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Willis Reed guided the New York Knicks to their only two NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. The 6-foot-10 center out of Grambling State University played all 10 of his NBA seasons with the Knicks, who made him the first pick in the second round of the 1964 NBA Draft.

Although Reed didn’t outshine legendary center Wilt Chamberlain in the statistics department, his four points and three rebounds were far more effective than Wilt’s 21 points and 24 rebounds in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

Willis Reed and Wilt Chamberlain squared off in the 1970 NBA Finals

Wilt Chamberlain of the Los Angeles Lakers battles for position with Willis Reed of the New York Knicks during an NBA game circa 1972 at Madison Square Garden. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

In the 1969-70 season, Willis Reed guided the Knicks to the best record in the NBA at 60-22. The star center averaged a career-high 21.7 points and pulled down 13.9 rebounds on his way to earning league MVP honors. He was also named MVP of the 1970 All-Star Game.

After the Knicks outlasted the Baltimore Bullets in seven games in the divisional semifinals and then ousted the Milwaukee Bucks in five, they headed to the NBA Finals. There, they faced Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers finished second to the Hawks in the Western Division but swept them in the divisional finals.

The 1970 NBA Finals featured a classic matchup of two of the game’s biggest centers in Reed and Chamberlain. The teams split the first two games in New York and then did the same in LA. Game 5 is when things got interesting.

Late in the first quarter Reed drove to the basket and collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain. Originally thought of as a pulled thigh muscle, it was more serious. According to Robert Cherry’s biography of Chamberlain, Wilt: Larger than Life,  Reed strained a muscle alongside his hip that runs from the pelvis to below the knee. Painkillers didn’t help, and he didn’t return to the game. Reed had seven points in eight minutes.

Despite Reed’s absence, the Knicks found a way. They rallied from a 53-40 halftime deficit to outscore the Lakers 67-47 in the second half to pull out a miraculous 107-100 victory.

“We couldn’t do anything right in the second half,” said Lakers guard Jerry West, per Cherry. “We couldn’t even call a timeout right.”

In Game 7, Reed led the way despite scoring four points

Reed was unable to play in Game 6, one the Lakers won handily at home, 135-113. It all came down to a deciding Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. The anticipation was sky-high. Would Reed play?

Two minutes before tipoff, Reed emerged from the tunnel as 19,500 fans gave him a rousing welcome. Just 18 seconds in, Reeds scored the first points of the game. He added two more a minute later to give the Knicks a 5-2 lead. More importantly, he fired up the crowd and his teammates.

“When Wilt let Willis take those to shots, and when Willis made them, that was what got us off and running,” said former Knick Dave DeBusschere, per Cherry. “It was the psychological lift.”

Reed never scored again. He hobbled his way through 27 minutes and added three rebounds. His grit fired up everyone and led the Knicks to a 69-42 halftime lead. New York won 113-99 in what many refer to as “The Willis Reed Game.”

Chamberlain did whatever he could do with 21 points and 24 rebounds, although he went 1-for-11 from the free-throw line.

Reed died Tuesday. He was 80.

While he was a seven-time All-Star and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Reed’s NBA career is highlighted by that gritty four-point, three-rebound effort in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

“Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader. 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,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement, per ESPN.

“He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports.”


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