Thursday, August 31, 2006

Grambling greats: Willis Reed

The Hornets bring Willis Reed home after decades on the East Coast
July 25, 2004

By Nick Deriso
Willis Reed will forever take that long limping walk onto the court in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

This iconic imagery has become bigger than the moment, bigger even than Reed - the 6-foot-10 former Grambling State All-American who took a job as vice president of basketball operations with the New Orleans Hornets last month.

"I am 62 and we are still talking about it," Reed said. "I told everybody then that I didn’t want to be sitting somewhere 30 years later, thinking I should have tried."

He isn’t.

In fact, three decades later, Reed was sitting on his very own man-made pond - one of three on a 60-acre farm hideaway north of Grambling on Louisiana 544.

He was thinking about smaller things.

"For me, I love the country," Reed said. "I’m just a country boy at heart. That will never change."

Not even after a Hall of Fame career that included two NBA titles. Not even after a professional life spent in the brash bustle of New York.

He caught eight bass last weekend - then, one by one, threw each of them back. Reed, in the twilight of a magical career around basketball, is taking it easy.

"I didn’t feel like cleaning them up," Reed said, chuckling. "At least I know there are eight bass in there."

Reed bought this land in 1989, but is only just now getting to fully explore it.

Reed couldn’t be farther away from the place where he made his name professionally - as a player, coach and an executive with the Knicks.Yet, he’s right at home.

"If you would have asked me the beginning of June, I would have never thought all of this could happen," Reed said. "I still had a multiple-year contract. I figured I would probably finish up in New York and retire back in Louisiana. For me to be sitting here? I never thought about it."

Selected Finals MVP during both years that the Knicks won a title, Reed was an adviser for the team last season. That followed 14 years in the New Jersey front office, where he served as senior vice president when new Hornets coach Byron Scott led the Nets.

"There are very few people with Hall of Fame credentials and achievements as both a player and as an executive," said New Orleans owner George Shinn, "so we took advantage of a rare opportunity."

But Reed never really left northeastern Louisiana. Not in his heart.

"From 1969 to ‘73, we won two championships with the Knicks," said Reed. "But if I had to live four years of my life all over again, which would it be? It would be 1960 to ‘64. The greatest four years I ever spent were those at Grambling."

Reed’s experience is becoming ever more rare in an NBA made over with stars who never finished college - if they went at all.

"Kids today miss that," said Reed, who led GSU to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. "They come right into the pros. College was the right place at the right time."

The Hornets selected their own high-school phenom this year, choosing J.R. Smith out of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, N.J., with the 18th pick in the NBA Draft. Smith was one of a record eight prep seniors chosen in the first round.

"What it has forced NBA teams to do is rethink how they do things," Reed said. "Coaching staffs have become much larger, because you have to have developmental programs for younger players. After the draft, we met with the ownership and we are talking about how and what we need to do to get ready for a player as young as J.R."

Born in Hico - a town so small, Reed once said, that "they don’t even have a population" - he grew up in Bernice in Union Parish.

After attending Westside High School in the late 1950s, Reed walked off his front porch to stardom just 26 miles south in Grambling.

He led the Tigers to the NAIA title as a freshman in 1961 - then to the NAIA Final Four in 1963 and 1964. Reed would score 2,280 career points, averaging 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds during his senior year.

"I was blessed, growing up in Bernice and playing in Grambling and having the chance to play on a good team, to travel," Reed said. "I did everything I could have done at a major school at Grambling. That basketball program hasn’t been as good, because Division I is so much more difficult than the old NAIA."

Reed was one of 26 All-Americans who played for the late coach Fred Hobdy, a football player on Eddie Robinson’s legendary undefeated 1942 club. Hobdy, who later served as GSU’s athletics director, would amass a hoops record of 572-288.

"Fred had that program at its greatest during that time," said Collie J. Nicholson, the school’s sports information director from 1948-78. "The athletic programs were tops across the board back then. But as we tried to move into the big time for football, we left the NAIA."

Meanwhile, the New York Knicks were putting on a stunning display of basketball mediocrity, posting just one winning season in the 12 years between 1955-56 and 1966-67. All of that changed as Reed’s 10-year career got going.

He started fast. Selected by the Knicks in the second round of the 1964 draft, Reed was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.

Reed was already having his best season as a pro - he’d been named the NBA’s regular-season most valuable player and the All-Star Game MVP - when a now-familiar pregame drama unfolded on May 8, 1970.

The championship series against Los Angeles - a team led by fellow Hall of Famers Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain - was tied at three games apiece.Reed had scored 37, 29, 38 then 23 points in the first four contests, but wasn’t expected to start after suffering a deep thigh injury in Game 5.

Nevertheless, Reed struggled out onto the floor, sparking thunderous applause at Madison Square Garden. He would somehow out-jump Chamberlain for the opening tip - a feat many men with two good legs never achieved - then hit from the top of the key and again with a 20-foot jumper.

Reed didn’t score again. He didn’t have to, as New York eventually won the contest, 113-99.

"The reason it’s a moment that’s talked about?" Reed asked. "Thirty-four years later …"
He ruminated some more.

Seems Reed, so comfortable outside of fame’s circle of light, is still humbled by the attention.
"It inspired the team to a championship," he said, finally. "If we would have lost, nobody would be talking about it."

Reed, an All-Star in his first seven years as a pro, continued to be slowed by injuries. Tendinitis in his knees marred the 1971 and 1972 seasons, but he rallied the Knicks to a second title in 1973.

"None of us had played on a championship team," Reed said, still lost in reverie.

His quiet manner makes it easy to forget that he ever did.

Reed attended services with his mother, Inell, last weekend in the church of his youth - the New Hopewell Baptist Church on Plum Street, just off U.S. 167 in Bernice.

Reed didn’t wear a Knicks championship ring. He never does.

"You remember those gyms, the process. That makes the ring unneeded," Reed said.

Still, a steady stream of inspired folks find Reed, even back home. Sometimes, they’ll stop in the middle of Louisiana 544, just to take pictures of his place.

He will forever talk about those first two baskets in the 1970 Finals, will forever be associated with hope and that hobble.

But, even with time, words sometimes fail.

"A championship," Reed said, still talking about his bare ring finger, "is something you live in your soul."

Reed file
· Age: 62 (born June 25, 1942)
· College: Grambling State
· Drafted: 1964, by New York Knicks (10th overall)
· Honors: Elected to Hall of Fame (1982); NBA champion (1970, ‘73); NBA MVP (1970); All-NBA First Team (1970); All-NBA Second Team (1967, ‘68, ‘69, ‘71); Rookie of the Year (1965); One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History (1996).

No comments: