Willis Reed, the brawny and inspirational hub of two Knicks championship teams that captivated New York in the early 1970s with a canny, team-oriented style of play, died on Tuesday. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his former teammate Bill Bradley, the former United States senator. He said Reed had congestive heart issues. It was not clear where Reed died, but he had been under treatment at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Bradley said.
Reed was notably absent last month, for health reasons, when the Knicks celebrated their 1972-73 championship team during a 50th-anniversary halftime ceremony at Madison Square Garden attended by many former members of that squad, including Bradley, Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas. Reed spoke to the crowd in a prerecorded video.
In an era when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were the more celebrated big men, Reed was a highly skilled 6-foot-9 center with a resolute physicality that was much admired over a 10-year career, though it was marred by injury and ended at 31.
It was Reed’s willingness to play hurt that brought him his greatest measure of respect and fame, and his grittiness was never more exemplified and celebrated than on May 8, 1970, in the decisive game of the National Basketball Association finals.
Days earlier, he had torn a right tensor muscle, which originates in the hip and extends to the thigh, while driving to the basket on Chamberlain during the first quarter of Game 5 at Madison Square Garden — a game the Knicks rallied to win without him. Saving whatever he had left for a possible Game 7, he sat out Game 6 in Los Angeles, in which Chamberlain scored 45 points.
When the Knicks went out to warm up before the start of Game 7, Reed stayed behind in the trainer’s room for treatment. As everyone in the packed Garden anxiously awaited word on whether he would play, he made his way stiff-legged through the players’ tunnel and emerged to a crescendo of cheers to join his teammates, who were already warming up.
“You’re five stories above the ground and I swear you could feel the vibrations,” Reed said in 2009. “I thought, this is what an earthquake must feel like.”
Limping noticeably, he hit his first two southpaw jump shots for his only points of the game. Frazier carried the Knicks from there, with 36 points and 19 assists, and the Knicks, with a 113-99 victory, clinched the franchise’s first title.
In 1990, around the 20th anniversary of Game 7, Reed told The New York Times: “There isn’t a day in my life that people don’t remind me of that game.”
Heroism Under Duress
His threshold for tolerating pain — however much dulled that night by pregame injections of carbocaine, a powerful derivative of novocaine — has for decades been invoked as a standard measure, a “Willis Reed moment,” for athletic heroism under physical duress.
“It was the best example of inspiration by an individual in a sporting event I’ve ever seen,” Bradley once said.
Reed won the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award for the 1969-70 season and was named the M.V.P. of the championship series. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1965, was voted an All-Star seven times and won another N.B.A. title and finals M.V.P. with the Knicks in 1973. For his career, he averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.
He was chosen by the N.B.A. for its 50th and 75th anniversary teams. In 1996, he was chosen by the N.B.A. as one of its 50 greatest players. His No. 19 uniform jersey — white with blue and orange trim — was the first to be retired by the Knicks, on Oct. 21, 1976. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.
After his playing days, Reed was a coach or executive for the Knicks, the New Jersey Nets and the New Orleans Hornets. He was part of the Nets’ front office when the team lost consecutive N.B.A. finals in 2002 and 2003. He also coached at Creighton University from 1981 to 1985, and was an assistant coach in the N.B.A. for the Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings.
Reed, a Louisiana native, was an avid outdoorsman. His hobby fit his playing persona as a rugged, proud man whose patience wore thin with those who challenged or crossed him.
On Oct. 18, 1966, at Madison Square Garden, the Los Angeles Lakers learned the hard way that Reed was no one to fool with. Beginning his third season with the Knicks, Reed was embroiled in a battle with the Lakers’ Rudy LaRusso, a bruising 6-foot-7 forward. Throughout the game, Reed had been complaining to the officials about LaRusso’s tactics, but when his pleas were ignored he acted on his own.
Lined up at the free-throw line late in the third quarter, Reed elbowed LaRusso to the side of the head. On the way up court, LaRusso responded with a chopping punch. Reed, in a sudden fury, shook off Darrall Imhoff’s bear hug from behind and floored the 6-foot-10 Imhoff, cutting him near the eye; he broke the nose of John Block, a 6-foot-9 rookie, who had foolishly stepped into his space; and he finally chased LaRusso into the Lakers’ bench, throwing wild punches and sending several of the players fleeing from Reed’s range.
A grainy black-and-white film of the melee surfaced in 2014 in an ESPN documentary on the Knicks teams of the early 1970s. In the film, “When the Garden Was Eden,” Reed sheepishly called it “a good fight.”
He also recalled being upset that none of his teammates had joined the fray and noted their reticence in the postgame locker room. Barnett was heard to remark, “Man, you were winning.”
A Gentle Giant
Off the court, Reed was a much gentler giant, flashing an easy smile and typically extending a large hand to greet friends and acquaintances. Within the Knicks organization, he was known to be generous with teammates in an era when financial rewards in professional sports were not as substantial as they are today.
“Willis would always take the rookies under his wing,” Frazier, a Hall of Fame guard on those championship teams, was quoted as saying in “Garden Glory: An Oral History of the New York Knicks,” written by Dennis D’Agostino and published in 2003. “He would loan you his car or money. That was his personality.”
He was also recognized as a natural leader. Shortly after the brawl with the Lakers, he was named team captain — a role he had filled for his high school basketball and football teams and during his junior and senior seasons as a star at the historically Black Grambling College (now Grambling State University). He was just 24.
‘We Made the Best of It’
Willis Reed Jr. was born on June 25, 1942, in Hico, La., the only child of Willis and Inell Reed. As a young boy, he lived on a 200-acre farm owned by his grandparents, Baptist teetotalers who preached commitment and hard work.
When Reed reached school age, his parents moved about 10 miles away to Bernice, a town of three square miles in north central Louisiana that was then a thriving lumber and agricultural community. His father worked in a sawmill factory, and his mother worked as a domestic.
Reed grew up with an acute sense of what Jim Crow law meant: separate but not really equal. “Didn’t have the houses the white folks have, didn’t have a car,” he said in 2009. “But the situation was what it was. We made the best of it in Bernice until it changed.”
Still, Reed always maintained, he never harbored ill feelings for white people. He believed that attending an all-Black high school, Westside, a few miles from Bernice, provided role models for him he might not have had in an integrated school.
Most prominent was the school’s basketball coach, Lendon Stone, who wore a jacket and tie to school every day and demonstrated to Reed that he could avoid the backbreaking work his father did.
Reed majored in physical education at Grambling and planned on being a teacher until he became a dominant player, averaging 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds per game as a senior. The Knicks drafted him with the first pick of the second round in 1964, after 10 other players had been chosen. With their first-round pick, the Knicks selected another big man, Jim Barnes, who had beaten Reed out for a spot on the 1964 United States Olympic team.
Reed believed he was better than Barnes and most of the other first-round picks, and he was determined to prove it. When he was offered his first Knicks contract, for $11,000 with a $3,000 signing bonus, he told Eddie Donovan, the team’s general manager, that he wanted a bigger bonus. Told that the team wanted him to earn it on the court, Reed accepted the challenge and vowed to make Donovan pay him after the season.
As team captain, Reed took his leadership responsibilities seriously, and Red Holzman, his coach, relied on him to motivate and police teammates as the Knicks improved dramatically from the middle to the late 1960s.
They narrowly missed making the N.B.A. finals in 1969, losing a tough six-game series to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. With Russell retired by the next season, the Knicks reeled off 17 early-season victories in a row, equaling a record then held by Boston.
Triumphs and Challenges
They appeared to be a team of destiny. But along the way to the championship there were significant challenges, one of which was internal and demanded Reed’s exceptional leadership to quell a festering internal conflict.
In mid-January of that season, Cazzie Russell, the Knicks’ best offensive substitute, was late to a practice on an off-day in Detroit. Driving out of Ann Arbor, where he was visiting with friends, Russell was pulled over by the police and ordered out of the car at gunpoint. When he produced a driver’s license, the officers apologized and explained that an African American male with a beard had broken out of prison. Russell, who was African American, had a beard.
Upon arriving at practice, upset by what he considered to be a case of racial profiling, Russell began throwing elbows at the Knicks’ white players, in particular Bradley, a college rival at Princeton who had joined the Knicks after Russell and who eventually took his starting forward position.
Reed halted the scrimmage, approached Russell and asked what he was doing. In “The Open Man,” a diary of the 1969-70 season, the Knicks’ Hall of Fame forward Dave DeBusschere recalled that Russell blurted out, “Be quiet, Uncle Tom.”
For Reed, a child of the segregated South, it was deeply offensive to be spoken to in such a way, especially in front of his teammates. Russell quickly realized the risk he had taken. He had made his N.B.A. debut in 1966 on the night Reed brawled with the Lakers.
But when Reed was at Grambling in the early 1960s, his team occasionally competed against white teams in the national small-college tournament. His coach, Fred Hobdy, admonished his players about allowing the incendiary issue of race to infect their mental preparation and execution.
“He used to say, ‘Listen, you guys are athletes, and you don’t need to be out there demonstrating — the best thing you can do is what you do best,’” Reed said in 2009.
On the Knicks, which had Black and white players, Reed intuitively recognized the danger of the team splintering or Russell being emasculated if he overreacted to the insult.
Reed stepped forward and issued a blunt warning to Russell: Be quiet, play the right way, or “this Uncle Tom will be kicking some ass.” Given a moment to gather himself, Russell apologized.
The Knicks kept winning, and Russell helped them hold off the Baltimore Bullets in the decisive game of a first-round playoff series, on a night when Bradley played poorly and the team needed a fourth-quarter lift.
Recalling the incident in 2010 when he was back in New York for a 40th-anniversary celebration, Russell called Reed “an amazing man.”
Bradley said the incident with Russell captured the essence of Reed, whom he called “a strong and selfless leader, who was the heart of our team.
“Even as the league’s M.V.P.,” Bradley continued, “he knew that the individual was never as important as the team, and that points were transitory, championships were forever.”
Reed’s greatest triumphs were the two championships in New York, but his most deflating career moment also came at Madison Square Garden. On Nov. 10, 1978, he was summoned there by Sonny Werblin, the Garden’s president, and fired just 14 games into his second season as Knicks coach, despite having made the playoffs in the previous season.
Reed did return to the Knicks in a nominal administrative role around the turn of the century. But he accepted an offer to join the New Orleans front office as vice president of basketball operations in June 2003. His widowed mother’s health was failing, and he relished the opportunity to be closer to the home he had built for her in Bernice.
The plan went awry when Inell Reed died four months later.
Reed’s survivors include his second wife, Gale Kennedy, and a daughter, Veronica, whom he had with his first wife, Geraldine. A son, Karl, died in recent years.
In 2005, the New Orleans franchise was temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Two years later, approaching his 65th birthday, Reed retired from basketball.
On a lush, sprawling property not far from Grambling, with oak trees and man-made streams, Reed built a home far from the bright lights of New York, where he could count on being recognized and extolled by baby boomers on sight.
Upon his retirement, Reed told The Times, “Call me in Louisiana and my wife will tell you I’ve gone fishing.”