Tougher Than The Rest

If you recognize the image above, you know what’s next.

Louisiana native Willis Reed set Walt Frazier up on his first date after arriving in New York City – that’s Walt Frazier, a guy who put out an entire book on the idea of cool. A few years in the league under his belt, Reed always roomed with rookies in order to show them the ropes. He stopped fights in practice because he knew this team had the juice – they did – if only they could smooth out the vast caverns that separated, say, Rhodes Scholar Bradley from rhyming dictionary scholar Frazier[1], nevermind whatever Phil Jackson was up to that was too weird even for the Knicks of the Age of Aquarius.

New York Knicks legend, league MVP, All-Star MVP and two-time champion and Finals MVP Willis Reed died Tuesday at the age of 80, as confirmed by his former teammate and ex-senator from the state of New Jersey, Bill Bradley. Fans and admirers would agree that cardiovascular issues reportedly being in some way involved makes perfect sense: he had all of his heart to give.

For an uncomfortable caucus of mostly younger, current basketball fans, it’s tempting to see that name, or that image, and think only of the sparing moments that followed. It isn’t fair to him, and it isn’t fair to the teammates that he subsidized with his larger salary at a time when those things weren’t commensurate with a fair wage, to the point that many non-starters worked offseason jobs.

The whole “they played against plumbers” thing hits two, related forks in the road: on the one hand, why was anybody paying to see them if that was the case; on the other, why were plumbers similarly underpaid if we couldn’t unclog our own faucets? In any case, I’d much rather watch Willis Reed do one than anybody do the other.

You likely know about the Willis Reed Game, which, given their performances, should’ve really been the Walt Frazier Game, but a title’s a title, and national TV coverage for the NBA was, in a word, lacking in 1970, so we remember most something that happened before the game even began, an image indelible in the minds of basketball fans: the captain sustains a thigh injury in Game 5 and, after missing Game 6, receives a boatload of cortisone before strolling out to face Wilt Chamberlain in Game 7. He hits his first two shots, his only points of the deciding game, and his teammates take it from there.

So long as you’re here: please do not use Reed’s passing as an excuse to shoehorn in a discussion about how tough players used to be. Playing through a torn thigh muscle in 1970 should not beget conversations about hand-checking in the nineties that happen on any NBA-centric television show every week anyway. Given the gulf in contracts between then and now, Reed’s act was one more of necessary bravery than, say, Kevin Durant returning to the Finals in 2019 only to immediately tear his Achilles. Players wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – do what Reed did because they don’t have to, and that is fine. We need to remember that players not having to put their bodies at so much risk is a good thing.

Even so, we recall Reed’s return with such fondness because it was tough. God knows Reed himself absolutely answered the call when necessary: both in his seminal book on the champion Knicks When The Garden Was Eden and in his obituary for Reed Tuesday in the New York Times, Harvey Araton outlines the fight that Reed had with, essentially, Rudy LaRusso – surely you remember him – and all the rest of the 1966-’67 Los Angeles Lakers.

Willis Reed also drove his teammates from Newark Airport to Westbury in the middle of the night, charming Jericho Turnpike parents along the way. The Grambling alum kept a home near there; he was a fisherman.

He taught those same teammates not to throw elbows in practice; that was reserved for the Pistons, the following night. He was a two-way dynamo on the court, but that included his southpaw jumper, an early example of stretching the floor. He was the first player with an All-Star, league and Finals MVP to his name in the same season. Deservedly, his was the first number retired in Knicks franchise history. He coached the Knicks and fell victim to Sonny Werblin and, later, a successful yet turbulent New Jersey Nets franchise.

But for the highest peaks of that team’s history and into retirement, he was the Knicks. He was the captain, Willis Reed.

[1] “Posting and toasting,” also the name of the best Knicks blog running, is one of his trademark phrases, a “barbecue chicken in the post” equivalent for the NBA on TNT crowd; Frazier is, by an unfathomable margin, my favorite color commentator ever to have existed, partly because #knickstape and my proximity to it but also because he is of the exact age to serve references that my extremely New York and also Turner Classic Movies-forward household would always appreciate. Also: have you seen this man’s suits?


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