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Monday, December 22, 2014

Unsung Knick History – The Night Willis Fought the Entire Laker Bench…and Won!

This is the nineteenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

On Sunday night, the Knicks lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in a game that became quite heated at times. Andrew Bynum was ejected from the game and Ron Artest received both a flagrant foul and a technical foul. The flagrant foul came when Artest clotheslined Amar’e Stoudemire when the Knick center drove to the basket. The technical foul came when Artest actually put his hand around Knick forward Shawne Williams’ neck before quickly pulling his hand back. It was a bizarre move that would surprise no one if it resulted in the league fining Artest.

The heated nature of the game inspired me to go back forty-four years to the Knicks’ home opener of the 1966-67 season, and an even more heated game between the Knicks and the Lakers that resulted in second-year Knick power forward Willis Reed essentially fighting the entire Los Angeles Lakers’ bench…and winning!

Read on for more!

Willis Reed was in his third season as a Knick when the 1966-67 season kicked off in October 1966 with a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on the road. The Knicks’ home opener was on Tuesday, October 18, 1966 against the Los Angeles Lakers, who were the defending Western Conference Champions (falling to the Boston Celtics in a hard-fought seven-game NBA Finals earlier in 1966) and Reed was the starting power forward. Drafted in the second round of the 1964 NBA Draft as a center, Reed ended up splitting time at center and power forward along with the Knicks’ first round draft pick, Jim “Bad News” Barnes (I discussed Barnes’ Knick career in a previous Unsung Knicks History piece here), as the pair were used similarly to how Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright were deployed decades later. Early in the 1965-66 season, Barnes was packaged in a deal for star center Walt Bellamy, who became the Knicks primary center with Reed as the primary power forward. At the start of the 1966-67 season, Reed and Bellamy were now beginning their first full season playing together.

During the game against the Lakers at Madison Square Garden, Reed was matched up against veteran forward/center Rudy LaRusso, in his eighth season out of Dartmouth. Throughout the game, Reed took exception to what he felt were an inordinate amount of elbows thrown his way by LaRusso as the pair jockeyed for position in the low blocks. LaRusso, I am sure, felt that Reed was giving just as good as he was getting. Reed complained to the referees, who he later noted looked at him as though he was nuts, so Reed determined that if they were not going to take care of things, he would.

During the third quarter, a Knick was shooting two foul shots. After the second shot went up, naturally, LaRusso and Reed began jockeying for position and Reed felt that LaRusso hit him with one elbow too many, so after LaRusso turned to head up court, Reed tangled up with him a bit. LaRusso responded by throwing a haymaker at Reed. The problem for Reed was that this was taking place directly in front of the Lakers’ bench, so quickly a bunch of Lakers race on to the court.

When Reed turned to respond to LaRusso’s missed haymaker, Laker center Darren Imhoff (a former Knick #1 draft pick that I also featured in the same Unsung Knick History piece I did on Barnes that you can read here) grabbed Reed from behind, ostensibly to break up the fight. Well, LaRusso took this opportunity to tag Reed with a punch. This enraged Reed. He slugged Imhoff, dropping the big man to the ground. He then chased LaRusso to the Lakers bench and got in two mighty shots in LaRusso’s face. At this point, Laker rookie forward John Block ran up, also ostensibly to play peacemaker. Well, Reed responded with a left hook that broke Block’s nose. Imhoff came up again and Reed punched him in the eye, sending a bleeding Imhoff into a bunch of Lakers. By this time, Reed’s Knick teammates had arrived, as well, and it was a full-fledged brawl (Knick guard Em Bryant, in particular, was jumping all over Lakers). Reed caught LaRusso one more time, knocking him to the ground. Reed was also throwing any other Laker who came at him to the ground, including Laker center Hank Finkel.

Here’s a picture of Reed punching LaRusso…

Both Reed and LaRusso were ejected, and were each fined $50. Head of the NBA referees Dolph Schayes (who was also featured in a recent Unsung Knick History piece here) debated suspending Reed, but luckily for Reed, the Knicks had footage of the encounter and it was clear that LaRusso had started it, so Reed was cleared.

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.

In 1977, Reed reflected on the event to Sports Illustrated’s John Papanek, noting, “They said I should be banned. 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?” Papanek posited, “Would a full $10,000 be a good guess?” Well, if that’s what they figured would happen if Reed’s fight had taken place in 1977, can you imagine if it took place in 2011?! It’s funny that when you think of the Knicks and brawls, it is the 1990s Knicks (or the Knicks/Nuggets brawl from a few years back) that comes to mind, but the Knicks were doing this stuff decades earlier!

In his biography, Phil Jackson tells the story of Red Holzman coming out to North Dakota for Jackson (a second round draft pick of the Knicks in 1967) to sign his rookie contract. After signing, Holzman left him with a game film to watch. Jackson viewed it with his friends. The game? None other than the Reed fight game. Jackson recalled watching it with his friends many times, amazed that this would be the guy Jackson would soon have to be guarding in practice.

Of course, after the 1967-68 season, Walt Bellamy was traded in a deal for Dave DeBusschere and Reed was now the Knicks’ official man in the middle, where he would remain for many years, including two NBA championships.

I wonder what he would have done if someone put his hand around his throat?

Thanks to Bill Gutman, John Papanek, Willis Reed, Knick point guard at the time Howie Komives and Phil Jackson for all of their insights and quotes on the 1966 brawl.

If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

17 comments on “Unsung Knick History – The Night Willis Fought the Entire Laker Bench…and Won!

  1. Nick C.

    Wow I had vaguely heard about this. Truth can be stranger than fiction sometimes if you read this in something like a comic it would seem over the top. Its hard to believe that the reserved, almost mild Willis Reed I have been accustomed to for decades is the same person.

  2. embryant

    I was at that game, sitting in an “end promenade” seat ($3 courtside) behind the basket where the fight began. I looked down at my scorecard, and when I looked up, the pandemonium had started.
    Willis broke John Block’s nose, and floored a few people, including Emmett Bryant, who was trying to hold him back. I kept that exact photo on my wall for many years. Best fight ever!

  3. alknowles

    It’s the player pictures from NBA 2K11. Nothing like the NBA trying to help pimp for a sponsor.

  4. Frank O.

    Boy, wish there was video of that fight. I’d love to see it…

    BTW, I watched game 7 of the ’70 series between the Knicks and Lakers. Clyde was unbelievable that game. 15 points in the first period, plus four assists and four rebounds.
    He had a huge game. And, man, could they shoot.
    The ball moved around so well, they pushed the ball on every turn over and rebound and really had the Lakers on their heels.
    Chamberlain with his reach over finger tip roll was not working. Reed was pushing him about for feet further from the basket than in game 6, and he was no where near as effective.
    But those uniforms…ridiculous.

    I vaguely remember watching the game when I was a boy. What a game, from a Knicks fans’ standpoint.

  5. Marc R

    I have a vague recollection of seeing a video clip of this fight once.

    It was during the heyday of the Nets-Knicks rivalry in the earlyish 90s and Willis (then GM of the Nets) said something in the press about the Knicks being thuggish or violent.

    On a subsequent MSG broadcast they showed footage of this fight (which was TREMENDOUS) to serve as a counterpoint to Willis’ comments. I remember that Marv was working the game.

    Does anyone here work at MSG and could track it down?

  6. Z

    Another good one Brian! Thanks.

    Maybe now that the top 25 favorite Knicks poll is finished we should do top 5 fights in Knick history. There’s a lot to choose from, and I didn’t even know about this one! (best one I remember is Doc Rivers v. Kevin Johnson– the two nicest, most mild-mannered guys in the league trying to murder each other in Phoenix :)

  7. BigBlueAL

    Z: Another good one Brian! Thanks.Maybe now that the top 25 favorite Knicks poll is finished we should do top 5 fights in Knick history. There’s a lot to choose from, and I didn’t even know about this one! (best one I remember is Doc Rivers v. Kevin Johnson– the two nicest, most mild-mannered guys in the league trying to murder each other in Phoenix :)  

    Derek Harper vs Jo Jo English would be my favorite.

  8. Brian Cronin

    Yeah, Marc, I thought I remembered that, too, and I actually had that in the piece (how Reed took a shot at the Knicks for being thugs so MSG aired his fight), but I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint when it happened (heck, I couldn’t find any evidence of Reed criticizing the Knicks’ players period!), so I removed it in case I was remembering incorrectly.

  9. Marc R

    Brian Cronin: Yeah, Marc, I thought I remembered that, too, and I actually had that in the piece (how Reed took a shot at the Knicks for being thugs so MSG aired his fight), but I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint when it happened (heck, I couldn’t find any evidence of Reed criticizing the Knicks’ players period!), so I removed it in case I was remembering incorrectly.  

    Well it’s good to know that either (1) we’re not crazy, or (2) we’re not alone in being crazy.

    Anyway, I think it would be in either 1993 or 1994, for what it’s worth.

  10. Z-man

    Great story, BC. This was the year I became a Knicks fan at age 9, I remember Bellamy but not Barnes, so I must have just missed recalling this fight. Despite polls, stats, and even Willis’s own words, IMHO he is without question the greatest Knicks player ever. MVP of league, all-star game, and NBA finals in the same year? Undisputed Captain and spiritual leader of a team with 3 other HOFers? Centerpiece of one of the most inspirational sports stories in history of all sports, whose name is synonymous with courage? As a kid, I loved Clyde, Dollar Bill, Dave D, etc, but I absolutely worshiped Willis Reed.

  11. daJudge

    I think I’m about the same age as Z-man Thank you very much for the story. This fight was absolutely mythical in my neighborhood. My friends and I would play three on three all day and then hook up the lights. We would all be one of the Knicks. I remember talking about Willis kicking ass so many times growing up with my friends. I’ll check, but I’m pretty sure I have told my wife about this fight so often that she thinks I have Alzheimer’s disease. I’m sure I embellished the story, but I think I got the basics right. The significance of the story is also partly the time when it took place—a very volatile era in America. I will leave it at that.

  12. Brian Cronin

    Oh totally, veteran white guy from Dartmouth pushing around the young black guy from Grambling State with no one stepping in to stop it…it practically writes itself!

  13. daJudge

    A truly amazing time in our history in which I grew up. I know this sounds terrible, but it is true–just think—back then the vast majority of the majority did not and would not even concede that a black woman could be beautiful or a black man an intellect. It was crazy. I know things are far from perfect, but oh my, times have changed big time. This is also why Clyde was not just cool and Willis was not just tough, IMO, they were important socially and culturally for us kids. And what a mix of Knicks back then!

  14. originaldiscokid

    Here from reading Bill Simmons’ “The Book Of Basketball,” where he described the scene as “the ’67 Lakers massacre.” I’m not a Knicks fan but I love your account of a moment that could never happen now. Man, I miss these days, but players fighting today would take it too far. That said, it was awesome when an enforcer like Willis could clean house when needed. What an incredible player.

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