Willis Reed, the two-time NBA Finals MVP with the New York Knicks, died at the age of 80. The news was first reported by longtime basketball columnist Peter Vecsey, who added that Reed “suffered from congestive heart problems.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver the Knicks issued messages in his honor.
A member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th anniversary teams, Reed personified resilience in sports, famously playing Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals with a torn muscle in his right thigh. His effort in what is now known as the “Willis Reed Game” is often referenced whenever an athlete performs admirably through injury.
Reed was a 6-foot-10, 235-pound relentless and punishing center who played all 10 of his NBA seasons for the Knicks, anchoring the most successful era in franchise history and earning his nickname, The Captain.
New York selected the Louisiana native and Grambling State University star with the eighth overall pick in the 1964 NBA Draft. Reed made an immediate impact, playing all 80 games and averaging a double-double to earn Rookie of the Year honors and the first of his seven consecutive All-Star Game selections in 1965.
By 1967, the Knicks made their first playoff appearance in eight years, starting Reed at power forward alongside center Walt Bellamy. The December 1968 trade of Bellamy for power forward Dave DeBusschere returned Reed to his natural center position, and New York transformed into a perennial title contender.
The Knicks lost to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the 1969 Eastern Conference finals before breaking through to the 1970 NBA Finals. The series was tied 2-2 opposite Wilt Chamberlain’s Los Angeles Lakers when Reed suffered his thigh injury eight minutes into Game 5. New York managed to take a 3-2 series lead before losing Game 6 without Reed in the lineup. Reed shocked Madison Square Garden, and even some of his own teammates, when he emerged from the tunnel to join pregame warmups.
“When Willis Reed came out on the court, I thought my ears were going to explode,” lifelong Knicks fan and Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee told The New York Times in 2020. “Both teams were on the court doing their layup lines, and when Willis came out, the entire Los Angeles Laker team stopped and turned around.”
“I’ll never forget [Jerry] West, Chamberlain, [Elgin] Baylor, three of the greatest players of all time, they stopped doing what they were doing and just started staring at Willis,” Walt Frazier, who played with Reed for the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career, told The Athletic in 2021. “I said to myself, ‘Man, we’ve got these guys.’ That gave me so much confidence. They were so concerned Willis was going to play.”
Reedj, in fact, started and scored their first two field goals. They were his only points, but his 27 minutes inspired a 14-point win and the Knicks’ first championship. He earned Finals MVP honors for his effort.
“It was the best example of inspiration by an individual in a sporting event I’ve ever seen,” teammate Bill Bradley told The New York Times upon the game’s 20th anniversary. “When I saw Willis finally come out, I got so pumped up, I thought: ‘He’s here. He’s here. He’s here.’ And I thought, ‘If he can fly, so can we.'”
Reed’s 1969-70 campaign was one of the greatest in league history, as he became the first player ever to sweep the All-Star Game MVP, regular season MVP and Finals MVP awards in a single season. Only Michael Jordan in 1996 and 1998 and Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 have matched Reed’s accomplishment.
The Knicks lost the 1971 Eastern Conference finals to Wes Unseld’s Washington Bullets and returned to the NBA Finals in 1972, when a left knee injury sidelined Reed in a rematch with the victorious Lakers. Reed’s averages dipped to 11 points and 8.6 rebounds the following season — by far the lowest of his career to that point — but he reverted to form in a Finals rubber match with the Lakers. The Knicks won the series, 4-1, and Reed again received the Finals MVP award for his two-way performance opposite Chamberlain.
Reed’s title-winning Knicks teams are also considered among the greatest ever. The 1972-73 roster boasted six future Hall of Fame players: Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Bradley, Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas. Phil Jackson, decades before he became one of the greatest coaches in history, came off their bench.
And Reed was their guiding force.
“The three guys considered to be the greatest Knicks of all time: myself, Willis and Patrick Ewing,” Frazier told The Athletic. “If Willis Reed did not have the injuries that he had, it would not be, ‘Who’s the greatest Knick of all time?’ I’m wearing two championship rings now. I would be wearing more if Willis Reed could have remained healthy. There would be no doubt about who’s the greatest Knick of all time. The way that this man played the game, the respect that he had, the leadership, we’ve never had another leader like Willis Reed. I always say he’s the greatest Knick of all time, because I learned from Willis Reed.”
Knee surgery limited Reed to 19 regular-season games in the 1973-74 season, and he could not finish the 1974 Eastern Conference finals. Reed declined another operation on his knee at age 32 and never played another NBA game. The Knicks made his No. 19 their first retired jersey in Madison Square Garden in 1976.
“There is only one Willis,” former Knicks executive Mike Burke told The New York Times. “He embodies the Knicks at their best, a man at his best. Clearly, the captain’s number should he the first to be retired.”
In retirement, Reed briefly served as head coach of the Knicks in the late 1970s and the New Jersey Nets a decade later. In between, he coached Creighton University for four seasons and spent time as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings. The Nets named Reed their general manager in 1989. He was senior vice president of basketball operations for New Jersey’s Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.
Reed was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.