Willis Reed, legendary New York Knicks center, dies at 80

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Hall of Fame center Willis Reed, who famously overcame a leg injury to help lead the New York Knicks to the 1969-70 NBA title has died, the National Basketball Retired Players Association and the Knicks announced Tuesday. He was 80.

Reed, the 10th overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft out of Grambling State University, played 10 seasons in the league -- all with the Knicks -- before moving on to a career as a coach and front-office executive.

But it was his courageous effort in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals that cemented his reputation as one of the game's greatest players. After dominating the Los Angeles Lakers in the first four games of the series (averaging 31.8 points and 15 rebounds), Reed suffered a torn thigh muscle in Game 5 and was unable to play in Game 6.

With even his teammates unsure if he'd suit up for the decisive game, Reed hobbled out of the locker room just before tipoff, then improbably outjumped Wilt Chamberlain on the opening tip and scored the game's first basket -- sending the Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy.

New York Knicks center Willis Reed drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers' Wilt Chamberlain in Game 4 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
New York Knicks center Willis Reed drives to the basket against the Los Angeles Lakers' Wilt Chamberlain in Game 4 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

The Knicks won the game and the series for the franchise's first-ever NBA title.

Reed, the 1964-65 NBA rookie of the year, was named an All-Star in each of his first seven seasons in the league, averaging more than 20 points and nearly 14 rebounds per game over that span.

He won MVP honors in leading New York to its first title, then was named the Finals MVP for a second time when the Knicks defeated the Lakers again for the title in 1973.

Injuries eventually took their toll on the 6-10, 235-pound Reed. A knee injury forced him to retire after the 1973-74 season at the age of 32.

Over 10 seasons, he averaged 18.7 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.

Reed's post-playing career

After retiring as a player, he coached the Knicks in 1977-78 before leaving the team 14 games into the following seasons.

He coached at Creighton University for four seasons, then served as an assistant in college and the pros before taking over the New Jersey Nets in 1988.

After more than one season on the Nets bench, Reed moved into the front office as general manager and vice president of basketball operations. He remained with the Nets through the 2002-03 season before taking over as the executive VP of the New Orleans Hornets, a spot he held for three years.

Reed was inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. And in 1996, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver reacts

"Willis Reed was the ultimate team player and consummate leader. My earliest and fondest memories of NBA basketball are of watching Willis, who embodied the winning spirit that defined the New York Knicks' championship teams in the early 1970s," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "He played the game with remarkable passion and determination, and his inspiring comeback in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals remains one of the most iconic moments in all of sports. As a league MVP, two-time NBA Finals MVP and member of the NBA's 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, Willis was a decorated player who took great pride in his consistency.

"Following his playing career, Willis mentored the next generation as a coach, team executive and proud HBCU alumnus. We send our deepest condolences to Willis' wife, Gale, his family and his many friends and fans."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Willis Reed, Hall of Fame center for the New York Knicks, dies at 80