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The Captain: An appreciation

It’s often said that you should be careful when meeting your heroes.

The chances for disappointment are great. It can be soul-crushing when the people we look up to are taken down from their pedestals and reveal themselves to be, ultimately, just another human being.

This is a story of meeting a hero who surpassed all expectations.

Thirty years ago, my then-pregnant (and now-ex) wife Valerie and I struggled to come up with a name for our first born. Finally, we had a light bulb moment and came up with “Willis,” if it turned out to be a boy (which he did).

One of the things that drew Valerie and me together years before was living through the heyday of the New York Knickerbockers, a basketball team celebrated for its savvy, toughness, unselfishness, and ability to play the game the right way.

The team was epitomized by its captain, Willis Reed, a six-foot-nine, 250-pound colossus who had an exquisitely soft touch on his jump shot and a heart bigger than the Empire State Building. He is, without a doubt, one of the top five New York sports figures of all time.

As a sign of the enduring respect with which he is held by his former teammates, he is mostly referred to as, simply, “The Captain.”

Willis Reed passed away last week at the age of 80. The tributes across the U.S. were plentiful, heartfelt and glowing. All cited his heroic appearance, after tearing a thigh muscle, in game seven — the final, deciding game — of the 1970 NBA championship series versus the Los Angeles Lakers, which was helmed by Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor.

During warm-ups, as his teammates and the Lakers shot around, in the locker room, Willis received several injections of carbocaine, a powerful derivative of novocaine. Shortly thereafter, he strolled out onto the court and Madison Square Garden roared and shook like it had never done before and has not done since. The Lakers never had a chance.

Those who have read this far and are resolutely disinterested in sports will be relieved to learn that the sports part of this story ends here.

In 2002, Valerie was cited in a New York Post column for the work that her foundation was doing to fight Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The writer mentioned in an aside that she was such a New York Knicks fan that she named her son Willis — after Willis Reed.

The next day her cell phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number. She answered it. “Valerie?” the deep voice on the other end asked. “Hi. This is Willis Reed.” He had read the piece in the Post and got Valerie’s number from the writer.

Willis was calling to ask if there was something he could do to help her charity’s fundraising. Shell-shocked, she mumbled how that would be incredible and that they should meet. Willis said he would be delighted. But then Valerie remembered something.

Our Willis’ 3rd grade class had an assignment to write a paper about a famous person and he had chosen to write a biography of his namesake. She told Willis about our Willis’ assignment and asked if he would be willing to get on the phone for an interview with our Willis.

“I have a better idea,” he said. “Why don’t you bring Willis out to the New Jersey Nets practice facility in Piscataway?” Post-retirement, Willis was a Nets official. “He can ask all the questions he wants and then, maybe, we could grab some lunch.”

The next week he warmly greeted us and shook everybody’s hand. The first noticeable thing: He was a massive human being, and after years of battling Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Wes Unseld, his fingers were mangled and disjointed; none were parallel with its neighbor. He introduced us to several Nets players who were working out and then we went to his office.

After a few pleasantries, he was bombarded with questions. Unfortunately, for our Willis, his awestruck parents boxed him out and asked the NBA legend every imaginable question they had saved up during the prior 35 years.

How would Wilt do against Shaquille O’Neal? (After chuckling, “Wilt would destroy him.”) Why does Oscar Robertson always seem so dour? (“I think it’s because to this day he believes he never got his proper due.”) Did you know that you’d play in game seven in 1970? (“I knew I was going to at least try.”) And on and on it went.

Then, in slight embarrassment, we realized that the meeting was supposed to be about our intrepid 3rd grader asking all the questions, and so he did, reading from his handwritten list. Willis Reed gave every question our son asked considerable thought.

His answers were serious, fascinating, insightful. No answer was perfunctory. He treated our Willis as if he were a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Our son was shy, but the Captain made every effort to make him feel comfortable.

The Captain had asked us to bring a basketball for him to sign: “To my new friend, Willis. Best wishes, Willis Reed” he wrote with a silver sharpie and gave our Willis a signed photo from his playing days.

After two hours of sitting in his office, after all the questions were answered, Willis said, “So, what do you say we grab a bite to eat? I’m starved. There’s this deli just a short drive away that I like to go to. The sandwiches are huge. I usually eat just half and take the other half home.”

During the meal the conversation flowed freely. Willis asked our Willis about his hobbies and what was going on in school. He asked Valerie about her charity and said he’d love to attend the next benefit. He asked me what I did for a living and, when I said I worked in the music industry, he talked about his love for soul music and Motown. He insisted on picking up the check.

It would be the first of many times we would meet up with Willis Reed — our friend, Willis Reed — over the ensuing years.

We were greatly saddened when we learned of his passing. Several weeks earlier, the Knicks organization celebrated the 50th anniversary of the their 1973 championship.

The surviving players from that team assembled on the Madison Square Garden floor during halftime. Walt “Clyde” Frazier spoke, reminisced, and thanked the fans. A video message from the Captain played on the overhead screen. He looked sick and weary, but his voice was strong.

I don’t know if there’s a concise definition of “mensch,” but I can state that Willis Reed was, indeed, a mensch of the first order. And it had nothing to do with what he accomplished on the basketball court. He was as gracious, kind, smart, self-possessed, curious, and generous a human being as I’ve ever met in my 65 years. And, because of those qualities, he’s my hero, he’s Valerie’s hero, and he’s our son’s hero.

We were all privileged beyond words to have met him.

O, Captain! My Captain! Godspeed.