Willis Reed, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer who was Grambling State University’s first basketball superstar, died Tuesday morning, according to longtime NBA writer Peter Vescey due to congestive heart failure complications. He was 80 years old.
Reed, born in Dubach, Lincoln Parish, Louisiana, is best known as “The Captain” of the New York Knicks, whom he led to National Basketball Association championships in 1970 and 1973. The 1970 NBA Finals was capped by Reed’s courageous effort to play in the deciding Game 7 following a thigh muscle tear in Game 5 of the series.
Mr. Reed, a muscular 6-foot-10, 235-pound center, capped that storybook season by becoming the first player in league history to win the regular season, all-star game and finals Most Valuable Player awards all in the same season.
Mr. Reed starred at Grambling State for four seasons, including the Tigers’ National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship year of 1961, where he averaged 10.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game as a freshman. The Tigers would win Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in 1963 and 1964, with Reed leading the way, finishing his collegiate career with 2,280 points and 1,851 rebounds.
The Knicks drafted Reed with the first pick in the second round of the 1964 draft and he immediately established himself as the team’s enforcer and big man, winning the 1965 Rookie of the Year award and making the first of seven consecutive all-star game appearances.
The Knicks built around Reed, drafting Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier while acquiring Dick Barnett of Tennessee State fame and Dave DeBusschere to create a unified team that in 1970 went head to head with the powerful Los Angeles Lakers, led by Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.
Reed tore a thigh muscle going up for a shot against Chamberlain in Game 5 (which the Knicks rallied to win) but did not play in Game 6, allowing the Lakers to tie the series.
Back in Madison Square Garden for Game 7, Reed admitted he had tremendous nerves about attempting to play.
“For all the years I’d been in basketball,” he recalled in the 1989 NBA Entertainment home video Awesome Endings, “this was the time, the moment, the place, but not quite the condition…my decision was if I could walk, anyway, that I was gonna play.”
Mr. Reed’s entrance onto the Garden floor was all the Knicks needed. He gutted out 27 minutes scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds, providing the Knicks with an emotional boost on their way to a 113-99 win over LA, earning their first-ever NBA title. The Knicks would win another one over the Lakers in 1973, but knee injuries proved too much for Reed to overcome and he retired following the 1974 season.
He came back to coach the Knicks to a playoff appearance in 1978 and coached the Creighton University men’s basketball team from 1981 to 1985 (tutoring eventual lottery pick Benoit Benjamin) as well as the New Jersey Nets during the 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons.
Mr. Reed was enshrined as a Naismith Basketball hall of famer for his play in 1982 and in the college basketball hall of fame in 2006. He was also on the NBA’s 50 and 75 greatest players list. Grambling retired his No. 50 jersey in January of 2022 and named its gymnasium court after him in the same ceremony.
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