Remembering Willis Reed and pro basketball in the 1970s; The Big Man also coached Creighton


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Willis Reed reminds me of bad times and good for the Knicks. He played his college ball at Grambling in Louisiana, earning a scholarship there in 1960. These were still ancient days for radio and television sports, unless it was baseball which still dominated the media then. No real cable and certainly no streaming distribution unless you were hallucinating. In 1964, when Reed joined the league, there was nothing like the World Series. Kids took off from school to watch it. Even the NBA title series wasn’t televised nationally.

Few had color television, the quality of which was not what you’d imagine. Think nascent. The NBA was not yet splendid and certainly not overpowering. The Knicks had a few games on TV then, but enough to stir the public. The club had off-and-on telecasts from the 1950s into the 70s.

Willis was followed by Walt Frazier who turned into a compelling rookie. A series of moves followed that assembled Dick Barnett, Bill Bradley, Frazier, Reed and Dave Debusschere. The club turned into a league contender. The city fell in love with the stylish Frazier and the overpowering Willis Reed. In turn, the quintet gained respect. By 1970, when the Lakers and Knicks ended up in the title game series, it was Reed against Chamberlain, among Jerry West and Frazier.

In 1963-64, Reed showed the old MSG his wares, but the Knicks had no radio contact at all and occasional telecasts. Cars for the most part had one option, AM Radio. Even Mets’ games had to take a backseat with a weak signal. They were carried on a weak signal, even when they made it to the Series in 1969. New York teams were pushed around on radio like toy cars.

Put it this way. The NBA, as a league, was laboring. It took parts and pieces, new arenas, expansion and colorful broadcasters. Marty Glickman set the geography in the 1950s and in the early 60s. Chick Hearn did so in Los Angeles and Bill King in San Francisco was overpowering. (Marty Glickman and protégé Marv Albert (r); circa 1965)

In New York, Reed’s first year, only Saturday night games were carried, on a then powerhouse, WOR. Their voices were Lester Smith and old-timer, Stan Lomax. Smith was essentially a newsman who had done some baseball in Boston with the Braves and some college football. A bright guy, he brought an eagerness of a reporter to any assignment. He told me, that getting a phone call at three in the morning call scares many, he loved it. There was the element of something exciting to chase. Lomax did his daily sports show for decades, “Good evening, this is Stan Lomax, with the day’s doing in the world of sports.” He often started his evening program, “Baseball takes the spotlight…” would generally follow.

If you go back historically, it was Willis’ arrival in ’64, when sports fans in the city took an interest in pro basketball. The team began to capture the New York area, albeit in the Old Garden which was getting decrepit. There was growing anticipation for the new MSG into which the Knicks and Rangers would move in 1968.

Meanwhile, there was a young fellow, a student of pioneer broadcaster Marty Glickman, named Marv Albert. Glickman could do just about any sport. When college basketball was unearthed in New York in the 1940s, Glickman built the nomenclature for describing the sport on radio. Glickman expanded his expertise to football, building his association with the Giants and later the Jets.

With little TV and a declining Yankees, Albert’s unmatched enthusiasm turned his “Yess!” into common New York vocabulary.

In the 1960s, Glickman began to tire of the Knicks going from one station to another and going full seasons with no radio broadcasts at all. For Marv, getting out of Syracuse and NYU, it was an opportunity to step in, doing so with his mentor’s blessing. Reed, Frazier, Earl Monroe and others made his call joyful and riveting, attracting a huge listenership. The team started to win. During those early years Marv remained Marty’s understudy. Glickman could be pedantic, yet encouraging.

Game seven against the Lakers on May 8, 1970  all knew that Willis was hobbled. Would he play or not? When Reed came out to the Garden floor, the crowd exploded and Albert caught the emotion of it. ABC-TV was blacked out. It was a flashback to Red Barber and Mel Allen when the announcer’s voice reverberated off radios.

On WHN Radio, Marv helped make the Knicks famous. Not without Reed and later the slick Frazier. It was like all New York hoops fans could spit out Reed, Frazier, Dave Debusschere, Dick Barnett and Bill Bradley. Those five names excelled after their playing careers too.

Willis coached in the NBA and in college at Creighton. (Sad, Reed died the same week a team he coached, Creighton advanced to the Sweet 16.)  He was a GM in the league too. Frazier became a colorful broadcaster, “It’s a Ewing doing!” Debusschere, Commissioner of the ABA, Barnett earned a doctorate and Bradley was elected a U.S. Senator.

Reed spent ten years in the pros, a brawny 6’9″ center who battled injuries. All with the Knicks. he never played anywhere else.

Willis Reed preceded Walt Frazier at the old Garden in 1964. Frazier began in the old building too in ’67.

Marv became a New York institution through his enormously enthusiastic play-by-play call. When the Knicks won the first of their two titles. It was he who let the city know.

For many, May 8th 1970 triggers goosebumps. Preceding game seven of the title series. The city was on edge all day. The Lakers were led by two of the greatest, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks were known for their defense and finding the open man on offense. Their big man, Willis Reed would have to play for the Knicks to have a fighting chance that night. It wasn’t certain he would. He was hobbling. Prior to the game, the packed house at the Garden kept their eyes focused on the tunnel leading to the court. When Reed came out, the 18,000 or so fans there, roared their approval.

I’d imagine that Willis would loved to have lived to see a team he coached, the Creighton Bluejays from 1981 to 1985 advance to the Sweet 16. It was where he took Benoit Benjamin, a big fellow, under his wings. Later, Benoit spent 15 years in the NBA.

Willis Reed, a hero of my youth and millions of others. May he rest in peace.

David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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