There is a certain glow to New York City, a type of arrogance and self-reliance that attracts much of the world. The city offers so much, from television to investment opportunities to a plethora of sports teams to root for. When watching a Knicks game, it's almost a tradition for the cameras to turn to one of many celebrities that litter the crowd, individuals such as Spike Lee. No matter how poor the team may play, the arena is always ripe with an army of die-hard fanatics who share a special allegiance to the organization just because of a dynasty that breathed life into the city back in the early 1970's. To the outside world, it can be seen as pathetic, but to many a New Yorker, their allegiance to the Knicks' history is embedded in the brick that made the city. The Knicks are New York. New York is the Knicks. a part of New York died today.
In 11 years as the Knicks' center, Willis Reed inserted himself into the annals of the Empire State. Early in his career, he won over the city when he fought the entire Lakers team and the city never forgot. From that moment on, he was theirs. No matter the Hall of Famers that joined him on the court, whether it be Walt Frazier or Bill Bradley, Willis Reed held the crowd in the palm of his hand. He was the cornerstone of the franchise.
As a player, he earned accolades aplomb, earning seven All-Star nods beginning his rookie year, earning the coveted league MVP award in 1970 -the first of his two championship seasons- and willing one of the most powerful moments in NBA history into existence.
It was Game Five of the 1970 NBA Finals when he went down with a torn thigh. He didn't play in Game Six and could only watch as his teammates, his brothers were punished for his discretion. No one knew if the great center would play in the deciding Game Seven. The crowd was unusually quiet in Madison Square Garden until a familiar figure emerged from the shadows.
The buzz from the crowd that night carried the team to their first championship and Madison Square Garden has been riding high on that ever since. After winning another championship three years later, Willis Reed retired following the 1973-1974 season. But he wasn't yet done with the game that he loved. A long coaching career followed. Other than a four-year stop in Creighton University, the rest of his coaching gigs were in the NBA, including stops with the Knicks, Hawks, Kings and Nets.
The rest of his life was spent reaping the rewards of his hard work on the hardwood. He was voted onto both the NBA's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. But perhaps his most meaningful achievement was having his jersey number 19 retired by his beloved Knicks in 1976. From the moment that he was drafted by the team in 1965, he and the Knicks were attached at the hip. Their relationship was nothing but love.
Willis Reed died on March 21, 2023 at 80 years old.