Farewell to the Captain

Willis Reed, the captain and center of the great New York Knick basketball teams of the early '70s, is gone. He was 80 years old when he died.

Reed's heroic play through a debilitating leg injury in a Game 7 for the world championship is generally regarded as one of the greatest moments in the history of all sports. But his leadership on and off the court, which cemented the Knicks' two titles, made history, too. Reed's jersey number was the first ever to be retired by the franchise.

I was a high schooler when the Knicks first started coming on. Marv Albert was the young local announcer. They had picked up Dave DeBusschere from Detroit and were on their way to greatness. We kids in the greater Big Apple loved all the Knicks of the day, but Reed was the clear leader. A country boy from down south, he didn't fit in the way Clyde Frazier or Bill Bradley did, but he stood tall under the hottest stage lights in all of hoops.

In those days, basketball included a fair amount of fighting. It was part of the deal. Every team had its enforcer. People who messed with the Captain rarely wanted a second bout.

The New York Times obit, by Harvey Araton, is here.

I was only one handshake away from Mr. Reed, never actually meeting him. But he was one of those people, you felt you could tell what he was like as a person by the way he carried himself. His death reminds us how long ago those glory days were. But it also reminds us how much of a difference a person can make if their heart is big enough.