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It's a moment that's become legend among NBA history buffs and New York Knicks fans over the decades — did former Knicks captain and Hall of Famer Willis Reed really fight the entire Los Angeles Lakers bench back in 1966?
It's not nearly as celebrated a bit of basketball lore as Reed's famed appearance during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, which saw the injured big man — who had suffered a torn muscle in his right thigh during Game 5 against those Lakers — emerge from the tunnel at Madison Square Garden moments before the start of the game, face off against Wilt Chamberlain for the opening tip, make his first two shots and inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 win that sealed the first championship in franchise history. Of course it isn't — for one thing, sepia-toned slow walks out of the dressing room are more easily exalted than instances of 6-foot-9, 235-pound monsters throwing haymakers at entire opposing benches, and for another, we could actually watch the former. While newspaper accounts of Reed's rumble with the Lakers still existed out there in the ether, contemporary fans haven't been able to actually watch the fracas unfold ... until now.
Michael Rapaport got his hands on footage of Reed going after the Lakers during the Oct. 18, 1966, contest — which the Knicks won, 122-119 — and unveiled it for national audiences during the Tuesday night premiere of "When the Garden Was Eden," the documentary he directed for ESPN's "30 for 30" series based on longtime New York sportswriter Harvey Araton's best-selling 2011 book of the same name. Over at Deadspin, Kevin Draper dug up the New York Times story from the game in question, in which writer Dave Anderson described L.A. center Darrall Imhoff — who had played for the Knicks during the 1960-61 and '61-'62 seasons — "holding a bloodied towel to his face, lay sprawled in front of the Laker bench for several minutes while the police restored order among a few of the 15,755 spectators who had run onto the court for a ringside view."
Former Newsday reporter and current MSG Knicks commentator Alan Hahn detailed the incident in his book, "100 Things Knicks Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die":
Reed was [...] in his third NBA season and his first as team captain. He was a second-round pick, a battler who was a fighter literally from his first day of school as an only child growing up in rural Bernice, Louisiana.
And Rudy LaRusso was getting on his nerves.
The two lined up along the lane for a free throw at the old Garden on 49th Street and battled for rebounding position. Reed — accidentally or not — tripped LaRusso, who quickly took offense. The 6'7" forward, a five-time All-Star who came from Brooklyn, threw a punch at Reed just as Lakers center Darrall Imhoff had grabbed Reed in a bear hug, which left him defenseless. [...]
Suddenly, a one-man melee resulted, as Reed pounded Imhoff and then went after LaRusso, who ran to the Lakers bench. A 6'9" rookie named John Block came at him, fists raised, but Reed dropped him with a hammer that sent Block toppling backward. He took out five of his teammates as he fell.
"They said I should be banned," Reed said in the October 31, 1977, issue of Sports Illustrated. "All I got was an ejection and a small fine, nothing like what they give out now. You know what would happen if someone did all that today?"
This was no Malice at the Palace, however. No fans were involved. This was a straight-up, old-school basketball brawl that, at the time, wasn't completely absent from the NBA game. More important, this was Reed giving clear indication that the days of punking the Knicks were over.
"You started to realize that, 'Hey, we've got a warrior here,'" Knicks guard Johnny Green said in Garden Glory.
A warrior who wouldn't be contained even by his brothers-in-arms, as Brian Cronin wrote in a 2011 Knickerblogger piece:
Reed later told his teammates that they should never try to restrain him in a fight, and his reasoning would explain why he became so enraged when Imhoff restrained him while LaRusso took a shot at him (well, a reason beyond the straightforward “it is not cool to be restrained by a guy while his teammates hits you”) and that was that he was restrained once during a fight when he was in college and someone in the crowd took the chance to throw a bottle at him. So Reed warned his teammates that if they ever tried to restrain him, well, they could expect a little of what he gave to the Lakers.
As for why it remained a "one-man melee," here's Araton with some color:
When Willis asked teammates why they didn't help out as he tearing apart the Lakers, pre-PhD Dick Barnett replied, "man, you was winning."
— Harvey Araton (@HarveyAraton) October 22, 2014
Reed's return from injury in the '70 Finals will always be the go-to opener in any story about him being the heart and soul of the Knicks. But his willingness to take on every last Laker four years earlier might have been just as important in heralding the dawning of a new day for a New York team coming off seven straight losing seasons.
"It showed that the Knicks had a guy who wasn't going to take any more ----," Rapaport said in a recent interview, according to Newsday. "It was one of the key moments to turn around that team from being the pushover of the league."
Reed's fine for the statement-making fray? A whopping $50. Money well spent, I'd say.
Video via TheShow8812.
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