Willis Reed

Born: June 25, 1942
Position: Center and Power Forward
Professional Career:
New York Knicks (NBA): 1964-’74

Willis Reed (Sports Illustrated)
Willis Reed (Sports Illustrated)

It’s unfortunate, but fitting, that the moment Willis Reed is most remembered for is hobbling onto the court during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. He emotionally jolted the New York Knicks with his surprise appearance, nailed his first two jump shots, but contributed nothing else for the rest of the game. But the Knicks were a complete team and behind Walt Frazier took the game and the title from the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a shame, but instructive, that  moment has come to overshadow what Reed accomplished not just for his whole career, but even that single season. He secured a spot on the All-NBA 1st Team, the All-Star Team, and the All-Defensive 1st Team in 1970. He was voted the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for the regular season. He was voted the Finals MVP, not just for a gallant entrance in Game 7, but for a magnificent total series where averaged 32 points per game prior to his hamstring injury.

How Reed scored those points, and generally played, are nothing like the hobbled man who came out of the Madison Square Garden tunnel.

Reed was a galloping center who routinely finished fast breaks with ferocious dunks and elastic layups. He possessed a gorgeous mid-range jumper to draw out taller centers and free up the lane. He captured rebounds with an intensity that few men have ever displayed. He was gentlemanly off the court and was stately on it, but if opponents rubbed him or teammates the wrong way, he turned into the most feared brawler of his era.

His career began in the mid-1960s as the NBA’s 1965 Rookie of the Year. For the next few years he shared the frontcourt with Walt Bellamy. Bells was installed at center and Reed was shifted to power forward. The duo were an effective but not seamless fit. Both men were centers and eventually Bellamy was traded for Dave DeBusschere. That trade helped balance the roster as did the drafting of Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley.

With these building blocks in place, the Knicks became the Eastern Conference’s premier team of the early 1970s appearing in three NBA Finals and winning two of them. The second title in 1973 was won with Reed in the fold, but he was nowhere near the dominant force he was in 1970.

And even by the end of the 1970 season, Reed was past his prime. It seems crazy, but it’s true. As mentioned above, he was an All-Star and NBA MVP, he averaged 32 points per game in the first four games of the NBA Finals, but then came the hamstring injury. He barely played the final three games of the ’70 Finals, scoring a grand total of 11 points over those concluding contests.

For the 1971 season, Reed turned in another superb season of 21 points and 14 rebounds per game. However his field goal percentage dove from 50% in 1970 to 46% in 1971. Wear and tear – and the tenacious Baltimore Bullets – further eroded Reed in the playoffs: 16 PPG, 12 RPG, and 41% shooting.

A left knee injury all but knocked him out for the entire 1972 season and he never fully recovered. The acquisition of Jerry Lucas helped give Reed a final productive year in that title season of 1973, but it was average NBA center production of 11 points and 8.5 rebounds. It wasn’t the Reed of the previous five seasons or so who was averaging around 20 points and 14 rebounds every year. In the 1973 playoffs, the well-rounded Knicks were stout enough to capture a second NBA title with Reed finding enough pep to average 16 points and win Finals MVP as no single Knicks player really outshone the others in that series.

The next season saw Willis cobble together just 11 more games in the regular season and 11 awful games in the playoffs. It was clear that he couldn’t go on anymore and retirement swiftly followed.

His career was fairly short and the highly productive portion even shorter. Still, he did more in those seven highly productive years than nearly every other NBA player has been able to do in careers twice as long. There’s a reason why everyone in New York went wild when Reed limped onto the court. He was the NBA’s MVP in 1970 and deserving of the honor.

Remember that why next time footage of Reed coming out of the tunnel comes on the tube.

Honors

MVP (1970)
2x Champion (1970, 1973)
2x Finals MVP (1970, 1973)
All-NBA 1st Team (1970)
All-Defensive 1st Team (1970)
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1967-’69, 1971)
All-Rookie Team (1965)
Rookie of the Year (1965)
7x All-Star (1965-’71)

Statistics

Regular Season Career Averages (650 games):
18.7 PPG, 12.9 RPG, 1.8 APG
.523 TS%, .476 FG%, .747 FT%
18.6 PER, .156 WS/48

Playoff Career Averages (78 games):
17.4 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.9 APG
.511 TS%, .474 FG%, .765 FT%
17.8 PER, .144 WS/48

New York, New York: Julius Erving, the Nets-Knicks Feud, and America’s Bicentennial

via the Daily Mail
A pleasant ride on the NY Subway in 1976 (via the Daily Mail)

1976 was an awkward time for the United States of America.

The previous few years had seen the military massacre college students at home and abandon an unpopular, costly war abroad. A president had resigned, narrowly escaping impeachment. And as James Brown eloquently stated in his song, “Funky President (People It’s Bad),” times were bad, people:

Stock market going up, Jobs going down
And ain’t no funky jobs to be found

Taxes keep going up, I changed from a glass
Now I drink from a paper cup, It’s getting bad

Amidst all the social tumult, the United States also prepared for the bicentennial of its revolutionary birth. It was a much needed shot of enthusiasm to reinvigorate the triumphant American spirit which was on a prolonged vacation after such harrowing gut checks.

Once the capital of the United States, New York City reflected this strange dichotomy of enthusiasm and desperation. Crime and poverty were rising for the five boroughs, but so were the magnificent Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The social grime that created miserable hardship also was giving birth to the vibrant expressions of disco and hip-hop.

The dichotomy even extended to basketball. The New York Knickerbockers were falling off the turnip truck, while the New York Nets were riding high.

Continue reading

Pro Hoops Podcast: Hall of Famer Richie Guerin

(Image via NBA.com)
(Image via NBA.com)

This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Saturday afternoon, I was able to have a wonderful 10-minute interview with Knicks and Hawks legend Richie Guerin. He set Knicks records for points (57) and assists (21) in a game and remains the winningest coach in St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks history.

Guerin is a favorite here at Pro Hoops History and has had two features on his playing career. So definitely checks those out after listening to the man speak about his playing career, family, time as a Marine, and his years coaching the Hawks.

The Lowdown: Richie Guerin
Pro Hoops History Hall of Fame: Richie Guerin

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Richie Guerin

Richie Guerin, Connie DierkingIn the long annals of pro basketball’s history, I’m not quite sure any player has ended a career in the fashion that Richie Guerin did.

His final game was on April 19, 1970. It was the fourth game of Atlanta’s playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Lakers up 3-games-to-0, the Hawks were in dire straits. It was with this urgency that Guerin suited up for the last time for the Atlanta Hawks.

The game turned out to be a turn-back-the-clock performance for Guerin. The 37-year old guard scored an admirable 31 points, but the Lakers throttled the Hawks in the fourth quarter to pull out a 133-114 victory. What’s more amazing about Guerin’s performance is that it was just his second game of that postseason and just his tenth all season.

Richie Guerin’s official duties for the Hawks was as their coach, but the semi-retired guard wasn’t about to watch his time go down without a fight. Such an attitude was typical of Guerin during his lengthy playing career.

Drafted by the New York Knicks back in 1954, Guerin didn’t arrive in the NBA until 1956 thanks to a two-year stint with the Marines. The USMC suited Guerin well since the 6’4″ point guard was a fiery ball of hell on the court.

If only the same could be said of the Knicks, at least in positive terms, during this period. The team was once an NBA powerhouse, but by the time Guerin arrived, they were certifiably the NBA’s worst team aside from the comically bad Chicago Packers. From the 1957-58 season through the 1962-63 season, Guerin averaged 21.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, but the Knicks averaged 32 wins.

Guerin during this period was basically a diamond in the rough. He was an All-Star for six straight seasons. He was selected to the All-NBA 2nd Team three times. He set Knicks records for points (57) and assists (21) in a game. But there’s only so much one man can do. Besides, Kenny Sears and Willie Naulls, the Knicks were stacked with mediocre players. Especially since the every single Knicks draft pick in this period was practically thrown down the drain.

(Johnny Green in 1959 was the exception)

Finally conceding defeat, the Knicks were ready to throw in the towel and start anew. The 31-year old Guerin was traded to the St. Louis Hawks two games into the 1962-63 season.

Richie brought his helter skelter style of play to a Hawks team that was the opposite of the Knicks. Perennially a great squad, Guerin became just another great player in their midst. No longer would he need to constantly drive, drive, drive to the basket for buckets and fouls to give his team the least bit of hope for success.

In fact, Guerin was near his end as a player. He was anointed coaching duties for the Hawks in the 1964-65 season. He would be a full-time player-coach that year and in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Leaving the majority of the point guard duties to Lenny Wilkens, Guerin averaged 14 points and 4.5 assists during this time as player-coach. He finally set aside his playing role in 1967.

Yet, he had a hard time staying away from the court. After winning Coach of the Year in 1968, Guerin returned for 27 games in the 1969 campaign and for his brief cameo appearances of 1970 after guard Walt Hazzard fractured his wrist.

As I’ve written about before, Guerin’s career was a case-study in how playing for horrifically bad teams can produce some astronomically astounding seasons for gifted players. Guerin’s 29 points per game in 1962 for the 29-win Knicks exemplifies that. He also shows that a gifted player can coolly assess a situation and dial back his approach for team benefit, which is such an odd trait for a man so hot-headed.

Years Played: 1956 – 1970

Accolades

NBA – 
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1959-’60, 1962)
6x All-Star (1958-’63)

Statistics

NBA – 848 Games
17.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 41.6% FG, 78.0% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1956-57 through 1966-67 season)
6th Points, 21st PPG
12th FGs Made
5th FTs Made, 30th FT%
3rd Assists, 6th APG
24th Rebounds
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Patrick Ewing

Patrick Ewing

Whenever Patrick Ewing unfurled his long arms… stretched them out, waaaay out… then began to flap his hands up and down, you knew something magnetic and electric (electromagnetic?) was happening in the Garden. For 15 seasons, Ewing genuinely gave New York Knicks fans something to cheer about, even if the experience resembled a rollercoaster ride, which may I remind you, is a thrilling experience.

The lithe shot-blocking and rim-shaking center was the #1 overall pick in the 1985 draft and would help the Knicks recover from the loss of Bernard King. Ewing himself didn’t disappoint during his first few seasons averaging 20.5 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 2.5 BPG. The team, though, was a long way from contention, making the playoffs once in the period with an underwhelming 38-44 record.

Things took off for the Knicks in 1989, though, as they blew up their Twin Tower experiment of Ewing and Bill Cartwright. In a fateful trade with the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks acquired Charles Oakley for Cartwright. With Oakley, Mark Jackson, Gerald Wilkins, and Johnny Newman, Ewing finally had a worthwhile cast and the Knicks won 52 games in the 1988-89 season dethroning the Boston Celtics as the Atlantic Division champs.

The playoffs, however, revealed a recurring theme for Ewing’s career: New York was bounced by the Chicago Bulls.

The Knicks slipped a little in the 1989-90 season winning 45 games and were matched up against a resurgent Celtics team in the first round of the playoffs. New York was whipped by a combined 40 points in the first two games falling into an 0-2 hole. Since this was a best-of-five series, the Knicks had no more margin for error.

As it turned out, Patrick Ewing became flawless. Ewing steamrolled the Celtics with an average of 36 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks over the final three games. His gargantuan effort gave the Knicks the shocking series victory.

Ewing Block

That series against the Celitcs proved to the highwater mark of Ewing’s early career. The next time New York advanced to the 2nd Round, they’d be a totally reconstructed team under the tutelage of Pat Riley.

These gritty and grimy Knicks engaged in legendary defensive battles with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Miami Heat during the 1990s. As mythic and thrilling as these battle royales were, under Ewing’s leadership the Knicks made the Finals “just” once. That’s a statistic often bandied about to somewhat dismiss his success. Another statistic may prove illustrative of Ewing’s impact on the Knicks.

For 13 straight years they made the postseason. 11 of those years they advanced to the 2nd Round. That streak of success is easily the longest in the history of the Knicks’ franchise.

And although this may not be a theory, it is a fact that in the 13 years since Ewing was embarrassingly traded from the Knicks to the Seattle SuperSonics, the Knicks have made the postseason five times. They’ve made the 2nd Round just once.

Pat’s excellent jump shot, his intimidating shot-blocking, and his infectious dunks, may have eroded due to knee and other injuries by 2000, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how excellent, intimidating, and infectious he was. Knicks fans and basketball enthusiasts everywhere should take note and properly credit Ewing for his towering impact.

Years Played: 1985-2002

New York Knickerbockers
New York Knickerbockers

Accolades

NBA –
Rookie of the Year (1986)
All-NBA 1st Team (1990)
6x All-NBA 2nd Team (1988-’89, 1991-’93, 1997)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1988-’89, 1992)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1986)
11x All-Star (1986, 1988-’97)

Statistics

NBA – 1183 Games
21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 50.4% FG, 74.0% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1985-86 through 2001-02 season)
4th Points, 13th PPG
4th FGs Made, 6th FTs
6th Rebounds, 11th RPG
2nd Blocks, 7th BPG
8th Games Played, 5th Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Micheal Ray Richardson

Micheal Ray Richardson

Anticipation was both, the best and the worst thing, about Micheal Ray Richardson’s career.

It represented the worst in that his greatness, at least the true apogee of it, was always waiting to appear. When it did arrive, the moments seemed fleeting. Then you were right back where you began anticipating whether Micheal Ray would make it back to the top.

His infamous battles with cocaine were the main culprit in Sugar’s fight to not just tease and anticipate greatness but to fully achieve it. After his third failed drug test in 1986, he was banned for life from the NBA by David Stern. The lifetime ban was ultimately rescinded, but subsequent failed tests for cocaine prevented him from making an NBA comeback.

Anticipation, however, also represented the best in Richardson. Others may have equaled, but none have surpassed Micheal Ray’s ability to sense a pass coming, to predict its path, and anticipate its arrival. He’d jump a passing lane and be off to the races for a layup on the other end. His pillaging defense wreaked havoc on teams across the league.

In the history of the NBA and ABA, Richardson ranks second amongst all players in steals per game in a career. He’s fourth in steal percentage. Three times he led the NBA in steals in a single season. This wasn’t a man making dangerous bets. When he went for the steal it wasn’t a gamble, it was basically a sure thing it’d be a success.

At 6’5″, Richardson was also a monster of a point guard. He didn’t make too many flashy assists, but he made zipping laser-guided passes that found their way to the intended target. When Magic Johnson debuted in the NBA in the 1979-80 season, it was Richardson who led the NBA in assists per game.

Richardson’s towering triumph as a player came with the New Jersey Nets in the 1983-84 playoffs when he and Buck Williams spearheaded an epic upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers. It was all the more sweet for Sugar Ray since he had spent that regular season recovering from one of his worst cocaine binges in the fall of 1983.

The playoff high of 1984 continued into the next regular season (1984-85). He averaged a career-high 20 points along with 5.5 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals a game. He was selected to his fourth and final All-Star Game.

Then in February 1986, Sugar failed his third drug test and was banished from the NBA. He wasn’t finished just yet, though. Richardson played in the CBA for a couple of years. Following that brief period, he played professionally in Europe from 1988 to 2002. By the end of his 24-year playing career, Richardson was clean, largely redeemed, and began a coaching career that continues to this day.

But as he told Sports Illustrated back in February of 1985, “I’m playing better than any guard in the league. No brag, just statin’ the truth.” The Sugar was indeed not bragging, just telling the sweet sweet truth.

Years Played: 1978 – 1988

Accolades

NBA –
2x All-Defensive 1st Team (1980-’81)
4x All-Star (1980-’82, 1985)

Statistics

NBA Career: 1978-79 through 1985-86
Peak Career Production:
1979-80 through 1985-86

Average and Advanced Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 556 18 484
PPG 14.8 15.7 16.1
RPG 5.5 5.5 5.8
APG 7.0 7.2 7.6
SPG 2.63 2.78 2.82
BPG 0.37 0.22 0.39
TS% 0.497 0.501
2PT% 0.477 0.406 0.481
3PT% 0.220 0.207 0.220
FT% 0.690 0.690 0.701
PER 16.9 14.1 17.3
WS/48 0.091 0.067 0.096
Ortg 101 99 102
Drtg 103 104 104

Aggregate Stats

Stat Career Playoff Peak Peak Rank
Games 556 18 484
Minutes 18589 712 17371
Points 8253 282 7784
Rebounds 3056 99 2823
Assists 3899 129 3686
Steals 1463 50 1363
Blocks 206 4 188
2PTs 3295 102 3095
3PTs 124 6 124
FTs 1291 60 1222
WS 35.2 1.0 34.8

Pro Hoops History HOF: Earl Monroe

Earl Monroe

Whether you called him “Magic”, “Black Jesus”, or “the Pearl”, Vernon Earl Monroe was always going to take care of business on the basketball court.

The shooting guard had a mesmerizing way of dribbling and moving up the court. It rarely seemed he dribbled in a straight line. He was always moving back and forth, forth and back, zig-zag and zag-zig. The constant, unpredictable motion created confusion in defenders who’d likely never seen a man dribble the way Earl did.

After he’d get done putting you in the spin cycle, Monroe found it incredibly easy to raise up for his mighty fine jump shot. As a rookie with the Baltimore Bullets, the Pearl averaged a whopping 24 points. Winning Rookie of the Year, Monroe bolstered Baltimore’s win total from 20 victories in 1967 to 36 in 1968.

Adding Wes Unseld to their core of Monroe and Gus Johnson, the Bullets improved to 57 wins in the 1969 season. That postseason Baltimore was upset by the New York Knicks in a 4-0 sweep. And thus began one of the great, if brief rivalries, in NBA history.

In 1970, the two teams met again with the series going seven games. The Bullets ultimately lost, but the difference between a sweep one year, and a heart-breaking seven game grinder was Monroe. He had averaged 28 points in the 1969 series, but shot only 38% in the process. In 1970 he again hit 28 points but did it on 48% shooting.

For a third straight time the Knicks and Bullets met in the postseason in 1971. With only 42 regular season wins, the Bullets were the underdogs, but shocked the Knicks with a 4-3 series win. The seventh game was decided by a score of 93 to 91 and Monroe led all players with 26 points. The win sent Baltimore to the Finals where they were overwhelmed by the mighty Milwaukee Bucks who had blazed through the regular season with 66 wins.

Monroe NYK

Given the heated history of Baltimore and New York, it was a shock early in the 1971-72 season when the Bullets traded Monroe to the Knicks. After averaging 24 points in his years with the Bullets, Monroe slid into a bench role with the Knicks and averaged just 11 points that first season with them.

And despite the fears, Monroe and his erstwhile on-court rival Walt Frazier got along just fine.

Monroe in fact would go on to become the most dependable Knick of the mid-and-late 1970s after the club captured the title in 1973. Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, and even Frazier, all eventually retired or were traded away. Young stars like Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo were brought in to resurrect the club, but through it all Black Jesus remained.

After his first career act as Baltimore hot shot and his second career act as Knicks role player, Monroe emerged in 1975 as New York’s hot shot. From 1975 to 1978, the Pearl averaged 20 points while shooting 48.5% from the field and 82% from the line. He was better than ever it seemed.

By 1978, though, it was clear that Monroe was relic of a bygone era. As brilliant as his individual play remained, there was nothing he could do in his mid-30s to save those Knicks whose other talent always seemed mismatched or coked out.

It’s been over 30 years since Earl Monroe retired, but the mere mention of his name… or of Magic, Black Jesus, the Pearl, or any of his other aliases… still conjures up images of a basketball wizard at work. A man whose game caused so much ruckus, and yet, somehow, walked softly in the night.

Years Played: 1967 – 1980

Accolades

NBA –
Champion (1973)
Rookie of the Year (1968)
All-NBA 1st Team (1969)
4x All-Star (1969, 1971, 1975, 1977)

Statistics

NBA – 926 Games
18.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.0 RPG, 46.4% FG, 80.7% FT

Contemporary NBA Ranks (1967-68 season through 1979-80 season)
5th Points, 31st PPG
4th FGs Made
7th FTs Made, 29th FT%
14th Assists, 30th APG
3rd Games Played, 10th Minutes Played