In an era of basketball where big men dominated, Willis Reed was often overshadowed by some of the more prominent names in the NBA. Guys like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were often the talk of the league. But right behind them was Reed, the undersized center who almost always found a way to make big plays.
Reed used his physicality to make a career for himself in the NBA
Reed was one of the first true undersized centers to succeed in the NBA, and he forged a path for players to make careers for themselves long after he retired. “The Captain” used a tenacious style of play that often helped make up for his size. His bruising physical style of play helped him earn seven All-Star berths, an MVP award, and two NBA championships.
Reed was a rare breed in the NBA because he made an immediate impact from the first second he took the court. But Reed believes that his physical playstyle helped him adapt to the NBA quicker than most. When asked about the most significant difference between college ball and the NBA, Reed said he believes it’s the overall physical nature of the game:
“The one thing you have to remember is that you are going to be playing against veteran guys, you are going to be playing against guys who have 10 years of NBA experience and have played in many games. So the physicality of the game in terms of stamina and pure physical strength of the men you were playing against was going to be a lot different (than in college). That was the toughest part, you really had to make sure you got your rest.” Willis Reed, MSG Networks
Reed was by no means a small person, but his relatively undersized frame for the center position (he stood at 6’9) led to him falling to the second round of the 1964 NBA Draft, where the New York Knicks snatched him up. That turned out to be a great pick because Reed would earn seven straight All-Star berths to start his career.
Without Reed, the Knicks may not have won any NBA titles
On both sides of the ball, Reed’s desire to win led to him outperforming his opponent. He would regularly go to the hoop on offense for easy points, and his scoring totals usually became more impressive once the playoffs rolled around. Reed also was notorious for crashing the glass and was always one of the best rebounders in the league when he was playing.
Reed’s most noteworthy moment during his career was during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. After suffering a torn thigh muscle earlier in the series, it seemed unlikely Reed would play in Game 7. But he somehow ended up suiting up, and while his impact on the game was minimal, Reed inspired his Knicks team to go on and win their first title in franchise history. Phil Jackson still calls it one of the most incredible individual performances he ever saw, even though Reed only scored 4 points in that game.
Reed’s physical play style eventually cut his career short, but he got one last hoorah during the 1972-73 season when he helped the Knicks win their second NBA title, which also happened to be the last time the storied franchise won a championship. Even with his skills deteriorating and his injuries piling up, Reed used his rugged style of play to guide New York to a title. It’s a winning pedigree the franchise hasn’t seen since Reed retired.