Remembering Rego Park’s Own Willis Reed, Jr.

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By Michael Perlman

Willis Reed, 1972, Courtesy of the New York Knicks

The community and countless fans are mourning the loss of basketball legend “New York No. 19” Willis Reed. He passed away on March 21 at age 80, but will always be remembered as “The Captain.” 

From 1964 to 1974, he played with the New York Knicks, and then served as a coach and vice president of basketball operations for the New Jersey Nets to senior vice president of basketball. His incredible journey resulted in becoming a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee in 1982, and being recognized as one of the “50 greatest players in NBA history” in 1996.

“As we mourn, we will always strive to uphold the standards he left behind; the unmatched leadership, sacrifice and work ethic that personified him as a champion among champions,” the Knicks said in a statement.

1969 Topps Willis Reed Rookie #60 back of card

As for his first championship, he made history as the first player to be named the NBA All-Star Game MVP, the NBA regular season MVP and the NBA Finals MVP in the same season. May 8, 1970 is forever etched in NBA history due to his performance in Game seven at Madison Square Garden featuring the 1970 NBA Finals against Los Angeles Lakers. After experiencing a significant thigh injury, his torn muscle prevented him from Game six, but fans were amazed as he entered the court during the warmups and then scored the first two field goals on his first two shots. 

Park City Estates, Photo by Hitesh Lohani

In the early 1970s, Reed resided in a three-room apartment at the 61-35 98th Street building of Park City Estates in Rego Park, and could be spotted nearby at the historic Lost Battalion Hall Recreation Center, where the New York Knicks would practice. When one entered the popular Band’s kosher delicatessen on 63rd Drive, he could be seen among other Knicks on the wall. He would also frequent The Bagel Joint on 63rd Road, opposite Park City, as well as shop at Waldbaum’s supermarket.

“I saw Willis a few times at Lost Battalion Hall and he was always smiling. He was an undersized center, but worked harder than anyone else,” said Medford, Oregon resident Harry E. Hirsch, who once resided in Forest Hills. He also recalled how New York Knicks fans admired him until Game 7 against the Lakers in the 72 finals. “After that, a love affair blossomed,” he continued.  

“I remember thinking he was the epitome of leadership,” said Leslie Roben, a former resident of Reho Park who now resides in Melbourne, Florida. “My clearest memory is from the 1969 to 1970 season, when I was at the championship. He came out in the Garden and we all went wild! I also remember seeing him and Cazzie Russell at Band’s deli and just being awestruck by their fame and height.” 

Russell was also a Park City Estates resident, but at 61-25 98th Street.    

Willis Reed’s autographed book to Alan Tompas
Willis Reed’s autographed book to Alan Tompas

Reed was 6’9 1/2” and weighed 248 pounds — minus knee pads. His height was an asset for the sport, but posed a couple of challenges in daily life. In March 1970, he told the New York Sunday News, “I use the subway a lot to get from my home in Rego Park to the Garden. I still bump my head when I forget to duck. I don’t prefer standing, but I usually do unless the car is almost empty. If I sit in a crowded subway, I wind up with my feet across the aisle.” He also said, “I’ve given up eating at counters where they have those low stools. I wound up crouched over and trying to eat between my knees.”

Around 1968, Florida resident Gail Crosby Whalen, who was raised in Park Slope, worked for Meinhard Commercial, which had a social club that sponsored employee events, and Reed was a guest speaker on Sports Night. “As club treasurer, I had the pleasure of meeting him. I was 5′ tall and about 100 lbs. If I wasn’t looking up, I was talking to his belt buckle.”     

1972-73 Topps Basketball #129, Willis Reed, Jr card

Reed kept a low profile. In April 1970, he told the Olean Times Herald, “I was never much for mingling with people and making appearances and all that. When I leave The Garden after a game, I go straight home and divorce myself from the outside world.” 

His apartment was described as being not a representation of his basketball achievements, with the exception of his four-foot silver trophy for being “Most Valuable Player in the NBA All-Star Game,” which he was awarded in 1970.   

Reed also explained that besides basketball, he did not have many other interests. “I have my basketball camp for kids during the summer and I’m going to open a clothing store down in Louisiana. My cousin and I are going into business together. We’ll have some mod clothes in it and we’ll have some regular things too.”

Marty Gold, who was raised in the Rego Park Crescents, recalls Willis arranging a basketball clinic at his sleep away camp, Lenni-Len-A-Pe in upstate Salisbury Mills, New York, and his daughter being a camper. “Willis was a large man with huge hands, but was very soft-spoken and polite,” he said.      

At the time, Knicks trainer Danny Whelan pinpointed Reed’s strengths: “He doesn’t say too much around here, but when he does, people take notes. He’s a leader by example, not the kind who rah-rahs his teammates to death. The rest of the guys on this team love Willis because he’s honest. He’s the captain and doesn’t try to con anybody. If he has something to say, he just says it. There’s no nonsense.”    

World Champions, 1969 – 1970 NY Knickerbockers

For some fans, the memories kept pouring in. Rich Davis has great memories of Reed prior to his Knick days and suggested co-naming 62nd Drive in his honor. “I have great memories of Willis from before his Knick days. He came to my Crane Lake summer camp in 1963. Over time, I learned that he was a giver, a leader and made everyone that knew him very comfortable.”

When Park City Estates resident Alan Tompas was a child, he recalled Reed living in the complex. “He used to practice foul shots in his full Knick warmups in our park across the street. His teammate Cazzie Russell played full court basketball with the older kids. I used to live on 63rd Drive and ran up six flights of stairs to retrieve his book, ‘A View from The Rim,’ which he signed for me. He patiently waited with my friends and beautifully autographed it.

1969 Topps Willis Reed Rookie #60 card

Tompas considers the last Knicks championship very special. At the time, he was 14, and he calls it the most charismatic team in all of New York sports. He also reminisced how Reed was like all the adults around town. “He went to the same deli and candy store as my dad for the paper. He was so big, he’d walk in the door sideways. He always wore a wide brimmed hat and drove a nice Knick orange Ford Bronco. On game days, he took the subway into MSG, and I remember yelling at him to beat the Bullets during the playoffs.”

Looking back, he called Reed a very special athlete, especially for an older generation of basketball fans. “It’s a real shame the Knicks have not had anyone who garnered the same reverence since he retired over 50 years ago. I am blessed to have grown up when I did,” he said.

A frequent site of Willis Reed, Lost Battalion Hall in a 1940 photo, Courtesy of Ron Marzlock

As for a memorial, he suggested naming a basketball court or park after him. “Nothing fancy. That was not his style, but let’s give something back to the kids here,” said Tompas. 

Orlando, Florida resident Steve Kessler, who was raised in Park City Estates, recalls a more distant first experience. “As a naive 10-year-old. I went up to his 17H apartment, rang the bell. This 6’10’’ towering man answered the door and I said, ‘Are you Willis Reed?’ He said no and closed the door.” Later on, he would see him in the elevator in a colorful shirt, suit and tie, and then he had a smile and said hello.

Kessler remembers him as an astounding athlete and being thrilled to see him as a captain, leading a team of Frazier, Monroe, DeBusschere, Barnett and Russell, among others. “Locally, a mural of him and Cazzie Russell would be kind of cool,” he continued.

“I was devastated upon hearing the news of his passing,” said Kris Fernandez, who was raised in Rego Park and Forest Hills, and would tune into lots of older game footage of Willis Reed and his teammates. He met him when he was working for the New Jersey Nets as their general manager. “I would take the trip to the games at the Meadowlands in New Jersey with my mom, dad and neighborhood friends Andres and Chris, and we would generally cross paths with Willis and stop to have a chat. He was always gracious,” Fernandez reminisced.  

1972-73 Topps Basketball #129, Willis Reed, Jr, Back of card

Reeds’ perseverance is a key quality that remained with him from his playing days. “His kindness and his ability to take time out of his day to chat with fans, sign autographs and make memorable experiences is another wonderful quality,” he said.

Fernandez called him the best Knicks player in the team’s history, who was able to bring two championships to New York City, a feat that has not been accomplished here since. He feels that Reed merits a statue, where he is walking onto the court in Game 7. “I think that would be something residents and visitors alike could marvel at, and the younger generations could learn about this great man who once graced our local streets,” he said.  

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