When I played grade school basketball, I always tried to get jersey number 19.
Back then, it was about getting the number of the Knicks’ captain, Willis Reed.
I wasn’t a lefty like him, but I always admired how Reed played. It was about finding your spot on the floor, taking a conservative shot, and playing defense.
I wasn’t much of an offensive player, but I worked on my defense and rebounding. That was going to be my calling card during my basketball playing. A good friend of mine would call me “Willis” when we played.
When Reed recently passed away, my basketball memories came back to me.
I also recall the iconic moment when Reed limped out of the Knicks’ locker room before Game Seven of the 1970 NBA finals against the Lakers. Once he began his walk with the thunderous applause behind him, everyone who was present at the Garden and who watched on TV knew it was over.
Reed hit the opening jumper to cap the storybook night. He wasn’t the star that night, but he was the inspiration. Clyde Frazier captured the night, as he could easily have accounted for around 70 points with his points and assists.
But it became evident that night..this was Reed’s team.
His heroism in Game Seven is still a reference to any of the modern-day athletes who play through pain. It probably will remain with us posthumously for quite some time.
If New York had to create a Mount Rushmore of heroic athletes from the 1970s, Reed could arguably make the cut along with the Jets’ Joe Namath, the Rangers’ Brad Park, and the Giants’ Fran Tarkenton, just to name a few.
Reed played his role like the rest of his teammates. Frazier was the shooter and the playmaker. Dick Barnett was the perfect off guard to Frazier. Dave DeBusschere was grinder down low, and Bill Bradley could be counted on for a timely jumper.
A few years later, he again played an instrumental role in leading the Knicks to the title in the 1972-73 season. Ironically, Reed recently was involved in filming a piece about the 50th anniversary of that championship that was celebrated last month.
His legacy earned him the right to later coach the Knicks as well as coach and serve as the general manager of the Nets. He had stints as an assistant with the Hawks and Kings as well as an administrative role with the Hornets.
In spite of his exit from New York, Reed’s mythical, hovering presence never really left the New York area. He always will be a revered Knick.
In a recent piece in the New York Post, Bradley summed up Reed perfectly and succinctly.
“He was The Captain — that says it all,” Bradley said. “He was the backbone of the team. He was the guy that took us to the first championship by his courage, and by his unselfishness. And he was a big Knick all his life.”
Reed’s passing can remind us all about the building blocks of teamwork and heroism that isn’t always found in the game today.
It can also help conjure some playground memories.