Turns out the fans had a bit of a warm-up before The Captain came out.
It was May 8, 1970, Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Would Knicks star center Willis Reed, who had suffered a serious leg injury in Game 5, be able to make the opening tipoff?
Suddenly, the fans saw a Knicks player emerge from the tunnel. Was this The Captain, which is what Reed had been dubbed due to his team role?
"I had gotten kneed in the thigh in Game 6, and I needed to stay back in the training room for a little extra treatment,'' then-Knicks forward Cazzie Russell said. "So I was coming out the tunnel, and there was this big applause that started. Lots of people think there were similarities in the way Willis and I were built. But then, when I reached the edge of the floor, the applause just stopped. The fans were like, 'Cazzie, we like you and all, but we're looking for The Cap.'''
Well, many great acts have a warm-up act. But the fans soon got what they wanted.
Minutes before tipoff 40 years ago May 8, Reed emerged through the tunnel in one of the greatest moments the NBA has seen. The noise was deafening. Playing on one leg due to a torn muscle in his right hip and thigh area, Reed scored New York's first two baskets on jumpers -- his only points of the game -- and the inspired Knicks rolled to a 113-99 win and their first NBA title.
To this day, whenever an injured player bucks the odds by taking the floor, you hear how he had a Willis Reed moment. There were plenty of such references last month when Portland guard Brandon Roy returned for a playoff game eight days after undergoing knee surgery.
"That's great hearing that,'' Reed said of pulling a Willis Reed. "It's all about courage and all about doing what you can for your team. It's been 40 years, but I never get tired of hearing that.''
The attendance was announced at 19,500, but the number has grown considerably over the years among those who claim to have been at the Garden that night. When asked if he was at the game, NBA Commissioner David Stern, a New Yorker who then was the league's outside legal counsel, quipped, "I'm one of the only people who wasn't.''
Up until the night Reed emerged through the tunnel, it already had been a great series. The evenly matched teams had split the first six games, each winning once on the other's home court.
The team-oriented Knicks had gone an NBA-best 60-22 during the regular season, at one point winning a then-record 18 straight games. Aside from Reed, the Knicks had four other eventual Hall of Famers in guard Walt Frazier, forward Bill Bradley, forward Dave DeBusschere and coach Red Holzman, the latter two deceased.
The Lakers had gone 46-36, but that was misleading since center Wilt Chamberlain, whose teammates Elgin Baylor and Jerry West also were bound for the Hall of Fame, had missed 70 games due to a knee injury. He didn't return until three games were left in the regular season, and finished the season with averages 27.3 points of 18.4 rebounds in the 12 games he did play.
"Coming into the year, we had made the comment that we thought this was going to be our year,'' said Reed, 67, who is retired outside Ruston, La., just down the road from his native Hico, La., and close to where he starred at Grambling University. "After 1969, Bill Russell and Sam Jones had retired (from Boston after the Celtics had won 11 of the previous 13 titles). We really had a nice team. We had a unique group of guys who played well together.''
Reed, then 27 and in his sixth season, was the team's backbone. He had averaged team highs of 21.7 points and 13.9 rebounds and would become the first man to win the regular-season, All-Star and Finals Most Valuable Player awards in the same season (Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal are the only others to do it).
The Knicks needed a Game 7 to defeat Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs. After they dispatched Milwaukee 4-1 in the East finals, they again made things tough on themselves by losing Game 2 of the NBA Finals at home to send the series to Los Angeles tied 1-1.
Game 3 was a classic. DeBusschere drilled a jumper with three seconds left to give the Knicks a 102-100 lead, and the game looked over. But West, with the Lakers out of timeouts, took an inbound pass from Chamberlain from underneath his own basket, dribbled twice and let fly a 55-footer. It hit all net to tie the score and force overtime.
"A 65-footer,'' said then-Lakers guard Dick Garrett, later adding the distance of the shot "keeps growing like a fish story.''
But it was one that got away. It might be a signature moment of West's career, but his memories of the shot aren't overly fond since the Lakers eventually lost, 111-108.
"If we would have won the game, that changes the way you feel,'' West said. "If we would have had the 3-point shot back then (it entered the NBA in 1979-80), we would have won. But they came back and won in overtime. That was very important for them because we could have been up 3-1 (by winning twice at home).''
Actually, the Lakers had to sweat to avoid being down 3-1. They needed overtime to win Game 4 at the Forum, 121-115.
That set the stage for Game 5 on May 4, 1970. Earlier that day at Kent State in Ohio, four students were killed by members of the Ohio National Guard during a Vietnam War protest. Several players involved in the series remember hearing the news, but in an era before cable news and the internet there wasn't a lot of talk about it.
In New York that night, the eyes of the sports world were riveted on Reed when he crashed to the floor early in the game.
"I was making a drive with about eight minutes gone in the first quarter, and then my left leg gave away and I tore some muscle in my (right) hip and thigh,'' said Reed, who would be helped off the court and ruled done for the night. "A lot of people say it was the knee, but it was the hip and thigh.''
Frazier, now a Knicks television analyst, remembers saying to himself, "There goes the championship.'' The Knicks, after all, trailed 25-15 when Reed went down.
Not so fast. Going to a short lineup, the Knicks were able to storm back from an eventual 16-point deficit to win 107-100.
"That was a key game,'' Reed said. "We put ourselves in a position to come home (for Game 7).''
New York headed to Los Angeles for Game 6. The Knicks were demolished, 135-113, as Chamberlain scored 45 points and pulled down 27 rebounds to set the stage for a winner-take-all game.
"I flew back from Los Angeles the night of that game (on the red eye) while the team came back the following day,'' Reed said. "The idea was for me to be able to get some extra treatment.''
On May 8, Reed arrived at Madison Square Garden at midday to get treatment throughout the afternoon. Nobody seemed to know whether The Captain would play.
"There was concern in the newspaper, and all people were talking about on talk radio was whether Willis was going to play,'' said Russell, now a minister in Savannah, Ga. "But nobody was saying anything.''
Reed gained hope when he was able to move a little better during the afternoon. He had no doubt he would play after he warmed up about 1 1/2 hours before the scheduled 7:35 p.m. tipoff, even if others remained in the dark.
"I still had some pain, but I could restrict some of my movement if I dragged the leg,'' Reed said. "Then they were going to give me a shot (of cortisone) right before the game. They thought that it would help.
"But I knew that I was going to play. We were trying to win a championship. But I didn't know how effective I would be.''
Phil Jackson, now the Lakers coach, remembers the cortisone shot well. Jackson, who had played the previous two seasons with the Knicks, had to sit out 1969-70 due to a back injury.
Jackson spent the season as an unofficial assistant to Holzman, which helped him become interested in a profession that would lead him to coach 10 NBA champions. He also dabbled with a camera, and after the season would collaborate with photographer George Kalinsky for the photo-essay book Take it All!
"I took a picture of Willis on the table getting a shot in the thigh, and Red Holzman came over and said, 'You can never use that picture,' and said it's not fair that you have that and nobody from the press had it,'' Jackson said. "I am going to have to have it developed and give it to Willis. I'm going to have to search for that old negative. I hope it hasn't turned to chemical dust.
"We were all nervous (before Game 7). But (Reed) came in and assured us we were going to win. He was going to play. ... Right before the tipoff, I followed him into the crowd, and into all the exuberance. It was a stunning noise.''
Frazier must not have been around when Reed vowed to play. He claims he and many teammates had no idea whether Reed would make it to tipoff.
"We were flabbergasted just like everybody else when he came out because we didn't know if he would play,'' Frazier said. "The noise just got louder and louder and it reached a crescendo. ... When he came out, he wasn't limping. I'm sure he didn't feel it because of the adrenaline rush. It was like he was walking on air.''
Actually, some of the suspense had been gone for viewers at home. When ABC went on the air just before the game, Holzman told Howard Cosell in an interview that Reed would play. But the game only was shown on tape delay in New York, and it wasn't as if anybody in the stands that night was toting a BlackBerry,
Even after the airing of Cosell's interview, ABC analyst Jack Twyman still had uncertainty. While talking on the air just before tipoff with play-by-play man Chris Schenkel, it was Twyman who broke in to say, "I think we see Willis coming out,'' when the big fellow was spotted coming out of the tunnel.
"We watched him out on the floor (before the game), and the poor guy could hardly even walk,'' remembers Twyman, a Hall of Fame forward. "Chris and I looked at each other and thought, 'No way was Willis going to play' We were up on our perch for the game, and we got word from an associate producer that the door to the locker room had opened and Willis was coming out to play. We looked at each not believing it. And sure enough there came Willis.''
Adding to the dramatic effect, the stiff-legged Reed arrived just moments before the scheduled jump ball. But that wasn't done to shock the Lakers, even if that might have happened. The team's medical staff wanted to give Reed the shot of cortisone at the last possible instant.
"It was a tough spot,'' Reed said. "It was a heck of predicament to be in. I knew I wasn't 100 percent. The fans were roaring. I was getting a standing ovation. Everybody was yelling, 'The Captain is here.' Everybody was saying that he's walking but I sure couldn't walk very well. I was in a lot of pain.''
There's no question the fans and the Knicks were sky high. But what remains a point of contention to this day is whether the Lakers had been psyched out.
When Reed came out, Russell said DeBusschere looked over at Chamberlain, Baylor and West, who were allegedly just standing in stunned silence, and said, "We got them.'' Frazier said he was thinking the same thing.
"I'll never forget that three of the greatest players ever were just standing mesmerized, staring at Willis,'' Frazier said. "That gave me so much confidence.''
West agreed the Knicks were fired up, but vehemently denied the Lakers were deflated.
"Nobody can read what's in a man's mind,'' said West, who would finally win the only NBA title of his 14-year career over the Knicks in the 1972 Finals but said that never could make up for losing eight times in the NBA Finals. "I didn't even know (Reed) was coming out. I just heard all the noise, and I glanced out of the corner of my eye.
"I actually wanted him to play. That's no disrespect, but any time a player is not at his best physically, that serves the other person well. ... But we just played poorly. We weren't even competitive. We were just terrible. We couldn't make passes, couldn't catch them.''
If he had to do it all over again, Lakers veteran guard Johnny Egan, who three years later would be coaching the Houston Rockets, has an idea what he would have suggested to Chamberlain.
"Wilt should have gone over and met (Reed) right when he came out of the tunnel, and welcomed him,'' Egan said. "Then that would have psyched up (the Lakers).''
Like West, Egan denied the Lakers were psyched out. But nobody can deny how fired up the Knicks were.
The fans continued to roar even when Reed didn't leave the ground for the jump ball. The noise level was off the charts when Reed scored New York's first two baskets on a jumper from the foul line and an 18-footer from the right side.
"We were inspired for sure,'' said Reed, who was in even more pain after he tried to jump a few times and who spent the rest of the game dragging his leg around. "But maybe if I'd missed those first two shots, it would have been different. But, after that, the crowd was so into it, and Walt was just fantastic.''
He sure was. Frazier finished with 36 points and handed out 19 assists in playing the most memorable game of his career.
Reed wouldn't score again, going 2-of-5 from the field for four points and pulling down three rebounds in 27 minutes. On offense, Reed brought Chamberlain outside and on defense he was able to lean enough on Chamberlain to hold him to 21 points, although "The Big Dipper'' did pull down 24 rebounds while playing all 48 minutes.
Knicks players wonder to this day why the 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain didn't take it right to the wounded 6-9, 235-pound Reed. Frazier said Chamberlain didn't get the ball enough and Russell said he resorted to shooting too many fadeaway jumpers. Chamberlain's teammates, though, are reluctant to criticize the gentle giant, who died in 1999.
The game was all but over by halftime, when the Knicks took a 69-42 lead. The Lakers, with West finishing with 28 points while also playing all 48 minutes and with Baylor scoring 19, finally got their game going in the second half, but it was way too late.
The Knicks got 21 points from guard Dick Barnett and 18 points and 17 rebounds from DeBusschere. But, after Reed's heroics, the night belonged to Frazier.
"It was unequivocally the best game of my life,'' Frazier said. "The title was on the line. And it came in the nick of time.''
Despite Frazier's scintillating Game 7, Reed, who averaged 23.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in the series despite missing most of Game 5 and being severely limited in Game 7, was an easy choice for Finals MVP.
"It was Willis, and the courage that he showed,'' Frazier said of Game 7. "It was so inspirational that once we saw him on the court, it really galvanized our team. ... It was like a Hollywood ending.''
Reed would play four more seasons, and helped lead the Knicks over the Lakers for the 1973 NBA title. Reed, injuries beginning to bog him down, played a much more limited role that season, and no late dramatics were needed when New York won the Finals 4-1.
But that's OK. Reed's place in history is secure.
Reed these days spends most of his time on his Louisiana spread, where he lives with his wife Gale. He regularly cuts grass and tends to his plum and peach trees. When he heads into Ruston, where many folks know him, few feel the need to bring up his epic night.
But Reed got plenty of reminding during the three-plus decades he remained in basketball before retiring in 2007 after being a New Orleans Hornets executive. Scarcely a day went by when Reed, who coached the Knicks in 1977-78 before being fired early the next season, wasn't reminded of May 8, 1970.
"When I was still with the NBA and I was very visible, it would come up all the time when I was traveling,'' Reed said. "In airports. A lot of people would say, 'I remember that game.' More people than Madison Square Garden holds have said they were there that night.''
Reed now goes to what NBA functions he can, and had a great time at a reunion the Knicks had at a Feb. 22 game to honor the 1969-70 champions. Of the 10 living active players from that team (Nate Bowman is also deceased), only Dave Stallworth didn't attend.
Players were given special leather and wool jackets in Knicks colors. Frazier's read "Clyde,'' Bradley's "Dollar Bill,'' Russell's "Jazzy Cazzie,'' and Barnett got "Tricky Dick.'' Of course, adorned on Reed's jacket was "The Captain.''
At the reunion, Russell once again told the story about the fans having mistaken him for Reed before Game 7.
"I just laugh when he tells me that,'' Reed said. "That's just Cazzie. But then I got the standing ovation, and I hadn't even done anything.''
Reed, though, ended up doing plenty. Forget that he scored just four points, the arrival of The Captain remains an indelible part of NBA lore.
"In New York, it is No. 1,'' Stern said about where Reed coming out ranks among great NBA moments. "All you have to do is go to a gathering of a people of a certain age. When they say, 'Here comes The Captain,' they stand in unison as if the city was all there and give him a cheer.''
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson