After the 1969 Finals, Bill Russell retired, signaling a new era in NBA History. It was finally someone else’s turn to win a championship, after Russell and the Celtics had won an astonishing 11 out of the last 13. Poised to pick up the Celtics mantle were their frequent Finals victims, the Los Angeles Lakers. However, they struggled at times through an injury plagued season, with Wilt Chamberlain missing all but 12 games, and Elgin Baylor suiting up for just 55. However, they still had Jerry West and a solid supporting cast that got them to a 46-36 record, good enough to finish second in the West. Better yet, they were at full strength for the Playoffs, and after a surprising seven game victory over the 39-43 Phoenix Suns, they swept the top team in the West, the 48-34 Atlanta Hawks to make it to the Finals.
Back East, the void left by the Celtics was filled by the New York Knicks, a hard nosed bunch who played extraordinarily well together. Led by center Willis Reed and point guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier, the Knicks soared to a 60-22 record, survived a seven game battle with the Baltimore Bullets, then dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks in five games to reach the Finals.
The first five games of the 1970 Finals were hard fought, with two of the games going to overtime. Game 5 would prove to be a costly win for New York. While they took a 3-2 series lead, Willis Reed, the heart and soul of the team, tore a muscle in his leg. Without him in Game 6, the Knicks suffered a 135-113 loss. With no Willis Reed to contend with, Wilt Chamberlain went for 45 points and 27 rebounds to send the series to a Game 7 back in New York at Madison Square Garden. Despite being at home, the Knicks were in a tough spot. It was unclear if Reed would be able to play. With no one else on the roster who could even come close to stopping Wilt Chamberlain, the situation was tense.
Before the game starts, we’re welcomed to Madison Square Garden by our trusty announcers, ABC’s Chris Schenkel and Jack Twyman, former Cincinnati Royals star. An urgent Schenkel gives us an update on the status of Willis Reed:
“At 6 pm, New York time, the New York Knickerbocker captain took the floor for a preliminary warmup. The first time he had shot the basketball since Monday, when he was injured. He was watched carefully by coach Red Holzman… and Jack, 19,500 fans here in New York City have yet to see Willis Reed at this hour of the evening.”
Jack Twyman then reports that Reed has just received a 200cc shot of Cortisone. “Now, I’ve had Cortisone myself,” Twyman begins, “and… I think we see Willis coming out,” he suddenly exclaims. Sure enough, here comes the injured Willis Reed sauntering onto the court from the bowels of Madison Square Garden to a thunderous applause. He joins his teammates and starts to warm up. A “Let’s Go Knicks!” chant is heard throughout the arena, but now that we know he’s going to play, how effective will he be against the legendary Wilt Chamberlain?
As the starting lineups are being announced, Willis Reed’s name is called for the Knicks, and the place goes haywire. He gets a standing ovation that Shenkel describes as “…the type of applause that has been reserved for boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson in the old Garden, Tony Zale and Rocky Marciano, and a host of other great fighters.” Since we’re getting an introduction to the starting lineups, let’s do the same here. For the visiting Los Angeles Lakers…
F – Elgin Baylor (24 points per game, 10.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists)
F – Keith Erickson (8.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists)
C – Wilt Chamberlain (27.3 points, 18.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists)
G – Dick Garrett (11.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists)
G – Jerry West (31.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, 7.5 assists)
For the hometown New York Knickerbockers…
F – Dave DeBusschere (14.6 points, 10 rebounds, 2.5 assists)
F – Bill Bradley (14.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 4 assists)
C – Willis Reed (21.7 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2 assists)
G – Walt Frazier (20.9 points, 6 rebounds, 8.2 assists)
G – Dick Barnett (14.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists)
Now, let’s get this Game 7 started.
Right from the opening tip, you can see Willis Reed isn’t going to be himself. He didn’t even attempt to go for the ball as the Lakers easily secure the first possession of the game. However, Elgin Bayor’s first attempt is short, and the Knicks take the ball up the court. Walt Frazier waits for a trailing Willis Reed to get to the foul line, passes him the ball, and Reed knocks down a jumper, sending the Madison Square Garden into a frenzy! Soon after, an Elgin Baylor offensive foul gives the Knicks the ball, and they go to Willis again, and he knocks down his second shot! It gives the Knicks a very early 5-2 lead, but it’s got the home crowd fired up as Reed labors his way back down the court.
The rest of the Knicks would take it from there. Hitting their first six shots, they raced out to a lead and behind 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists from Walt Frazier, the Knicks are already in control of the game. Between the inspired crowd and the inspired play by New York, the Lakers might have already let the game get away from them.
Other first quarter highlights
– Man, Willis Reed is really having a tough time out there. He’s clearly limping as he moves up and down the floor, and at one point it looked like he was going to have to leave the game after going up for a rebound and landing on his injured leg. The Knicks called a time out, and I thought they were going to take him out, but he was back in once play resumed. In fact, he played the entire quarter, despite having only one functional leg.
End of first quarter: Knicks 38, Lakers 24
Well, the video of the game provided by NBA League Pass cut ahead during the second quarter. One moment, the Knicks were up, 44-27, the next, their lead had suddenly ballooned to 63-38. I understand why they need to edit for time when they’re airing this on NBA TV, but could they at least give us the entire damn game if we’re watching it on League Pass, especially since you have to shell out the money for it? What a disappointment.
The show must go on, however, and needless to say, it was a lousy second quarter for the Los Angeles Lakers. The Knicks seem to be hitting just about every shot they take, and the Lakers are turning the ball over frequently. Many of those turnovers have been caused by the defensive pressure of Walt Frazier, who’s continued his fine play after a great first quarter. After the buzzer sounds at the end of the first half, Chris Shenkel describes the scene:
“And now, the red hot Knickerbockers head to the dressing room, and the cold shooting, frustrated Los Angeles Lakers come too.”
Other second quarter highlights
– Wilt Chamberlain is really bad at free throws. He shot one that completely missed the rim, and sailed under the corner of the backboard. At one point, Chris Shenkel noted that he was a ghastly 1-8 from the line.
– Willis Reed finally got taken out of the game as the Knicks built their lead. These days, I can’t imagine him being allowed to play, even if it was a Game 7. The poor guy can barely move out there. On the other hand, not allowing him to play would have robbed the Knicks of those opening moments, with Reed coming out on the court and hitting his first two shots. There’s no doubt that Reed’s exploits at the start of the game have given both the Knicks and their fans an intangible boost that has also provided an equally negative effect on the Lakers. Jack Twyman’s noted a couple of times that the Lakers seem intimidated by the moment, and the scoreboard doesn’t argue his theory.
Halftime: Knicks 69, Lakers 42
Before we start the third quarter, let’s delve into some halftime stats. Compounding the Lakers woes is the fact that they’ve turned the ball over 14 times, compared to just six turnovers for the Knicks. Jack Twyman also gives us an update on Willis Reed:
“We were just advised from the Knickerbocker locker room, Chris, that Willis Reed at halftime received two more cc of Cortisone, so, apparently that leg stiffened up when he came out of the game, and he has received another injection at halftime, and should be ready to go in the second half here.”
I feel like the Knicks are really pushing their luck. They’ve got this gigantic lead, and Reed’s already done more than his part. Why risk further injury to their captain by even thinking about bringing him out for the second half? Speaking of Reed, he’s got 4 points and 5 rebounds so far, and Wilt Chamberlain’s got 11 and 12, but despite those great numbers, he’s obviously not having the dominant impact he had in Game 6.
As the teams get set to begin the second half, Chris Shenkel tells us that “Our friends at ABC News would like to remind you that at ten, eastern time, they will carry live the press conference of President Richard Nixon.” I wonder what ol’ Dick had to say for himself on May 8, 1970. Meanwhile, the teams are just about lined up for the opening tip of the second half (the NBA started every quarter with a jump ball back then, something I say they should go back to). Backup center Nate Bowman is out there to line up against Wilt for the Knicks, but then, the crowd starts to roar, and out comes Willis Reed. He heads to center court to replace Bowman, and he’ll start the second half for the Knicks.
It was more of the same in the third quarter. At this point, that Richard Nixon Press Conference might be more exciting than this game. The Lakers just haven’t shown up. You’d expect more from a team that featured Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, but they’re well on their way to another disappointing Finals defeat after spending most of the previous decade coming up short against the Celtics.
Other third quarter highlights
– Willis Reed was taken back out of the game and hasn’t been seen since. Hopefully his night is done. There’s no need to throw him back up there with the game this much in hand. In fact, they probably could have taken him out right after he hit his second shot, and the score would be the same.
– The quarter came to an end with a nice buzzer beater from the foul line by New York’s Dick Barnett.
End of third quarter: Knicks 94, Lakers 69
Let’s take a look at the leading scorers before we mercifully get the fourth quarter underway. Walt Frazier has been doing it all for the Knicks, and he’s up to 32 points on the night. Jerry West has 20 to lead the Lakers.
With the game remaining a blowout, Chris Shenkel does share with us an infuriating piece of information. The game had been blacked out locally, so while the rest of the country was watching live on ABC, people in New York would have to wait until an 11:30 pm tape delay broadcast. Thankfully, the good people of New York did have the option of listening to none other than Marv Albert broadcast the game on the radio, but still, the notion of a locally blacked out Finals Game 7 is crazy. The NBA’s come a long way since then.
6:40 remaining: Knicks 104, Lakers 81
As the fourth quarter winds down, here’s some interesting tidbits. While Dave Stallworth was shooting some free throws, Chris Shenkel informs us that Stallworth is back with the Knicks after making a “miraculous recovery from a heart attack.” Whoa. The heart attack happened in March of 1967, during his second season in the league. He missed the next two seasons, but was back with the Knicks just in time to help them make it to the Finals.
A funny bit of information came from Jack Twyman, as he spoke about Knicks backup center Nate Bowman. He was describing how underrated Bowman was for the Knicks, because he gave Willis Reed, “those two to three minutes per game that you need for rest.” Two to three minutes!? They clearly had different ideas about health and conditioning back then. No wonder why so many guys back then suffered abrupt career ending injuries. In this game alone, we’ve got Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Willis Reed, all players who suffered through career enders.
Anyway, I’d like to tell you that the Lakers came back and made this an interesting fourth quarter, but they did no such thing. Amidst chants of “We’re Number One!” from the fans, the game finally comes to an end with the jubilant Knicks running off the floor, having secured the franchise’s first title!
Soon after, we’re shown a few snippets of postgame interviews:
“Well, with Willis Reed out of the game, I figured I had to contribute some offense… Dick Barnett took Jerry West, so I had a little more freedom to work on offense.” – Walt Frazier
“I thought we got out real well, which was the key to our victory, and throughout the series, we’ve been trying to catch the Lakers in the first quarter, but we got off good tonight.” – Dick Barnett
“I think that tonight, as much as any other time, demonstrated how much of a unit we are, and how much we mean to each other, and I know that the game of basketball is one of conflict, as any team sport is, and the thing that made this whole year so much fun, as well as winning the championship, is that the conflicts on this team were minimized to a level so that they were kept in perspective, and we all, when it came down to it, we all wanted to win and play together to win, and that’s what we did tonight.” – Bill Bradley
“It’s a long time coming. I feel very, very proud of being on this team. I would be, uh, I don’t think you can honestly pinpoint one particular man besides Willis, our vital point and our pivot man, that is more important to our club. I think we just play a good team game, and I’m very proud to be a part of it, and I think, uh, I’m just, I’m just so happy really right now, I don’t, I’m speechless for awhile now.” – Dave DeBusschere
“Everybody’s been saying, you know, are you gonna play? Are you gonna play? I feel like I was gonna play. I didn’t know how effective I was going to be. I just said, I hope I have a good ball game, I hope the team plays well, and I hope we can win it. You know, I did everything I could. I didn’t know if we’d be back again next year, we’re here this year, let’s win it this year.” – Willis Reed.
That last quote from Willis Reed is really what it’s all about right there. That’s why players go out there injured, and that’s why he felt he had to play in this one. You don’t know how many shots you’ll get at the title, and sometimes, you just have to go for it. For the Knicks in 1970, it paid off.
Final Score: Knicks 113, Lakers 99
This game wasn’t even as close as the final score makes it seem. It was a truly dominant performance from the Knicks, and it lasted the entire game. To me, the boost they got from just having Willis Reed out there in the trenches with them led them to greater heights. You can tell in those postgame quotes that these guys really cared about one another, and if Reed was gonna go out there on one leg, there was no way the rest of the squad would let him down. From the moment Willis Reed walked out onto the court before the game, the Lakers didn’t stand a chance.
Walt Frazier led the way for the Knicks with 36 points, 7 rebounds, 19 assists and who knows how many steals because the NBA wasn’t keeping track of them yet. In this legendary performance, his defense was disruptive, and the way he orchestrated the game offensively ensured that the Knicks pulled off the victory. Former Laker Dick Barnett added 21 points, and Willis Reed never scored more than those two opening baskets.
As for the Lakers, Jerry West scored 28, and Wilt Chamberlain added 21 (shooting a horrid 1-11 from the free throw line). It’d be yet another bitter Finals defeat for the Lakers, who despite all of their success, were still searching for their first title since moving to LA from Minneapolis.
This game peaked early, but what a peak it was. Reed coming out onto the floor is still remembered as one of the most famous moments in NBA History, and these Knicks are a prime example of how important team chemistry is, and they’re still amongst the most beloved teams of all time.
Willis Reed came back strong the next season, averaging 20.9 points and 13.7 rebounds, but after that, injuries put a damper on the remainder of his career, though he would stick around long enough to pick up a second title with the Knicks in 1973.