It couldn’t have happened without all of them, without Clyde who played the game of his life in that Game 7 against the Lakers that May night in 1970, the night at Madison Square Garden when the Knicks finally won it all, thirty-six points from him and 19 assists and seven rebounds. It wouldn’t have happened without Dave DeBusschere, the bartender’s kid from Detroit, and Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar out of Crystal City, Mo., and then Princeton. And it sure wouldn’t have happened without Red Holzman, the basketball lifer out of the NBA in the 1950s, the quiet leader of the band, growling at them to all see the ball.
But none of it could possibly have happened without Capt. Willis Reed, who limped out that night on a ruined leg and made two jumpers against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers, in the greatest basketball moment of them all in New York City, the one that officially turned what Pete Hamill used to call the Basie band of pro basketball into as beloved and storied a team as the city has ever had, in anything.
Whether you are old enough to have been around in 1970 or not, you know that in so many ways it will always be May 8 when you hear the name Willis Reed, more than ever today now that he has passed at the age of 80.
Earl (The Pearl) Monroe would eventually become a dazzling backcourt partner for Walt Frazier after all the times when they had gone up against each other, Earl with the Bullets and Clyde with the Knicks; back when they were part of a rivalry that is also a part of the permanent history of the NBA. Earl used to talk a lot about those days and those players. But always, it seemed, the conversation would start with the man he called “The Captain.”
“He was our heart,” Earl Monroe, a sweet man then and now, said. “He was our great beating heart, even when he was near the end.”
Willis Reed was near the end at the end of the 1972-73 season, when the Knicks would win it all again. He was breaking down by then, for good this time. But he still played 69 games that season, almost by the sheer force of his will, and managed to average 11 points a game and 8.8 rebounds. There were some big basketball nights in that run. Just not anything that compared to May 8 in 1970, when no one knew whether Willis Reed was going to play or not against Wilt and them.
But then there he was in the tunnel, and there was the kind of noise that only the old Garden could make, the one the old Philadelphia sportswriter named George Kiseda once described as the “monster of Madison Square Garden,” one Kiseda said lived in the throats of 19,000 people.
The oldtimers who were lucky enough to be there that night know. One of them once told me that the Garden made a sound in that moment for Willis when the people saw him that he doesn’t even believe the Garden could make, even in those days. And what days, and nights, they were.
It was partly happiness and it was partly surprise, because even the Knicks weren’t sure Willis was going out there until he was actually out there.
“We left the locker room for the warmups, not knowing if Willis was going to come out or not,” Bill Bradley would say much later.
“I can’t even call them jumpers,” Willis himself would tell me later when he came back to coach the Knicks. “I didn’t feel as if my feet even left that floor. But then I made the first one, and then I made another one. I’m a pretty big man, but when I heard those cheers I felt as if I were floating.”
There would be a night about a decade later when Wilt was back at the Garden, and in town to watch a Knicks-Lakers game, and we were standing in the runway before he went out to take his seat.
And he looked out at the famous floor in that moment and smiled and said, “I hope Willis isn’t out there.”
Willis Reed was the big man out of Louisiana and out of Grambling State and made himself a name that basketball will remember forever. He wasn’t the best player on that team. Clyde was. We saw it in Game 7 after Willis made those two shots and limped off, never to return. But Earl Monroe is right. Willis was the beating heart. They took their strength from him, and so much of their grace.
The beauty of that team was the difference in their games and their personalities. There was Clyde, of course, through whom the game ran. And Bradley, a perfect complement to the rest of them because of the way he moved without the ball and made open shots. And there was a legendary grinder like DeBusschere. Dick (“Fall Back, Baby”) was in the backcourt before Earl was. And it all just worked.
“That locker room wasn’t just a grand basketball experiment,” Bradley told me one time when he was running for president. “It was like a sociological experiment at the same time.”
Things were never great for Willis after he retired. “The captain has become the coach,” Michael Burke said when he hired Willis to replace Holzman. That wasn’t a triumph and neither was Willis’ time coaching the Nets. Finally, he went home. He didn’t show up at the Garden for the 50th celebration of the ‘73 Knicks the other night. He sent a video. He looked old, and he sounded weak, and now he is gone.
But for a little while on Tuesday, it was May 8 in 1970 again. In so many ways, it always will be at the Garden. Big man. Big memory. As big as we’ve ever had in New York.
As reported by Boston Herald
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Author: Amnon Jakony |
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