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Willis Reed, who led the Knicks to two NBA titles, dies at 80

His heroic performance during Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers is considered one of league’s greatest moments

Willis Reed (19) of the New York Knicks grabs a rebound in front of Los Angeles Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain during the 1970 NBA Finals. (HF/AP)
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Willis Reed, an NBA Hall of Famer who led the New York Knicks to two championships, including a thrilling seven-game series victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 after suffering a debilitating thigh injury, died March 21 at 80.

His death was announced by the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

As an undersized center who also played power forward, Mr. Reed’s performance in Game 7 against the Lakers is considered one of the greatest moments in NBA history.

After scoring 37, 29, 38 and 23 points in the first four games, Mr. Reed hurt a muscle along his thigh in Game 5. He sat out Game 6, and the Knicks were blown out. Up until tip-off of the decisive Game 7, nobody was sure whether Mr. Reed would be able to play.

“We left the locker room for the warmups not knowing if Willis was going to come out or not,” his teammate Bill Bradley told the New York Times.

Mr. Reed received a cortisone shot to dampen the pain, then made his way to the court.

“And now the crowd rising,” radio announcer Marv Albert said. “Here comes Willis Reed.”

The sellout crowd went berserk.

“I thought, ‘This is what an earthquake must feel like,’” Mr. Reed said later.

Mr. Reed was clearly in pain and limping as he took warm-up shots. When the game started, he scored two quick baskets.

“The adrenaline was flowing,” teammate Walt Frazier later recalled. “The place was bedlam.”

Those baskets would be the only points Mr. Reed would score, but him just being in the game — hobbling up and down the court — was enough to propel New York past L.A., 113-99, and secure the Knicks’ first-ever championship.

Mr. Reed was the series and league MVP that year. He led the Knicks to another title in 1973.

A lefty, Mr. Reed played 10 seasons in the NBA, all of them with the Knicks, and averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. He was the first Knicks player to have his number retired.

Following his playing career, Mr. Reed coached the Knicks for two seasons and then worked in the front offices of several teams. He also coached at Creighton University in Omaha.

In 1996, he was named one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time, along with Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Willis Reed Jr. was born on his grandfather’s farm in Hico, La., on June 25, 1942. His father was a warehouse foreman, and his mother was a homemaker. He hauled hay and wheat, cut grass, and sometimes got into fights with schoolmates.

By eighth grade, he was already 6-foot-2 and took up basketball. “I wasn’t good, but I was big,” he said in his 1972 autobiography, “A View from the Rim.”

He said he could dunk, but his high school coach wasn’t impressed.

“He yelled at me, ‘You can’t even walk yet and you’re showing off. Why don’t you do something constructive?’” Mr. Reed told Newsweek in 1969. “From then on I decided I would learn to do everything with the ball that a little guy can do.”

Colleges began recruiting him during his sophomore year, but he chose nearby Grambling College (now Grambling State University), a historically Black college whose coach ingratiated himself to Mr. Reed by helping him find size 15 basketball shoes. He was a two-time all-American at Grambling, leading the school to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Championship his freshman year.

Mr. Reed graduated in 1964. The Knicks drafted him in the second round. Now listed at 6-foot-10 — he later acknowledged exaggerating his height — Mr. Reed averaged 19.5 points and 14.7 rebounds a game during his first season and was named rookie of the year.

Centers such as Chamberlain, at 7-foot-1, outsized Mr. Reed, but he was tougher and made his presence known not by height but by intensity.

In a 1966 game against L.A., Mr. Reed and Lakers forward Rudy LaRusso got into a fight during the third quarter. Mr. Reed wound up fighting almost the entire Lakers team before his teammates were able to step in.

“When order was restored, Willis Reed had established himself as a player you didn’t mess with,” Bill Gutman wrote in “Tales from the 1969-1970 New York Knicks.” “He even warned his own teammates, telling them if a fight ever broke out they should not attempt to restrain him.”

Mr. Reed’s marriage to Geraldine Oliver ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife, Gale Kennedy, along with daughters Virginia Jackson Reed and Veronica Reed. Karl Reed, a son from his first marriage, died in 2017.

Mr. Reed said there was not a day in his life when someone didn’t bring up Game 7 in 1970.

“They usually say one of two things,” Mr. Reed told ESPN. “Either, ‘I was there that night,’ or, ‘I remember that night.’ So I get reminded of it pretty consistently. I guess it was kind of a great moment.”