• Sal Maiorana

Willis Reed limped onto the court and the Knicks knew 1970 NBA title was theirs

NEW YORK (May 8, 1970) – It began as a curious commotion, a low rumble of noise from across the way being made by the fans who could see the massive figure of Willis Reed making his way down the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the floor of Madison Square Garden.

Within seconds, as the rest of the sellout crowd became aware of what was transpiring, the din spread like wildfire throughout the Garden until it reached a cacophonic crescendo that rocked the walls of the building recognized as the Mecca of basketball.

“It was one of the most dramatic moments in NBA history as far as I’m concerned,’’ recalled Knicks coach Red Holzman, whose team rode that emotional tidal wave to a 113-99 NBA Championship-clinching victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. “It will live forever with those who saw it, not because it happened in New York, but because of the entire set of circumstances.’’

The circumstances were these:

It was Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals, and the Knicks – in pursuit of their first NBA Championship – were facing the prospect of playing the biggest game in franchise history without their unquestioned leader, Reed.

Reed had suffered contusions and a strain of the right tensor muscle, the muscle that runs from the hip to the knee, in the early moments of Game Five four nights earlier at the Garden.

Although the Knicks were already trailing 25-15 when Reed went down, they overcame his absence and pulled off a remarkable and emotional 107-100 victory. However, two nights later at the Forum in Los Angeles, they were no match for the Lakers without Reed and were crushed, 135-113. Wilt Chamberlain took advantage of the huge void in the middle of New York’s defense by scoring 45 points and grabbing 27 rebounds.

With Reed barely able to walk, there seemed little hope that the veteran center would be able to play in Game Seven, let alone try to match up with the incomparable Chamberlain. And without Reed, New York’s quest for the coveted title appeared futile.

Before the turnstiles were unlocked, Reed had tested his ailing leg. He knocked down a couple of flat-footed outside shots but did little else before returning to the locker room. Chamberlain and Jerry West had watched Reed from the tunnel and weren’t sure what to make of his exhibition.

As the fans began filing in, the specter of Reed not playing hung uncomfortably in the smoky Garden air. In the locker room, the atmosphere was similar as Reed’s teammates weren’t sure if their captain could give it a try. Reed was cordoned off in the medical room with team trainer Danny Whelan and Dr. James Parkes working on his leg. After the team exited to begin pre-game warmups, Holzman peeked his head in and asked Reed how he felt.

“It’s still sore, but I can do it,’’ Reed answered. Holzman replied: “OK, you’re starting.’’

“The way I remember his entrance was the anticipation of the crowd and everyone standing with all eyes on that entrance,’’ said Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere. “They somehow knew he was coming out. We were just warming up, but you knew by the crowd noise that something was happening.’’

By calling it one of the most dramatic moments in NBA history, Holzman was right on the money, but as Reed was making that fateful walk onto the court, the emotion of the moment was lost on him.

“When I stepped on the court, I got a tremendous ovation from the fans,’’ he said, “but frankly, I was not aware of the fans because I had so many other things on my mind. I was in pain for one thing. For another, I knew I had to go out and play a man (Chamberlain) so many inches taller than me and so much stronger than me, a man who had just had a 45-point game. And I knew I had to play him on one leg. I couldn’t run and I couldn’t jump and somehow I was going to have to compensate for all that.’’

For a long time after the Knicks had hoisted their championship banner, speculation – mostly in the media – was that Reed’s grand entrance was staged in an effort to deflate the Lakers. Reed denied this.

“Much has been made of my late arrival, which seemed to have a dramatic effect on people,’’ he said. “Was it planned? Did Red delay my appearance in an effort to gain a psychological edge? Did he try to decoy the Lakers into thinking I was not coming out and then spring me for a shock effect? To all those questions, the answer is no. I know it doesn’t make as good a story, but this happens to be the truth. Dr. Parkes wanted to wait until the last possible minute to give me the shot because he was only going to shoot me once and he wanted it to last as long as possible once he gave it to me.’’

In actuality, the shot hardly worked at all. Reed was in agony and was virtually immobile, but he was able to start the game, and when he hit his first two shots in the first 83 seconds of the game – the only points he would score all night – he could have limped to the bench and watched the rest of the game from there.

In that first 83 seconds, Reed’s courage infused his teammates with a rush of adrenalin that the Lakers couldn’t dream of competing with.

“You’re playing the seventh game in the world championship, you’re in the Garden and it’s going to be loud anyway,’’ Bradley said. “This (Reed’s two baskets) took it to another level. It gave us a 10-foot lift just to have him out there.’’

“He was willing to give it a shot when he was really hurting,” said DeBusschere. “He could’ve been a flop. He also could have said, ‘This is too hard for me to do, I can’t help you guys.’ He could have come out, fallen down and thrown up air balls and all that. But when a guy is hurt and he’s willing to take those two shots and hits them, he’s got guts.’’

After Reed’s two baskets the Knicks soared from there. By the end of the first quarter they were up 38-24 and it was 69-42 at halftime. Reed played the first six minutes of the third quarter before Holzman sat him down for good with the Knicks still comfortably in front 79-54.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to try to play that seventh game,’’ Reed said. “The doubt in my mind was whether or not I was going to be able to do it. Somebody asked me how I was going to explain to my son that in the greatest game I ever played, I only scored four points and grabbed three rebounds. I don’t agree that it was the greatest game I ever played, but it was the most important. I didn’t want them to win the championship without me.’’

They probably couldn’t have.