opponents.

“I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man,” said Knicks guard Walt Frazier. “When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!”

Reed lined up against Chamberlain for the opening tap and scored the Knicks’ first two baskets of the game. Those would prove to be his only points, but his presence was more than enough to inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 victory and the franchise’s first NBA Championship.

Overshadowed by Reed’s emotion-charged effort was one of the great playoff performances in NBA history by Frazier, who led the Knicks with 36 points and 19 assists.

These two moments of Willis Reed’s NBA career should serve as examples to the future generations of NBA players. Below is a video of how it all happened in 1970.

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