Willis Reed, the legendary Knicks’ center whose dramatic entrance onto the Madison Square Garden floor minutes before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals sparked the team to its first title, has died at the age of 80.
The National Basketball Retired Players Association announced Reed’s passing. While no cause of death was announced, it was known Reed had been in poor health for some time.
“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “My earliest and fondest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who embodied the winning spirit that defined the New York Knicks’ championship teams in the early 1970s. He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports.
“As a league MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP and member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Willis was a decorated player who took great pride in his consistency. Following his playing career, Willis mentored the next generation as a coach, team executive and proud HBCU alumnus. We send our deepest condolences to Willis’ wife, Gail, his family, and many friends and fans.”
Reed had an amazing career — highlighted by the two NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVP awards, plus being a seven-time All-Star — but he is best remembered for a legendary 1969-70 season. That year he became the first player to sweep the regular season, All-Star Game and NBA Finals MVP awards.
However, it was him walking out on the court for Game 7 of the Finals in 1970 — after he suffered a thigh injury in Game 5 and had to miss Game 6 of the series, and the Knicks had no answer for the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain without him — that became the moment of legend. Reed scored four early points that game, and while he was limited the rest of the way he sparked the team to its first title (Walt Frazier’s 36 points and 19 assists had something to do with the win, too).
Reed was born in 1942 in Hico, Louisiana, and stayed in the state through college, leading Grambling State to the 1961 NAIA title. Considered an undersized center at 6’9 “, teams quickly learned he played much bigger than that as he went on to win the 1965 Rookie of the Year award.
Reed averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds a season over the course of his career, and he had his No.19 retired by the Knicks. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.
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