Original Old School: The Captain
SLAM 31: Knicks’ center Willis Reed wasn’t the best player of his era, but he may have been the most respected
Since the playoffs are underway, it’s only appropriate we recognize one of the defining moments of not only NBA Playoff history, but in American sports history. The setting: Game 7 of the 1970 Finals. Lakers vs. Knicks. Alan Paul took us back in SLAM 31, as The Captain recounts that magical night.–Ed.
by Alan Paul
You want to know the kind of respect Willis Reed commands? Anthony Mason, who regularly comes this close to throwing down with his entire coaching staff, calls him “Mr. Reed.” Even behind his back.
It’s no surprise. In his playing days with the Knicks, they called Reed “Cap’n,” and never has a nickname-from the Iceman to Air, Magic to Silk-been more descriptive of its bearer’s play. For a while Reed certainly had plenty of skills, his real calling card-what put him on the nifty 50 and made him a Hall-of-Fame cinch-was his unquestioned leadership ability and his fearlessness in the face of any obstacle. When Reed dragged himself out onto the court for Game Seven of the ’70 Finals, his right leg trailing behind him like so much dead weight, it was not only one of the most inspiring moments in the history of team sports, it was perfectly in line with his entire career.
“I’d say Willis Reed is one of the top two centers I ever played against,” says Elvin Hayes. “He was unreal. When he went out there dragging his leg…that sums it up. He lit a fire in every player to follow him, and he exemplified the word captain.”
After averaging 26.6 ppg and 21.3 rpg his senior year at Grambling, Reed had no problem making the leap from NAIA competition to the NBA, despite being an undersized (6-10, 240) pivot player in a nine-team league filled with dominant big men. In ’65, his first year, he averaged 19.5 ppg and 14.7 rpg and was named Rookie of the Year. In ’70, he pulled off a rare trifecta-MVP of the regular season, the All-Star game and the Finals. Though he only played eight full years due to injuries, throughout his career he was the epitome of a money player, twice named Finals MVP, and led the Knicks to titles in ’70 and ’73.
Today, Reed is the senior vice president of the New Jersey Nets.
SLAM: You grew up in the rural town of Bernice, Louisiana, picking cotton and working on your grandfather’s farm. Did that help you to develop the work ethic that you were famous for as a player?
Willis Reed: Let’s put it this way: It gave me an incentive not to want to do that the rest of my life. The guy who was really a big influence on my life was actually my high school coach, Linden Stone. He was also a teacher and he wore a jacket and a tie to work and had a nicer house and a nicer car, and I realized that if I went to college, maybe I could do something like that as opposed to having to do what my dad did, which was manual labor.
SLAM: And you went to college fairly nearby, at Grambling, rather than going to a bigger program.
WR: Yeah, and that was one of the best decisions I ever made, for a lot of reasons. For one, the difference between the bigger and smaller programs were not as pronounced as they are now. And Fred Hobdy was a great coach with good teams which payed pro-style basketball. I started watching basketball in ’56, and I loved the way the Celtics’ big guys ran up and down the floor. The guys at Grambling could do the same thing; they played a very quick, fast-paced game and good man-to-man defense. Also, Coach Hobdy had been a center, so he spent a lot of time working with his big kids, and he taught me a lot.
It may have hurt me in the draft a little, because I was taken as the first player in the second round when I knew I should have been a first rounder, but it just gave me extra incentive. And I was always confident. I told the guys at home that summer, “Somebody that had a job with the Knicks last year won’t have a job this year.”
Matter of fact, I negotiated my own contract. They gave me a $3,000 signing bonus, and $11,000 [for the season], and I said to the guy, “Look, I’m gonna be a heck of a basketball player, I’m going to help the team win games, so I think I should be entitled to more money.” He said, “I had a lot of All-Americans sit in that same chair and tell me the same thing, and they didn’t do it.” I said, “Well, I know what I’m capable of doing. Since you don’t want to pay me the extra $2,200 now, give it to me at the end of the year if I have a good season.” He said, “Okay, I like your style.” And I got that bonus, too. And, by the way, I played on conditional contracts for the next few years. We didn’t start getting into guaranteed contracts until the ABA came along and started signing up a lot of good players.
SLAM: The Knicks’ ’69-70 championship year is remembered as a magical season. Did it feel that way from the inside?
WR: Oh, yeah, and it all began one night in Boston the previous year. The Celtics beat us for the Eastern Division title and went on to win Russell’s last championship. We felt we were close, and everybody said, “We’re going to win this thing next year.” And we all came back in September, thinking it was our time. The season started that way, and it ended that way.
SLAM: That team had a lot of strong personalities and bright people. I’d like you to share your thoughts on some of them. Let’s start with Bill Bradley.
WR: Bill and I were pretty good friends, and of course he was a hell of a player. When he came to the Knicks, he always tried to make himself sort of anonymous, because he wanted to blend in, be one of the guys, because there was so much publicity surrounding him and the money he made. I remember one day at the airport, he called me over and said, “You call all the guys on the team by their first name, and you always call me Bradley. Could you please do me a favor and call me by my first name?” And I said, “OK, Bradley.” [Laughs] But that’s how sensitive he was.
I remember him telling me that he didn’t know what he was going to do when he was done playing, but he was contemplating entering politics. Then one day I see on the AP wire that Bill Bradley got married, and I thought, “Well, I know what he’s doing now.” Because you have to be a married man to go into politics, and my own little logic is, that’s the only reason a guy would get married [laughs].
SLAM: Phil Jackson.
WR: Well, first of all, he’s a hell of a coach. People who suggest anyone could have won with Michael and Scottie are crazy. He did a great job in a lot of ways, including figuring out how to handle Dennis and fit him in to a higher team concept. But that’s no surprise, because he was always a different kind of guy who lived his own kind of life and was basically a hippie. But he could play. We used to call him Action Jackson, because he came off the bench and affected the games. He would score some points, grab some boards, and he was a heck of a player defensively. You always knew when he entered a game; he made his mark.
SLAM: What about Clyde Frazier?
WR: Clyde was probably the greatest athlete I played with my whole career, pro or college. He was a little wild at first, but once he settled down and became our starting point guard, that’s when we really gelled. The thing is, he was so good taking the ball to the basket-so strong, graceful and quick-that it opened everything up. I could get two or three easy baskets a game by just being in the right spot, catching the ball and dropping them in, because he would draw the defense to him. And he was also an excellent defensive player. All of a sudden, Walt became “Clyde,” a real cool guy with lots of flash, but that’s not the real him; he’s basically a pretty quiet, conservative guy, very cool and calm, not at all a wild man. He got the clothes and the Rolls, but anyone who spent some time with him would realize that he’s really not an extrovert, but a nice, quiet guy who lives a fairly sheltered life.
SLAM: Dick Barnett.
WR: I played with Dick the longest, and he was an excellent basketball player, though kind of a funny guy. He was really our best defensive player, so he always had to guard the best offensive player on the other team, whatever the position. He came from Tennessee State, and there were some legendary games between them and Grambling, so we had a history together.
SLAM: What about Red Holzman?
WR: He was a great coach and a great guy with very good ideas about handling players. For instance, let’s say we lost a game we should have won; he wouldn’t jump on us and beat us. He’d just say, “We had a pretty good chance, but a couple of bad shots, couple bad calls went against us. We should have won, but it’s over, it’s done. Let’s get out of here and go home, so I can get me a steak and a scotch and smoke my cigar.” Then two days later, we’d play a nice game, walk into the locker room happy, and Red would say, “If we had done the following things right a couple nights ago, we could have won that game too…” That’s how he’d get back to telling us about that game and make his point without browbeating us.
As the captain, Red used to ask me to find out what was going on with a certain player, and I’d report back, let him know how things were. And he’d tell me, “Sometimes I”m going to get on your butt even though you haven’t done anything wrong, because I’ve got to send a message, especially to the few guys here who are too sensitive for me to get on.” He was very aware of who he was dealing with, of understanding different players’ idiosyncrasies.
I’ll tell you something about Red: I first met him when he came down to scout me, and he was standing there wearing his London Fog overcoat, chomping on a big cigar. He was the Knicks’ head scout, so when he finally became head coach, he was responsible for every player being there and was intimately familiar with every aspect of everyone’s game and personality. The first thing he told us was, “I’m going to get you guys in shape, and we’re going to play serious defense. You’re going to do those things the way I want, and everything else will happen.” And that’s what we did. Red’s a pretty easy-going guy, but you’re going to do what he wants done. But he understood that you couldn’t shoehorn players into set plays all the time. He’d say, “You play defense my way, and you can do what you want on offense-if it doesn’t work, we’ll run my plays next.”
SLAM: To win the ’70 championship, you had to go up against Wes Unseld, Lew Alcindor and Wilt Chamberlain-three Hall-of-Fame centers with very different games-in consecutive series.
WR: Yeah, and the guy I liked playing against the most was Wes, because he’s the only one that I was actually taller than, ‘though I wasn’t as strong as him. I also liked the fact that he didn’t shoot a lot, so I could just focus on blocking him out and making sure he didn’t get the rebound. That was a very good series with a lot of great games and some very intense competition.
My biggest advantage over Alcindor at that point was he was young, just in his second year in the league, and he wasn’t that strong yet. So I would try to get very physical with him, play very hard against him and make him do some things he didn’t want to do, like come out and guard me on the perimeter. And I must say, I always got a lot of help with him-which I needed, because he was one fine offensive basketball player. He was very hard to guard. I really thought that his coaches cost them some games by playing him too many minutes and wearing him down, because those first few years he just didn’t have the stamina. If they had used him more wisely, they might never have lost. Then he got into a big weight program, and I’m not ashamed to say that I got out of the league just in time, because he became such a dominant player.
SLAM: What about Wilt?
WR: He was just the opposite in terms of stamina, just tremendously strong. He could play 48 minutes, suck down one of those giant 7-Ups he used to drink during games and play another 48. My essential strategy against him was the same as against Kareem-keep moving and try to stay outside a bit. Because if I caught the ball close to the basket, there was no way I could score against him. I could not shoot the ball over him, so I got smart enough to stop at the top of the key, go to the corner, anywhere he wasn’t. And I knew he was going to run back to the basket, because he wouldn’t give up a layup for any reason.
SLAM: Your emergence from the locker room at the start of the final game of the ’70 championship series is one of the most revered and dramatic moments in all sports history. Did you know all day that you were going to be able to play?
WR: Well, I knew that I was going to try. One of my assistant coaches in high school, Duke Fields, used to always tell us, “In the game of life, you should always try. Sometimes you’re going to fall, but then you get up, brush yourself off, get right back in the race, run twice as hard, and nobody’s ever going to know you fell.” Another thing he said is, “Remember that failure is the stepping stone to success.” That kind of stuff was sort of embedded in my brain, so I always felt that it’s important to try to do your best.
A real key to the series was Game Five, which we won after I went down with the injury, thanks in large part to the crowd rallying the team. But then Game Six, I was just physically unable to play, and Wilt had like 46 [45, actually] points and 25 rebounds. So I’m thinking, “Boy, I think I could do a better job against him, and maybe I can set some screens for Bill and Dick and alter the flow of the game…” I thought if I could do that, then the fact that we’re going to be home, with the sixth man-the crowd-might be enough to pull it out. And this is what we’re here for, what you suit up every damn night for: we want a ring. And we’re there, man, we just got to win one more game. The Celtics dynasty was finally over, and we had a real chance to win, so I had to try. I would rather be sitting here talking to you today saying I tried and couldn’t get it done than, “I should have went out there and tried.” That wasn’t going to happen to me. I wasn’t going to let that moment pass, because it meant too much to too many people. There was too much invested by all of us for me not to go give it an effort.
But I had a muscle tear, so they were giving me injections of Carbocaine [a pain-killer] with this huge needle, and it really wasn’t being that effective. I could not flex my leg at all, but that afternoon I realized that if I held the leg straight and ran, it didn’t bother me. That’s why I ran stiff legged-it was the only way I could move down the floor. But I was incapacitated; I couldn’t jump, and I was genuinely hurting.
SLAM: Just watching the tape of the crowd’s reaction is intense; they went absolutely nuts. What did it feel like to be the focus of such an eruption?
WR: Oh, it was intense and wonderful. But on the other hand, it was a hell of a predicament to be in. I mean, there’s this huge, roaring standing ovation, and everyone’s saying, “Everything’s all right, the captain is here!” Meanwhile, I’m out here trying to play the greatest offensive big man to ever play the game, on one leg. The guy just got through scoring 45 points on us, and I have to defend him without bending my knee or jumping. I remember thinking, “I dreamed of playing in a championship game, and it didn’t go like this.” Then Red told me that he wanted me to take the first two shots. I hit them and everyone went nuts and the team thought, “Okay, we’re gonna win this, no problem.”
The actual advantage came in that it created a tremendous amount of confidence in our team and our fans, which is no small thing. I remember Red was a big believer in doing whatever it took during the season in order to secure home court advantage throughout the playoffs, because that one game can be the difference between winning a championship or not. I really think we would have lost that game had it been at the Forum.
SLAM: What made that team so great?
WR: It was always a real team effort. I think I could have averaged 25 ppg, and so could Clyde and Dick Barnett. DeBusschere and Bradley probably could have averaged 22 or 23. Everyone gave up stats to win, but we were very hard to defend, because any of us could score the points on any given night. And we could all create our own shots, which is the one thing that separates a great player from a good one. And everyone could do everything.
I was just watching a tape of one of the championship games, and in the first 10 possessions all four guys except myself brought the ball up the floor after a missed shot. If we got into a set situation, we would get the ball into Clyde’s hands, and everyone would get in position, with me and DeBusschere setting screens. But on the break, whoever got the ball would take it, or pass it to whoever was open and he would bring the ball up the floor and we’d play out of that. We played a lot of freelance basketball, which was really just basic fundamental basketball: set screens, use your body, beat players off the dribble, create open space for shots and screens.
SLAM: When you won your next championship, three years later, you were coming back after missing almost an entire season with a leg injury, you were reduced to being a part-time player and the New York press was saying you were through. Yet you ended up as the Finals MVP, which must have been extra satisfying.
WR: Well, sure. That was a tough year. It’s just amazing how quickly the skills deteriorate once you get away from the game. I had an up-and-down season, as did the team. But by the end of the year, we were playing pretty well. I actually think that that team was probably the best group of athletes that I ever played with. We had seven guys who were All Stars at one time, and I don’t know how many times that’s happened in the NBA. We had all the starters still from the ’70 team, plus Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe, who was the one guy I’d stay home to watch on an off day. He was just incredible in all facets of the game.
We were a little undersized, but we always had good athletes and smart basketball players. We played together, we were team-oriented both defensively and offensively, and everyone understood how to play the game. Like there used to be a bit of controversy between Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell. Cazzie, who was a good friend of mine, felt that the reason Bill played ahead of him was that he was a Rhodes Scholar and all that, but it really wasn’t that. It was more that Bill understood the game and played at a different level than Cazzie, who was really basically just an offensive player. So what Red finally did was use Cazzie for what he did best: pull him off the bench and let him score. Then he’d bring Bill back in, because he would make the offense run smoother, because he could make the pass, make the play, and he always understood where he had to be and he didn’t create turnovers. It was that type of thing which made us a very good basketball team.
SLAM: Did anybody ever intimidate you on the court?
WR: No. I got my butt whipped plenty of times, but once you play football, you’re not afraid of anything. Playing football was probably the best thing I ever did for my basketball career. I was actually an all-state end in high school, and I got lots of football scholarship offers, and once you’ve played football, there is nothing to fear.
SLAM: Who was the most physical player you ever played against?
WR: Well, When I first came into the game, [Cincinnati Royals' center] Wayne Embry was probably the toughest to score against, because he used his weight very well. He wasn’t that mobile, but he used to hold, push and shove all the time. My rookie year, I scored fewer points against Wayne than I did against Russell or Chamberlain.
And Wes Unseld was always tough, because he used his strength and weight all the time. At Grambling, they really stressed blocking out, and I was good at it, which I had to be because I was playing against a lot of guys taller than me. No matter how tall they are, if you get them far enough away from the basket, and the ball drops in front of you, you got a chance to get it. But Wes would put both his hands up and put his stomach in your back and just walk you right out from under the basket. And the official would never call it, because his hands are up in the air and they can see he’s not pushing. But I enjoyed playing against him, because at least I knew he wasn’t going to overpower me due to sheer height, like Chamberlain or Kareem. Wes really made the most out of what he had. He was an undersized center just like me, and he made a lot of things happen and had great leadership ability. His first year in the league, he was MVP and Rookie of the Year, and I think he’s the only guy who’s ever done that. [Editor's note: Chamberlain also won both in '59-60.] And it was hard for guys our size to be playing center.
Also, I have to say, the toughest guy to score against was actually Nate Thurmond. Most centers would play the basketball, but Nate played me; wherever I went, he was with me. I think in my whole career, the most points I ever scored against him was 21, and that was real important to him. It was part of his thing. He’d tell me, “Willis, you’re not having one of them 30-point nights on me.”
SLAM: As good as Nate was, he is often overlooked, because there were so many great centers at the time.
WR: It was a time of dominating centers in the league, led, of course, by Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They owned the league. I remember my first game against Wilt and the Warriors. They beat us in overtime, and I scored 32 points-which is unbelievable. I’m thinking, “I scored 32 on Wilt Chamberlain!” Then I looked down at his numbers, and he had 56. I said, “Holy Christ. No one has ever done that to me.” But you could not stop the guy. He had a 12-foot lean and he’d just fade away and he had the infallible finger roll. If he had made his free throws, he would have scored 64 or 65 points a night. He was big, strong and very physical, and the one thing you didn’t want to do was piss him off. Same with Russell. I used to always walk out to center court and say, “Mr. Russell, Mr. Chamberlain, how you doing tonight?” Because those guys were tough enough without having them be mad, too.
You didn’t need them trying to prove a point.