Willis Reed Game 7: The Gutsiest NBA Performance Ever?

The date was May 8, 1970: It was game 7 of the NBA Finals, between the LA Lakers and the New York Knicks. I was eight years old, and my brother was eleven. Both of us being Knicks and Willis Reed fans, this would soon become a game we could never forget.

Back in game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Willis Reed went down with a horrible leg injury, forcing him to miss game 6. With the series on the line, this episode of Yesterday’s Sports explains how Willis Reed and his teammates responded in Game 7.

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Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.  He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training.

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New York Knicks Before the 1970 Season

Up until the 1969–1970 season, the Knicks had never won an NBA Championship. Their best season up to that point had been the 1952–1953 season when they compiled a 47–23 regular-season record, followed by a 5–1 record in the playoffs. They played the Lakers (then of Minneapolis) for the NBA Championship but lost four games to 1.

In 1968/69, they complied with a 54–28 regular-season record. New York followed that with a four-game sweep over the Baltimore Bullets in the first round of the playoffs. But they lost to the Boston Celtics in the second round, four games to 2.

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The 1970 Squad

In only his second full year as their coach, Red Holzman led them to their best regular-season yet with a 60–22 record and was named coach of the year. They had a solid starting lineup that included four future Hall of Famers.

They had Dick Barnett and Walt “Clyde” Frazier at the guard positions. Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere were the two forwards. And last but not least was league MVP, Willis Reed, at Center. While Frazier may have been the most athletically gifted of the bunch, the leader of the team was unquestionably Willis Reed.

First Round - Baltimore Bullets

They faced a very talented Baltimore Bullets team in the first round of the playoffs. The Bullets had star Wes Unseld at Center. Unseld was not as tall as most NBA centers, standing 6’7″, but he weighed in at about 250 Lbs., which was much heavier than most NBA centers of the day. In 1968/69, he became only the second player in NBA history to win both the rookie of the year award and the MVP award.

The Bullets lineup also featured future Hall of Famer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe at guard. They were a formidable opponent, and it was a tough series, but the Knicks prevailed in seven games, winning four games to 3.

Second Round - Milwaukee Bucks

Next up was the Milwaukee Bucks, led by their very tall and talented Center Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar went on to become one of the greatest players in NBA history–but this was his first season as an NBA player, and he was not able to overcome the strength and experience of Willis Reed. The Knicks won the series with ease, four games to 1.

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    1970 NBA Finals - Los Angeles Lakers

    Now it was time to face the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title. The Lakers were one of the most successful teams in basketball. They had won the title five times in six years from 1949 to 1954. Their success continued during the 1960s, appearing in the NBA Championship seven times in eleven years from 1959 to 1969). But as impressive as that statistic is, they also lost all seven times. To make matters worse, all seven of those losses were to the same team– the Boston Celtics.

    But this year they were playing the Knicks, not the Celtics. Even though they had struggled during the regular season, posting a very average 46–36 record, they had just won seven playoff games in a row. They had three of the all-time greatest players on their team, with Elgin Baylor at forward, Jerry West at guard, and the 7’1″ 275 pound Wilt Chamberlin at Center.  They felt confident that their winning streak would continue against the less experienced Knicks.

    In the first game, Willis Reed scored 37 points and lifted the Knicks to a hard-fought victory. But the Lakers answered quickly, taking the second game by a score of 105–103. The Knicks appeared to have the win in game 3 when Dave DeBusschere sunk a shot with just 3 seconds left to give the Knicks a 102–100 lead. However, winning in the finals is never easy, and the game was sent into overtime when Jerry West sunk a shot at the buzzer from 60 FEET OUT!! The Knicks, however, prevailed in overtime, winning 111–108. The Lakers evened the series in game four with a 121–115 victory in another overtime game.

    Willis Reed Injury - Game 5

    The Knicks won game five 107–100, but it was a costly victory, as team captain Willis Reed had to leave the game with a severely torn muscle in his right thigh. Needing just one more win to clinch their first-ever NBA championship, it looked like they were going to have to do it without their starting Center.

    Playing without Reed in game six, the Knicks hardly had a chance. Wilt Chamberlain scored 45 points and grabbed 27 rebounds as the Lakers coasted to a 135–113 victory. It was hard to believe game seven would be any different. With Reed out, there was no one to stop Wilt Chamberlain from dominating the game, just as he had done in game six.

    Team doctors worked around the clock trying to get Reed ready for the game, but his thigh was not responding to treatments. Reed insisted he would play, even if he had to crawl out onto the court. While no one could question Reed’s courage and commitment to the team, it was becoming more evident that the Knicks were going to have to find a way to win without their captain.

    Game 7 - At Madison Square Garden

    As both teams took their warmup shots, the burning question in everyone’s mind was, Will Willis Reed attempt to play? There was an awkward silence from the ordinarily rowdy New York fans, as both teams kept looking towards the entrance from the Knicks locker room. Will he show up? The suspense was terrible.

    Suddenly, there was a roar from the crowd as Willis Reed limped out onto the court. The entire Lakers team, including Wilt Chamberlin, turned to see what was happening. Reed signaled to his teammates for the ball. He took his first warmup shot from outside the foul line. 

    Swish! The crowd erupted. He took another shot. 

    Swish! The fans went wild. All the other players were just watching now. You could sense the Lakers were no longer as confident as they had been moments ago. Willis was going to play, and nothing was going to stop him.

    It didn’t take long for Reed to show he meant business. He scored the first four points of the game, and the ovation he received from the crowd was deafening. Despite the hot start, Wilis didn’t score again for the rest of the game. But he didn’t need to. Willis had not only fired up the fans but his teammates as well.

    With Reed playing solid defense against Chamberlin, holding him to 21 points, his teammates did the rest. Walt Frazier had 36 points and 19 assists. The Knicks built up a 24 point lead and then coasted to a 113–99 victory. Reed was named MVP of the series.

    It was one of the gutsiest performances by an athlete I have ever witnessed.

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