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Friday, December 12, 2008

Game to Remember: Game Six, 1976 ABA Finals

What 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."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 AM

24 comments

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24 Comments:

At Friday, December 12, 2008 6:05:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

Great game. Brian Taylor later on became one of the first three-point specialists in the NBA.

Still, one of the books on Jordan (can't remember which) quotes Erving recalling his days as ABA standard-bearer to compare with Jordan's status in the league, and in that quote Dr J claims to have felt quite some pressure, so much that he felt the urge to run away and hide during those Finals (I can't recall the exact quote).

 
At Friday, December 12, 2008 6:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

I've read a lot about Erving (and Jordan) but I can't recall ever reading or hearing a quote like the one that you described. That does not even sound like the way Erving expresses himself; if he actually said that, maybe he was joking. He sure did not play like he felt pressure during his six Finals appearances (two in the ABA, four in the NBA) when he won three championships and two Finals MVPs. He averaged 25.5 ppg in four NBA Finals while scoring at least 20 points in 20 of 21 games; he averaged 33.4 ppg in two ABA Finals, scoring at least 20 points in 10 of 11 games and at least 30 points in eight of 11 games, including all six games of the 1976 Finals. He was one of the great clutch players of all time.

 
At Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:39:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

It's always interesting to hear what people who saw Dr. J in the ABA have to say about him. The difference in the way they talk about him (compared to those who saw him only in the NBA) is striking. The ABA guys talk about him the same way people talk about Michael Jordan. When the NBA guys speak of him, it sounds more like they are talking about a guy with Clyde Drexler's game who commanded respect in a David Robinson type of way (meaning people usually go on about his class and the way he carried himself and how he set an example and was inspiring, etc.). At times, I think all the talk of Dr. J being an ambassador for the league, and a good teammate, etc. doesn't do him justice. He should be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time, not just a good player who was friendly and gave good interviews.

I was looking at Elliott Kalb's Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball? recently. There is a section where Kalb takes opinions comparing Bird to Erving. Snapper Jones goes with Erving. So does Leonord Koppett. Kevin Loughery says it's unfair to compare them since they were different types of players, but that Dr. J would have won several titles if he played with McHale and Parish. Peter Vecsey goes with Bird and says that Dr. J was "a lot of hype". Rod Thorn goes with Bird and offers the following quote:

"You know, I love Dr. J. Everything about him. But the team he was on in Philadelphia — well, I just think he never approached the level he was at in the ABA."

I thought that was kind of interesting in comparison to the interview he had with you. In both places, Thorn implies that Erving's lower output in the NBA was a result of the talent on the 76er team he joined and what he did to try to be a good teammate. The tone he takes is different though. In your interview, Thorn seemed more defensive of Erving and seemed to regard his NBA years as a different role but not something which diminished his stature. In Kalb's interview, Thorn appears to believe that Erving's lesser role with the 76ers does take away from what his status may have been. I wonder if your questioning (and Kalb's) directed Thorn to these different conclusions.

Even if Thorn believes that Dr. J was a let down in the NBA, I still don't see the full justification to rank Bird ahead of him. When you include the ABA years, Erving's stats, honors, and championships compare very well with Bird's. I think when many people compare Bird to Erving they give Bird the edge because they basically disregard Erving's pre-1980 career. With Thorn having been in the ABA with Erving's Nets, one can't accuse him of doing the same. I wonder if Thorn regarded the ABA of the mid 70s as a lesser league than the NBA and if that's part of what led to his conclusion.

 
At Saturday, December 13, 2008 3:49:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Anyway, I really love what I've seen of the 1976 ABA Finals (Game 1's second half, and Game 6). I think you are right on about the comparison to the way Kobe and LeBron operate. In fact, I think I commented here a while back that LeBron oftentimes plays like a bigger, stronger version of a young Dr. J. LeBron is like a combination of Julius Erving and Magic Johnson in their early years (right down to the need to improve his jumper).

It's been a while since I watched the game, but I think Dr. J also guarded David Thompson down the stretch (and held him from scoring late in the game). He had several steals, grabbed a ton of boards, ran the offense, and was much more of a presence in the 4th quarter than his two points would have one believe.

The best Dr. J games to watch are his ABA games and the games from the 1977 finals. He seemed to lose some of his mojo once he lost the afro.

 
At Saturday, December 13, 2008 5:32:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

As you know from my previous articles, I rank Dr. J in the all-time Pantheon of the 10 greatest players, based on his total production as well as the extraordinarily high level that he reached during his peak years.

He spent nearly a third of his career in the ABA and the ABA was a very tough league so it is completely unfair to discount his stats and honors from that time--and, as you said, when you include his ABA MVPs and championships, his career stacks right up there with Bird's or any other forward's career.

I don't know Kalb and I don't know what questions he asked Thorn, what answers Thorn gave and/or what answers Kalb chose to publish in his book. It is my observation that a lot of times writers phrase questions in certain ways to try to elicit specific responses; they also sometimes do not ask for clarifications of ambiguous statements, choosing to interpret them to their own personal liking. If Thorn had said to me the words that you quoted from Kalb's book, I would have probed more deeply to determine exactly what he meant. I think that my Q&A with Thorn accurately and completely reflects his views on Erving and Jordan.

 
At Saturday, December 13, 2008 5:37:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

LeBron very much reminds me of a young Dr. J, albeit a bigger version of Erving. When LeBron flies high above the rim and fully extends his right arm before throwing down a one handed slam he looks very much like Dr. J in the ABA or the '77 NBA Finals.

I don't think that it is completely fair to say that he lost his "mojo" after '77. In '78 he was continuing with the Sixers' plan of having three 20 ppg scorers as opposed to him going out and getting 30 ppg. In '79, he battled a lot of nagging injuries that did not necessarily cause him to miss a lot of games but hampered his explosiveness. In '80, he took the protective wraps off of his knees and had an "ABA-esque" season, averaging 26.9 ppg and finishing second to Kareem in MVP voting. His '81 and '82 campaigns were also very high level. In '83, he again voluntarily reduced his role as Moses Malone joined the team but he was still an All-NBA First Team player. After that, his career began to wind down, though he was still an All-Star caliber player in his final season at 37.

 
At Saturday, December 13, 2008 5:52:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I should have clarified what I meant by "mojo". I was more referring to explosiveness and tendency to make spectacular plays. The style that we see in the ABA games and in the 1977 Finals from the Afro/goatee Dr. J is overall more improvisational, explosive, breathtaking, and fun to watch than the more polished, quietly efficient style we saw from the clean-cut Doc of the 80s who played off the ball more.

The Baseline Move is, of course, an exception. But it's kind of interesting how his game seemed to change in a way that coincided with his appearance.

 
At Monday, December 15, 2008 11:02:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Vednam....Are you sure Vecsey said Dr. J was a lot of hype? He only coached Dr J at the Rucker in the 70s, followed him during Docs ABA and NBA days, and had Doc as his best man at his wedding. I know Vecsey can be wild with his assessments but for him to say Erving was a lot of hype cant be true at all or definitely a misprint. That Baseline Move, according to Vecsey, is a move Doc did 4 or 5 times a game at the Rucker. So im surprised to hear that Vecsey would say this.

Also realize the Afros in general by black people got smaller in the 80s, hence Docs fro (clean cut as you put it) being different. He was also older, as you know.

Lebron is not as graceful as Doc nore does he have the hands of Doc. But I can see the comparisons somewhat.

 
At Monday, December 15, 2008 11:33:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Vednam....definitely not a misprint. Good job on that, Vednam. I have seen the quote about what Vecsey said about Doc being a lot of hype. Very surprising because he never mentions this anywhere else but here. Ive heard Vecsey talk about Doc many times and he never said this.

 
At Monday, December 15, 2008 6:51:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam/Madnice:

That is a surprising quote by Vecsey and one that is not accurate. Even discounting Erving's sizable ABA achievements, he was a five-time All-NBA First Team member, an MVP and an 11-time All-Star. Few players match those accomplishments--and he did those things after spending nearly the first third of his career in the ABA. Take out the first five years of Bird, Magic or MJ's careers and you wipe out a lot of MVPs, championships and statistical accomplishments. Erving definitely was more than hype, no matter how you look at his career.

Bird spent his prime years playing with a HoF center and a HoF power forward who always took the toughest defensive assignments. Erving did not play with a HoF center until he was 33 years old and in that season the Sixers set numerous records and rolled to the championship. Erving never played with a HoF forward during that forward's prime (he played with an old McAdoo near the end of McAdoo's career and a young Barkley). Despite that, Erving's Sixers had the best regular season record in the NBA during his first six seasons in the league and he carried them to three NBA Finals during that time, before winning a title alongside Moses Malone in year seven. Erving has really become an underrated player. He definitely belongs in any all-time Top 10 or "Pantheon" list.

If you look at the head to head comparison, Erving and the 76ers were neck and neck with Bird and the Celtics, despite Bird being much younger and having a better supporting cast (except for '83, when they did not face each other in the playoffs anyway).

Erving and the Sixers beat Bird and the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in '80 and '82 and really should have won the '81 series also, leading 3-1. Bird squared the head to head playoff series record when his Celtics beat a past his prime Erving and the 76ers in the '85 ECF.

 
At Monday, December 15, 2008 7:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reggie

the aba folded david it couldnt hang with nba you love rhe aba it was a good league but nba is whatr matter and better.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 12:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

The NBA and the ABA merged after the 1976 season, though the NBA--as the dominant entity financially--resented the competition that the ABA had provided for nine years and preferred to term the deal as an absorption. However, to this day, commentators, writers and fans talk about a merger in 1976 and reject the biased terminology that the NBA tried to impose.

For several years, the NBA and ABA played preseason games that were hotly contested because both leagues wanted to prove that they were the best; the ABA teams won more of those games than the NBA teams and the advantage became more pronounced each year. By 1976, Dr. J was the best player in either league and the NBA absolutely wanted to bring him into the fold by any means necessary. In the first All-Star Game after the merger, nearly half of the All-Stars had ABA roots, even though the ABA had fewer teams than the NBA and had been falsely derided as an inferior league.

In 1975, the ABA champion Kentucky Colonels--coached by Hubie Brown--challenged the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to play a game but the Warriors declined. If the champions of those leagues had met over the years the way that NFL and AFL champions met in three Super Bowls before their merger, the ABA would almost certainly have had a "Jets-Colts" type game (like Super Bowl III) to solidify the league's reputation.

Some people thought that the old AAFC (All-American Football Conference) was inferior but when the Cleveland Browns joined the NFL after the demise of the AAFC they shut up the critics by winning the NFL title in their first season. The NBA prevented a repeat of that scenario by imposing such burdensome terms on the ABA teams in 1976 that the Nets and Pacers were struggling just to survive for several years. The Spurs and Nuggets were more stable financially and proved to be immediate contenders in the West.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 9:45:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

David....any more books no one knows about like Game Seven that you know of? Do you have Kalbs book thats being referred in this post?

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 4:18:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I think Peter Vecsey can be a bit of a wild-card who lets personal things interfere with his comments. He comes off as more of a gossip columnist than an NBA analyst anyway. So some personal things are probably what led to his surprising assessment of Dr. J.

Julius Erving did play with George McGinnis (a forward who should be in the HOF), but that was only for two years and the beginning of the end for McGinnis. Some people think Bobby Jones should be in the Hall of Fame. Darryl Dawkins was often mischaracterized during his Philly days as a very talented, enigmatic young player who at some point was suddenly going to turn into Wilt Chamberlain. Any way you cut it, the various front courts Dr. J played with (before Moses) still weren't as good as Parish/Maxwell/McHale. But the fact that some people thought that they were better than they actually were may help explain why Dr. J is underrated.

I think Dr. J suffers most from the fact that people treat his career as if it began in 1980. This is due to the fact that the NBA/ABA were slipping into obscurity during Doc's prime, while the NBA's popularity was skyrocketing as Doc was declining. People treat him like a contemporary of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and then conclude "well, Larry and Magic won all the titles so Doc wasn't as good." Kareem suffers from the same treatment. Imagine how we might view Michael Jordan if no one watched the NBA during the 90s and then all of a sudden it became the most popular league during his days with the Wizards. Imagine the Wizards-Lakers game where Kobe dropped 55 getting the same spin as the Celtics-76ers game (which people like to use as "proof" that Bird was better than Erving) where Bird dropped 40+ and both stars ended up getting thrown out in a fight.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 7:08:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I do have Kalb's book.

I'm not sure which books people "know of" and which ones they don't. An interesting book that I am reading now is Prof Blood and the Wonder Teams, by Dr. Charles "Chic" Hess, who I will be interviewing soon. Prof Blood was an innovative high school and college basketball coach in the early 1900s. Blood was enshrined in the Naismith HoF in 1960.

 
At Tuesday, December 16, 2008 7:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

McGinnis' game declined precipitously because he was not big on practicing or staying in shape; when his physical skills waned he did not have anything to fall back on and that is why he was out of the game at a fairly young age. He was a HoF talent but whether or not he had an HoF career is debatable. Jones did not put up the offensive stats that McGinnis did but one could make a HoF case for him based on being the best defensive forward of his era and being a very efficient player (high fg%).

The center matchup hurt the 76ers in the 1977, 1980 and 1982 Finals, when they faced HoF centers Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

You are right to mention Cedric Maxwell, because he was a big part of the Celtics' success, winning the 1981 Finals MVP and also making important contributions in the 1984 Finals. He was not a HoFer like McHale or Parish but he was a key player for the Celtics.

I agree that the timing of Erving's career hurt him a bit, because he was declining just as the NBA started to become a global league. That perhaps led to him being viewed by some people as more of an ambassador for the sport than as one of its greatest players.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:17:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

David....The book Game 7 cant be bought anywhere but from the author. So thats a book that most people dont know about because Im sure most people dont know him as supposed to a book like Kalbs book or any book you can go into a BarnesandNoble to buy.

If Dick Vitale is in the Hall, so should Jones and McGinnis. I know thats not how it goes.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 9:45:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I get what you are saying about books. I'm not sure how widely distributed Prof Blood is but it is a good read if you are interested in the early era of basketball. Of course, it does not pertain to the NBA because the NBA did not exist at that time.

Vitale was inducted as a "contributor," which is a separate category from player or coach. I don't know how to weigh "contributions" versus a player or coach's impact. I know that Vitale irritates some people but I do think that he has done a lot to promote the sport for three decades, so in that sense he is worthy of induction in my opinion.

As for McGinnis, he obviously put up gaudier numbers than Jones but McGinnis' prime was so short and his decline/retirement was not because of injury (a la Koufax and Sayers) but because of poor practice/conditioning habits. As I said, he had HoF talent but I would not be inclined to vote for him. He had one absolutely spectacular season ('75, when he shared the ABA MVP with Erving), two very good seasons ('73 and '74) and then three All-Star years in the NBA before he dropped off.

Even though Roger Brown had a shorter career and less gaudy numbers, I'd take him over McGinnis because of his tremendous impact and because the shortness of his career had to do with a late start and some injuries that he suffered.

Bobby Jones may be a borderline candidate and his numbers don't fly off of the page but he was the best defensive forward in pro hoops between DeBusschere and Rodman. Jones could have scored more than he did but he sacrificed a lot of aspects of his game to blend in with his teams and concentrate on being a stopper.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 10:34:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Jones definitely is borderline and Roger Brown is one of the most slept on players of the last 40 years or so. Interestingly enough Rodman will probably not get in when he definitely should.

Weve discussed the Hall before and it doesnt really matter who is in or not but its interesting who is included year in and year out and why they are included.

McGinnis definitely didnt practice especially since he smoked cigarettes during practice.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 10:45:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

McGinnis's lack of longevity is made up for by a very high peak value. During a span of 3-4 years, McGinnis was a Top 5 level player. Compare that with a guy like Joe Dumars who never made the All-NBA First Team, never was an MVP candidate or a Top 10 player in the league. Of course, guys like Dumars are helped by the fact that they were vital contributors to championship teams. But McGinnis won two ABA championships with the Pacers and was on one more Pacers team that went to the finals (and of course was on a 76ers team that advanced to the NBA finals).

And he was good for a decent period of time. Yes, he his absolute prime was only 3-4 years, but he was a very good player for his first 8 seasons. Over a span of 11 years McGinnis finished with averages of 20 ppg and 11 rpg.

In terms of stats and accomplishments (both at his peak and over his entire career), for instance, McGinnis is very comparable to Billy Cunningham and Kevin McHale. I think what hurts McGinnis compared to guys like that his is reputation as a loser and malcontent who continually choked in the playoffs. Of course, that point of view ignores his team and playoff success with the Pacers.

Obviously, McGinnis isn't a clear-cut case like pantheon level players. But what separates McGinnis from players of his level who are in the HOF is popularity, not accomplishment. Some other guys who suffer similarly and belong in the HOF are Chet Walker and Bobby Dandridge.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I would vote for Rodman but I don't think that he will be inducted.

 
At Wednesday, December 17, 2008 11:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

As you suggest, some guys are no-brainers but it is tougher to make the call in more marginal cases. I would not have a big problem with McGinnis being inducted and since I am an "ABA guy" that would actually be pretty cool. All I'm saying is that in my opinion he does not quite measure up. It's a close call and you actually made the best possible case on his behalf.

Dumars is in primarily as a defensive player, not as a result of his stats, so comparing him to McGinnis is really comparing apples and oranges in that regard (not to mention that they obviously played different positions and that McGinnis played on fast break teams while Dumars' Pistons played slower and thus had fewer scoring opportunities).

 
At Thursday, December 18, 2008 2:45:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=drjandalexandra

WOW

I knew that was his daughter and Im glad they met and are working towards a relationship.

 
At Friday, December 19, 2008 5:42:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

Yes, that article is definitely a "WOW." As you probably have already seen, I did a post about it.

 

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