Many of us come from humble beginnings and achieve success of varying degrees but few of us have lasting impacts and legacies. One of that few is Grambling State University alum Willis “The Captain” Reed Jr. Reed was born on June 25, 1942 in rural Hico, La., but grew up on a farm in nearby Bernice. As a 6’2″ eighth-grader, he started playing basketball at Westside High School in Lillie, La., where he achieved much success. After high school, he attended nearby Grambling State University (then Grambling College) where he continued to excel at basketball. With an average of 18.7 points and 15.2 rebounds in four seasons, Reed led Grambling State University to a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics title and three Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships.
Upon completing GSU with such an outstanding basketball record, he was drafted into the NBA by the then struggling New York Knicks in 1964, as the team’s center.
Reed continued to display superb skills and ability in the NBA, and in 1964 he was awarded the Rookie of the Year Award. In his second season, Reed was forced to play the forward position, as the Knicks acquired Walt Bellamy as their new center. Despite the fact that Reed was more comfortable playing center, he was determined to maximize his contribution to the team and so developed himself into a very effective forward player.
However, by the 1969-1970 season he was back at the center position, averaging 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds per game. His contribution played a pivotal role in the Knicks winning 60 games that season and taking the Eastern Conference playoffs, beating the Baltimore Bullets and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Knicks went on to play the Los Angeles Lakers in a tough NBA Finals that year. The series went down to the seventh game but not before Reed suffered a serious thigh injury in game six, and the Knicks lost that game by 22 points.
With the team’s captain injured going into the decisive game seven, the New York Knicks as well as New Yorkers on a whole started to lose hope of winning their first championship. Nonetheless, Reed was determined not to sit out that game and he loaded his body with mapivacaine and cortisone to numb the pain of his injury. At the start of game seven, the team’s dedicated and motivational captain limped onto the court and the crowd went wild.
The injured Reed then managed to out-jump Wilt Chamberlain on the opening tip and scored the first basket from the top of the key. He also scored the Knicks second basket from 20 feet out. Although these were his only two baskets of the game they reignited his team’s confidence and determination, and they went on to win their first NBA Championship, defeating the Lakers 113-99.
The following season was not kind to Reed, as his injury only allowed him to play 11 games after undergoing surgery. However, he returned to the court for the 1972-1973 season and led his team to a second NBA title.
Reed was seen as the backbone of the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973 when the New York Knicks won the championships. His drive, dedication and consistency brought a struggling franchise to the top of their game. His contribution led him to receiving several awards, which include NBA Most Valuable Player (1970), the All-Star Game MVP (1970), and the NBA Finals MVP (1970, 1973).
In 1982 he was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1996 NBA named him one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Reed was also given the honor of having his image on the Wheaties (“The Breakfast of Champions”) packaging in February 2009, an honor that has been bestowed upon the likes of Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Althea Gibson in celebration of Black History Month. He also has several figurines, posters and other basketball memorabilia with his image that are auctioned for charity.
Upon completing his illustrious 10-year playing career with the Knicks, Reed then became the Knicks’ coach in 1977- 1978. From 1981-1985 he was the assistant coach for St. John’s University and head coach for Creighton University. During the 1980s he served as the assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings and the Atlanta Hawks. Reed also helped in turning the New Jersey Nets into NBA championship contenders. He served as the Nets’ head coach (1987-1988), their General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations from 1989 to 1996 and in 1996 he became the Senior Vice President of Basketball. Later, he was the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the New Orleans Hornets.
Now retired and living in the Mount Olive community of Ruston, La, Reed has accomplished what many of us will never come close to. However, his values, determination, passion and commitment to his team on and off the court is an inspiration- as Reed once said, “Go for the moon. If you don’t get it, you’ll still be heading for a star.”
This Black History Month let us celebrate Willis Reed Jr., a Gramblinite great.