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Thursday, March 4, 2004
Willis Reed

By Eric Neel
Page 2

May 8, 1970. It may be the most memorable night in NBA history. A banged-up Willis Reed hobbles out of the locker room at Madison Square Garden, electrifying the crowd and his teammates en route to New York's first world championship.

Thirty-four years later, folks in Gotham still tear up at the thought of it. Mr. Reed remembers it as a great night, too. But he's not caught up in the past. He's more interested in today's Knicks, a good rod and reel, and, of course, 10 Burning Questions with Eric Neel.

Willis Reed
It's been a long time since the Knicks were #1.
1. Your appearance in Game 7 of the Finals in 1970 inspired so many people. What inspires you?

My inspiration was always to be as good as I could possibly be. I had an idol in Bill Russell. I wanted to be as good as he was. I never was as good as he was; but as my high school teacher, Mr. Duke Fields, used to say, in life, "If you shoot for the moon, you'll always hit a star."

Do you think people have made too much of that game over the years?

It was an important event because we had been beaten by the Celtics in 1969, and we really wanted to win the championship that year. I tell most people that Game 5 was the most significant game, when I got hurt. All I was doing in Game 7 was going out there to try to help. I think the significant part was the crowd. They were rabid. And fate was a part of it, too. How did I end up with the first two shots? And what if I had missed them?

That was probably your greatest victory. Are there great disappointments or stinging defeats that stay with you over the years?

Not really. I understand that life is the ups and downs that you go through. Games give you the peaks and the valleys. I tell people, young people, not to be afraid to fail. You're going to fail before you become good at something.

2. What do you think of what Isiah Thomas has been able to do with the Knicks so far?

Isiah is a very good basketball person. His knowledge of the game and his coaching experience have given him a unique perspective on his job. And you know what happens: When a new guy comes in, you generally get some freedom to do some things. And looking through his eyes as a point guard, he saw that we did not have that leadership at the point. And how lucky were we to get Stephon Marbury, who I think is a great talent. I had Stephon in New Jersey; and the only thing he had to learn was to mature a little bit, and become a leader, and I think he's got that now. I think Isiah sees a lot of himself in Stephon. Isiah was a Chicago kid; Stephon's a Brooklyn kid.

LeBron James
And let's not forget LeBron's marketability.
3. Tell me about your impressions of LeBron James. Does he compare to anyone you've seen over the years?

I don't think so. We've never had an 18-year-old come in the league with the body, the maturity, and the basketball savvy he has. He's done some things no young guy has ever done. But that's right; that's the way it should be. Once upon a time, we saw Elgin Baylor and people said, "We'll never see someone better than Elgin." But there's always gonna be another guy. It's great for the game. LeBron's great for the game.

4. What do you enjoy most about today's game?

As a spectator, I still enjoy watching great defense and teamwork. I enjoy seeing guys working one-on-one, too, though. I like the way we in New York are starting to develop as a running team.

Could you be effective in today's game?

I would have to play as a power forward ... and get my butt whipped by Garnett. I'm happy that I had my time. I had my time on stage, and the show moves on! (laughs)

You know you could have put a hurting on Garnett, though ...

I don't know about that. I tell you what, I'm happy to watch these days.

5. After Shaq and Tim Duncan, there seems to be a shortage of the classic "big man" ...

We're definitely in a down cycle. We have more seven-footers than ever, but I don't know if we have the quality. You sit down, and you think that in the world there would be at least 29 good big men, but we don't have that. We don't even have 15. It's disappointing. I don't know the answer to it. We have bigger and more skilled guys, like Nowitzki. He's just a tremendous athlete. But we just don't have those traditional big men. I hope we're just in a down-cycle.

Willis Reed
Willis Reed had great touch for a man of his size.
6. As a player, being left-handed worked to your advantage. How did being a southpaw serve you in other parts of your life?

Well, my mom wouldn't let me do anything other than basketball left-handed. I had to eat right-handed and learn to write with my right hand. The only thing I do with my left hand is play basketball. The real disadvantage I find in life is being really tall. When you get to be 6-8 and above, the world just isn't made for you. And as you get old, you know, your flexibility is just not as good (laughs) and you start noticing it more and more.

7. You grew up in a small town called Bernice, Louisiana. How did your upbringing shape you as a player and person?

We were doing a 'Read to Achieve' program yesterday. I was talking about my experiences growing up in the South, and Earl Monroe was talking about some of his experiences growing up in Philadelphia. And Earl said, you know, when you live in the ghetto, you don't know that you're poor until you grow up and leave the ghetto. (Laughs) You just don't know.

I think that growing up in the south for me ... I knew I didn't have some things; but nobody else had them either, so it wasn't so bad, you know? I tell people, growing up in Bernice, Louisiana, you learn to do three things very well: Fish, play sports, and go to church ... sometimes. It was good for me. My mom still lives in Bernice. I plan to retire to Ruston down there.

8. You coached in college and in the NBA. Would you ever want to coach again? Maybe make a comeback like Hubie Brown down in Memphis?

Nooooooo (laughs). I made the decision quite a few years ago to stay in management. I like basketball, but the coaching thing, it's tough.

What do you make of the big coaching turnover we've seen this season?

I hope it's just coincidence. I think it's a trend, but I'm hoping it won't be as severe as it's been this year.

Patrick Ewing
The true sign of a Knick center.
9. Do you ever play any more at all?

No, my knees won't let me do anything like that at all.

What do you do to maintain the feeling of competition, the edge you had in your life as a player?

You know, let me say, I think at some point you don't need to be a competitor. You need to enjoy life a little bit. That's the reason I never did get into golf. All the guys I golfed with, my friends with the New York Giants, they were just too competitive about it for me. After I get through playing basketball, I want to do something I enjoy. I want something different. That's why I love to fish and hunt. You're just sitting there looking out at the water, listening to the birds, trying to identify 'em ... are they bluejays, cardinals, mocking birds? That's what I like to do. I'm a southern boy. I fish, play sports, and go to church ... sometimes.

10. If I could give you one career mulligan, what would you want to do over again?

I don't have anything in that category. I really don't. You know what? If there were one moment I could experience again, to feel it again, I'd say May 8, 1970. And if you gave me four years, I'd take the four years I spent in college, because I think the experience I had there between playing basketball, growing, traveling, and learning was tremendous. I would do that again. And I had no money then, remember. I used to have to try to get 26 cents to buy a pop and a candy bar every night when we came from the gym. But it was a great time for me.