When you talk about some of the best big men in NBA history, the usual suspects are Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Hakeem, and Shaq, but there has been a vast number of great big men that don’t get mentioned enough or glorified the way they deserve. Especially the ones that played in the old-school eras. One of those guys is most definitely Willis Reed.
The Knicks legend spent his whole 11-year career in New York and became a true legend of the city. At 6’9”, Reed was an undersized but extremely gritty center that used his strength and soft left-hand touch to dominate. The most memorable moment of his career came in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, as Reed came out to play with a torn muscle in his right thigh, starting the game with two field goals before exiting the game. His individual contribution may have been small, but the mental push and inspiration would propel the Knicks to a victory and the championship.
That day alone immortalized Reed’s name in Knicks and NBA history, but let’s not forget about the 7x All-Star appearances, 2 rings, and one MVP award that completed his Hall-of-Fame career. If he hadn’t struggled with injuries, Reed would have had an even better and longer career, but that fighting mentality left a toll on his body.
Reed took on coaching and GM roles before becoming the senior vice president of basketball operations for the New Jersey Nets in his post-playing career. Willis helped the Nets build and contending team in the early 2000s, but they felt short two times in the Finals versus the Lakers and Spurs.
Precisely during those 2002 Finals versus the Lakers, Reed had the first-hand chance to see Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, dominating the Nets, who had no answer for “The Diesel.” As Reed was in the crowd for Game 2 in Staples Center, he got asked by sideline reporter Jim Gray for his opinion on Shaq and his game:
“Well, I think today he’s the greatest big man in the game; he’s unstoppable in terms of what he does. He’s got all the shots, all the moves, he plays power most of the time, but tonight he’s playing finesse and power.”Willis Reed, The Universe Galaxy
Gray would also ask for Reed’s opinion on Shaq’s ranking amongst the big men in NBA history and how he would stack up against the likes of Russel, Chamberlain, or Jabbar. Willis had a diplomatic answer:
“I don’t like to rate guys in different eras. I think Russell was great in his era. I think Chamberlain was great in his era, Jabbar in his era, and right now, Shaq dominates his era.”Willis Reed, The Universe Galaxy
It’s hard to compare all these greats, as the game was so different in each era they played, as Reed pointed out. All of these guys were unstoppable in their own way, as you really can’t go wrong with either one. One guy that really got snubbed out of this conversation is Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, who, in my mind, has a case of even being the #1 center of all-time. But like I said, it’s really a matter of preference, as all of those guys were amazing. Hopefully, in the future of the NBA, we will have such a number of great big men again.