Forty years ago this spring, the New York Knicks enjoyed the best of both worlds: A remarkable individual season by their best player and undisputed leader, combined with a five-for-one, one-for-five ethos that earned them a place among the NBA's greatest "team basketball" teams ever.
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<!--endclickprintexclude--><!-- /REAP -->Willis Reed, the Knicks' center and captain, won a trifecta of awards in 1969-70: Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game, the regular season and the Finals. New York beat the Los Angeles Lakers to claim its first NBA title. Three years later, the Knicks won again. Since then, the cupboard has been bare - in terms of MVP trophies and league championships, the franchise has gone 40 and 37 years, respectively, without either. I spoke with Reed last week about those topics, while wondering how much dramatic flair the Hall of Fame center put into his famous walk out of the tunnel for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on May 8, 1970:
NBA.com: Tell me the truth now -- just between you and me, nobody else has to know -- you were milking that limp out to the court. I mean, everybody knows you suffered a deep thigh injury in Game 5 and didn't play at all in Game 6, but when you came out shortly before tipoff, even your Knicks teammates were a little surprised. That was for their benefit and to fire up the home crowd, right?
Willis Reed: [Laughs.] I really was hurting. But the most spectacular part of all of it was that, somehow I ended up with the first two shots. And made those two shots. [After Reed scored New York's first two baskets, his teammates took over, leading by as much as 29 points in the first half of the 113-99 clinching victory. Guard Walt Frazier scored 36 points with 19 assists.] I mean, you couldn't write a better script. I'm just glad I made 'em. We might not even be having this conversation if I missed both of those shots.
NBA.com: People remember those Knicks for their team play and cohesiveness, yet you had one of the most decorated seasons of any individual in NBA history. How important is the team concept when someone is turning in MVP-caliber performances?
WR: There's a lot of dynamics that go into those situations. Mostly an MVP is a leader. He's the guy who makes the team and creates stability on the team. What you generally find is that the guy who is going to win the MVP in any year has had a great year, his team has had a great year and he's been healthy all year. That's part of being MVP is staying healthy to answer the bell all those 82 games.
NBA.com: Maybe this is an easy choice, but I'll ask anyway -- MVP or NBA ring?
WR: If you ask me what is more important, winning a championship is more important than being the MVP. It's more important and it will always be there -- there are people who probably don't even know I was an MVP who know the Knicks won the championship in 1970. To me, that's what we were there for. To win the ring and become the best team of that season.
To have a chance to do that two times was probably the highlight of my career. Being MVP, yeah, I enjoyed it. But that's an award that everybody on the team should have a little piece of, because they all helped you get there. They contributed to a lot of tough games and to us winning so many games on the way to the championship.
NBA.com: Teams rarely win titles without superstars. But how critical is it to have great role players?
WR: You win championships because everybody contributes. That's why you've got 12 guys. Some nights, the first five are not going to get the job done. The eighth, ninth, 11th guys are going to get the job done. Hopefully, you have those guys on the bench.
NBA.com: You were known as "The Captain." So how much responsibility did you take for your Knicks teammates?
WR: The thing I remember when I was with the Knicks, we had only 15 people traveling. There'd be one coach, 12 players, one trainer, Danny Whalen, and the PR guy. Red [Holzman, Knicks coach] used to come to me and ask me what's wrong with a certain player. I'd say, `I dunno, Red. I'll go talk to the guy.' Now we've got [assistant] coaches to do that. Also, Red would come to me and say, `Sometime tonight, I'm going to have to raise hell with you.' I'd say, `About what, Red?' He'd say, `Aw, I don't mean to get on you about anything, but we've got a couple guys, they can't take the whipping. So I've got to raise hell with you to send a message.' I'd say, `OK, Red. But take it easy!'
NBA.com: Could you ever have imagined the Knicks going through such a drought of championships?
WR: I'll just say, as a Knicks fan -- which I'll always be -- I was very disappointed ... I was very excited going back to 1985 when the Knicks got Patrick Ewing in the draft. I just knew they were going to win the championship. They came so close but they didn't do it, and that was very disappointing. But I know this about Mr. [James] Dolan [Knicks owner and chairman of Cablevision]: They've always been willing to spend the money to try to get the best players and I think they'll continue to do that. I think the new front office with Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, I think they understand what it takes to win. I like the future of the Knicks with the possibilities they have.
NBA.com: That it has been so long since the Knicks' last championship, does that make your and your teammates' place in New York sports more special?
WR: Yeah it does, but I would prefer that drought not be there. I would have liked to have seen Patrick win, definitely.
NBA.com: You coached and, from the front office, built the New Jersey Nets into a playoff team during your time with them (1988-2003). What did you see going on with the Nets this season:
WR: Once they lost Vince Carter, they lost their leader. Were they going to be a playoff team? No, but they would have won a lot more games. That's the one thing they did not have -- the leadership -- and when you don't have it, it makes for a tough year. I think [Brook] Lopez and Devin Harris, they're very talented players. The Nets have players, but they're not a team. They need to get some veteran leadership for next season, and then I think they'll be OK.
NBA.com: When you played, real giants walked the NBA Earth in the form of Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Bob Lanier, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and several others. What's your take on the center position these days?
WR: You would think that, with as many players who play the game and as many 7-footers as we have, we would have had more guys who've had the dominance of Shaquille O'Neal. Or [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I'm just disappointed that we don't produce those kinds of athletes anymore. And I haven't even mentioned Wilt or Bill Russell.
That's why any team that gets a very good big man and is really diligent, and can get some of the other pieces, it has a chance to win. That's what makes the Lakers who they are today. If they can get [Andrew Bynum] healthy, they've got the best shot to win again because of their big people. They're long and they've got very talented big men.
NBA.com: Do you feel the same about Orlando then, with Dwight Howard?
WR: I don't know whether they've got enough. The Lakers have got three guys, all of 'em 7-footers. Or better!
NBA.com: We hear all the time that the playoffs are "different" from the regular season. What does that mean to you?
WR: First of all, after the first round, you're getting the good teams against each other. This isn't the NCAA where you can have one bad night and it's over with. Generally, to win four out of seven, it won't be a fluke. There won't be no Cinderella teams winning the NBA championship. There are just too many good teams.
It's going to be the teams that are playing best at that particular time. That's why everybody's trying to get themselves healthy. The Boston Celtics have had a lot of injuries, but that's not a problem if they can get healthy by the time the playoffs start.
NBA.com: Better still if Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce can limp out to the court for some Game 7 inspiration. You know, you really have become a brand name in our sports culture, beyond just basketball. Anytime anyone guts it through an injury to perform, playing instead of sitting out, people think of you. What do you think of that?
WR: Every time I look up, somebody's telling me, "Hey, they said so-and-so pulled a `Willis Reed.' " That's nice. It's kind of funny to hear.
I don't think many of our posters lived through this, but it would have been something amazing to see. I've always wanted to check out some Reed and Clyde footage. Definitely one of the greatest teams in NBA history...completely selfish. Plus Reed was the first to win all 3 MVPs in one season.