You could take Willis Reed out of the country.
He spent the bulk of his career, in fact, in the New York City area as a Hall of Fame pro basketball player and later as a front-office executive.
But you could never quite dislodge Reed’s love for his native north Louisiana and its rural environs.
“For me, I love the country,” Reed told TheDerisoReport.com. “I’m just a country boy at heart. That will never change.”
Born in Hico — a town so small, Reed said, that “they don’t even have a population” — he grew up in Bernice in Union Parish.
After attending Westside High School in the late 1950s, Reed walked off his front porch to stardom just 26 miles south in Grambling.
He led the Tigers to the national NAIA title as a freshman in 1961 — then to the NAIA Final Four in 1963 and 1964. Reed would score 2,280 career points, and averaged 26.6 points and 21.3 rebounds during his senior year.
“I was blessed, growing up in Bernice and playing in Grambling and having the chance to play on a good team, to travel,” Reed said. “I did everything I could have done at a major school at Grambling. That basketball program hasn’t been as good, because Division I is so much more difficult than the old NAIA.”
Reed was one of 26 All-Americans who played for the late coach Fred Hobdy, a football player on Eddie Robinson’s legendary undefeated 1942 club. Hobdy, also a member of this inaugural Grambling Legends hall of fame induction class, would amass a hoops record of 572-288.
“Fred had that program at its greatest during that time,” Collie J. Nicholson, the school’s sports information director from 1948-78, told me in 2004. “The athletic programs were tops across the board back then. But as we tried to move into the big time for football, we left the NAIA.”
Meanwhile, the New York Knicks were putting on a stunning display of basketball mediocrity, posting just one winning season in the 12 years between 1955-56 and 1966-67. All of that changed as Reed’s 10-year career got going.
He started fast. Selected by the Knicks in the second round of the 1964 draft, Reed was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Reed was already having his best season as a pro — he’d been named the NBA’s regular-season most valuable player and the All-Star Game MVP — when a now-familiar pregame drama unfolded on May 8, 1970.
The championship series against Los Angeles (a team led by fellow Hall of Famers Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain) was tied at three games apiece. Reed had scored 37, 29, 38 then 23 points in the first four contests, but wasn’t expected to start after suffering a deep thigh injury in Game 5.
Nevertheless, Reed struggled out onto the floor, sparking thunderous applause at Madison Square Garden. He would somehow out-jump Chamberlain for the opening tip — a feat many men with two good legs never achieved — then hit from the top of the key and again with a 20-foot jumper.
The Grambling product didn’t score again. He didn’t have to, as New York eventually won the contest, 113-99.
Reed, so comfortable outside of fame’s circle of light, is still humbled by the attention.
“It inspired the team to a championship,” he said, finally. “If we would have lost, nobody would be talking about it.”
Reed, an All-Star in his first seven years as a pro, continued to be slowed by injuries. Tendinitis in his knees marred the 1971 and 1972 seasons, but he rallied the Knicks to a second title in 1973 before leaving the game.
After stints in the front offices of the Knicks, New Jersey Nets and New Orleans Hornets, he made a beeline for his old homeplace. These days, you’ll find Reed fishing away retirement in the shadow of his alma mater — where he helped GSU to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in four seasons.
“From 1969 to ‘73, we won two championships with the Knicks,” said Reed. “But if I had to live four years of my life all over again, which would it be? It would be 1960 to ‘64. The greatest four years I ever spent were those at Grambling.”
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For more on the Grambling Legends’ Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, to be held July 18 at the Civic Center in Monroe, visit http://www.gramlingsportshof.com.