Courtesy of the Evansville Courier Press, March 25, 2012
With crucial NCAA basketball games taking place this weekend with trips to the Final Four at stake, look for models of resiliency for young athletes in the mold of Willis Reed.
Growing up in New York, I always heard stories from my father of the legend of Willis Reed. Reed was the captain of the New York Knicks, and was the driving force that led them to the 1970 NBA Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Reed’s performance in the first four games of the series was epic as he matched up with the Lakers’ dominant center, Wilt Chamberlain. In the fourth quarter of Game 5, he sustained a significant thigh injury that prevented him from finishing that game as well as playing in a Game 6 blow-out by the Lakers. Reed’s injury had thrown the Knicks into disarray, and left their chances of winning the title in serious jeopardy, with the series tied at 3-3 heading into the pivotal Game 7.
With both teams warming up on the court for Game 7, Reed limped onto the court with the Madison Square Garden crowd going wild, and an inspired group of teammates gaining a renewed level of confidence. Reed summoned the strength to out-jump Chamberlain on the opening tip. He then scored the game's first basket on a shot from the top of the key. He followed that by scoring the second New York basket by sinking a 20-footer.
Reed didn’t score again, but his inspired performance propelled his Knicks’ teammates to lead by as many as 29 points in the first half, and eventually won the game and NBA title.
Of all the great moments in NBA history, few are looked back on as more fabled than Reed’s gutty performance in the 1970 NBA Finals. Although his statistics only counted for four points, they were worth a massive source of inspiration for teammates and fans.
The legend of Willis Reed stuck with me as I grew up, and has evoked several special memories to me that are regarded by New York sports fans as ‘Willis Reed moments’.
A ‘Willis Reed moment’ to me is defined as an opportunity for someone with their back against the wall under significant adversity to show their true resilience, and eventually come through victorious. The ‘Willis Reed moment’ is most often synonymous with sporting events, but can act as a tremendous life lesson that can transcend sport for young athletes.
One of my own ‘Willis Reed moments’ that stands out to me was playing in a high school soccer playoff game in my junior year, and making a mistake late in that game that resulted in my team being scored upon that eventually resulted in our team losing and seeing our season end. My role in that loss stayed with me throughout the off-season, and I had vowed to persevere the next time I was given the opportunity to respond positively in a clutch situation. When that moment arose in a penalty kick shootout in a rematch the following season, I saved three penalty kicks to lead my team to a tournament title.
Those personal life experiences pale in comparison to seeing your own children learn and grow from their own ‘Willis Reed moments’.
One of my children defined her own level of resolve and mental toughness when she was posed with her own ‘Willis Reed moment’ years ago. After playing the previous season on the first team in her youth soccer club, she participated in tryouts the following year only to find out that she had not made the first team and was relegated to the second team. Posed with the options of finding a different team to play on, quitting soccer, or moving on to play with this different team, she picked herself and her bruised ego up and went to play on the second team. Playing with renewed confidence and a swagger to prove she was capable, she played well enough that season to eventually make the first team the following season.
There are few moments that I look back on with more pride than how my own daughter responded in the face of adversity, and how she etched her own ‘Willis Reed moment’. Regardless as to where her own playing career takes her, I know that she is a stronger person by persevering through tough times and learning from those experiences.
As you watch some of the top collegiate athletes and teams battle for the ultimate sporting prize in the coming weeks as the NCAA basketball tournament comes to a climax, look not only for wins on the scoreboard, but for tremendous life lessons that you can draw from to teach your athletes and children by how these players respond under pressure.
Where that New York Knicks victory in 1970 might be a distant memory, Willis Reed’s legacy continues to live on in defining on and off the court moments everywhere.