Willis Reed decided to play despite the injury
Throughout his legendary NBA career, Phil Jackson has seen it all. As a player and a coach, Jackson accumulated 13 NBA championships in his resume and was a part of several historic dynasties in the NBA. Most NBA fans know him as the head coach for the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, but when he was a player in the '60s and the '70s, Jackson was a member of the New York Knicks who had a few remarkable runs in the NBA Finals.
In his book Eleven Rings: Soul of Success, Jackson talks about one of the most astonishing individual performances from his teammate and one of the best centers of that era Willis Reed. It was Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Lakers, and Willis Reed showed what true champions were made of when he played despite the injury that caused him to miss Games 5 and 6 of the series. He was questionable to return for game 7 but, with the help of the doctors and his desire to win the championship, Reed came out in the starting lineup.
An interesting detail about this story is that Phil Jackson was out of the rotation that entire season with a back injury, so he viewed everything from the side in a role of a team photographer.
"The big question was whether Willis would be able to return for game 7 in Madison Square Garden. The doctors kept us in the dark until the last minute. Willis couldn't flex his leg because of the muscle tear, and jumping was out of the question, but he dressed up for the game and took a few warm-up shots before retreating to the trainer's room for more treatments. I followed with my camera and took a great shot of him being injected in the hip with a giant shot of Carbocaine, but Red refused to let me publish it because he said that would be unfair to the press photographers, who had been denied access to the room."
The game was over before it even started
As soon as Willis came out dressed for the game, even though everyone believed he wouldn't, the entire arena absolutely exploded in joy, and ovations started. On the other hand, the Lakers were confused as they hoped Reed wouldn't play. Phil Jackson immediately saw the shock on their faces and knew there was no way they were going to win this game with the way their body language changed after they saw Reed come out ready to play.
"As the game was about to start, Willis hobbled down the center aisle and onto the court, and the crowd went berserk. Future broadcaster Steve Albert, who was the honorary ball boy for the game, said he was looking at the Lakers when Willis appeared on the floor and "they all, to a man, turned around and stopped shooting and looked at Willis. And their jaws dropped. The game was over before it started."
Willis only scored 4 points to go along with 3 rebounds in 27 minutes of action to make the whole performance even more epic. Not an impressive stat line at all, but his 4 points were essential since it was the first 4 points scored by the Knicks, and the entire crowd went absolutely insane. His teammates were also highly motivated, seeing their best player lead them despite the injury. However, Walt Fraizer was the one that had a monster performance that got overlooked by everyone simply because Reed did the unthinkable that game.
"Frazier moved the ball up the court at the start of the game and hit Willis near the basket, and he knocked in a short jump shot. Then he scored again the next time up the floor, and all of a sudden, the Knicks jumped out to a 7–2 lead, which usually doesn't mean much in the NBA, but in this case, it did. Willis's commanding presence in the early going knocked the Lakers off their game, and they never recovered."
Jackson had a bitter-sweet feeling after the win
Jackson remembers the initial excitement he felt because this was his first NBA championship; however, it was also bitter-sweet because he couldn't participate and help his teammates. That season served as a great learning experience for Jackson as he observed and understood what he needed to work on to help his team repeat the same success in the future, which they did when they won another championship in 1973.
"The Knicks won 113–99 and we all became celebrities overnight. It was a bitter-sweet victory for me, however. I was grateful that my teammates voted me a full share of the playoff earnings and my first championship ring. But once the champagne stopped flowing, I felt guilty about not having been able to contribute more to the championship push."
The Zen Master had the opportunity to witness numerous great performances from players such as Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, and others during his career, but this one by Willis Reed is, in his mind, epitomized as one of the greatest. Reed showed what it means to be a true leader and not let his teammates and the entire city down despite being injured. His performance in that game wasn't spectacular by any means in terms of actual efficiency, but for the most part, it helped motivate his teammates and gave them much-needed confidence they could beat the Lakers, who were the clear favorites to win the game before the tip-off. As soon as Willis came out, the energy in the arena changed, and Jackson realized there are multiple ways a player can make an impact without it being shown in the stat sheet at the end of the game.