Game to Remember: Game Six, 1976 ABA FinalsWhat a treat it is to watch "Game to Remember: Game Six, 1976 ABA Finals"! NBA TV broadcast this program last night, with Julius Erving and Brian Taylor sharing their recollections of the last ABA game, a 112-106 championship-clinching victory by their New York Nets over the powerful Denver Nuggets. Erving won the regular season and Finals MVPs in 1976 as he led the Nets to their second title in his three years with the franchise, while Taylor made the All-Star team and led the league in three point field goal percentage; he is the only player to lead the ABA and the NBA in three point field goal percentage in a season. Denver, coached by Larry Brown and led by Hall of Famers David Thompson and Dan Issel, went 60-24 in 1975-76; their team was so good that the ABA All-Star Game that year consisted of the Nuggets versus All-Stars from all of the other teams in the league--and the Nuggets defeated an All-Star Team featuring two of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players (Erving and George Gervin) plus Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas and James "Captain Late" Silas!
Kevin Loughery, the Nets' Coach at that time, recently said of Erving's play in the ABA, "He had more talent at that stage--we asked him to do everything. I really believe--and I've told this to Doc--that the NBA never saw the real Dr. J. I really believe that. In the ABA he did things that were incredible. We asked him to do everything. We won the (1976) championship playing against Denver when they had Bobby Jones, an All-League defensive player. He had the best playoff series in a championship series that I've ever seen one individual have." Erving's numbers certainly support Loughery's contention, as the Doctor led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) in the 1976 ABA Finals. Pat Putnam wrote a great Sports Illustrated story about the first four games of the series, when Erving rang up 158 points, 51 rebounds, 22 assists, eight steals and seven blocked shots.
Game six was actually an understated performance by Erving in that series: he "only" had 31 points--tying his series low--but his floor game was staggering: 19 rebounds, five assists, five steals, four blocked shots. It is very interesting to watch the closing moments of that game; on each New York half court set possession, Erving received the ball above the top of the key and operated in a 1-4 set, much like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James do today. Erving attacked the basket, accepted the double team and kicked the ball to open teammates who either made shots or drew fouls against defenders who were closing out on them; in part because of the defensive attention that Erving drew, muscular shooting guard "Super" John Williamson scored 16 fourth quarter points. This is a 32 year old highlight but Erving's play has a decidedly modern look to it.
It is so tiresome nowadays to hear people talking about being the man or whose team it is. Everyone on the Nets knew that Erving was "the man" but Erving was also smart enough and unselfish enough to understand that when he was double-teamed someone else was open. This all goes back to something else that Loughery said about Erving: "That man was the best. He was the easiest superstar you could possibly coach." Nets President Rod Thorn, who was then Loughery's assistant coach, expressed similar sentiments when I spoke with him: "He was the best teammate of all the players I’ve been involved with in 40-plus years of NBA basketball. He was our leading scorer, our leading rebounder, our leading shot blocker, our leading assist guy--you name it, he led our team in it, plus he was the leader of our team. He guarded the best forward every night, whether it was a small forward or a big forward. He took most of the big shots. Not only was he a great player, but more importantly he was a great teammate."
During "Game to Remember," Brian Taylor said this about Erving: "My memories and thoughts about Julius and being his teammate are not so much about being in the game but his behind the scenes leadership, his practice, his discipline, all of those things that are unseen (when) you see the highlights (and) that made him a phenomenal player and person. That's what comes to mind when I think about Julius 'Dr. J' Erving: what made him great was his discipline off the court and his personality, his human spirit."
ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere once famously declared that some players are franchise players but "For us, Dr. J is 'The League.'" Asked during "Game to Remember" about the burden of carrying such high expectations, Erving--with his characteristic grace, modesty and understanding of the larger picture--replied, "I didn't really feel that (pressure). When I came in I was so young, I was 21; in the last (ABA) game I was 26. So in that five year stretch my responsibilities were my job as a professional basketball player and my family responsibilities...There was so much going on in the world at that time--the Vietnam War was going on, so much political unrest, there was the threat of rioting in various cities around the country because of what had come out of the Sixties--and having gone through that, this was a joy ride, playing professional basketball. Carrying a league? All I was carrying was my jacket and my sneakers, showing up in the arena to play."
The Nets trailed 80-58 with just over 16 minutes remaining before rallying to win game six. Taylor said that this accomplishment contained a "life lesson" that he draws on to this day: "It was the determination and the teamwork and the togetherness that we had all the years that we played together that really stands out for me and 30 years later it feels strong still...It helps me when I'm teaching kids about overcoming adversity. We overcame adversity in a very short period of time but it's a life lesson for us as both Doc and I teach to our young people about how to survive. The game of basketball is so symbolic and that one game helps us as we talk and teach our young people."
Erving deserves the last word about the ABA's last game: "This game connects us for life. John (Williamson) is not with us anymore and Wendell Ladner, who was there in 1975, is not with us anymore, but we stay connected. When you win a championship, when you accomplish something that you set out to do--that you set as a goal months earlier--and then you actually achieve it, it has a bonding effect. It was a superior effort there, from seasoned veterans of five or six years to the rookies who were in the game...I think that the bonding effect is a reality and that's why I've always loved team sports. That's one of the things that separates team sports from individual sports."
posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM