Imagine Michael Jordan never un-retired in 1993. Three rings instead of six. Same for his MVPs. No double-nickel at MSG. No game-winner in Utah. Think of all he would have missed out on. All we would have.
Willis Reed, a third of the New York Knicks’ historical holy trinity, passed away yesterday at 80. He was 31 when torn knee cartilage forced him to retire, the same age as MJ when he came back. Despite the brevity of Reed’s career, you never really hear lamenting over what might have been. Pro’ly because of just how much he accomplished in a career shorter than Sandy Koufax’s and barely beyond Bo Jackson’s.
One of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. A member of the 75th Anniversary Team. A Hall of Famer. An All-Star his first seven seasons. All-NBA First Team once and Second Team four times. All-NBA Defensive First Team as a 6-foot-9 triceratops in a era when 7-foot T-rexes still topped the food chain. The first player ever to win MVP, Finals MVP and All-Star MVP in the same season — and don’t sleep on that All-Star MVP. Once upon a time when the league’s best convened, they actually, literally competed. Reed showed more effort in one sequence from that 1970 game than you see from both teams over a whole game now.
But notes on a page is just sheet music; it’s what you don’t hear, the overtones and whole rests, that brings the song to life. You still hear Bach, Mozart, Grieg today. Greatness translates. Julius Randle is celebrated — rightly — for the combination of strength and skill he brings as a big southpaw in today’s game. It is a remarkable mix in 2023. It was no less a marvel 50 years ago.
Find a video of a game from that era and watch Reed. Watch him manipulate his bigger opponents, draining jumper after jumper until they commit just far enough out for him to use his speed and touch to blow by and finish at the rim. Watch him defend, where his smarts, strength and savvy combined to form a perfect fit. It’s one thing watching Rudy Gobert block some 6-footer at the rim — it matters, obviously, but there’s nothing complex about it; it’s rock beating scissors. To see Reed rope-a-doping bigger, stronger foes, or flying in from the weakside with his long, long arms to block a shot was to see desire and destruction all in one.
That marriage made its mark in other times and places. Harvey Araton wrote about an incident almost lost to history where Reed’s powers were applied elsewhere . . . namely, several Lakers’ faces:
On Oct. 18, 1966, at Madison Square Garden, the Los Angeles Lakers learned the hard way that Reed was no one to fool with. Beginning his third season with the Knicks, Reed was embroiled in a battle with the Lakers’ Rudy LaRusso, a bruising 6-foot-7 forward. Throughout the game, Reed had been complaining to the officials about LaRusso’s tactics, but when his pleas were ignored he acted on his own.
Lined up at the free-throw line late in the third quarter, Reed elbowed LaRusso to the side of the head. On the way up court, LaRusso responded with a chopping punch. Reed, in a sudden fury, shook off Darrall Imhoff’s bear hug from behind and floored the 6-foot-10 Imhoff, cutting him near the eye; he broke the nose of John Block, a 6-foot-9 rookie, who had foolishly stepped into his space; and he finally chased LaRusso into the Lakers’ bench, throwing wild punches and sending several of the players fleeing from Reed’s range.
A grainy black-and-white film of the melee surfaced in 2014 in an ESPN documentary on the Knicks teams of the early 1970s. In the film, “When the Garden Was Eden,” Reed sheepishly called it “a good fight.”
He also recalled being upset that none of his teammates had joined the fray and noted their reticence in the postgame locker room. Barnett later said that he had remarked, “Man, you were winning.”
Loudest of all are the notes that never were, reminders of worlds that never were. Did you know Reed went to Grambling to become a teacher? It was during his time there that he realized he was a pretty good basketball player and might like to give that a shot. The Knicks took him in the second round, back when the first featured 10 picks. Think about how good you feel about today’s Knicks having landed Mitchell Robinson in the second-round. Imagine what Reed’s emergence must’ve felt like.
He retired young, but that only meant more time for him to succeed in other avenues. At the college level he was an assistant with St. John’s and the head coach at Creighton; in the pros he was an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks and head coach with the Knicks and the Nets. He also worked with both local teams in the front office, first with a small role with New York when the James Dolan era was in its infancy, then as the Nets’ assistant general manager when they reached back-to-back Finals in 2002 and 2003.
All that endures erodes, yet rarely does what erodes endure. Reed played nearly 6000 fewer minutes than Walt Frazier and almost 15,000 fewer than Patrick Ewing. Yet he’s still second all-time in Knick history in rebounds, third in points and fourth in minutes. If Reed played another 4-5 years, bigger numbers plus bigger honors plus authoring the Willis Reed Moment before Game 7 in 1970 means he’s quite likely the Knick G.O.A.T.
As yesterday reminded us, Willis Reed was ultimately mortal, same as the brightest star in the long and lonely night sky. That doesn’t make the light it lent us any less brilliant. Death proves our mortality; life sends post-its to remind us, but we’re often too busy with other plans. The captain showed us just how far one person can rise above the odds while retaining our admiration and their dignity. With all the more he might have done with a little better health, a little more time — and if that’s not the human condition, what is? — it’s what he did while he was here that shall endure.