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OPINION

NBA Great Willis Reed - A Gentle Giant and Friend

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An NBA great has passed away - Willis Reed. His 10-year basketball career with the New York Knicks was outstanding and will be remembered by all who followed the game during those years.

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Reed, a Hall of Famer, was a class act, team player, captain, MVP, All-Star, two-time NBA champion, and a role model for how to play the game. He was also a humble winner.

Reed was actually a friend of mine, in my Forrest Gump-like life.

My life would have been different had I not met Reed. I doubt if I would have been able to draw the attention of the many colleges that offered me basketball scholarships had it not been for Reed's help (even though I rejected all of them - I did draw the attention of Ivy League schools, which do not offer athletic scholarships - only scholarships "based on need"). In my family with five siblings and a father who was a millworker - who was barely able to read or write - there was "a lot of need."

Reed's record should show at least one more "assist," an assist to me in the all-important game of life.

As a 16-year-old getting ready for my junior year in high school, I attended the first "Willis Reed Basketball Camp" near the U.S. Military Academy in New York. It proved to be a turning point in my basketball development as I went on to become a Connecticut All-State player and high school All-American honorable mention, before becoming captain of Yale's freshmen and varsity basketball teams.

It was the Willis Reed Basketball camp, but its director was Bobby Knight; the assistant director was Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K). The former was the head coach and the latter the assistant coach of Army's college basketball team at the time. Imagine that, being trained by two men who would go on to become the two winningest coaches in NCAA Division 1 basketball history while coaching predominately at Indiana and Duke respectively.

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But it gets better. Because it was Reed's camp, we had many New York Knicks players come as daily visitors and instructors. I played pick-up games with some of them at night when the formal training had ended.

I first met my grade school basketball idol - Bill Bradley, who was a guest instructor at the camp for a session. Decades later we would serve in Congress together - with Bradley in the Senate and me in the House of Representatives.

It was an amazing experience, a Godsend.

As you might expect, I learned a lot about basketball while sharpening my skills. I also learned their training habits and saw how hard those guys worked to become professional players.

The results were dramatic the following year in high school. I was an occasional starter in my sophomore year, averaging a modest five points a game. Following Reed's camp I would average between 20 and 30 points per game for the next three years, including a 25-ppg average during my freshman year at Yale.

In my three last collegiate basketball games against Harvard, nationally ranked Penn, and NIT champion Princeton, I averaged about 25 ppg. This allowed me to become a free agent with the New Orleans Jazz in 1975. I was the last one cut in rookie camp that year, cut by Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor (head coach at the time).

My friendship with Reed continued beyond my being a "camper." He invited me back as a camp counselor during one summer while I was on break from college. He used me as an example of someone who was at his first basketball camp and who had "made good."

Our friendship didn't end there, however. Willis was proud of my political achievements. When I served in Congress, he invited me to join him at a New Jersey Nets game when he was successfully running the team as its senior vice president.

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As you can see, it was a friendship that spanned decades.

Oh, one more memory. Early in his career, after winning the Rookie of the Year award, he not only spent a night at our house as a guest and friend of my sister, but he also joined us at the Immaculate Conception Church in Waterbury for mass. And, yes, all eyes were on this gentle giant of a man, not known by many at the time.

I remember him telling my mother over dinner that he hoped the reporters would start getting his name right - newspaper stories and headlines often referred to him as "William Reed." We all laughed.

Rest in peace - "Number 19 for the New York Knicks - Willis Reed!"

They don't make basketball players like you anymore.

Gary Franks served three terms as U.S. representative for Connecticut's 5th District. He was the first Black Republican elected to the House in nearly 60 years and New England's first Black member of the House. Host: podcast "We Speak Frankly." Author: "With God, For God, and For Country." @GaryFranks

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