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Big men the Knicks got, but a team they ain't
John Papanek
December 12, 1977
Beloved New York superhero Willis Reed was lured out of retirement by the idea that he could inspire his old club to play the way he did. It has not been easy
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December 12, 1977

Big Men The Knicks Got, But A Team They Ain't

Beloved New York superhero Willis Reed was lured out of retirement by the idea that he could inspire his old club to play the way he did. It has not been easy

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Arriving in San Antonio after the breakdown in Houston, Reed gathered the team immediately for a 3�-hour practice. He spent a full hour talking about things like boxing out, playing pressure defense, making the transition from offense to defense and back to offense. He was obviously singling out certain offenders, something that Red Holzman rarely did. One was Haywood.

Haywood spoke up. "Now, Willis, man, specifically now. What is it that you want us to do?"

Reed sensed a breakthrough. "O.K., Spence. Box out. Go to the boards. Play pressure defense. Make the transition."

"But, Willis," said Haywood. "I mean specifically."

Later Haywood said, "Sometimes I think we get carried away with this 'box out' stuff." McAdoo said, "Sometimes I think Willis wants us to play like robots."

That night Reed pitched camp in the hotel bar, talking basketball, searching for answers with anyone who sat down, including, through six hours, two groups of reporters, his closest friend, broadcaster Cal Ramsey, Assistant Coach Dick McGuire and Forward Phil Jackson, the lone remaining Knick from what Jackson wistfully calls "the old days," when the Knicks won their first championship.

Some of the optimists encouraged Reed, telling him that with the talent the Knicks have the big men will learn to do what he wants them to do. Reed was beginning to wonder. "I don't care what anybody says," he said. "No team can win in the NBA today without a big center. Now you add a guy like Bill Walton and you have a different club right off the bat. Man, now becomes to play, and he enjoys every minute of it. What I have are quarterhorses trying to run a thoroughbred's pace."

"The hardest thing for Willis," says Jackson, "is that all he can do now is verbalize. He used to lead by example, he would go out there and give 100% and that would be enough. He is still giving his 100%, but it's verbal and it's not getting through and it is eating him up."

Around 11 o'clock, Williams and Knight breezed through the bar and whisked Reed off to a Mexican restaurant. Reed is close to his rookies. They are, in a very real way, his children, the keys to Reed's and the Knicks' future. Over dinner, the coach continued to talk basketball until he nodded off midway through a plate of frijoles.

The next night the Knicks fumbled and fouled away a 120-116 game to the Spurs, making two unforgivable mistakes in the last two minutes. With the team down by four, McAdoo, who was double-teamed, took a low-percentage 25-foot jumper that missed and then failed to go after a loose ball that rolled by his feet.

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