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Remembering Willis Reed, the Ultimate Tough Guy and Quintessential Knick

We may never again see a moment like his grueling return from injury that led New York to its first title.

Throughout the history of the league, very few NBA stars come to mind when thinking of championship-level greatness, personified, while playing for a single franchise. The list is comprised of guys that only need one name mentioned: Russell. Magic. Bird. Isiah. Kobe. Duncan. Dirk. Perhaps Steph and Giannis, assuming they stay put for the rest of their careers.

But in filing off those one-team-only champs, it’d be an enormous mistake to leave off Willis.

The Captain should only need one name, too. But just in case you’re younger, or unaware of the history: We’re referring to Willis Reed, the Knicks great who died Tuesday at the age of 80.

As one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, Reed generally needed no introduction. That was especially true in New York, where he not only won the league’s MVP award, but also provided perhaps the biggest title-shifting jolt to a team in professional sports history.

Reed, sidelined with a torn right tensor muscle for Game 6 of the 1970 Finals against the Lakers, emerged from the Madison Square Garden tunnel to huge roars from the crowd just minutes before Game 7. He’d received a painkilling injection of Carbocaine just before the contest, allowing him to move stiffly, and with a noticeable limp. Yet the mere sight of Reed gave the Knicks ample confidence, and sowed doubt into the minds of Wilt Chamberlain and the rest of his Laker teammates. The lefty hit a pair of jumpers, and that was all the Knicks would need to earn their first title—knowing their captain was playing gave them all the juice they needed.

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“There isn’t a day in my life that people don’t remind me of that game,” the Hall of Famer told The New York Times years ago.

Reed played just 10 years during an injury-shortened career. But he accomplished so much in that time. Hell, in 1970 alone, he became the first player in history to win All-Star MVP, league MVP and Finals MVP in the same season. And he led New York to a second crown in ‘73.

Aside from Reed’s uncanny leadership during that decade with the Knicks, one can’t help but think of the toughness he oozed in those years. He was relatively undersized compared to many of his contemporaries, but would battle with literally anyone on the court. (This extended to fighting with opponents in one case, where a heated Reed single-handedly took on a slew of Laker players in 1966, fracturing the nose of one player while bloodying the eye of another.)

His most famous moment is singular, and one we’ll almost certainly never see again in a multi-billion dollar league, where load management is a buzzphrase, and rest is prioritized. Players are handed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases, making it too risky for them to play through certain types of injuries. For instance, we watched Kevin Durant try to return from a calf injury in the 2019 Finals, only to tear his Achilles the game he returned. From a dollars and cents perspective, it usually just isn’t worth it to do something like Reed did.

But that grittiness is why he’ll forever be adored in New York City—a place that has always shown abundant gratitude for on-court toughness and fighting spirit, and one that, 50 years since that second title Reed brought the city, still awaits another NBA championship.