#26 Willis Reed

When I was a teenager – I can only mark the timeframe by saying I remember Shawn Bradley was on the Nets – my brother and I attended a Nets/Knicks preseason game at the Nassau Coliseum. As two Nets fans on Long Island, this was probably our best chance to see our main team play the hated Knicks since MSG was constantly sold out and the Meadowlands was such a hike for us and we were yet to grasp the concept of taking a bus out of Port Authority. Because we jumped so quickly to get tickets to the preseason game, we ended up on the floor near one of the baskets. And sitting directly next to me was Nets General Manager and VP Willis Reed.

Of course, this preseason game was ruled a home game for the Knicks, and given Reed’s playing career – which featured an epic, yet completely overblown because it happened in NYC moment, when he limped onto the court in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, “inspiring” the Knicks to their first-ever NBA Championship – the Nets GM was being treated like a Prodigal Son from the mostly pro-New York crowd.

Still, I had an NBA legend and Nets front office guy sitting a chair away from me, so I did what any stupid kid would do and take my program over to him and asked for an autograph.

He totally ignored me.

Yeah, I’m still bitter.

I don’t know how this story ties-in to Willis Reed being a top Net of all-time, but I had to tell it because maybe if I twist the logic a bit, I can make this instance emblematic of his executive career in New Jersey. Reed is much maligned by a contingent of Nets fans, though maybe that’s a little unfair, and maybe that has more to do with his firmer roots with the competition across the river. Yeah, I was a Nets fan asking for an autograph and I’m still annoyed that he didn’t even acknowledge my existence, but there was a game going on and I’m sure he wasn’t sitting there just for the atmosphere, he had a job to do.

The Nets never accomplished anything of note while Reed was the “guy” calling the shots, but it’s not like he didn’t set them up. He drafted, arguably two of the best NBA prospects of the era in Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson and while their careers were more disappointing then fulfilling, I can’t really say I would have done anything any differently. Would the Nets have had any more success if Reed took Gary Payton in 1990 and Dikembe Mutombo in 1991? Maybe. But Coleman was looking like one of the greatest PF prospects of all time at Syracuse, and Kenny the Kid had the team playing phenomenally his first year as starting PG before John Starks shattered his wrist and ended his season.

Let’s also not forget the major coup Reed scored in getting Chuck Daly, a coach with a championship pedigree, to come over to New Jersey. And then there was his trade for some little-used European SG on Portland named Drazen Petrovic. Despite Petrovic’s untimely death in 1993, Reed still built-up a very good roster for the 93-94 season, getting a solid rotation player in Kevin Edwards, adding some scoring pop off the bench in Armen Gilliam, and taking a flier on the talented, but poorly adjusted Benoit Benjamin. You can’t say Reed didn’t at least swing for the fences. In an apples and oranges comparison, people are praising Mike Tannebaum and Rex Ryan for essentially doing the same kind of thing with the Jets. Put talent together and hope a strong-willed coach can get these guys to play together. Daly essentially did that, and then walked out, leaving Reed with the bag. And that’s when things went sour for Reed.

So in retrospect, would I have felt better about Reed if he signed my program? Of course. Though I probably would have ended up losing the souvenir anyway. Or it would it would be sitting on my shelf in my bedroom next to my Todd Hundley autographed baseball and my Ray Lucas autographed picture. In other words, who cares. It’s so much easier to judge Reed with years of 20-20 hindsight. Under Reed’s leadership, the Nets had a run of sustained success that’s only be surpassed by the Jason Kidd-era team. Billy King and Avery Johnson would kill for that kind of roster, and Nets fans would love to be sitting in the Barclays Arena in 2012 with a team like the 92-93 Nets.