Willis Reed, Knicks legend whose gutsiness sparked 1970 title, dead at 80

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Willis Reed Knicks
Willis Reed (Wikimedia Commons)

New York Knicks legend and Basketball Hall of Famer Willis Reed has died at the age of 80, according to multiple reports on Monday.

Per Peter Vescey, Reed had been suffering from congestive heart problems and was going through rehab to walk, but the cause of death is unknown at this time.

Reed played all of his 11 NBA seasons for the Knicks from 1964-1974 and was one of the game’s most dominant big men of his era, averaging 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.

The seven-time All-Star and five-time All-NBA member captained the Knicks to their only two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973 while winning Finals MVP both times.

“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “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.”

His indelible moment in basketball lore came in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers when — after suffering a torn thigh muscle that held him out of Game 6 — he limped onto the court to a thunderous reception that many regarded to be the sparkplug of the Knicks’ 113-99 triumph.

“I didn’t want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play,” Reed had said about his decision to suit up (h/t NBA.com). 

Reed hit his first two field goals of the night and gutted out 27 minutes in the victory.

 While injuries continued to slow him down, he and the Knicks won a second title in 1973, defeating the Lakers again in five games in which Reed averaged 16.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Those injuries, though, forced him to retire one year later following the 1973-74 season.

“As we mourn,” a statement from the Knicks began, “we will always strive to uphold the standards he left behind — the unmatched leadership, sacrifice, and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions.”

Following his playing career, Reed spent two seasons as Knicks head coach before moving to Creighton University from 1981-1985. He served as a special assistant for St. John’s, too, before assistant-coaching roles back in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings. 

In 1988, he took over as New Jersey Nets head coach and transitioned to general manager the following year where he would stay until 1996, drafting the likes of  Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson while acquiring Dražen Petrović. He served as senior vice president of basketball operations from 1996-2004, which included the Nets winning back-to-back Eastern Conference titles in 2002 and 2003.

Reed’s No. 19 was retired by the Knicks in 1976 and he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. He was also named to the NBA’s 50th and 75th-anniversary teams as one of the greatest centers to ever play the game.

For more on Willis Reed and the Knicks, visit AMNY.com