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