A Louisiana Life: Willis Reed

In New York, they still talk about Willis Reed and that night and that game with the same head-bowing reverence as when they speak of Casey Stengel’s Amazin’ Mets and Joe Namath’s “guaranteed” Super Bowl III win in 1969.
It is May 8, 1970, and Madison Square Garden is packed with 19,500 rabid New Yorkers as their Knicks are in a do-or-die seventh and final game against the murderous Los Angeles Lakers for professional basketball’s world championship.
Reed’s knee is grotesquely swollen and inflamed after he injured it in game five. He bites his lip in agony as he takes the team trainers advice and stays in the locker room for the pre-game shoot around. At the last moment before tip-off, Reed hobbles onto the court and the fans go nuts.
Soon after a guy named Wilt Chamberlain makes his presence felt as he prepares to lead his Lakers against a Knicks team that had never trailed all season in chalking up a 60-22 record including a record 19-game winning streak. But now … without a healthy Willis Reed the Knicks seem doomed.
Reed’s leg is shot full of carbocaine and cortisone, and, as the game starts, he drags the nearly useless stump behind him limping up and down the court keeping up with Chamberlain. Grown men in the stands cry and women turn away rather than look at a crippled legend wincing with each step.
At the half, Reed, the NBA’s MVP that season, had scored only four points, but he had nearly shut down Wilt “the Stilt.” In the locker room, Reed begged for and got another chance to go back for the second half.
Just showing up for that second stanza drew another roar from the packed house.
Then it happened: The man who was lovingly known as “The Captain,” the 6-foot-10 charcoal whirlwind from the tiny burg of Hico, Louisiana, looked up at the rafters. You could almost hear a roar of defiance, one that yelled in the face of Wilt and his Lakers, “You don’t come in here and beat us … not in our place.”
Reed, played only six minutes in the second half, but his rugged defense against Chamblain and his inspiration to his teammates was enough to lead his Knicks to a 113-99 victory and the Knicks’ first NBA title in nearly a quarter of a century.
Bedlam reigned. The “new” Madison Square Garden was fittingly baptized that night and the “legend of Willis Reed” was born, to be dredged up ever after when grown men and women speak of great happenings on the hardwood. They knew they had witnessed that rare moment, when athletes reach down to find that inner spark, that hidden something that drives them to do what men and women in Willis Reed’s condition that night are not supposed to even think of doing.
Reed played his entire career with his beloved Knicks who retired his No. 19 jersey. In 1996, he was named to the NBA’s 50th anniversary All-Time Team. And he reigns supreme in the NBA Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Reed coached or assisted for his Knicks as well as the Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and New Jersey Nets. He was also a volunteer assistant at St. John’s University and, as head coach, led Creighton University to the National Invitational Tournament.
These days, the Captain has come home … almost. Since July 2004 he has been vice president in charge of basketball operations for the New Orleans Hornets.
“This is it,” the 63-year-old Reed says. “I’ve spent my entire life in basketball. I want to win one more championship. I feel in my bones that we can do it right here in New Orleans. After that? Well, then … or when the Hornets get tired of having me around, I’ll be heading back up to where it all began so many years ago. I’ve built a home in Ruston for me and Gayle (Reed’s wife of 22 years). I’ll be gone fishin’. And I want to do that with her. She’s been a real basketball fan over the years. She’s been to the games and she’s felt great when we’ve won. And when we’ve lost? Well, she’s hurt right along with me.”
Then … and only then will the long round trip be complete. Back into the backyard where it all began when a tall, gangly kid from West Side High School in Lillie, La., was drafted for Grambling by another legend – football coach, Eddie Robinson.
Reed breaks into laughter as his mind drifts back – way back – to those hilly red dirt days in north Louisiana … way back.
“Ha! Ha! Ha! I remember, I said to Coach Rob, ‘Coach I’ve already decided to go to Grambling … but I’m going to go there to play basketball … not football’.”
And for that, a grateful roundball nation will always have memories of “The Captain” … and of his unbelievably courageous performance on that night. •

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