Willis Reed was the only child of Willis Reed, Sr., an industrial laborer, and Inell Ross Reed, a domestic worker. Born on his grandfather’s farm, Reed grew up in Bernice, a tiny, segregated community in rural northern Louisiana, where he enjoyed fishing and hunting. Reed attended the local public schools. By eighth grade, he was already over six feet tall, and by tenth grade in 1957, Reed was a starting center on the West Side High School basketball team. He also played football and baseball and threw the shot put and the discus for the school’s track team.
Reed later went on to lead West Side High School to state championships in both basketball and football. With encouragement from his high school basketball coach, Reed discovered that his height and athletic ability could be used to obtain a college education. Young Reed understood the attention he received as a star high school athlete was secondary to the academic and moral discipline provided by his parents and teachers. “That discipline helped me in college at Grambling, and it definitely helped me get into the pros,” said Reed. This discipline pushed Reed to be the best at whatever he embarked on and it would become a lifelong lesson that would later be the driving force behind one of the greatest moments in athletic history.
In 1960 Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach from Grambling State University, recruited Reed, and although Reed did attend Grambling, he chose to play for the noted basketball coach Fred C. Hobdy. He especially liked the Tiger’s NBA-like fast-break running game. Reed was twice named an All-American at Grambling. Grambling won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Championship (NAIA) in Reed’s freshman year (1961), and with Reed’s help as a dominating center, Grambling later won three Southwestern Athletic Conference Championships. In 1963, Reed’s senior year, he won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in São Paulo, Brazil. He averaged 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds as a senior and ended his career at Grambling with a total of 2,280 points. Reed was elected to the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1970.
During the political and social upheaval of the 1960s, Reed shied away from political activism for fear of losing his athletic scholarship. Reed was well-liked at Grambling, a small, historically African-American land grant college, and he and a few of his teammates even joined Phi Beta Sigma, a national fraternity. But Reed never really sought the limelight, a characteristic that defined his professional basketball career. Reed married his college sweetheart Geraldine Marie Oliver on 12 February 1963. They had two children but divorced in 1969. Reed graduated from Grambling in 1964 with a B.A. in physical education and a minor in biology. Although he had dreams of playing professional basketball, Reed worked to become a certified teacher and planned to be a physical education instructor and coach.
While teaching an eighth-grade gym class, Reed learned that the New York Knicks had drafted him as the tenth overall pick in the second round of the March 1964 NBA draft. He was disappointed because he had expected a higher draft position and had wanted to play for the Detroit Pistons, but he signed a contract with the Knicks for a salary of just under $10,000. Reed moved to New York City, living in a hotel a few blocks from the famed Madison Square Garden. He often walked to practice during his rookie year.
During Reed’s first season in the NBA, 1964–1965, he ranked seventh in scoring, averaging 19.5 points per game, and ranked fifth in rebounding, fielding 14.7 rebounds per game. That same year Reed made his first All-Star appearance, and he was the first Knicks player ever to be named NBA Rookie of the Year. Reed played in seven All-Star Games during his ten-year career in the NBA, and he quickly established himself as a reliable leader on the team. During the 1969–1970 season Reed was named NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), NBA Finals MVP, and All-Star game MVP. Michael Jordan (while playing for the Chicago Bulls) is the only other player to have won all three in the same year (1995–1996).
Although Reed amassed an impressive statistical record as a professional basketball player, most fans remember him for his dramatic performance during the opening minutes of game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals against the Lakers at Madison Square Garden. Reed, the captain, and the backbone of the Knicks was sidelined with a severe injury to his right thigh and hip and was not expected to play in the pivotal home game. When Reed walked onto the court with barely a limp to the thunderous applause of the home crowd, he recalled, “There we were knocking on the door of a National Championship.
I was always taught to try my best, and after all the hours of practice and soreness, there was no way that I would not go for it.” Reed had to leave at twenty-seven minutes into the game after making two baskets, but the Knicks were inspired and went on to capture their first national title, and Reed became a sports legend. Reed also helped the Knicks win their second NBA championship in 1973, and he was named NBA Finals MVP of that year, and MVP for 1973. Plagued with injuries, Reed retired at the end of the 1973–1974 season. He played 23,073 minutes as a New York Knick and was ranked among the team’s top three scorers with 4,859 field goals; 12,183 total points; and 8,414 rebounds.
Reed served as head coach of the Knicks during the 1977–1978 season. He then went on to coach at the collegiate level as an assistant coach at St. John’s University in New York City during the 1980–1981 season, and then as head coach at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, from 1981 to 1982, and from 1984 to 1985. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1981. On 20 August 1983, Reed married Gale I. Kennedy; they had two children. Reed served as an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks, and the Sacramento Kings, and was the head coach of the New Jersey Nets from 1987 to 1989. Reed became the general manager of the Nets in 1993 and eventually became senior vice president of the team.
In 1997 during the NBA’s Fiftieth Anniversary, Reed was named one of the fifty greatest players in the league’s history. Because he has often shunned the national spotlight, some may overlook his outstanding contributions, but Reed’s impressive record stands out among the many basketball luminaries.
Willis died on March 21, 2023