Stop comparing every injured athlete to him.
Perhaps it’s me, but it seems like there’s been a recent spate of comparisons to one of the most dramatic moments in professional sports history: Willis Reed’s entrance and performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Whenever a key player gets injured and subsequently returns to play, especially when said player continues to visibly suffer from the effects of their injury, the player is compared to Willis Reed or is described as having a “Willis Reed moment.” For example, Christian Pulisic in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup and Patrick Mahomes in the 2022 NFL post-season. These players may be exceptional athletes performing impressively while in great pain, but the Willis Reed comparison is simplistic and trivializes the original event being cited. I daresay that most of the people making these comparisons weren’t even alive when Willis Reed did his thing, so as someone who followed it closely when it actually occurred, I feel compelled to elaborate on what happened 53 years ago and why it was so special.
TL;DR: You can skip ahead if you want to read the summary without the detailed background.
The 1970 NBA Finals featured the New York Knicks versus the Los Angeles Lakers, and the stakes were high for both teams. The Knicks were making their first appearance in the finals since losing the 1953 NBA Finals to the (then-Minneapolis) Lakers. 1953 was their third (and third consecutive) finals appearance, all of which they’d lost. In 1970, the Lakers were making their third straight finals appearance and seventh in the last nine seasons dating back to 1962. However, they’d lost all six of those previous appearances to the Boston Celtics. In 1969-70, the Celtics, having lost all-time-great center and head coach Bill Russell to retirement, fell to sixth place in the NBA’s Eastern Division. The Celtics failing to make the playoffs for the first time since the 1949-50 season gave the Lakers an opportunity to win a championship without facing their longstanding nemesis.
The Knicks finished the 1969-70 regular season with the NBA’s best record (60-22), including a then-NBA record 18-game winning streak. (The record was broken the following season by the Milwaukee Bucks.) Team captain and starting center Willis Reed was the league’s MVP of both the regular season and the All-Star Game. The Lakers roster featured three of the greatest players in NBA history: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West. Baylor was in the twilight of his career and the still-supreme Chamberlain missed all but twelve games of the regular season with a knee injury, but West was the league’s leading scorer.
The Knicks and the Lakers were considered evenly matched entering the finals. It took a full seven games for the Knicks to finish off bitter rival Baltimore in the opening round of the playoffs, but then they dispatched Milwaukee, who were led by a superstar rookie then known as Lew Alcindor, in five games. The Lakers went down three games to one to the surprising Phoenix Suns in their opening series before righting themselves and running off seven straight wins against the Suns and the Atlanta Hawks. The finals lived up to the expectations, with the teams splitting the first four games, including overtime finishes in Games 3 and 4. (Game 3 featured one of the greatest buzzer beaters in NBA history: West tying the score at the end of regulation with a sixty-footer in what would ultimately be a losing effort for the Lakers.) Reed was the Knicks’ leading scorer and rebounder in Games 1 through 3, and their second-leading scorer in Game 4.
So when Reed went down, looking as if he’d been shot, with four minutes remaining in the first quarter of Game 5 and the Knicks already down by ten, it looked to all as if the Knicks’ chances to win the championship were over. Reed was not only their key offensive weapon; he was the only Knick who could guard the formidable Chamberlain. With Reed out, the Knicks rotated a series of forwards and backup centers to harass Chamberlain, but Lakers went into halftime with a 13-point lead. Yet in the second half the Knicks forced 19 turnovers, managed to hold Chamberlain to 22 points overall, and rallied to win the game 107-100 and take a 3-2 series lead.
Back in Los Angeles for Game 6, with Reed still out of the Knicks lineup, the Lakers jumped out to a twenty-point lead in the first quarter and were never seriously threatened after that. Chamberlain scored 45 points, West 33. The Knicks would have home court advantage for Game 7, but with their captain unable to play due to a torn thigh muscle, the outcome seemed predetermined: The Lakers would finally break their finals losing streak in 1970, and the Knicks would lose yet another chance to earn their first NBA championship.
During the pregame preparations for Game 7, Reed was medically cleared to play, but nobody knew how well or for how long his injured leg would hold up. When the Knicks took the floor for the pregame shootaround, Reed was not among them; he was back in the locker room receiving cortisone injections. Several minutes into warmups, Reed emerged alone from the tunnel onto the court, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden, 19,500 strong, erupted. ERUPTED. The standing ovation he received was followed by a new burst of applause each time he hit a basket in warmups. Close observers would notice that Reed wasn’t running or even jogging during that time, and at the conclusion of warmups, he limped back to the Knicks bench. When Reed stepped out onto the floor as the starting lineups were announced, the crowd exploded again, giving him another thirty-second ovation before the announcer was able to continue.
Reed faced Chamberlain for the opening jump ball, but he couldn’t get off the ground, so Chamberlain won the tip easily. The Lakers missed their opening shot and the Knicks raced the ball back up the court. Once Reed had followed his team up the court, Walt Frazier tossed him a pass and Reed sank an open jumper to put the Knicks ahead 2-0. Again, the crowd went wild. A minute later, Reed scored his second basket, and the Knicks led 5-2. Making his way back on defense after that second bucket, Reed was limping noticeably. Those two baskets turned out to be the only four points he would score all night. Reed managed to play 27 minutes, increasingly slow and hobbled despite another injection at halftime, but it was enough. The Knicks never relinquished that opening lead, going up by 14 points at the end of the first quarter and 27 at halftime. The Lakers closed some of that gap in the final quarter, but the outcome was never in doubt.
Let’s review: A team’s star player — the league MVP — suffers an injury in the championship round that should have sidelined him for the remainder of the series. He misses a game in which his team is blown out and then, with the series tied 3-3, reappears for Game 7 barely able to walk, and still manages to score his team’s first two baskets of the game, putting them up for good and winning their first championship. Not to mention that he was also responsible for guarding the most dominant offensive player in basketball history. If this ending had been concocted by a Hollywood screenwriter, it would have been derided as trite.
The closest equivalent I can think of is Michael Jordan’s 1997 flu game, but for that to have measured up to Reed’s achievement, it would have had to have been Game 7 instead of Game 5, the Bulls would have to have been going for their first NBA championship, and flu-ridden Michael Jordan would have to have been guarding a second, healthy Michael Jordan.
So if Patrick Mahomes takes the field for Super Bowl LVII on a not-entirely-healed sprained ankle and leads the Chiefs to another NFL championship, it will be a great achievement for a near-certain future Hall of Famer. It will be courageous and perhaps even legendary. It will not, however, be another Willis Reed moment. And whenever a commentator sees a star athlete get injured, miss a few plays of a game, then return to the action, and that commentator compares the athlete to Willis Reed, their lazy comparison does nothing but demonstrate their ignorance.
- ESPN: Reed’s game vs. Lakers tops list (from 2010)
- NBA.com: Top NBA Finals moments: Hobbled Willis Reed inspires Knicks’ victory in Game 7
- NY Times coverage of 1970 NBA Finals, Game 5
- NY Times coverage of 1970 NBA Finals, Game 7
- NY Times: ‘Willis Reed Tunnel’ Is Gone; Jersey and Memory Stay (from 2011)
- YouTube: 1970 NBA Finals, Game 7 full broadcast