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The week in Knicks history: Willis Reed’s number gets retired

‘The Captain’ was the first ‘Bocker to receive the honor

Milwaukee Bucks v New York Knicks
This is art.
Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 2019-20 season is nearly here and we’re arguing about things like which point guard will start over Frank Ntilikina and where Allonzo Trier is going to fit into the rotation, but before we begin this year’s journey let’s travel back 43 years, to the week Willis Reed became the first Knick to have his jersey retired.

The ceremony to send Reed’s number 19 to the Madison Square Garden rafters took place on Oct. 21, 1976, only two years after he’d retired at 32 years of age because of incessant injuries. Unfortunately, video of the event could not be found, but there is the following photograph from that night of fellow Knicks legend Walt Clyde Frazier shaking Reed’s hand.

Willis Reed Retired Jersey Ceremony
A couple smooth guys.
Photo by NBA Photos/NBAE via Getty Images

Though Reed’s career was unfortunately cut short after just 10 years, he spent his decade in the NBA putting together a resume so strong that he’s still spoken about in the same breath as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and other all-time great big men.

Heck, he led the Knicks to championships over Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers in 1970 and 1973, but those are others posts for other weeks in Knicks history. This post is to celebrate how Reed was the first Knick to have his jersey sent to the MSG rafters, and to remind ourselves what it’s like when the team has a player who truly rules New York.

Reed’s path to the Knicks

Six teams passed on Reed in the 1964 NBA draft, which is crazy because the the 6’9” center was coming off a stellar college career at Grambling State University in Louisiana in which he’d posted about 19 points and 15 rebounds per game. In his senior year alone, Reed averaged roughly 27 points and 21 rebounds, which is ridiculous.

What’s even more ridiculous is that Reed isn’t even the first player the Knicks selected in that draft. With the first overall pick, the Knicks took 6’8” Jim Barnes, who averaged 15.5 points and almost 10 rebounds per contest in his rookie year but was traded to the Baltimore Bullets seven games into his sophomore season.

Reed was chosen by the Knicks with the eight pick in the draft, which was technically the first pick of the second round. It wasn’t long before Reed was leading the team to success.

A refresher on how great Reed was

Reed is easily one of the top five Knicks of all time, and to be more precise he’s probably among the top three, along with Frazier and Patrick Ewing. It’s only right that his jersey was the first to be retired by the Knicks, because without all the Reed-related lore, the franchise’s history wouldn’t pack the same punch.

The whole NBA world knows about his iconic return to the floor for Game 7 of the 1970 finals, but that’s just one of the many facts you should know about Reed.

When Reed was drafted, the Knicks were coming off five straight seasons of losing basketball, and the previous year New York had been the worst team in the league. Thanks in part to Reed’s 19.5 points and 15 rebounds per game, the Knicks improved by nine wins during his rookie season. He was named an All-Star and was the first Knick to win the Rookie of the Year Award. Pretty solid start.

By his third season, the Knicks made the playoffs, and they wouldn’t miss the postseason for the remainder of Reed’s run. He finished with career averages of almost 19 points and 13 rebounds per game. Over 78 playoff games, he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds.

His impressive numbers resulted in a lot of accolades. Reed was an All-Star seven times and made the First or Second All-NBA Team five times. He has the second most rebounds in Knicks history, behind only Ewing, and the third most points, behind Ewing and Frazier.

He was the first player in NBA history to win the All-Star Game MVP, regular season MVP and finals MVP in the same season, doing so in 1969-70. The list of players who earned that specific accomplishment is short and illustrious, according to the internet: in addition to Reed, it includes only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

Perhaps most importantly, Reed once fought the entire Lakers team, and it seems like he won.

Is Reed the only player to have ever worn 19 for the Knicks, or were the others before him?

Long-winded way to ask the question, but an interesting inquiry nonetheless. Eight other players donned jerseys with the number 19 for the Knicks before Reed came to town. They all come from a long, long time ago in a much different NBA. Here they are in list form!

Lee Knorek, Ed Bartels, Vince Boryla, Nat Clifton, Herb Scherer, Ray Felix, Jim Palmer and Donnie Butcher.

None of them were as good as Reed.

How’s Reed doing today?

Reed is currently 77, and in recent years he’s made a number of public appearances on behalf of the Knicks. Here he is attending a game last season, for example.

Let’s all wish Reed a very belated congratulations on becoming the first Knick to have his jersey retired. The honor is well deserved. The Knicks could use a leader like Reed right now.