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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Willis Reed Jr.

Sport: Basketball

Induction Year: 1981

Willis Reed JrIt was a magic moment in sports history, frozen in a split-second time frame that nobody who witnessed it was likely to forget.

There was a capacity crowd of 19,500 spectators in Madison Square Garden on the night of May 8, 1970, and it seemed that all of them were on their feet, cheering at the top of their lungs, when the big guy wearing Number 19 on his jersey shuffled onto the court a few moments before the opening tipoff of the seventh game in the National Basketball Association championship series.

“I'll play if I can crawl,” Willis Reed, Jr. had promised himself.

When the team doctor shot him full of cortisone and pain-killing carbocaine, it appeared that crawling might be the only way the Knicks center could get onto the court.

His duel with Wilt Chamberlain of the Lakers figured to be a difficult assignment for a man with two good legs. With only one, it was a kamikaze mission. But they were saving the last dance for him.

He had led West Side High School to the state championship, and Grambling's Tigers to the NAIA championship in Kansas City. The only team goal he hadn't achieved was to be part of a championship team in professional basketball.

Reed injured his right leg in the fifth game of the 1970 NBA championship series, and watched Game 6 from the bench as Chamberlain scored 45 points and pulled down 27 rebounds in a 22-point Laker victory.

Team doctors said the leg couldn't be damaged any worse whether he played or not, leaving the decision up to Reed. “When it comes down to the seventh game of an NBA championship,” he said, “there was no way that team was going on the court without me. If it meant the end of my basketball career, so be it.”

He made two field goals, and held Chamberlain to 21 points. But Reed's most important contribution to the Knicks' 113-99 victory was the inspiration he provided.

“You have to go made when a man who ought to be in a wheelchair comes out there,” said teammate Bill Bradley. “I had chills before the game.”

Three weeks before Willis Reed Sr. joined the Army for the duration of World War II, Willis Jr. was born on June 26, 1942. He later joked that he was born in Nowhere, and grew up in Almost Nowhere.

The Nowhere was Hico, La., with a couple of stop signs for motorists going North or South. If you were going East or West, there was only a “Slow” sign. Almost Nowhere was Bernice, where the family moved when he was six years old. It had a couple of red lights.

It also had Elliott High School, where Reed played basketball two years on dirt courts while Coach Lendon Stone patiently developed his skills.

With Louisiana upgrading its facilities for blacks in an effort to stave off integration following the 1954 Supreme Court decision, a new school for blacks was opened in Lillie, nine miles from Bernice, after Reed's sophomore year – West Side. It had a gym.

Reed led West Side to the state tournament two years in a row. On the second trip, he scored 52 points in two games as West Side defeated Shady Grove Grove 59-38 for the championship. He was a two-time All-Stater in both football (playing end) and basketball, and set a state record in the discus throw. He also gave baseball a shot, with a batting average (.210) that nearly equaled his weight. But basketball was the sport that attracted coaches from as far away as Loyola of Chicago, Nebraska and Wisconsin to the Reeds' home.

His high school exploits were the stuff legends are made of. Once, when his shoes were stolen before a game, he scored 58 points bare-foot. He score 1,184 points in his senior season, but none of his athletic accomplishments had prepared him for high0pressure recruiting. Willis Jr. sought the advice of f Van Sally, a white businessman in Bernice who was a friend of the family. Salley asked him what he wanted to do.

“I want to play professional basketball,” he replied. Then he stood up. “Look at me,” he said. “If I can't play pro basketball, I'm going to have to be a common laborer.”

“It will take a lot of hard work,” Salley warned.

“I've been working hard all my life,” Reed said. “I'll do whatever it takes.”

He followed Salley's advice to attend Grambling, and broke into the starting lineup for Coach Fred Hobby's Tigers as a freshman. Grambling was runner-up to a Prairie View team led by Zelmo Beatty in the Southwestern Athletic Conference that year, but both teams were invited to the NAIA tournament – and Grambling won the national championship with victories over Linfield College of Oregon, Peru of Indiana, Anderson College or Indiana, Westminster of Pennsylvania and Georgetown of Kentucky. Reed became one of the first freshmen to be named to the all-tournament team.

Grambling would win one SWAC title outright, share another and make two more trips to Kansas City during Reed's career. But the Tigers were eliminated by Texas opponents (Pan American in 1963, St. Mary's in 1964), and Pan American's Lucius Jackson beat out Reed for a berth on the 1964 Olympic team. Jackson, a Bastrop product, became the first Louisiana native to play on a U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Reed scored 2,280 points in his college career, averaging 22 points per game in 12 NAIA tournament games. He led the Tigers to a 108-17 record. But every NBA team, including the Knicks, passed him up in the first round of the draft.

All he did in his first season was average 19.5 points per game, set a team record for rebounds, make the All-Star squad and win “Rookie of the Year” honors.

He averaged 18.7 points per game in a 10-year career, won NBA Most Valuable Player honors in 1970 and was the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs on two championship teams. Later, he served two stints as the Knicks' head coach and also coached at Creighton University.

He wasn't as successful as he had been during his playing career, but Reed had made his niche in 1970. Everything that happened after that was icing on the cake.

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