Farewell Captain: Remembering Willis Reed
Looking back at the career and legacy of one of the greatest Knicks to grace the halls of Madison Square Garden
I was born in 1987, and since the age of 8, I have been a fan of the New York Knicks. I was born 14 years after the Knicks won their last championship in 1973. In my time as a fan of this team, I have seen some truly dreadful basketball. But I have also experienced great moments of playoff success during the Patrick Ewing era, the marvelous scoring spectacle that was the Carmelo Anthony era, and the up-and-down experience that has been the Julius Randle era. But as fun as those eras were, that doesn’t compare to the dynamic group of Knicks from the early 1970s.
Many people associate those teams with the “Rolls Royce Backcourt” of Clyde Frazier and Earl Monroe, or the trivia fact that coaching legend Phil Jackson played for this Knicks team. They might even recall that former senator Bill Bradley was once upon a time a great professional basketball player. But every team has a foundation, the glue that holds them together. And for that Knicks team, it was center Willis Reed. Reed passed away recently at the age of 80, leaving behind fond memories and a legacy of a great basketball player and an even better man.
The Greatness of the Captain
Willis Reed is often called The Captain because he was the captain of two championship teams in New York in 1970 and 1973. In the pantheon of greats in NBA history, it can be argued that the center position is the deepest of all five positions. For many years (up until Michael Jordan came in and changed everything), a team's success was defined by the play of their center. And when you ask people to name the best centers ever there are a few names that always come up: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bill Russell to name a few. Willis Reed is often on the outside looking in on lists like that.
But when you take stock of his achievements it is baffling to think that he has in some ways been lost to history. Reed only played 10 seasons in the NBA before knee injuries forced him into retirement at the age of 32. But in that time he was a 2-time champion, 7-time All-Star, league MVP, 5-time All-NBA selection, rookie of the year, and also made an All-Defense team. During his first 7 years in the league, before the injuries started to take their toll, Reed was as consistent as you could hope for, almost guaranteed to score 20 points and grab 13 rebounds. Reed was also an excellent defensive player on the interior, although blocks were not measured as a statistic when he played. He is a player that would have thrived in just about any era of basketball.
The defining moment of Willis’ career and the one that NBA fans collectively point to was game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1970 Finals where he miraculously started the seventh game after tearing a thigh muscle in game 5. Reed limped onto the court in game 7, hit the first two shots, and inspired his team to win the final game of the series and bring New York a championship. What is often forgotten in that story, is just how dominant Reed was in the first 4 games of that series against all-time legend Wilt Chamberlain.
During the 4 games before his injury in game 5, Reed averaged 31 points and 15 rebounds per game, which are just staggering numbers. But beyond that, he held Wilt Chamberlain to 18 points per game. It is important to note that even at the age of 33, Chamberlain was still averaging 27 points per game for the Lakers. Reed was awarded the Finals MVP for that performance despite a virtuoso 36-point performance from Clyde Frazier in game 7. In a way, the tendency to forget how great Willis was in the first 4 games but remembering his game 7 moment feels on brand for someone that, by all accounts, was a great human being and incredibly understated.
More Than a Name, More Than a Number
In the pantheon of great Knicks players, it is difficult to leave Willis Reed off of the top 5. But as time has gone on, many have (myself included) revered Patrick Ewing more than Willis, despite never winning a championship. But the diligent workers are often the ones most easily forgotten, and a player that was great in an era of tape delay broadcasts in the shadow of two all-time great centers (Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain) made the erosion more expeditious. The comments from the NBA community in the wake of Willis’ passing were all of a common theme: a consummate professional, a great leader, and an icon of New York.
Willis Reed brought two championships to Knicks fans, but he also brought a figure that was worthy of emulation. It is not easy to be a star player in New York City. We have seen countless talented players crumble under the pressure of a rabid fan base and overwhelming media presence. Willis Reed was always a pro’s pro, never wilted under the pressure, and gave the city and the fans their money’s worth every night. The 1990s Knicks teams are revered for their grit and toughness. The 1970s Knicks are revered for being winners and having an eclectic group of characters. That group isn’t able to accomplish any of the tremendous feats that they did without the guidance and steady leadership of Willis Reed.
Reed will always be a Knick, and will always be remembered, as his number 19 hangs from the rafters at Madison Square Garden. It was telling that in the broadcast after his death, MSG broadcasters Mike Breen and Clyde Frazier (Reed’s teammate on the two championship teams) stepped away from the game to tell fond stories of Willis.
The most telling to me was Clyde mentioning that Reed taught him how to be a man. And that is the difference and the true essence of Willis Reed. Oftentimes, when a player is being remembered his old teammates will talk about their ability and desire to win. Clyde instead opted for highlighting how great of a mentor and human being Willis Reed was. The extended Knicks community of players, coaches, and fans lost someone so beloved, and it is important to remember that. Farewell Captain, you will be missed by all Knicks fans.