Out Of The Old Black Bag




The Legend of Willis Reed — Part 2

By Anthony L. Kovatch, M.D.


When New York Knickerbockers basketball star Willis Reed passed away on March 21, 2023, it jolted my memory into reliving an event that inspired me for over 50 years and provided a tale of courage that I would reveal to my patients and their parents over 45 years of medical practice. I have fondly called the revelation “The Legend of Willis Reed.”  The game was played on May 8, 1970 at the “new” Madison Square Garden in New York City. I have no recollection of where I was watching the game on television. I must narrate the legend in my own words as I have for 45 years… to anyone who will listen.

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It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals and the series was tied at 3 games apiece. NBA icon Jerry West’s full-court shot for the favored Los Angeles Lakers (who had towering superstar Wilt Chamberlain dominating all other players in the series with his 7-foot 2-inch height — a formidable  advantage) sent Game 6 into overtime, which the Lakers won to tie the series. In Game 5, Knicks star Willis Reed sustained a torn right thigh muscle serious enough to make him leave the contest and likely be out for the rest of the series. The prospects of winning the Finals appeared dismal for the Knicks, in spite of the fact that the deciding Game 7 would be played at the Knicks’ home court at Madison Square Garden. The overall consensus was that it would take a miracle for the Knicks to win without #19 Reed, their All-Star center, who at a “listed” height of 6 foot 10 inches was the only Knick capable of neutralizing Chamberlain.

The atmosphere at the Garden during the pregame warmup was foreboding; I remember that I could feel it just watching on television. All of a sudden, Reed hobbled out of the locker room wearing his uniform. We assumed it was a psychological stunt contrived by the Knicks coaching staff. Next, Reed limped pathetically onto the court dragging his right leg in pain and started taking practice shots. The Garden crowd cheered ecstatically — part of the ploy, I thought. To everyone’s astonishment, #19 took the court to start the game and won the opening tipoff. The home team moved the ball around until Reed limped to the elbow of the foul line. They fed him the ball, he took a jump shot with the Lakers dumbfounded, and “swish”, the Knicks were up 2-0!  The crowd erupted into a frenzy that left The Garden vibrating! After the Lakers failed to score, the Knicks pulled off the same play with Reed hitting a jumper from the same spot. The crowd went wild, seemingly drowning out the noise of every honking car in the Big Apple!

Although the score was only 4-0, the Lakers (already sensing a dire outcome) called an immediate time out. However, they could not reverse the juggernaut of momentum produced by the heroics of one player, who risked the long-term function of his leg and his career for the hopes and dreams of his team, his city, his planet, and a generation of kids for whom basketball was religion, politics, and almost everything else that mattered. 

Willis Reed played very little more that night, as the Knicks never looked back. The dependable guard Walt “No Fault” Frazier (aka “Clyde”) took over the game and spearheaded the 113-99 “blowout,” scoring 36 points with 19 assists. Unlike Reed, Frazier was a flashy, “Broadway-type” of personality, but his superior performance was dwarfed by the former’s display of courage that fateful evening at the Garden! The series MVP was awarded to #19.     

When asked by the press after the game why he took the risk, Reed simply confided, “I didn’t want to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play.” Now, 53 years later, nobody would dare to argue with his decision!

And that is “The Legend of Willis Reed”!

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That is how I would end my story, the parents appearing more entertained than the kids. I am sure that very few of the listeners remember a word of what I preached, but I am hoping that the new generation of young athletes will at least hear the story from an old man’s mouth and remember, 1. that you do not have to be good at sports to enjoy them or be inspired by them;  2. that the challenges of modern-day life are still won on the basketball courts and sandlots of our neighborhoods; and, most of all, 3. that there can and will be miracles if you believe!


This “legend” is dedicated to the kids I see playing B-ball on the parking lot every Thursday at Southwood Residential Treatment Facility (read “Thursday’s Pap” on The PediaBlog), whose courage in the face of overwhelming adversity reminds me of my childhood hero, Willis Reed, and gives me the hope and the courage to keep believing in miracles!



Enjoy all of Dr. Kovatch’s previous essays on The PediaBlog here and here.

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