It’s strange to think about now, but prior to 1970, the NBA Finals weren’t seen nationally in their entirety on television. ABC had agreed to carry the Finals of the 1969-1970 season, but they had no idea that they were about to show a genuine sports classic. The New York Knicks ended up facing the Los Angeles Lakers in a back-and-forth battle, one that was decided in a Game 7 that ESPN has declared as the greatest in the league’s history. Much of the legend rests on the sturdy shoulders of Willis Reed, who became the embodiment of “playing through the pain” on his way to sports immortality.
The Los Angeles Lakers had been a powerhouse for some time, making the Finals repeatedly throughout the 1960s. However, they’d been beaten six times by their rivals, the Boston Celtics. The heart of the team for years had been guard Jerry West and forward Elgin Baylor. During the 1968-1969 season, they’d acquired superstar center and reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain in a blockbuster trade that made “Wilt the Stilt” the highest paid player on the team. However, that season ended in another frustration in the Finals. After taking the first two games from the Celtics, the Lakers slid to 3-3. Despite a heroic performance from West, the Lakers fell to Bill Russell’s Celtics again. When they came back for the 1969-1970 season, the Lakers wanted a measure of revenge. Unfortunately, they were riddled with injuries; Chamberlain himself missed much of the season.
As for the Knicks, they hit the ground running in the 1969-1970 season, working their way toward the best team record in their history. A line-up dotted with stars like Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Phil Jackson (who would later do okay as a coach) powered the Knicks to a 23-1 start and overall 60-22 record. The team was skilled and hungry, but the Lakers had a vast reservoir of playoff experience and some of the best players in the game. It wouldn’t be an easy mountain to climb.
Heading into the playoffs, the Lakers had a weaker season record (46-36), but they were still, well, the Lakers. The Phoenix Suns pushed them to seven games, but the Lakers (with Chamberlain back from injury) swept the Atlanta Hawks in four to get to the Finals. The Knicks had a slightly tougher road, offing the then-Baltimore Bullets (today’s Washington Wizards) 4-3 and handily eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks 4-1. Though the Knicks had the better record, many sportswriters and odds-makers figured that this would finally be the Lakers’ year.
The Finals turned out to be a back-and-forth slugfest. Over the first six games, neither team scored less than 100 points. Games 3 and 4 both went into overtime. By the time that the dust settled on Game 6, the Finals were tied and headed back to New York. Unfortunately, things looked grim for the Knicks. In Game 5, Reed went down with a torn thigh muscle. He didn’t play at all in Game 6, and the outlook wasn’t good for Game 7.
During warm-ups for Game 7 on May 8, 1970, Reed emerged from the locker room in uniform to the roar of the home crowd. As broadcaster Marv Albert called in for WHN 1050 AM, “Here comes Willis . . . and the crowd is going wild.” After the tip-off, the obviously pained Reed scored the first two baskets for the Knicks, positively igniting an already excited crowd. Then he turned his sole attention to playing lockdown defense on Chamberlain for the rest of the half; the Lakers’ superstar center went two for nine with Reed guarding him. Reed left the game with 3:05 to go in the first half, but the invigorated Knicks already led 61-37. Walt “Clyde” Frazier put the Knicks on his back for the rest of the way, scoring 36 and notching 19 assists on the way to a 113-99 victory.
After the game, legendary announcer Howard Cosell interviewed Reed and lavished praise on his performance, saying, “You exemplify the very best that the human spirit can offer.” Over time, the tale of Reed’s performance became one of the defining narratives of an already superlative career. By that point, he’d already been the Rookie of the Year in 1965, but before his career was over, he would be the League MVP for 1970, the Finals MVP twice, and a seven-time All-Star, among other achievements. Upon his retirement, his Knicks number 19 was retired as well. In 1982, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In a 1997 poll, he was chosen as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. Post-playing-retirement, Reed coached in college and the NBA before moving into organizational management; he built the New Jersey Nets teams that made the Finals in 2002 and 2003 before retiring in 2007.
The history of sports is filled with ups and downs. Before this year’s interruption by pandemic, the Lakers were leading their division and the Knicks were at the bottom of theirs. Fortunes change all the time; it’s not totally inconceivable that the Knicks could have a franchise turnaround someday in the future. But until then, the legacy of the Finals 50 years ago remains a watershed moment in expanding the popularity of the NBA; it’s a highlight of New York sports legend, and Willis Reed remains one of the city’s greatest sports heroes.
Featured image: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now