His comeback from a hip injury in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is often repeated in league canon.
Willis Reed, who made a dramatic exit from the locker room minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals to inspire the New York Knicks to their first championship and create one of the most enduring examples of playing through pain, died Tuesday. He was 80.
Reed’s death was reported by the National Retired Basketball Association, which confirmed it through his family. The reason was not disclosed, but Reed had been in poor health lately and was unable to travel to New York when the Knicks celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1973 NBA championship team during a game against New Orleans on February 25.
Nicknamed “The Captain,” Reed was the short center and emotional leader of two NBA Knicks championship teams, with a soft shot on the outside and a toughness to take on the superstar big men of the era on the inside.
His accomplishments—seven All-Stars, two NBA Finals MVP awards—would warrant a Hall of Fame in and of themselves. In the 1969-70 season, he became the first player to win regular season, All-Star, and Finals MVP awards.
But his place in history was secured simply by taking the floor on the last night of the season.
Reed injured a thigh muscle in Game 5 of the series between the Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers and fell to the court in pain. He missed Game 6 as colleague Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points and 27 rebounds in a Lakers game that led to the game-breaker at Madison Square Garden.
Reid’s status was unknown even to his Knicks teammates, as he continued to receive treatment until shortly before Game 7. Both teams were warming up as Reid emerged from the tunnel, the fans rose and roared as they saw him emerge from the tunnel leading to the dressing room. .
“Here comes Willis and the crowd is going crazy,” radio announcer Marv Albert said.
The Lakers stopped to look at Reed, who then made two quick jump shots in the opening minutes of the game and limped noticeably down the court after both. He won’t score again, but the Knicks didn’t need to: the return of their captain and Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists gave them the energy to go 113-99 for their first NBA title.
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