Willis Reed and the Icing on the Cake

One of the greatest moments in NBA history remains Madison Square Garden rising to its feet to hail the entry of their ailing hero Willis Reed before Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. It’s worth reliving once again before moving on to the next paragraph. 

Sometimes lost in reliving this epic moment is Reed’s absolute dedication to game and team. That’s why it was inconceivable to those in Reed’s inner circle that he wouldn’t suit up. As the Knicks’ team captain, Reed felt obligated to grit his teeth for whatever excruciating needle jab the doctor had to offer to calm his angry knee. He had to get on the court—if only momentarily—to will his teammates to victory. 

Don’t believe me? Read this profile of the Knick captain that ran in Sport Magazine earlier that season. At the typewriter is the prolific Arnold Hano. It’s a lengthy article, but don’t worry. It’s a good Reed.

On January 6, against Baltimore, Willis Reed felt sluggish and could not get started in the game’s first two quarters. Then, in the second half, the Knicks holding a shaky lead, the referee called a foul on Reed, and then another, and then a technical, because Willis Reed did not like the first call and had become heated over the second, especially when the official barked, “Shut up!” Willis Reed is a very large man, but his dignity is even larger than his physical size. He had been insulted. So, he barked back and got the technical. 

Reed’s stomach churned and hurt. He had been taking Maalox to soothe it, and a week later he would have the stomach barium X-rayed to see if he had ulcers. (He didn’t.) Right now, though, he was exploding and taking it all out on the game in front of him. He drove on the basket, defended like a skilled octopus, cleared the boards, blocked shots, batted down passes, fed his teammates. He had himself a night—that second half—and the Knicks won another one from their favorite patsies, the Bullets.

Then he and the Knicks jetted out to the other coast, gaining three hours on the clock, but not fooling Willis Reed’s body a single minute’s worth. Along about the third quarter of the next night’s game, against the Warriors, his body went to sleep. Fatigue slugged him, slugged the whole Knick team, and they blew a 15-point lead. They fell three points behind before pulling it out in the last minutes. Dick Barnett and Dave DeBusschere each popped in a pair of baskets, and New York won by five. Reed sat out 11 minutes from part-way through the third quarter to well into the fourth quarter. His replacement, Nate Bowman, played a sound defensive game. But near the end, when the Knicks had regained the lead, coach Red Holzman sent Reed back in. After the game, a reporter wanted to know why.

Holzman laughed quietly. “Well, we still think quite a lot of Willis.” And he laughed some more. 

Now it was the next day. Two games in two nights, and no game this night, in San Francisco, the rain a gentle drizzle, the sky grey. Holzman had scheduled practice for 1:30, but he is not a sadist. The practice would be optional. Holzman meant it. You could sleep all day, or play cards, or do some girl-watching in the lobby of the Jack Tar Hotel. Bill Bradley  wouldn’t make the practice. Nor would DeBusschere. Barnett would go, but wanted to know when it was exactly 2 p.m., because he had better things to do. Walt Frazier would go. Frazier sometimes plays a game as if his mind is somewhere else, and last night had been such a night. Frazier would practice to get his mind back on basketball. 

The bodies were collected, Willis Reed’s among them, to motor off to the Civic Auditorium gym. When Holzman found out Reed would attend the practice, the coach frowned: “Doesn’t Reed know it’s optional?” Yes, Willis knew it was optional. A New York reporter said he would wire his paper: “REED PLAYS  OUT HIS OPTION,” just to see them all drop dead of heart attacks back in the big city, before the wire explained what was really meant.  

So Reed was there. Tired. Stomach hurting. Big toe just healed from an earlier injury. Pinky of left hand taped, dislocated, puffy fat. His whole body a raw ache, from the poundings beneath the boards. On a play the night before, he’d saved a ball from rolling out of bounds by racing across court, slapping the ball to a teammate, and then sailing his 245 pounds into the second row of seats. People got out of his way and Reed crashed into wood chairs and ended up on the floor, landing on his butt and left hand. The ball he’d saved had resulted in a Knick basket, which is balm for the spirit, but it doesn’t do much to take away the next day’s bruises. Or maybe it does. For there he was, uncomplaining. 

Willis Reed said there were two reasons he was attending the practice. He was going as a player and as the team captain. “I had a bad shooting night last night. Two out of 14, when I should shoot around 50 percent. If there is a practice and I don’t go, as the captain, why should the others go?” It has been said that Captain Willis Reed leads by example. Here was an example.   

But all the reasons were rationalizations, because there is a simpler reason for Willis Reed to attend a basketball practice in an unheated gym, with no hot water for the showers, after two nights of basketball and two nights in strange hotel rooms, sandwiched around a 3,000-mile flight across the country. 

Attending that practice confirms Willis Reed; it defines what he is. 

“Basketball excites me,” he would say to a visitor later that day. “Basketball is all that I am. I am so intent about basketball. I have to do well and produce. In a few years I will reach the end of my career, and I hope I’ll be able to say I did all I could do.”

That is what he said that afternoon. It is not unique, for Willis Reed. He told writer Warren Pack, five years ago, “Basketball is my life. I can’t get away from it.” He says that many ways. He told the writer Murray Janoff, in 1967, “Every game is a new challenge, and there is always something new to learn.” What Willis Reed learns is not simply how to play basketball better than he now plays it, which is about as well as a big man can play. What he learns more about is Willis Reed. “The ego is involved,” he says. “The game is a challenge and an experience. When a man accepts a challenge and sets out to prove himself, he can get an evaluation of himself.”

So through it all, one shining fact evolves. Basketball and Willis Reed are so entwined, the two are one. Basketball is all I am.  

You can prove it, over and over. After practice that afternoon, the Knicks still had a free night before them, in marvelous San Francisco. And what would Willis Reed do, the visitor wanted to know?   

“I think I’ll watch the Warriors play San Diego,” he said. “I haven’t seen Elvin Hayes except when I’ve played against him. And I like to watch Nate Thurmond.” So Willis Reed would huddle before a television set and watch the Warriors play the Rockets, down in San Diego. Whooppee!

Willis Reed has many outside business involvements these days, as do most successful athletes. He runs a summer basketball camp; he is buying into a clothing store down in Grambling, Louisiana; he invests in stocks and property. He enjoys all these businesses because, he says, he likes to be his own man. “I’ve played enough for bosses,” he says. “I like to work for myself.” So he is his own boss, in a half-dozen ventures, but it is this summer basketball camp in Cornwall-on-Hudson that he identifies with. Other athletes run instructional camps; they emblazon their names on the premises, show up on occasions, and slip off to enjoy themselves elsewhere. Reed is at the camp the whole three weeks, sleeping in the dorm with the kids, running every instructional session, attending every practice game. Basketball is all he is.

Once he had a wife and two kids. Now he has two kids and an ex-wife, down in Louisiana. It’s always been like that. Back in the tenth grade, when Willis Reed was the biggest kid in the high school and a basketball player, the girls began to flock about him. “It was no problem. When you’re a star athlete, there are always girls. But I just did not have a big interest in them.” Basketball, then, was beginning to be all that he later would be. 

And, just as he evaluates himself by an intentness to the game, so does he evaluate others. If a man does not give himself totally to the sport he is in, and does not develop himself to the absolute limit of his potential, Reed feels the man has deceived himself. A Puritan streak runs through Willis Reed, a mixture of sacrifice, the eschewing of enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake, a willingness to endure pain. The word he uses when a man violates these precepts is a moral word, sin-tinged. Shame. “It’s a shame,” he says, and the emphasis is his, “if you don’t gain the most of your potential. It’s a shame if a man doesn’t hustle. That hurts. It hurts when you see a guy who does not do what he can do.”

The dedication to basketball is so total, it hurts Reed when he discovers other people are not equally devoted. 

With such dedication, it can be easy to fasten on a goal. Willis Reed has a goal. Not simply to play the game but to play it well, play it superbly. That is his goal. Put another way, his goal is to win. He detests losing. He told Warren Pack, back when he was a rookie in the league and the Knicks lost more than they won. “I’ll never become accustomed to losing. I always feel as though I have failed my coach, my team, and the customers, when we lose.”

Today, now that the Knicks win far more than they lose, the goal and the words have changed but little. Now Reed wants not just to win, but to win it all. He told [reporter] Phil Pepe, “You always want to play on that winning team. The championship. That’s what I want. That’s what we all want. Until we get it, we haven’t done a thing.”

Winning obsesses him. “The big thing on my mind,” he said at the Jack Tar Hotel, as the winter rain dripped down the windowpanes, “is winning the championship.”

The possibility of a Knick title is no longer remote. The Knicks appear to have put it all together, or nearly all, tracing it back to midseason of last year, when they traded away center Walt Bellamy and got forward Dave DeBusschere. It meant Reed could return from his slightly uncomfortable spot as cornerman to his accustomed place at center. Not that Reed wouldn’t or couldn’t play forward. He played it well enough that he made the All-Star game all three seasons he was at that position. But he just happens to be better at center, where he’s also been an All-Star three years (including the MVP in the 1970 game).

Looking back at last winter’s trade, Reed says, “It put me back in the hole. It showed that management had confidence in me.” And, of course, with Reed the big thing is the challenge, the opportunity to prove himself. He is like another Puritan, that character in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, whom the Salem judges tortured by placing stones of great weight on his chest, crushing the man unless he would admit he’d been seduced by a witch. Finally they looked down and said, “Will you recant?” and the man looked back up and panted, “More weight!”

Reed loves it when they put the weight on him. “It made my responsibility to the team greater,” he says. “The saying is, ‘As the big man goes, so goes the team.’ If you go well, the team goes well. If the big man goes bad, the team goes bad.”

Reed has gone well, and the team has gone beautifully well. No team in NBA history went better than the Knicks early this season, who won 20 of their first 21 contests.

Reed is the big man, all right, but not all that tall by NBA standards. He is listed at 6-10 on the Knick roster, and is considered 6-10 through the league. But he isn’t 6-10. He will argue briefly if you push him about his height, and then will concede, “I am 6-9 ½.” But he isn’t that tall either, and he will finally admit he is 6-9. And he will tell you the reason he fibs by an inch. (I think he fibs by two inches.) “In college, I was asked how tall I was, and I said, ‘6-9,’ and the coach called me over and said, “Never say you’re 6-9. Always say you’re 6-10. In the pros, they pay a 6-10 man far more than they pay a 6-9 man.’ So now I’m 6-10.”

Even though he’s 6-8.

The physique, however, makes up for the missing inch(es). He weighs 245 (the same roster lists him at an effete 235, which is clearly to lull you into thinking he can be moved about by rival monsters who come to town; he can be moved—in a van). He stands beautifully erect, a man of great physical bearing, a man who grins often off the court, but who on court his darkly brooding. With his thick chest, the erect build, and burning mien, he must seem to opponents even bigger than he is. 

He knows the name of the Knick game is not scoring. It is keeping the other team from scoring. “For us to win,” he says, “I must blend into the defense.”

Some blender. Blend, crack, puree, crush, whip, pulverize. He plays his man very close, muscling him, pushing, hooking an arm inside his foe’s arm, blocking his man off the boards. He probably plays as close a defense as any big man in the league. He is always touching his man, feeling to find out where he is, establishing his strength as quickly as he can in the time-honored test of pitting muscle against muscle. When he plants his body in a defensive stance, it is not likely you will budge him. Men bounce off Willis Reed, forced to change directions. It is the purpose of it all. Nineteen times in the team’s first 45 games, the Knicks held their rivals to fewer than 100 points.     

Explains Reed: “We go out and outplay the offense. The offense works basic patterns. Do we go along passively? No. We make them do something else, or we make them work harder to do what they set out to do.” So men are forced to move away from the middle and Willis Reed. But Willis does not merely stand guard. He is wonderfully agile, a darting body beneath the boards, leaving his man for an instant to force a driving man to veer off, flitting back to pick up his man before the feed pass arrives. His hands are moving, up high, blocking shots, screening the basket from the offensive team. He further explains: “You keep your man from going to the middle. When one of your own men is out of position, you pick up the loose man. As good as offensive-team players are these days, you can’t sit back and figure your own offensive players will outscore the other fellows. You have to go out and limit the other team’s offense.”

Mind you, we are talking within the law. Reed plays a muscular game, yes, very hard, very close. But what you see when Willis Reed plays defense is vast skill serving as a cover for the game’s basic savagery. The name of the game. 

Another name of the game his teamwork. Blending in, as Willis Reed puts it. You cannot do it all alone. When you ask Reed to explain the Knick success story, he begins with last season’s trade, and follows with the “general maturity of the players, and their talent.” He likes his teammates. “It is a great group of fellows, easy to get along with. Everybody does his job, no prima donnas. We have no superstar philosophy. Nobody get special favors, special concessions, while somebody else is being neglected. Every player on our team does a job every night.”

Reed assesses the starting lineup like this: 

“Frazier: Walt is the quarterback. He sets up the plays. He is a good ballhandler.

“Barnett: Basically our old man of the sea. The elder statesman. Very likeable. He brings a lot of knowledge to the game. A good shooter.

“Bradley: He has come a long way. He had to mature fast, and he did. He had to improve the most, and he did. He is probably our best shooter. If we need a basket, we often set up a special play to get him the ball.

“DeBusschere: Dave does the dirty work. He is a remarkable man. He goes to the board. He is hardnosed. He plays against the other team’s best forward. He gives 101 percent effort all the time.”

Reed thinks the whole organization is remarkable. He says of the coach, Red Holzman: “Red is very likable. This is important for a player. You will go further, you will take more cursing out from a coach you like. He is a sound coach. He makes us think defense.” Reed says Eddie Donovan is the best general manager in the league—”fair, honest, concerned. He does nothing for me he wouldn’t do for (reserve guard) Mike Riordan or for a rookie.”

Nor is it a case of Reed handing out only bouquets. He also says of Walt Frazier, “Sometimes I have to pick him up with chatter when we’re warming up before the game. It’s necessary that Walt feel right. Some nights he is not as alert as on other nights; he is not passing the ball; he is missing the open man. So, I talk to him.”

So that is how Reed sees his teammates, his coach, his general manager. How do they see him?

Dick Barnett says of Reed: “He comes to play every night. He is in a class by himself as a hard worker. For his size, he has great agility and a beautiful outside touch. It is the combination of these things that make him a great player, but the biggest thing is he puts out every night.”

Bill Bradley is not much for cliches. When you pass on Barnett’s quote—”he puts out every night”—Bradley’s face get stiff and he says coldly, “We all put out every night.” Or when it is suggested, as Frazier says, that Reed uses his muscle and desire underneath to make up for his lack of height, Bradley shakes his head. He thinks it is an essential part of Reed, an innate quality within the man. Bradley is more interested in the inner Reed. “He is a really fine person. He has dignity.”

Reed helps the young players, and the young players appreciate it. Reed makes it a habit to room with a rookie each year. Last season it was pale, blond Bill Hosket, out of Ohio State. Hosket calls Reed “Willie,” not “Willis,” a subtle sign of their closeness.

Reed bangs Bob Rule

So that is the love affair between Willis Reed and his fellow Knicks. But you needn’t love Reed to appreciate him. The players in the NBA voted him the second Most Valuable Player in the league last season, behind Baltimore rookie Wes Unseld; the reason they voted Unseld No. 1 is that the Bullets came from last place to first place, with Unseld. Good enough. This year, if the Knicks hold up, Reed should be the obvious choice. 

He’ll have the credentials, just as he’s always had them in the pros. He is in the top 20 in scoring every season, and in the top ten in rebounding. Through this season’s first 45 games, he was averaging 14 rebounds and 23 points. In his rookie year, he set a Knicks season rebounding record, breaking Harry Gallatin’s old mark, and by next year he should pass Carl Braun’s all-time Knick scoring total of 10,449. There are some who insist no big man in the game shoots as well from the outside; last year he shot 52.1 percent. In the clutch, he gets better. Reed’s field-goal percentage in playoff competition is the highest in NBA history—52.4 to Wilt Chamberlain’s 52.0. In addition to the offense, he is also, of course, the team’s defensive hub. 

Red Holzman points to Reed’s intelligence as his greatest attribute; general manager Eddie Donovan thinks hustle is the characteristic that marks the man. Put them together—brains and sweat—and you get a nice blend. Dick McGuire, coaching the Knicks back in 1966, called Reed “the most consistent player we have. Willis has a tremendous attitude. He always wants to win so badly.”

Willis Reed is finally closing in on his goal. Winning a championship. And none too soon. He is 27 years old now, entering his physical prime, six good seasons behind him. He has lived through 5 broken noses, the removal of bone spurs from his instep, a badly torn ankle, plus the usual bruises basketball hands out free of charge. He has withstood those ills and has come a long, long way, and he probably will keep on coming. With the exception of Lew Alcindor, a growing nemesis in the life of Reed, no big man in the game today is likely to improve so much in the next few years. Reed Is philosophic about the future. He will say, “Right now, someplace in this country, maybe in high school, maybe in college, there’s a boy who is coming up who is going to be bigger than me and better than me and he’s going to take my job away from me. I know it. It makes sense. So I know I’ll have to call it quits someday.” But he also knows it is not likely to happen for many years. 

The distance Reed has come, physically and metaphysically, is vast. Willis Reed Jr. was born on June 25, 1942, the only child to Willis and Inell Reed, in the town of Hico, Louisiana, a community so tiny my atlas does not recognize it. When the family moved up to Bernice, a town of 1,100 a few miles below the Arkansas border, Reed pointed out the difference. “Bernice,” he told Phil Pepe, “is two red lights long. Hico has no red lights, just a couple of stop signs.”   

Reed’s father was a warehouse company foreman. The boy worked early—hauling hay, picking cotton, picking watermelons, mowing lawns. But he what mainly did when he was very young was fight. 

“When I was a kid, if anything would happen at all, I would fight it out,” he says. “I got to enjoy fighting. I had to fight the first day of school. From the first grade through the third grade, I was fighting all the time. The trouble was, after a while, my father would whip me if I had a fight. So getting into a fight and winning didn’t do me any good. Finally, it sank in. I figured it was better not to fight at all.” 

Still, a fight in his junior year of high school very nearly got him expelled. “That did it,” says Reed today. Expulsion would have been a blot. He was a good student. He had college recruiters panting over his size and aptitude. He straightened out. But an angry core has remained; later, in the pros, it would burst out in one memorable evening. 

Sports, not fighting, was the major part of his youth. By the ninth grade, he was the tallest boy in high school. He played basketball, but he was awkward, lacking coordination, unable to handle the ball well. His one claim to fame then was dunking. 

“Dunking,” recalls Reed, “was considered phenomenal then. One day a couple of guys were practicing on an outdoor court, trying to dunk, when I came along. They couldn’t do it. They asked me to show them how. First, I said, “No, no.” But they kept after me. Finally, I said, ‘Okay.” I dunked the ball. Just then the high school coach walked over. He stood there, staring at me, disgusted. ‘Look at him,’ the coach said. ‘There he is, the big clumsy kid, dunking, when he can’t even catch a ball.’ He bawled me out, right in the open. He called me a showoff. He was right.”

The incident fired up Reed. He began to jump rope to improve his coordination. He practiced shooting for hours, aiming at a basket in the family backyard when he wasn’t on a regulation court. He worked. Soon he was an all-state basketball player. 

He also became all-state end on the football team. A two-sport standout with better-than-average grades, he attracted scholarship offers from as far off as the University of Nebraska and Loyola of Chicago, besides local powerhouses Southern U. and Grambling. He chose Grambling, where he played basketball only. He played in the Pan American Games in his sophomore year, traveling through South America. He met and married Geraldine Oliver, on campus at Grambling, and in 1964 the Knicks drafted him in the second round. Reed’s pride was wounded, his anger piqued. He’d expected to be some team’s first draft choice. “I didn’t believe there were eight better players in the country than me.”

He set out to prove it. His first day in the Knicks’ camp, he asked for a copy of the rule book. He wanted to read it. Today when an official warns the Knicks about using a zone defense, Reed will sidle over to the official and say quietly, “The rules say you don’t have to be covering your man; you just have to be covering a man. Stallworth was within six feet of a Warrior.”

Reed’s first season, the rules digested, he beat out Luke Jackson as rookie of the year, which gave him satisfaction because Jackson had been a first-round choice. Reed also beat out teammate Jim (Bad News) Barnes, who’d been the Knicks’ first choice. 

So his career started, a big, burly young man playing a very tough center on a losing club and rising above the team’s dismal record. His freshman season he was seventh in the league in scoring and fifth in rebounds. He also fouled out in 14 games.

The second season, he suffered the most serious physical disability of his career. Less serious ills, such as broken noses, have become part of Reed’s life. The most recent of his five breaks, last season, came about when Reed’s nose ran into Bob Rule. That’s how the official saw it. Reed was charged with an offensive foul. But no matter. A nose is a nose is a nose. You sniff back the blood and keep playing. More seriously, in Reed’s second year, an instep began to bother him. Soon the pain became unbearable. If the team played a game one night and then didn’t play for three or four nights, Reed could get by. But if the games came piggy-back style—as they so often do in the NBA—Reed would have to sit out one or two, or else play just a few minutes. He got into 76 of the 82 games that season, but he played 500 fewer minutes than he had as a rookie. When the season ended, surgeons removed what they thought was the culprit, a bone spur on his instep, which they knew all along was there. Presto! A second spur popped out from under the first, embedded in the nerves of the foot. How he’d played 76 games and 2,537 minutes remains a minor medical miracle. But that is Willis Reed. 

That same season, Walt Bellamy came over from Baltimore, and Reed moved to the corner. “I felt leery at first,” Reed says today. He was also challenged, and he made good. But he never became comfortable as a cornerman, and Dick McGuire, when he took over from Harry Gallatin, toyed for a while with the notion of trading Reed.     

By the following season, however, McGuire was glad he hadn’t. Reed was over his initial awkwardness at the new spot and felt physically frisky again. He felt so frisky, in fact, that on opening night at home in 1966, he flattened the whole Los Angeles Laker team. It was triggered by the matching between Reed and the Lakers’ tough Rudy LaRusso. They had been exchanging funny bones all evening, when LaRusso must have thought the last one was no joke, because suddenly he took a swipe at Reed. Another Laker tried to hold back Willis and grabbed his arms, and LaRusso couldn’t stop from unloading a second punch before realizing Reed was defenseless. Reed, naturally, objected. Strenuously. He flung off the arms that pinned him, belted LaRusso a couple on the chops, and turned around and went looking for more Lakers. He found them—on the Laker bench. As men got up to challenge Reed, he knocked them down. Darrell Imhoff, 6-10 himself, came up, and Reed flattened big Darrall. Rookie John Block, a mere 6-9, got his nose in the way of Reed’s fist, and, for at least once in his life, Reed knew how it felt to break a nose that wasn’t his own. 

Finally, with no one left to beat up, Reed cooled off. He and LaRusso were kicked out of the game. Since then, Willis has behaved reasonably well. This season, in a game against Cincinnati, a similar incident occurred. The Royals’ Johnny Green slipped by his man and drove on the basket. As Reed hurried forward to attempt to block the shot, young Luther Rackley seized Reed from behind. Reed turned around and broke another nose. 

Still, these are isolated events in the 450-game career of Willis Reed, a handful of explosive seconds in the 17,000 minutes he has played in the pros. Reed plays tough, and through his first five years, he has fouled out 55 times. But he isn’t a dirty player, and he is handling his anger better than he used to. He fouled out seven times last year and only once through the first half of this season. 

There are reasons for cooling off. “Becoming captain has helped me handle my anger,” he says. “Once you get to be captain, you become a key man. People look at you. You can’t expect players to react other than the way I react. Before I was made captain, I got more technical fouls. Now I feel I must set an example, show that I have maturity.”

Besides, he is too valuable to be permitted to foul out early. “In the old days,” he says, “the rule was—keep playing.” Eddie Donovan used to tell Reed, “You can’t change your game because of fouls. Go out there and play the way you should and let the fouls take care of themselves.”

Today Red Holzman lifts Reed if he starts to collect too many fouls too early. Holzman Inserts Bowman and Reed cools it on the bench; then, when it counts, the big man goes in and resumes his tight game. 

Experience helps. “Now if I see a play in the second quarter where I might stop at basket by committing a foul, I probably will decide to give up the basket and not foul. We can get that basket back later. But in the third or fourth quarter, if I have to, I’ll foul to save a basket.”

Reed jostling with Jabbar, err, Alcindor

Reed has matured, and now yields little to any big man around. With one ever-growing exception. Lew Alcindor Is threatening to take Willis Reed apart. The first time the two men met, Reed’s muscle and experience wore down the young Milwaukee giant. Reed outscored Alcindor, 35 to 17, and the Knicks beat the Bucks by 16 points. 

Since then it’s been murder, and Reed has been the victim. Head to head, Alcindor has outscored Reed, 25-16, 26-7, 36-11, and 41-16. That’s a 60-point bulge Alcindor has given the Bucks in their first five contests against the Knicks. Alcindor uses his height to go over Reed; he has moves that appear at least as quick as Reed’s. Reed has attempted to muscle the lean youngster, but all it does is get him in foul trouble. Reed has begun to fret. He told writer Phil Elderkin, “Lew is smart, and he’s tough. I lost one headache when Bill Russell retired, and now I’ve got another. At this point, I’d rather keep Russell. Bill may have been quick as a cat, but at least I didn’t have to look up to him. I’d like to measure Alcindor. In sneakers, I’ll bet he goes 7-3. 

To which Alcindor has said merrily, “I think Willis is jealous of my tall.”

Surely envious. It’s natural. Reed, at 6-9, is giving away at least five inches to Alcindor. It is as if you pitted Willis Reed at center against Earl Monroe. 

Still, Reed does not totally despair. He is not sure Alcindor is all that good, yet. “He does not have the moves of Nate Thurmond,” Reed says. And Reed was able to play Thurmond even. Reed also knows that while Alcindor may have outscored him four times in five games, the Knicks beat the Bucks four times in the five games, and they pay off in wins [for Reed]. The real questions is: How much longer can the Knicks keep beating the Bucks? This is one more challenge to Reed, one which he says, with that quick and engaging grin, “I’d just as soon it never occurred.”

Perhaps Reed will find he can tire Alcindor in the late stages of a game and of a season. Perhaps, with Nate Bowman in reserve, Reed can risk applying more pressure on the newest tallest kid on the block. Do not count Reed out. He likes it when they put on more weight.   

Meanwhile, life grinds on. When Reed is not playing basketball, he has other business interests to supplement a $50,000-plus yearly salary that will surely rise mightily before next season begins. As a black athlete, Reed has not gathered much of the endorsement money that is around, but he has begun to get some of it. Recently, the Knicks made a Vitalis commercial that may be shown around for a long time. The Knick starting team is introduced, and in his first appearance as a starter, young Don May comes out. Naturally, all the Knicks shake hands with each other as they reach center floor. After Reed shakes hands with young May, he stares down at his own hand, and then at May’s shiny hair. May’s hand, naturally, is gooey. Reed turns his commanding presence, his regal dignity, his glowering dark countenance on the naïve youngster who would dare to put greasy kid’s stuff on his hands and hair and thereby corrupt an entire team. Captain Reed points the abashed boy back to the bench. 

But, the important moments of Reed’s life do not involve spoofing over hair dressing. They occur on the floor these nights, and they bring him up against that elusive goal: Winning a title. When the current season was a quarter gone, people were handing the Knicks the flag, handing Reed the Podoloff Cup as the league’s MVP, and figuring the rest of the way would be a long yawn. But teams do not keep up 20-and-1 starts. Other teams jell. A guy like Jerry West decides he can carry a whole club. 

Or a kid like Alcindor begins to learn his way around the league and an expansion team like the Bucks catches the fever. Around midseason, the Bucks caught and passed Baltimore to take over second place in the East, and even though the Knicks kept winning two out of every three, Milwaukee was doing better than that, closing the gap. It began to look like the National League Eastern Division race all over again—this time the Knicks were the Cubs and the Bucks were the Mets, and the unlikely club was beginning to run up the back of the favorite. 

Pressure builds. Tensions mount. Stomachs ache. Reed spoons down Maalox and then checks into a hospital to track down the source of his discomfort. Nothing is easy. It has begun to dig into Reed. He tells you so. 

“The big thing on my mind is winning a championship,” he says. Winning obsesses him. He muses aloud, wondering whether it doesn’t obsess everyone. “Take guys like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. What else do Baylor and West need? They have everything. They’ve done everything. They have been the best. But they have never won a championship. I often wonder how they will feel years from now, if they never won a championship. They have everything, but they don’t have the icing on the cake.”

His mind wrestles with relative values. “Sometimes I wonder which is more important—to have a great career without a championship, or a not-so-great career but be able to say, later on, ‘I was on a championship team.’”

He uses former teammate Emmette Bryant as an example of the latter. “Emmette played with us, and then management let him go in the expansion draft. He was picked up by Phoenix, but Phoenix couldn’t or wouldn’t pay him the salary he wanted, so he was traded to Boston, and the next thing you know, drifting along like that, he’s on a championship team.”

Reed is concerned by the thought, for himself. He knows playoffs are tricky affairs. Last year, a fourth-place club won it all. It can happen again. Lesser teams beat the better teams. Or, lesser teams in the playoffs become better teams. The whole problem seemed to weigh on Reed, so the visitor in the San Francisco hotel room this grey afternoon offered the thought: “Emmette Bryant has the icing, but he doesn’t have the cake. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, they have the cake. Years from now, you’ll find that the cake will mean more—inside—than the icing”

But Willis Reed sat and smiled and shook his head. “The cake and the icing,” he said softly. 

That is what Willis Reed wants. Everything. It’s a challenge. You know how Willis Reed eats up challenges. One cake, with icing, coming up. 

One thought on “Willis Reed and the Icing on the Cake

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