GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- One by one, the New York Knicks approached their injured captain in the Game 7 locker room. Clyde Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley -- they all delivered the same message to Willis Reed in various forms.
"They told me if I could just give them 20 minutes," Reed recalled Thursday, "we're going to win it all tonight."
Reed was being asked to ignore the muscle tear in his right leg and the very large needle that pumped Carbocaine into that leg five or six times. On May 8, 1970, Reed was being asked to shake it off, rub some dirt on it, and take the court to face the Los Angeles Lakers' goliath, Wilt Chamberlain, who had managed only 45 points and 27 rebounds in Game 6.
Reed had gone down for good in Game 5, and yet here he was being revived in the bowels of Madison Square Garden by teammates who were afraid to even peek at the captain's needle.
"It was the moment we were all waiting for," Reed said by phone. "With one leg, I was being asked to guard the greatest offensive force in NBA history. It was one game for the championship, and as the captain I had to do what I could."
Everyone knows the rest. Reed hobbled down the tunnel to a standing ovation, somehow scored the first two baskets, and wrestled with Chamberlain in the paint while Frazier played the game of his life, the kind of game Carmelo Anthony just played against the Boston Celtics.
Anthony could have used Reed in Game 2, and could sure use him in Game 3, when the Garden becomes the Garden again for the first time in forever. Amare Stoudemire has a pulled muscle in his back, and Chauncey Billups has a strained tendon in his left knee, injuries that cost the Knicks a chance to be 1-1 with the Celtics and might cost them a chance to send this series back north.
Mike D'Antoni said he is optimistic Stoudemire would give it a go, and not quite as hopeful about Billups, a well-established tough guy who took a cortisone shot and sat there while a doctor drained blood from his knee.
"I gave myself the best chance," Billups said, "so I'm just hoping at this point."
So is the rest of New York, especially the city's leading scholar in the field of taking one for the team.
As the undisputed king of pain, Reed is a most credible voice on the subject of injured Knicks. But for all the mythology he's inspired, for all the virtues he's embodied, Reed doesn't believe an athlete should sacrifice his body at all team-centric costs.
In fact, after taking those Carbocaine injections from his hip down to his lower thigh, Reed wouldn't have played a Game 3 of a first-round series against the Celtics, even if his Knicks were down 0-2.
"I only played that night because it was the last game for the championship," Reed said, "and I knew there wouldn't be any long-term repercussions from playing, and there weren't. I wouldn't have played in a Game 3 because it probably would've knocked me out of a Game 4.
"Amare and Chauncey have to make sure they maximize what they can give to the team, because the Knicks need them for more than one game. People forget that I didn't play in Game 6 against the Lakers. After Game 7, I knew I'd have the whole summer to rest and recover."
The 2011 Knicks are staring at an extended period of R&R. Neither Stoudemire nor Billups practiced Thursday; Stoudemire didn't even appear at the Knicks' Westchester facility, not with the team deciding that a two-hour round-trip commute didn't make sense for a man with a bad back.
How times have changed. Forty-one years before Stoudemire received treatment in his Manhattan apartment, Reed traveled 6,000 miles to Los Angeles and back so Knicks trainer Danny Wheelan could work on his leg.
It turned out to be worth it, and then some. But Reed wasn't endorsing any suggestion that Stoudemire and Billups should follow his iconic lead for the sake of the franchise and its fans.
"They've got to make the best decision long-term for them and the organization," Reed said. "With Chauncey, if he can't chase [Rajon] Rondo around, he has to be realistic. If he's only 85 percent, that's not going to be good enough."
Reed wasn't at 85 percent capacity, not even close, when he scored the four most famous points in Knicks history, and helped to hold Chamberlain to a manageable 21. The moment he emerged from the Garden tunnel to join pregame warmups, Reed said, "I heard people say, 'Everything's going to be all right, the captain is here.' And I thought, 'Yeah, I'm here on one leg.'"
On the layup line, Reed did what he could to hide the extent of his injury from the Lakers. He moved in slow motion, jogged stiff-legged, avoided eye contact with Chamberlain and made all of his practice shots.
He also made the first two that counted. Frazier passed him the ball on the first possession, and Reed found himself open near the foul line, with Wilt the Stilt sagging into the lane. Red Holzman had taught his Knicks to hit the open man, hurt or not, and Reed honored Holzman's dogma and Frazier's trust with the jump shot heard 'round the world.
On his way back down the floor, with the Garden shaking at its core, Reed thought to himself, "I can't f---ing believe I made that shot."
All these years later, the captain said, "I always dreamed of winning a championship with 35 points and 20 rebounds, but winning it with those two baskets was special."
The Garden isn't hosting a championship game Friday night, just a Game 3 that will allow a distinguished basketball building to come back to life. Stoudemire is expected to play hurt. Billups is a different story.
"I've got my fingers crossed for both of those guys," Reed said, "but, if they have to, I think they should err on the side of caution. They made the playoffs this year and next year they get to go to training camp together and come back with a better chance."
So neither Stoudemire nor Billups should feel compelled to risk bodily harm for the Game 3 cause. The king of pain has spoken. Willis Reed has given them a pass.