Reed's special moment lives on
Remembering what is still the greatest game in franchise history
I wish I had been alive on May 8, 1970.
That's because Saturday, May 8, is the 40th anniversary of the greatest game in the history of the New York Knicks. On that day the Knicks knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, 113-99, to win their first-ever championship
I was born exactly eight years and 19 days later -- but I feel like I saw that game. My late father described it to me, joyfully, time after time as I was growing up. He talked about how that 1969-70 Knicks team was so special -- so unselfish, so "together." And especially about how Willis Reed, otherwise known as "The Captain," inspired his teammates in extraordinary fashion that night and propelled the Knicks to victory.
I was fortunate enough to spend a few minutes on the phone with Reed earlier this week. Speaking from his home in Louisiana, Reed said, not surprisingly, people bring up that Game 7 to him all the time.
"Most people want to ask me about it, and they usually say one of two things," Reed said. "Either, 'I was there that night,' or, 'I remember that night.' So I get reminded of it pretty consistently. I guess it was kind of a great moment."
That last part should be nominated for Understatement of the Year.
The details are the stuff of legend now. The Lakers boasted a roster stocked with superstars, including Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks were more of a collection of complementary parts, although Reed did win the league's MVP award that year.
The big question leading into Game 7 was, would Reed even be able to play at all? In the first quarter of Game 5, with the series knotted up at two games apiece, he tore a muscle in his right leg and missed the rest of that game and all of Game 6. The Knicks found a way to win the former, but lost the latter handily, by 22 points. And many people highly doubted that Reed would be ready to go in Game 7, just two days later.
On that fateful night, the rest of the Knicks took the floor for warm-ups without Reed, and without knowing what was going to happen. But then, just moments before game time, and after several painkilling injections, Reed limped out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel and onto the court -- one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
The crowd roared in excitement. I asked Reed, with everything going on at that moment, if he noticed the fans' reaction.
"Well yeah, I got a standing ovation!" Reed said. "And I'm thinking to myself, here you are, about to play the greatest big man to ever play the game [Chamberlain]. It was great though, because in a situation like that, fans are a motivating factor, to get a team going."
Reed's courage, however, is what really motivated the team.
"When Willis Reed stepped onto the court, it gave us a 10-foot lift just to have him," teammate Bill Bradley would later be quoted as saying.
"The scene is indelibly etched in my mind," said Walt Frazier, "because if that did not happen, I know we would not have won the game."
Frazier played the game of his career: 36 points, to go along with 19 assists, seven rebounds and five steals. Yet his performance was overshadowed by Reed, who played only 27 minutes, and scored only four points. Those four points, though, came on his first two attempts of the game: two jump shots, which further inspired his teammates and ignited the fans.
Reed enjoys the fact that so many people remember what he did on that night 40 years ago.
"I remember one time in the playoffs, when I was watching the Celtics, and Paul Pierce was hurt, but he came out to play," Reed said. "[The announcers] said he was pulling 'a Willis Reed.' I guess I've kinda become synonymous with that. It's been a nice thing to know, that somebody remembers you for doing something nice."
But Reed downplayed his role in the Game 7 victory versus the Lakers.
"It was a special group of men, and a special achievement," Reed said. "We had made our minds up after the previous year, that we were gonna win the next year. It was just a great feeling, because we had accomplished what we had set out to do. We knew a lot of players before us weren't able to attain that goal, and we knew a lot of players after us weren't going to attain that goal."
Speaking of which ... after Reed's Knicks won a second title in 1973, the team has failed to win another championship. The Knicks have come close, getting all the way to another Game 7 in the 1994 Finals, led by another center, Patrick Ewing. But Ewing & Co. couldn't win that last game.
Reed -- who has worked for several NBA organizations since retiring as a player, most recently with the New Orleans Hornets as vice president of basketball operations, before retiring in 2007 -- clearly still has a soft spot in his heart for the Knicks.
"I am disappointed [the Knicks haven't won another title]," Reed said. "I remember when they drafted Ewing. I said, 'They're gonna win a couple rings.'"
With so much attention focused on the upcoming NBA free-agency period starting on July 1, and the Knicks having salary-cap space for the first time in a long time, I couldn't resist asking Reed about the Knicks' future -- more specifically, about potentially acquiring LeBron James.
"I sure wish he comes. I'm sitting here, and I got all my lucky charms out," Reed said, laughing. "[LeBron's] gotta make up his own mind. ... [New York] really is a good city to play sports in. I think New York is a special place.
"I hope I wake up one day, and it happens."
On the 40th anniversary of Reed's immortal moment, the Garden will be dark. The NBA playoffs are in full swing, but the Knicks haven't been a participant since 2004. On this May 8, Knicks fans will be left to celebrate a glorious moment in the distant past, and to speculate about an auspicious moment in the near future.
Like I said, I wish I had been alive on May 8, 1970.
Now, along with The Captain, I'm hoping the Knicks are about to be reborn.