Willis Reed: Managing The Knicks’ Special Agony, 1978

[Most people remember that Knicks’ legend Bill Bradley retired from basketball in the mid-1970s for a career in politics. Many also remember Dave DeBusschere and his post-career run as a front-office executive in the ABA and later with the Knicks. Fewer recall that Knicks’ great Willis Reed also spent many years as an NBA executive, stepping down most recently as vice president of basketball operations for the then-New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) in 2007.

Before entering the executive suite, though, Reed tried his hand at pro and college coaching. In fact, Reed got his start as a coach in the spring of 1977, replacing the spent Red Holzman as the head honcho of the New York Knicks. Reed lasted exactly one NBA season and 14 games into the next. That’s when the humorless powers that ran Madison Square Garden handed one of the all-time classiest of NBA greats his pink slip. Reed’s unlikely replacement: a suddenly rejuvenated Red Holzman. 

As Dick Young, the great New York Daily News scribe, memorialized Reed’s fateful final departure from the employ of Madison Square Garden:

The Knick fan bought a Garden program from the hawker for $2, opened it to the table of contents, and saw something that interested him. “Reed’s Doubts Are Gone, page 51,” it said. He flipped to page 51. Nothing. In no magazine at Madison Square Garden can you find a page 51. Willis Reed has been declared a non-person. Not only is the story gone, Willis Reed is gone.

That’s life. If nothing succeeds like success, nothing fails like failure. The Knicks were losing. Not only were they losing, but Willis Reed was making it sound as though the front offices was to blame. You can make cracks about your bosses when you’re winning and get away with it, but you had better keep winning.

In this article, published in the magazine All-Star Sports Basketball Issue, 1978-79, writer Emmett Farrell describes the chaos called the new Knicks that Coach Reed inherited and hints at the end that “The Captain” might not be calling the shots for long. The article is an interesting replay of a troubled time in Knicks’ history and shows just how high stakes and cut-throat it was back then to call yourself head coach of the New York Knickerbockers.]

“If” Wills Reed said wistfully, “I had a Dave DeBusschere . . .”

The words trailed off. The New York Knicks coach was looking back at his first year as coach in the National Basketball Association. He might have added, “If I had a Willis Reed . . . a Bill Bradley . . . a Jerry Lucas . . . a young Walt Frazier. 

Ah, the glory days of the Knicks when they won two NBA titles in four seasons . . . when Madison Square Garden was filled to 19,000-plus for each game . . . when the Knicks played defense . . . and when they played as a collective unit. 

Those “old days,” as Reed calls them, weren’t too long ago. But since then, salaries have escalated and so have players’ egos, while NBA play has deteriorated generally as a run-and-shoot, no-defense game. The Knicks have fallen into that rut. The result was a frustrating season in 1977-78.

They did make the playoffs (doesn’t everybody) with a 43-39 record. Beat Cleveland in the first round  before being swept by Philadelphia, probably the best team in the league, although it, too, was later eliminated in postseason play. 

The 1977-78 season was an especially tough one for Reed, who was an exceptional clutch player and gutty performer. In the glory days, he played defense, got his points, and held his own, many times outplaying bigger centers like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Nate Thurmond. 

Big things were expected of last season’s Knicks, who had such superstars as Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Earl Monroe, and Walt Frazier. But Frazier, once held in the same esteem that New York’s fans had for Joe Namath and Tom Seaver, had lost a step. His defensive work no longer was being compared to someone who could steal hubcaps off a speeding car. By dealing Clyde to Cleveland, the Knicks obtained a younger guard, Jim Cleamons. 

The Knicks of last season also had journeyman Butch Beard; Phil Jackson (a defensive reserve standout in the glory days) who made the squad last year because he’s white and/or is Reed’s old buddy; and Jim McMillian, once a stickout at Buffalo and Los Angeles, but a flop in New York. Put these together with promising Lonnie Shelton and three rookies—Ray Williams, a guard and No. 1 draft choice, Toby Knight, and Glenn Gondrezick. 

These were the players Reed had to manipulate, coddle, and deal with through his first experience as a coach, taking over for Red Holzman, the coach of the glory Knick days—and whom many Knicks of 1976-77 quit on.

Just as he did as a player, Reed threw himself wholeheartedly into the job. He watched films of the previous year’s games and worked so he would land the right type of players in the college draft.

But he soon knew that he didn’t have one key player that he needed—a big center who could play defense. He spoke out about it, much to the chagrin of Gulf & Western, the conglomerate which owns Madison Square Garden. Early in the season after some inconsistent outings, Reed said, “I don’t care what anybody says. No team can win in the NBA today without a big center. Now you add a guy like Bill Walton, and you have a different club right off the bat. Man, now he comes to play, and he enjoys every minute of it. What I have are quarterhorses trying to run a thoroughbred’s race.”

Reed (middle) and Holzman (right) in a happier time.

Phil Jackson, explaining Reed’s first-year difficulties, said, “The hardest thing for Willis is that all he can do now is talk. He used to lead by example. He would go out there and give 100 percent, and that would be enough. He is still giving his 100 percent, but it’s verbal, and it’s not getting through, and it is eating him up.”

Reed’s troubles grew as the season progressed. He was especially tough on the referees, blasting them as incompetent on numerous occasions and blaming them for his team’s losses. He drew stiff fines and a tongue-lashing from NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien.

He also was rapped for his coaching ability. It was said he used his three rookies too liberally and didn’t know when to substitute. Critics said he played McAdoo too much, and he didn’t know how to control the brooding Haywood. He also doesn’t know when to call timeouts, his knockers said.

As for his use of the rookies, general manager Eddie Donovan offers this defense of Reed: “I think Willis lost games early in the year because he used them. But because of that, he won games down the stretch because of those kids. In my opinion, he’s done a helluva job. Over an 82-game season, you get blown out sometimes—and blow out a few teams yourself. It comes down to the four or five games in the season where you make a real difference. If we win four more, we finish 47-35, and he’s a genius.”

Of the critical decision to unload Frazier, Donovan said the reason was to make room for Williams, the rookie playmaker of the future. It would give Williams time to develop, which couldn’t have happened had Clyde remained.

Reed explained, “With Frazier maybe we would have been a better ballclub last year. But what about the next year and the year after that? Williams is going to be a great playmaker. I think he’s way ahead of Clyde as a freshman.”

One of the major disappointments has been Haywood. Last season was his eighth in the league, the last three with New York. His glory days came with Seattle, where he once averaged 29 points. His production has dropped steadily to the point where it is questioned whether he has the ability to be a starting player anymore.

Only 29 years old with a 22-point career mark, Haywood has been hampered by injuries (some say emotional problems). “I like New York and playing in New York,” says Haywood. “I’d love to play here the rest of my life. But it has been a stifling situation for me.”

Haywood apparently has reconciled himself to the fact that the Knicks are McAdoo’s team, and that he might be better off dealt away. “I’ve been criticized,” Haywood said. “I’ve been the guy asked to do this and this and this. I’ve played three positions here—center, big forward, and small forward. I can do some things on the floor that aren’t on the stat sheet. I’ve got some great years left. But here, I’ve had to forsake my game.”

Required as a scorer, Haywood has been told to serve as a defensive-minded forward. But Haywood has had difficulty concentrating on this aspect of the game. After a talk with Reed, he’d do what he was supposed to the next game—box out, rebound, play pressure defense, make the transition from offense to defense. But in the games which followed, Haywood would forget his job. It’s not anticipated that he’ll be around again this year.

McAdoo, who has won three NBA scoring crowns, is the Knicks’ center by default. He scores and rebounds but doesn’t handle the opposing center any better than the Garden security halts scalpers.

After being ousted by the 76ers in the Eastern semifinals, McAdoo stated, “They said I had a good year. Then they said they need a big defensive center. So I don’t know if I did a good job or not. I took the blame for this series, but you didn’t hear anyone talking about a defensive center after the Cleveland series. I don’t know if they appreciate the job I did.”

Caldwell Jones, the 76ers’ seven-foot center, also managed to do a tight defensive job on McAdoo, something Big Mac has rarely experienced. But Jones, perhaps, shouldn’t get too much credit. McAdoo explained his so-called slump this way: “I shouldn’t be leading the team in assists. Damn it, everybody knows I’m just not getting the ball enough. But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Big Mac wound up hitting only 33 of 82 shots against Philly. Reed said he could not fault McAdoo for the Philadelphia series and praised him for his big effort and production all season long. “In the old days,” Reed went on, “we had guys who worried about stopping guys more than they worried about their own offense. We don’t. Spencer and Bobby are offensive players. That’s not wrong, they’ve always been that way, and they can score with the basketball. All I’m saying is, my concept of the game is—can you stop somebody? That’s where you win the game.”

Earl “The Pearl” Monroe’s game is offense, too. The classy guard with the many moves was the Knicks’ No. 2 scorer last season. Monroe, along with Jim McMillian, Butch Beard, and Phil Jackson, have become free agents and may seek to land a better financial deal with another club. Perhaps only Jackson, as an assistant coach, will be back.

McMillian, a small forward whose $250,000 contract has expired, wants to return. “I’d like to stay,” he said. “It’s been rough on me personally and the team the last two years. I haven’t been able to contribute the way I can. But I’m not going to worry about it if I don’t fit in with their plans.”

Both McMillian and Cleamons, a guard, do their best under the team concept and fade away when left to survive on their individual ability. The helter-skelter system Reed was forced into hampered their game. “We were basically a one-on-one club last season.” McMillian said this summer. “That made Cleamons and me null and void. There was nothing Willis could do about it.”

Of his season, Cleamons said, “My injuries, the way they wanted me to change my game and shoot the ball, made it a difficult season. We had three rookies, a rookie coach, and guys playing together for the first time. Honestly, there were guys who had roles who couldn’t accept new ones.”

Shelton, a burly forward, who scores in double figures, had been inconsistent in his two seasons as a pro and has a propensity for getting into foul trouble. In the Knicks’ final game and loss to the 76ers, Shelton fouled out with 3:30 remaining and the score tied at 97. Upset because of the call, Shelton threw the ball downcourt. It drew a technical foul. Julius Erving made the free throw, and Steve Mix scored on the ensuing possession. The Knicks still trailed by three, 102-99, two minutes later. Haywood then threw up a wild, low-percentage shot which missed by a mile. The Sixers went on from there. 

Shelton will never be mistaken for an Ivy League grad. During the Sixers series, Reed called timeout with Philadelphia on top 29-17 in the first period. He called for the team to stay calm and utilize the basic offensive pattern that the Knicks had been using all season. Reed was ready to send the players back to the court when he noticed Shelton’s puzzled look.

“Lonnie, you know what you’re going to do?” Reed asked. “No,” admitted Shelton. The Knick coach then went through the play step-by-step. Later in the game, Reed had to do the same thing with rookies Williams and Gondrezick. 

Jackson, who regards himself has something of an intellectual, revealed: “A former teammate told me this year that we had, as a team, the collective intelligence of an orangutan. I cannot say that I disagree.”

Among the Knicks veterans who were critical of Reed were Monroe, Haywood, and Beard. Naturally, they moaned about the lack of playing time each received.

Columbia man Jim McMillian realizes Reed has a rugged job and feels he knows the reason, which makes it even tougher. “I wouldn’t want it,” said Jim. “It’s a tough job. I see him getting gray hairs now. I didn’t notice them in training camp, but now they pop up everywhere. He’s realizing that every guy doesn’t give to a game what he has every night, and he’s had problems with that. 

“See, the problem is that he’s spoiled. That team he played on with Bradley, DeBusschere, Earl, and Clyde, that was enough to spoil anyone the way they played.”

The frustration almost got to Reed, all the problems of the Knicks crashing down on him. But the Knicks finished well and looked impressive in polishing off Cleveland in the playoffs. It was no shame losing to Philadelphia, most teams did throughout the season.

But Reed is not a quitter, he says, and any fan who watched Reed hobble onto the court and lead the Knicks to the NBA title in 1970 can attest to that. Reed said: “I’m a very strong-willed person. When I get a team that I think can win, I’ll tell you; but I won’t say it with this team. I think I did a decent job with what I had, but we are not capable of doing certain things well. A lot of people assumed we were better than we are, but I don’t think anybody could get them to play any harder. Next year, we’ll get to the second round and maybe a little further.”

This was June, but Reed may have been talking about next year, meaning of the 1978-79 campaign. Reed has two years left on his contract, worth $400,000 over three years, and it is anticipated that he will be back.

Knicks president Mike Burke and GM Donovan have given their backing to Reed. But, as of this writing, Sonny Werblin hasn’t. Werblin, president of Madison Square Garden, Corp., which owns the Knicks, hasn’t given a vote of confidence to Reed. In fact, he hasn’t given one to Donovan either, with only Burke getting his blessing. 

And Werblin, the kingmaker who signed Joe Namath for the New York Jets and helped turn some swamplands in New Jersey into the booming Meadowlands sports complex, is the key man. Werblin took over at the Garden in January and has been given the job of turning the Knicks (and NHL Rangers) into a successful entity by Gulf & Western. Capacity seats during the season and playoff action brings in the money, and that’s why G & W is in business.

In his short tenure, Werblin’s thinking coincides with Reed’s. They know the Knicks need a big defensive-minded center so McAdoo can move to forward, and they need a pressure guard. Werblin should realize Reed will benefit from his year’s experience, and the club will progress if some of the malcontents are unloaded, and the missing links are found.

Ah, for the old days with a DeBusschere and a center like Willis. Things would be a lot easier with the graying Reed. 

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