11:17 p.m. | Updated Those familiar with the career of the Knicks legend Willis Reed would not be surprised by his recent take on the N.B.A. lockout and the costly cancellation of early season games.
”My primary worry is that there are so many people beyond the owners and players connected to the league,” Reed said by telephone from his home in Grambling, La. ”These people depend on it for their livelihood, and man, these are tough times for them not to have work.”
Leave it to Reed, the classic blue-collar player, to think first of the vendors, ushers and parking attendants, of those unrepresented and easily forgotten. Leave it to the big man to speak for every man.
Had he not done so during one little-known episode more than 40 years ago, the greatest night in the history of New York City basketball might not have occurred.
Easy as it is to define the Knicks of Reed’s day as the standard for team commitment and character, it is the nature of all families to be challenged from within at some point by the corrosive elements of money and ego, by animus and envy.
As captain and cornerstone, Reed intuitively knew that there was no place for any of it on a team with championship aspirations. So when Bill Bradley joined the Knicks in 1967 and instantly became their highest-paid player – in large part because of his standing as the league’s first Great White Hope – Reed told grumpy teammates: ”Why are you complaining? What’s good for Bill will eventually be good for us, too.”
By the fall 1969, Cazzie Russell, who had been a huge star at Michigan and the league’s top draft pick in 1966, had been displaced by Bradley in the starting lineup. Russell was the better athlete and more productive scorer, but Bradley was the better fit for the offense of Coach Red Holzman, which was predicated on movement and passing. Russell didn’t believe that. He thought, if Bradley wasn’t the better player, then what could be the reason that he was paid and played more?
In a country riven by social strife, it didn’t take long for the subtext of race to start ticking. Then came a pivotal moment in January of that championship season when Russell’s sense of victimhood was set off to the point where the team’s chemistry nearly exploded and burned.
The Knicks were practicing in Detroit when Russell burst into the gym in a foul, angry mood. Coming out of Ann Arbor, where he had been visiting his old school, he was pulled over by the police, ordered out of his car with a gun to his head. The explanation he was given after producing a license and being recognized as the famous former Michigan star was that an African-American man had broken out of prison in the area. Russell had a mustache and so, apparently, did the convict.
Russell’s teammates sympathized with him when he told them of how he had been profiled – at least until he began throwing sharp elbows around during a scrimmage, mostly in the direction of the team’s white players.
Reed, who often acted as Holzman’s cop on the court, recognized what was happening and stepped toward Russell, asking what the heck he thought he was doing. Before Russell could edit himself, he spat out, angrily and regrettably:
”Be quiet, Uncle Tom.”
Reed’s eyes widened and Russell later told a friend, ”I thought he was going to kill me.” Those who knew what Reed was capable of when pushed to the edge, who had witnessed the bloody mess he had made of Rudy LaRusso and two Los Angeles Lakers teammates during a 1966 brawl at Madison Square Garden, knew that Russell’s fears were justified.
Reed grew up in Bernice, La., about a half-hour north of Grambling. A couple of summers ago, when I had the opportunity to visit the small town with him, he introduced me to old friends – black and white – in an effort to help me, a lifelong Northerner, understand that black folks had made the best of their lives there during the Jim Crow era. They always were mindful of the segregationist indignities, but Reed wanted me to know that his childhood had been happy.