Out of nowhere, Willis Reed scores the Wheaties box cover.
When Willis Reed emerged from the Madison Square Garden locker room on one leg to effectively intimidate the Lakers and inspire his teammates to win the first of the Knicks only two World Championships, he left a moment that lasted a lifetime. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that was the highest point in the Louisiana native’s career, while it fact it was just a tiny fragment of his NBA accomplishments.
While Reed is 30 years removed from his playing days, he is no less worthy of some shine time affront a Wheaties box. After an injury plagued 10-year career, there were few accomplishments Reed didn’t achieve. “The Captain” was Rookie of the Year in 1965, a seven-time All-Star, MVP of two NBA Finals, League MVP in 1970, a member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players and a Hall of Famer with a retired jersey hanging in The Garden. He worked as a college and NBA coach, as well as in the front office of the Nets and Hornets, in his post-playing days.
SLAM spoke with Reed just after Wheaties announced him as its new cover guy.
SLAM: How’ve you been keeping busy in the last few years?
Willis Reed: Well, when I retired in ’07 I went home and I built a home back in Louisiana so I been trying to get everything built and get my honey-do list taken care of. (Laughs). And, you know, I love the outdoors, so I’ve been doing some fishing and hunting. Matter fact, most of January I was in Alabama hunting.
SLAM: You’re on a Wheaties cereal box, but you been retired since 1974. What does this mean to you since you’ve already achieved so much in the League?
WR: Well, you know, it’s kind of like, you have a career and it’s over and you’ve done it and you’ve won two championships and all that. But to able to be a part of the Wheaties—to be on the box—at this age and 40 years later, it kind of makes it, you know… I’d like to think I it means that you had a good career. And so, to me it’s a very unique award, and I am very honored to be listed with the number of great athletes, especially basketball players that have been on the Wheaties box already.
SLAM: We just saw the video clip of you running out of the tunnel a minute ago. What’s going through your mind?
WR: Well, I got a standing ovation. Well, I said to myself, heck of a predicament to be in. I was hearing them. I got a standing ovation. I said, well, everything is all right. I played on one leg. I tried to play Wilt Chamberlain—the only guy to score 100 points, the only guy who averaged 50 points, a guy who just got 47 and 25 against us. But, then, as I come out there and the game starts, I made the first two baskets of the game, the first 4 points, and I think that was an inspiration. But, I mean, my coming out on the floor said the fans always believe the team is going to win. I don’t care what the odds are, and we knew that night someone was going to walk out of Madison Square Garden as champs, and we were hoping it was going to be us, and we did do it. And I think a lot of that was because of our fans.
SLAM: Earlier this week Kobe Bryant had that big night in the Garden, do you remember your biggest night in the Garden?
WR: Well, I don’t remember when I had my big night in the Garden—I just remember I had a 53-point game against the Lakers, which I think was the most I ever scored in one game—which is pretty good. I think the biggest thing about when you have a game like that is that you always want to win, and I remember that we did beat the Lakers—I think that was on the road against them.
Kobe, he’s a multi-talented player. There is nothing in the game of basketball he can’t do. He can dribble, shoot, pass, he can defend. So to have done all the things he’s done in the League—it’s an honor for him. I just realized when he scored the 61 that he only outscored Bernard by one, because Bernard had that 60-point game. He could probably average 35 ppg, but I think he’s bought in to what Phil Jackson says, you need to make the other players on the team better. We need to be a better team in all positions, and that we are going be better by that. So, I think there will be nights where he may have to do what he did the other night, maybe not. But he is capable of doing that, and he is capable of winning, but I think he’s bought into Phil Jackson’s style of winning.
I think we saw Michael Jordan do the same thing with the Chicago Bulls when Phil was there coaching him too. We got to get better people in every position. We got to be a better team, not just an individual. And, I thinks that’s what Kobe has done with the Laker team, and they’re going to be a formidable team, I think. I kind of looked up the playoffs last year when game seven, when the Lakers got beat real bad by the Celtics, and said that, you know what? We can’t let it happen, because I think he wanted to use that as a ticking point. And, all this year, I’m sure they’re gonna be times where he reminds those guys what happened so that if we get back there again this year it’s going to be a different story. And hopefully they’ll have Bynum back by the playoff times because that’s a big shot for him because he’s really developing himself into a pretty good player.
SLAM: Is there anybody that you see who’s comparable to the way you played in the NBA?
WR: No, I don’t know how I played. I kind of was hybrid—I started in the League as a center, and I really wasn’t big enough to be a center. Then I went to play power forward when Bellamy came here, then went back to play center when DeBusschere came to the team. We were a small team—big at the guard spot with Clyde, and Barnett on the ’70 championship team, and then with Earl and Clyde and Barnett, you know, we had Mike Riordan who was 6-4 too on the team. So, I’m not sure. I’m not sure.
SLAM: You’re part of an elite group of players in the in the League to win MVP of the regular season, All-Star game and the Playoffs.
WR: I was the first and then Michael Jordan and then Shaquille O’Neal. So there’s only been three people who’ve had that honor of being MVP of all three. I won the first one in 1969-70. I think that’s a great honor to be—I tell people since I am the oldest, I’m the president of that club. (Laughs). Michael and Shaquille got all the money, so they’re the treasurers of the club. But it’s a great honor to have anything to be identifiable with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal who are two totally different athletes.
Shaquille O’Neal, in modern day history is the most dominant big guy, and Michael Jordan, in my mind, may have been the greatest of all-time when you talk about offense and defense. So, it’s kind of great, but you don’t win those kind of honors unless you play with some great people. I remember playing in the All-Star game that year—it was down in Philadelphia when I won the MVP—and I said, “I got a chance to be MVP this year.” They said why? I said “because I got Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier in the starting backcourt.” Those two guys were such great passers, and if you got open, they got you the ball. So all I had to do was get open and make the shots, and I scored 21 points and won the MVP. But I understood that, because I understood what kind of player they were. But to have that chance to be able to win all three, you played with some good people. For a season, obviously, my team was very important, and for the Playoffs, obviously, my team was very important.
SLAM: That same year that you won the MVP in all three categories you played Rucker Pro and the MVP of that tournament was a guy by the name of Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond. Do you remember anything about that?
WR: Well, I used to go up. I liked to go up there just because it was good guys to play against. You knew as a big man that if you wanted to get any points, you better get up under the boards and get an offensive rebound because guys were going to shoot the ball on the perimeter. But I used to have fun there. It was always a fun time, most definitely. It was different times. The Rucker Pro League was a fun time to get out in the summer. A lot of pros played up there.
SLAM: What do you remember about the teams that won the titles in New York—we’re getting so far away from it.
WR: I think, as I talked about earlier, the fact that the Knick organization went out and said we are going to draft and we’re going to build a championship team—this was Eddie Donovan to Red Holzman—that they got a lot of the players, and you go back to our 1970 championship team, basically most of the players on that team were draft picks and two trades. Boy, That was a trade in 1965 and it was a trade by Dave DeBusschere in 1968, ‘67 and ’68. So, those are the two guys that we traded for that ended up making us a team that could win the championship; the rest of the guys were drafted. So, I think we were very fortunate. But you also have to remember that there was only nine NBA teams at the time, so the draft was more important then than it is today because you knew that every nine times you’re gonna have another pick. I got picked ninth—10th in the League—so I was the first player picked in the second round. Now you’d be in the lottery.
SLAM: What’s your long outlook for the Knicks?
WR: I think they made a great decision in bringing Coach D’Antoni in. I think Donnie Walsh was a good pick to run the organization. And I think they’re doing well. I like where they’re going. I think by this time next year, they’re going to be a team in the mix for the Playoffs.
SLAM: Do you remember the excitement the city had when the Knicks won championships? Can you think about it would be like today if the Knicks won the title? It’s been years.
WR: I thought Patrick had a good team, with Coach Riley here. When they had the lead on Houston, I thought they were gonna get it done then. I was very disappointed they didn’t. But hope is eternal, and that’s what fans are. And I think that with Donnie Walsh and Mike they got a chance to start, and I think they’re making some moves now to try to reinforce the team down here and get some new great talent. And you got to have talent in our league to win in the next couple of years and hopefully in the next four or five years we’re going to have a chance to win a titile. I hope I am invited to the final game. (Laughs).