It was Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, and nobody knew if Willis Reed would play. The center and captain of the New York Knicks had suffered a torn muscle in his right thigh during Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers and had not played in Game 6 when Wilt Chamberlain's 45 points and 27 rebounds enabled the Lakers to tie the series at 3-3.
When the teams took the floor for pre-game warmups, Reed was not with his New York teammates. He remained in the locker room, deep in the bowels of the building.
"I didn't want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play," Reed later recalled thinking, so he received painkiller injections in his thigh and limped to the court during warmups. The crowd already at Madison Square Garden erupted and the Lakers stopped warming up to stare at Reed.
"I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man," said Knicks guard Walt Frazier. "When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!"
Reed lined up against Chamberlain for the opening tap and scored the Knicks' first two baskets of the game. Reed finished with only four points and three rebounds but gave New York a noble half and his presence was more than enough to inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 victory and the franchise's first NBA Championship. He pestered Chamberlain into multiple missed shots while he was in the game, then flipped the keys to Frazier, whose 36 points and 19 assists wound up as one of the greatest and most overshadowed Finals stat lines ever.
Following the game in the winner's locker room, a moved Howard Cosell told Reed on national television, "You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer."