LONGSHOTS: Anniversaries remind Reed and Russell were two of a kind
by Dave Long
There are certain things that make an impression on you that lasts forever. Two sports events that made such impressions on me had anniversaries that snuck up on me last week.
One was the final game played by the great Bill Russell 41 years ago. That’s when the limping, wheezing Celtics summoned the guile accumulated in winning 10 titles in 12 years to win number 13 over the heavily favored Lakers in L.A. A team with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain owned three of the spots on the NBA’s all-time starting five.
The other was, gulp, the 40th anniversary of the famous “Willis Reed” game, which thankfully ESPN was all over — otherwise I’d have missed it, and for me that would have been a tragedy. It took place a year later against those same Lakers when, despite a torn muscle in his hip, Reed and my Knicks won the decisive Game Seven at, as they say in NYC, the real garden — Madison Square. Given the relative success in that one vs. the one in Boston I’m not sure that claim stands up, but that is what New Yawkers say about MSG. For reasons that I will say later, the Reed game is the greatest sports moment I have ever had and I can tell you if I live to be 726 nothing will ever be close.
Both were juxtaposed against a Celtics loss Friday to LeBron and company that only served to heighten the sting of their — I’ll be kind — putrid non-effort in such a BIG game. It was a truly epic no-show by all, especially for captain Paul Pierce, whose mind seemed to be someplace in the ozone. For someone who’s admired effort, toughness and those who rise to the occasion when it arrives since he first began watching sports, it was infuriating to see. And while I may have overreacted, it comes from the same place that was so thoroughly struck while watching and learning from Russell and Reed as they played.
In truth, I’ve seen more of Russell on film after the fact than live, since I was pretty young through much of his career. But I did see that final game. And it does seem fitting to point out a day after Mother’s Day I only got to see it because of my mom. She let me stay up for that 11 p.m.-in-the-east start time because she knew how important it was to her little boy to see it — though it only happened after my agent cut an 11th-hour deal to take a nap after I got home from school.
It wasn’t that he won that game that struck me. It’s that he ALWAYS won. And while you can say it was easier to win in those days because the playoffs went two rounds until late in his career instead of today’s grueling four rounds, what you can’t take away is that he was 21-0 in winner-take-all final games dating back to college, where he won two NCAA titles with San Francisco and 60 straight games. Or that they started winning the DAY he arrived and stopped the day he left. No one can say that — even Jordan, though Magic was close in L.A. And in my opinion, that makes him the greatest player ever in ANY sport. Better than the Babe, Jordan, Tiger or anyone else you can think of.
The Reed game is legendary in NBA circles, but unless you were in New York in early May 1970 and a Knicks fan in May 1970 you can’t understand what it really meant ’cause you can’t feel it as I do even now. That’s how people could incorrectly liken Pierce’s wheelchair ride off and quick return to Reed’s story. Most chalked Phil Jackson smirking at that notion as mind games from the Lakers coach. I knew it was because he was Reed’s teammate that night and understood its magnitude.
It’s like today’s generation trying to comprehend The Beatles taking America by storm. They may know the story, but not what it felt like as Beatlemania crept into everyday life by changing hairstyles, fashion, politics and they way the young looked at the world. The closest thing I’ve seen was watching The Nation as Curt Schilling pulled a Willis with the bloody sock as the Sox ended the curse.
The only difference was The Nation always had doubts, where EVERYONE in New York was convinced, with Russell gone, the Knicks were going to win. There was a feeling their time had come, after a climb from the cellar that started when Reed joined the team six years earlier. People who think winning is the only thing will never get it. It was like watching your kids grow up from a 31-49 team to the one that nearly derailed Russell’s final Celtics in the conference finals. And that’s what made it so special
It all followed the script perfectly. Thanks to a then NBA record 18-game winning streak, they bolted from the gate 23-1 and cruised home as Reed won MVP of the All-Star game and the regular season. They beat Baltimore and Milwaukee to make the finals. Then with the series tied at two and down 10 in the first period of Game 5, Reed went down. Somehow they rallied to win, but Wilt dominated Game 6, scoring 45 and grabbing 27 rebounds, and it was clear if Willis also missed Game 7 they were dead.
In the two days leading to Game Seven every Knicks fan was on pins and needles. It stayed that way until they heard Marv Albert say on the radio right before game time, “And here comes WILLIS!” The place went wild, as did Tommy Kelly’s basement, where I was watching. He limped on to make the first two baskets. It shot energy through the Garden like a lightning bolt to inspire his teammates and the crowd, whose energy lifted them even further, and it was over at 4-0. Walt Frazier scored 36 and had 19 assists, but Reed with his four points was the MVP without question.
It’s my most cherished sports memory, because that night taught me about responsibility to teammates and fans who care as much about what happens as the players do — a lesson I never forget. Willpower and desire are what I admire most. I guess that’s why I was so bothered by the way Pierce played on Friday night and until the end on Sunday. He’s certainly played in pain before and had his share of huge games — like his epic Game Seven duel with LeBron two years ago. So I suppose he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.