For those of us who grew up loving sports, losing heroes is inevitable. When I heard Tuesday that Willis Reed had died at 80, I felt literal chills of sadness. I’m not sure I ever referred to him as Reed. He was Willis or, more frequently, “The Captain.”
That was the beginning of their renaissance, which peaked in 1970 when they won the NBA championship after Reed took on the Baltimore Bullets’ Wes Unseld, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Lew Alcindor and the Los Angeles Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain in consecutive playoff series. The Knicks won a second title in 1973, but by then Reed was hobbled by injuries.
When the new Madison Square Garden opened in 1968, I became a regular in the blue seats near the building’s roof for the Knicks and the NHL’s Rangers. With a student GO card, you could buy those tickets for $2 during the regular season. My friends and I knew the seating chart by heart, and we always tried to get seats in Section 406: center court, across from the benches and right behind where Marv Albert did radio play-by-play for both teams.
We also staked out the players’ entrance after games. Every Knick had a routine. Walt Frazier, usually dressed in a white suit, would walk by and sign autographs; so would Bill Bradley, who once looked at me and said, “Don’t you have me already?” I did, but it didn’t matter. Every Knicks autograph was a treasure.
Dave DeBusschere always signed, but only after he had had a few beers at Harry M’s bar.
And The Captain? He would walk out the door, smile and stand and sign for everyone. I honestly don’t know how many autographs of his I accumulated.
The 1969-70 season was dreamlike. The Knicks had lost to the Boston Celtics the previous season in the Eastern Conference finals, and Bill Russell had finally retired. Under Coach Red Holzman, the Knicks had become famous for their defense — the first chants of “De-fense!” were in the Garden for those Knicks.
The Knicks took control of the East early with an 18-game winning streak — breaking a record of 17 held by Russell’s Celtics — and ended up 60-22. But all sorts of land mines lurked between them and the title.
The Bullets, led by the remarkable Unseld, Earl Monroe, Gus Johnson and Jack Marin, took the Knicks to a seventh game. It was exhausting to watch, much less play in. Then came the Bucks, led by Alcindor, already extraordinary as a rookie. The Knicks beat them in five.
And, finally, the Lakers, with Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. The Knicks won Game 3 in Los Angeles in overtime and then lost Game 4 out there — also in overtime. Early in Game 5, Willis suffered a deep thigh bruise and couldn’t return. Somehow, a combination of Nate Bowman, DeBusschere, Cazzie Russell and Dave Stallworth kept Chamberlain from running amok, and the Knicks won. But with Willis out for Game 6, Chamberlain did run wild: 45 points and 27 rebounds in a Lakers rout.
It looked grim for Game 7. Without Willis, the Knicks had no chance. We all knew that. He didn’t come out with the team for warmups. But then, a few minutes before player introductions, there he was. The place went crazy. And when longtime public address announcer John F.X. Condon introduced him as he always did — “And, at center, The Captain, Willis Reed” — you could sense the Lakers staring in disbelief. The memory brings more chills.
Everyone knows what happened after that: Willis hit his soft lefty jumper twice to start the game and somehow hung in against Chamberlain on the defensive end. He came out late in the second quarter with the Knicks leading 61-37. He played a few minutes in the third quarter — 27 minutes in all — but never scored again. He didn’t need to. Frazier scored 36 points and had 19 assists, and the Knicks, leading by 25 at the start of the fourth quarter, won, 113-99.
It remains one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. My transistor radio worked in the blue seats, and I can still hear Marv saying, “It is pandemonium in the Garden,” as DeBusschere held the ball over his head in the final seconds.
Willis averaged 18.3 points and 12.9 rebounds for his 10-year career, those numbers lowered by injuries toward the end. His No. 19 was the first hung from the rafters of the Garden.
I met him just a couple of times, the first when he was general manager of the New Jersey Nets. I couldn’t help but gush, “Mr. Reed, you should know you were my hero as a boy growing up in New York.”
He smiled and said, “Where did you grow up?”
I told him. “So you rode the number 1 train to the Garden then.”
“Yes, sir.” I may have been shaking at that point.
“It’s Willis,” he said. “Not ‘sir.’ ”
My list of sports heroes isn’t long: Willis and Clyde, Tom Seaver, Joe Namath. I cried when Seaver died. I cried when Willis died. I’ve still got the memories. For that, I’m grateful.