Tramel's ScissorTales: Saluting Willis Reed, Knicks legend who charmed OKC with Hornets
We sat in the east bleachers, behind the basket, at Southern Nazarene’s Sawyer Center.
The Hornets, relocated from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, were practicing at SNU. This would have been March 2007, Chris Paul’s second year.
The Hornets’ practices were open to the media; George Shinn’s franchise wasn’t quite as buttoned-down as the Thunder has been lo these many years. You’d always take the Thunder way, because tightening screws always pays off, but man, what a ride that first NBA season. Sitting there watching an NBA team practice.
Then-sports editor Mike Sherman and I were joined by then-Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett and a Hornet executive who always liked to watch a little basketball.
Perhaps the most regal of NBA stars over the league’s 77 seasons, the captain of the Knickerbockers when the world was young, a prince among men. All describe Reed, who died Tuesday at age 80.
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Basketball fans remember – or have been told – about Reed’s heroics with the 1970 Knickerbockers. Of limping onto the court with a thigh injury just before Game 7 tipoff of the NBA Finals. Of knocking down two early shots to give New York the lead, setting on fire not just Madison Square Garden but the whole island of Manhattan.
The Lakers never had a chance, and the Knicks had a championship. Then another in 1973. Reed was a 10-year Knick. The 1970 NBA most valuable player. A Basketball Hall of Famer.
But I’ll remember Reed as a charming, personable, gregarious man, with a million NBA stories and willingness to share them with anyone who was remotely interested on the Oklahoma prairie.
Reed was the Hornets’ vice president of basketball operations during their OKC days.
I remember the first day at the Ford Center, when the initial press conference was staged, introducing the Hornets to Oklahoma City.
I walked in and noticed a big, older man, leaning against the back wall. He looked familiar. I got busy meeting other people, but sometime during the press conference, my brain clicked in.
That man was Willis Reed.
Holy crap, I thought. This NBA thing is really real if Willis Reed is in town.
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He had a friendliness and a presence that remains uncommon. The NBA is normal to us now. All kinds of basketball royalty has come through town. Oscar Robertson. Bill Russell. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Michael Jordan. Dozens more. Hundreds more.
Willis Reed is at the top of the list.
Think back to those grand old Knicks. Walt Frazier — “Clyde,” they called him then and now, an all-star player and the coolest customer in the history of the league, still the broadcast voice of the blue and orange. Bill Bradley, who became a respected U.S. Senator (not a redundancy). Dave DeBusschere, who I mentioned last week as an incredible presence, becoming a player-head coach at age 24 in the NBA. Plus old pro Dick Barnett.
Talk about a league of distinguished gentlemen. A collection of eminent personalities.
Yet there was no question who was captain of the Knickerbockers.
ESPN’s Mike Greenberg tweeted it best: “There have been greater players than Willis Reed. There has never been a greater leader. Rest in peace, Captain. Fans of the Knicks will love you until the end of time.”
Anyone who ever met Willis Reed will love him until the end of time, including Oklahomans who passed him on the street or chatted him up at games or sat with him at a Hornets practice, in awe that not only an NBA team, not only such an NBA legend, but such a wonderful person, was in our midst.
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Curse of the Clippers
Paul George fell to the hardwood Tuesday night, his legs tangled with Luguentz Dort, and immediately you felt empathy for PG13. Heck, maybe even some sorrow for the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Thunder beat the Clippers 101-100 in a showdown game in Los Angeles – perhaps you heard; Dort stonewalled Kawhi Leonard over the final 23 seconds, and the Clipper All-Star didn’t even get off a shot before the buzzer sounded – but that wasn’t the biggest news of the night.
George’s injury, later announced as a knee sprain, dominated the headlines. As it should. It’s the latest example of the Clipper curse.
The beleaguered franchise never has made the NBA Finals. But Clipper stock soared when the Thunder traded George to Los Angeles overnight, July 5-6, 2019. Seemed like a great day for the Clippers, signaling that they would sign Kawhi Leonard and forming a lethal duo of the NBA’s best wings. Great on offense, terrors on defense.
Seemed like a despondent day for the Thunder. The end of a glorious era. The rebuilding would be coming quickly, and the apparent trade bounty was of little consolation.
Quite quaint thinking now, of course. The Thunder got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who now is a top-shelf NBA superstar; Danilo Gallinari, who helped give OKC one last good team before the rebuild; and five first-round draft picks. So far, the Thunder has used two of those picks; one brought Tre Mann, the other Santa Clara Williams.
Lord have mercy.
Santa Clara has turned into a whirling dervish of a rookie. SGA, Santa Clara, Josh Giddey, Dort, Chet Holmgren. The Thunder future is bright, and all it cost was two grin-and-bear it rebuild seasons.
Meanwhile, the Clippers’ championship contention has not come to fruition.
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Kawhi and PG remain phenomenal players, though the clock ticks on their creeping ages. George is 32; Leonard 31.
But the Clippers have played 309 regular-season games since that trade. Kawhi has played 153; less than half. He missed all of the 2021-22 season with a major knee injury. George has played 189 Clipper games; 61%.
Together, Kawhi and PG have played in less than 40% of the Clippers’ games.
The Clips lost a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the 2020 West semifinals. They made the 2021 West finals but lost to Phoenix in six games. They didn’t make the 2022 playoffs.
And now their playoff path is uncertain, with George helped off the court Tuesday. The Clippers say PG will be re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks, which would be at the advent of the playoffs.
But the sight of George being helped off the Crypto.com court Tuesday night, then in the tunnel being carried by Clipper personnel, was jolting. Re-evaluated in 2-3 weeks does not mean returning in 2-3 weeks.
The Clippers lead the Thunder by just 1½ games. They’ve sold their draft future to OKC, with the picks and other pick swaps, and now the Thunder has virtually caught them in competitiveness. The Clippers are old and banged up and fighting to stay out of the play-in tournament.
The five Clipper players on the court at the end of the game Tuesday night totaled 68 NBA seasons. Kawhi was the youngest, at age 31. The five Thunder players on the court at the end of the game totaled 15 NBA seasons. Gilgeous-Alexander was the oldest, at age 24.
Kawhi and George have strikingly similar contracts. Both are signed for next season at $45.6 million each; both have a player option for 2024-25 at $48.8 million.
The Clippers are a rich franchise in the NBA’s best market. They can sustain financial setbacks. But they can’t sustain the unavailability of their star players, and George’s injury is the latest curse upon the Clippers.
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The List: Thunder playoff possibilities
The Thunder’s playoff push is in the wild Western Conference, where nine teams – fourth through 12 – are separated by only three games.
The Thunder sits squarely in the eighth seed, tied with Minnesota for the seventh-best record, at 36-36.
Remember the format. Top six teams advance to the playoffs, with the next four teams competing in a play-in tournament for the final two spots. The No. 7 and No. 8 seeds need win just once to advance, while the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds need to win twice.
According to basketball-reference.com, the Thunder has a 37.7% chance to finish in the top six and only a 13.3% chance to finish outside the top 10. That’s an 87.7% chance to make the postseason.
With the season coming down to its final couple of weeks, here are the playoff percentages for the West, according to basketball-reference.com:
No. 1 seed: Nuggets 95.5, Grizzlies 3.9, Kings 0.6.
No. 2 seed: Grizzlies 76.6, Kings 19.4, Nuggets 4.0.
No. 3 seed: Kings 78.8, Grizzlies 19.5, Suns 1.1, Nuggets 0.5, Warriors 0.1.
No. 4 seed: Suns 56.3, Clippers 13.3, Warriors 10.2, Thunder 8.0, Timberwolves 3.4, Mavericks 2.9, Pelicans 2.3, Lakers 1.3, Kings 1.2, Jazz 1.0.
No. 5 seed: Warriors 21.1, Clippers 18.9, Suns 18.2, Thunder 14.7, Timberwolves 9.6, Mavericks 6.6, Lakers 4.5, Pelicans 4.4, Jazz 2.0.
No. 6 seed: Warriors 19.6, Clippers 16.4, Thunder 15.0, Timberwolves 13.6, Mavericks 10.3, Suns 9.1, Lakers 6.6, Pelicans 6.0, Jazz 3.5.
No. 7 seed: Mavericks 15.2, Thunder 14.9, Timberwolves 14.5, Warriors 13.8, Clippers 12.7, Lakers 9.2, Pelicans 8.1, Jazz 6.1, Suns 5.4, Trail Blazers 0.1.
No. 8 seed: Mavericks 15.6, Timberwolves 13.7, Thunder 13.1, Lakers 11.5, Warriors 11.2, Clippers 11.2, Pelicans 10.0, Jazz 9.3, Suns 3.9, Trail Blazers 0.4.
No. 9 seed: Mavericks 16.9, Timberwolves 15.1, Lakers 13.4, Thunder 11.5, Jazz 11.0, Pelicans 10.1, Clippers 9.8, Warriors 9.1, Suns 2.6, Trail Blazers 0.6.
No. 10 seed: Lakers 16.8, Jazz 15.9, Mavericks 14.4, Pelicans 13.4, Timberwolves 12.4, Thunder 10.7, Clippers 7.5, Warriors 6.1, Suns 1.4, Trail Blazers 1.3.
11th or worse: Trail Blazers 97.9, Jazz 53.8, Pelicans 48.0, Lakers 38.3, Mavericks 18.9, Timberwolves 15.8, Thunder 13.3, Clippers 7.6, Warriors 5.6, Suns 0.9.
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Mailbag: Mike Gundy
My Mike Gundy column in the Thursday Oklahoman elicited some response from OSU fans.
Mike: “Ain't buying the spiel from Gundy. Hides away ‘til spring? Come on. Bully. Jerk. Gutless. All apply. Schooled by (Brent) Venables on meeting new players. As many Big 12 championships as TCU coach (Sonny) Dykes in his first year. Gundy is a 30-day wonder. Nothing more. Cowboy dreams of spring and August used to die in October. Now they die in November. OSU is slumping as much as OU when you normalize the data. Football. Men’s basketball. Wrestling. Baseball. Only women's basketball and golf are excelling. Only by enlarging the time frame to many years past is there a mirage of adequacy. It's how an analyst hides mediocrity in the averages. When you look at end-of-year results. Not mid-year guesses by pundits before the meat of the schedule is faced.”
Tramel: Sorry, I ain’t buying this spiel.
Gundy can drive me as nuts as much as anybody, and I’m the one who told him to quit hibernating.
But OSU football is not slumping, unless you just count the last six games of the season. Literally 14½ months ago, the Cowboys completed one of the two or three best seasons in school history.
The portal losses are disturbing, but Gundy always has rebounded from difficult situations and produced a quality product. We’ll see how the 2023 Cowboys fare, but the on-field performance is the least of his issues.
I just want him to market the team better, because there is much to market.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Willis Reed, Knicks Hall of Famer, charmed Oklahoma City with Hornets