Hobbled captain inspires club to ’70 title.
By Bruce Lowitt
Hollywood could not have written a better ending: the old warrior coming to the aid of his comrades in arms for one final climactic battle.
Willis Reed played the role to perfection.
It was May 8, 1970, and the New York Knicks were staring defeat in the face — Wilt Chamberlain’s face — in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed, the Knicks center, their captain, their rock, appeared too hurt to play.
In Game 5 at Madison Square Garden he injured the muscle that runs from the pelvis to below the knee in his right leg. The Knicks managed to win 107-100 but were blown out by the Lakers 135-113 in Game 6 in Los Angeles when the 7-foot-2 Chamberlain, basketball’s most dominating player, poured in 45 points and controlled the boards with 27 rebounds.
With no one to counter him, the Knicks’ hopes seemed doomed. The Garden crowd was hopeful but almost resigned to defeat when the Knicks took their pregame practice without Reed.
That afternoon, Reed had been examined by Dr. James Parkes, the team’s orthopedic surgeon. He was given some pain-killing injections and tried a few practice shots in the empty arena.
Now, two minutes before tip-off, Reed made his entrance, out of the tunnel and onto the court.
The effect was electrifying. The crowd exploded in thunderous delirium.
"He gave us a tremendous lift just going out there," Knicks coach Red Holzman said.
Reed started, hobbling noticeably. "When you get this far," he said afterward, "you’ve got to play. We can’t definitely say we’re going to get this far again. We might not reach this point again."
He took the first shot from the top of the key, 18 seconds into the game, and made it.
A minute later he took the Knicks’ second shot from the same spot and made that one, too, for a 5-2 lead.
He never took another shot, and as the game wore on the pain increased.
But Chamberlain was forced to come out to guard him. That took Wilt out of the low post, allowing the rest of the Knicks to run roughshod over the Lakers. "He couldn’t play his normal game," Holzman said of Reed, "but … he means a lot to the spirit of the other players."
Buoyed by his presence, New York led 38-24 after one quarter, 69-42 at the half, and Los Angeles never got closer than 20 until the closing minutes of the 113-99 victory that gave the Knicks their first championship.
The players drank — and sprayed — champagne in their locker room. In an adjoining room, Holzman sipped a beer.
"Beer is good enough for the coach," he said. "The players deserve the champagne. This is the culmination of everything we started in training camp. And isn’t "culmination’ a hell of a word for a coach to use?"
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 1999
— Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.