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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Al Bianchi: Dr. J's First Pro Coach

While covering this year's Legends Brunch at All-Star Weekend, I had the opportunity to interview Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach. I'd never met or spoken with Bianchi before but in a sense I felt like I had known him almost my whole life; I initially heard about him when I was just a young kid and first read about the early years of Erving, who was, is and will always be my all-time favorite player. Over the years, I have read a lot about Bianchi and seen various clips of him talking about Erving and the ABA. When Bianchi coached Erving he was just a little older than I am now. Bianchi will turn 77 on March 26 but he looks, talks and moves like a younger man.

Bianchi averaged 8.1 ppg in 10 NBA seasons as a 6-3 guard, spending his entire career with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers franchise. During his last season and a half he was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate. Bianchi retired in 1966 and just a year later--at the age of 35--he became the first coach in Seattle Supersonics' history. Bianchi coached in Seattle for two seasons before jumping to the ABA to coach the Washington Capitols for the 1969-70 season. The next year, the Capitols moved to Virginia and were renamed the Squires. Bianchi led the Squires to a 55-29 record in 1970-71, winning ABA Coach of the Year honors.

Erving joined the Squires the next season, forgoing his senior year at the University of Massachusetts. Erving and Charlie Scott--the 1971 ABA Rookie of the Year--formed a dynamic tandem until Scott left the team near the end of the 1971-72 season to sign with the NBA's Phoenix Suns. Scott still finished as the ABA's scoring champion in 1972, a title that Erving would win in three of the next four seasons. Erving ranked fifth in scoring (27.3 ppg) and third in rebounding (15.7 rpg) as a rookie; in his second year with the Squires, Erving won his first scoring crown after averaging a career-high 31.9 ppg and he also ranked fifth in rebounding (12.2 rpg). The Squires brought in a lot of talented players--Rick Barry was on the team prior to Erving's arrival and George Gervin was Erving's teammate for the latter part of the 1973 season--but they did not have the financial resources to keep them, so Erving played his final three ABA seasons with the New York Nets.


Although Erving delighted NBA fans for 11 years as a 76er, Bianchi had an up close view of what he has called Dr. J's "high wire act"; Bianchi coached a young Erving (ages 21-22) who glided up and down the court unfettered by knee tendinitis or by coaches who thought that Erving should rein in his game for the good of team harmony. In the 1972 ABA playoffs, rookie Erving averaged 33.3 ppg and 20.4 rpg, topping all players in both categories. On April 4, 1972, Erving scored 53 points--tying Roger Brown's ABA playoff single game record--in a 118-113 win over the Floridians; Erving's total is still an NBA/ABA record for most points by a player in his first road playoff game.

Friedman: "What do you remember most about Julius Erving's 53 point playoff game against the Floridians?"

Bianchi: "I think that the number one thing at that time is that there was a guy (on the Floridians roster) by the name of Warren Jabali who was a very aggressive player and a very rough player. He had a history of beating up on some people--he was a very physical player*. I was concerned on how Julius was going to react because I knew that he was going to guard Julius and that he was going to try to get rough with him. But, Julius, as always, just handled it and, like you said, scored 53 points and we won the game. It was just incredible."

Friedman: "I've seen and heard the quote from you that you guys in the ABA were privileged because you saw Julius' 'high wire act.'"

Bianchi: "That's true."

Friedman: "Elaborate about that and describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

Friedman: "That first year for you, Julius averaged almost 16 rebounds. He was a big time rebounder, particularly early in his career. Describe the kind of rebounder he was--not the numbers, but the way that he was able to rebound so well even though he had that lean, lithe body type, kind of the way that Rodman did when he was a great rebounder--but Rodman was not scoring 28-29 points a game."

Bianchi: "I think that one of the things that you have to understand about that is the nature of the ABA game was a little more wide open than the NBA game, so there were a lot of shots (being attempted). It was just a quickness (that he had) and the fact that he had such big hands that he could take it from here and get it here."

Friedman: "I wrote an article about the NBA-ABA All-Star Games. I've seen some black and white footage of Erving from the 1972 game. I'm used to seeing Erving as a Sixer but it seemed like in 1972 he had an extra gear. Talk about the first time that you saw Erving perform in the open court; it just seemed like he had an extra gear when he was 21 or 22 compared to even when he was 28, 29 or 30 with the Sixers."

Bianchi: "He had that at the beginning and showed it in the ABA. He wasn't really able to show it as much in the NBA. What made him was the fact that he had such huge hands and had such a long first step and could really run the court and could control the ball with one hand. When you can do that, you're an exceptional player."

Friedman: "That gives you more options."

Bianchi: "Oh, yes."

Friedman: "I'm interested in what you think of this comparson: although their body types are different, some of the dunks that LeBron does--with the full arm extension and the elevation above the rim and the distance from which he takes off--do you see a similarity in terms of dunking style between him and Julius? Their playing styles are different because of their body types but do you see a similarity in their dunking styles?"

Bianchi: "Julius, no question, was one of the best dunkers and one of the dunkers who would take off from a running start not close to the basket but dribble it and take off from the foul line. Michael Jordan did that kind of stuff. It all goes back to the hands, plus athletic ability, and when you have that you can do magnificent things."

Friedman: "I know that for a little bit less than half a season you had Doc and you had George Gervin, early in both of their careers. Have you ever given any thought to what might have happened if the financial situation (with the Squires franchise) had been different and you had been able to keep those guys? What might that team have been like if it had survived and joined the NBA in the merger with both of those guys on the roster? Did you ever daydream about that as a coach?"

Bianchi (laughing): "No. I tried to forget about that. I know Earl Foreman the owner had (financial) problems. He was very good to me. He explained what he had to do. There really wasn't anything I could do about it, so I just put it off and didn't really think about it. I just moved on and just thought about what a pleasure it was to have those two guys on my team."

Friedman: "Tell me about the first time you ever heard about Dr. J, because I know that he was a bit of an obscure figure at first. Also, tell me about the first time that you actually saw Dr. J performing on a court. What were your thoughts on those two occasions?"

Bianchi: "The first time I heard about him was from our owner, who was a very aggressive guy. Matter of fact, he wanted to sign some Russian players way back then. He mentioned the guy's name and he said, 'This guy Julius Erving. I'm hearing things about him.' Anyway, he played in Madison Square Garden against North Carolina (in the NIT) and fouled out in the first half and did not play well. The first time I actually saw him was in a rookie camp. He played about five minutes and Johnny Kerr (then the team's GM) came up behind me and said, 'You better get him out so he doesn't get hurt.' So that was the beginning. When we saw him, we said, 'This is a home run.'"

*After the interview, Bianchi hastened to add that Jabali was "his guy," that he has a very high opinion of him as a player and that his comments about Jabali's playing style should not be misconstrued in a negative way.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM

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9 Comments:

At Tuesday, February 24, 2009 9:18:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

I need to go reread the legend of dr j by marty bell.

im late on this for my own reasons but this book whos better whos best by kalb is so careless in his analysis of players. for him to be right there for so many big games and to be so ignorant and bias on certain players is ridiculous. he says that oneals greatness is not effected by his bad free throw shooting but then mentions if he made more free throws he would have more scoring titles.

 
At Tuesday, February 24, 2009 2:37:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Larry Bird must really have gone over the line to get under the skin of someone as classy as Dr. J, to cause the Doc to exchange punches with Larry.

 
At Tuesday, February 24, 2009 5:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Free Cash Flow:

As far as I know, Larry Bird is the only player that Dr. J ever took a swing at in a 16 year, 1243 game pro career--and I do think that this says something about Bird.

The story about that game is that Bird was outscoring Erving 42-6 (Bird was at the height of his powers as the NBA MVP, while Erving was still an All-Star at 34 but clearly not the player he had been during his prime). Supposedly, Bird kept saying to Erving, "42-6, Doc" and in addition to that Bird was really roughhousing Erving on defense. The two squared off and Erving later said that he thought Bird was about to swing at him, so he acted on instinct. Erving felt very embarrassed afterward and the next time the teams met he made a point of walking over to Bird and shaking hands to smooth things over. I've heard that Erving will not autograph photos of the fight.

In Dick Schaap's autobiography, the veteran sportswriter reported that in the locker room after the fight Erving said all of the right things to the press and tried to smooth things over but that when the cameras turned off, Erving said to Schaap of Bird, "He's such a (blank)." For his part, Bird said that growing up he often fought with his brothers but that did not mean that he loved them any less.

I got the sense that after that incident both players respected each other as players but never really had the personal closeness that Bird and Magic later enjoyed. Bird and the Celtics did have a very nice ceremony for Doc when he played his last game in the Boston Garden. One of the fans put up a small number six banner replicating the retired numbers that hang in the rafters and that action really touched Erving. Although people focus on the Bird-Magic rivalry because they played against each other in college and were close in age, Erving-Bird was really the best individual rivalry in the NBA in the early 80s. They met six times a year in the regular season with the division title and best record in the East usually on the line and then they met in the ECF in 1980-82, 85. Most casual fans probably assume that the rivalry was lopsided in Bird's favor but Erving's Sixers won two of the first three ECF matchups (in '85 the Sixers were clearly in decline while the Celtics were near the height of their powers). Bird won two titles against the Rockets in years that the Lakers were eliminated, while Erving had to face the Lakers in the Finals three times, winning once (Bird went 1-2 versus the Lakers in the Finals).

 
At Tuesday, February 24, 2009 6:30:00 PM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

Reading the NBA history from your site always reminds me that "history is written by the winners" (I'm paraphrasing, but I think I read it from Howard Zinn). So much detail gets lost just from loss of memory, but even more gets skewed or omitted in presenting the past from the viewpoint of the so-called winners.

Thanks for keeping all sides of the NBA's history alive, and not just the myths and legends that have survived (and still persist even with present players).

 
At Saturday, February 28, 2009 3:19:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Nice interview David. You should have asked Bianchi a bit about Wilt Chamberlain.

I was reading Loose Balls and I saw an interesting quote from Doug Moe:

"I'm not saying that George Gervin was a better overall basketball player in the ABA than Julius Erving. Understand, that's not what I'm saying. But what I am saying is that Ice had more polish, a better variety of shots, and more ways to score than Julius. In terms of pure offense, Ice was probably better than Julius at that stage of their careers."

Right after that, there is a quote from Terry Stembridge saying "Ice was a better scorer than Julius, but Julius was more of a force."


I know you like to compare Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and the quotes I just cited have given me sort of a new perspective on the comparison (at least in terms of offense).

Could it be that in terms of offense Kobe is Gervin and LeBron is Erving? You often point out that Kobe has a more complete offensive game and skill set than LeBron (which he does), and that's why he is slightly better. But the quotes above got me thinking whether being more complete necessarily means being better. LeBron has some of the same limitations that Dr. J had: an improved but still unreliable jumper, and a not very polished array of moves. But like Dr. J, LeBron can be unstoppable, and when he gets to the basket there appears to be nothing defenders can do. I truly feel that when LeBron has it going he's more of a force on offense than Kobe.

The only problem I see with this comparison is LeBron's shot selection. He has a tendency to settle for jumpers too often (which it seems Dr. J didn't really have). This can take diminish LeBron's impact when his jumper isn't falling. This might also be why Kobe is probably a more consistent force on offense (even if LeBron has a greater upside). I think of LeBron stopped settling so much for jumpers, Kobe could still be considered a more complete offensive player but LeBron could very well be a better one (or "more of a force", whatever you want to call it).

What do you think?

 
At Saturday, February 28, 2009 7:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I did not know that Bianchi was going to be at the Legends Brunch, let alone that I would have the opportunity to interview him one on one. I literally had to move from one end of a very large ballroom to the other--like O.J. Simpson running through the airport in the old Hertz commercial--in order to catch up to Bianchi after the Brunch, as he was on his way out of the room.

Obviously, I did not have any notes or prepared questions, because I did not know that I would be speaking with him. My interview technique in that kind of situation is to get the interview subject thinking about one particular topic, rather than hopping around too much; he was not expecting to be interviewed, so a few questions on the same topic (young Julius Erving) are likely to elicit a more interesting interview than just randomly hopping around to too many other topics after he has already focused his recollections on the one topic. Also, since I had previously talked to Dr. J and Jabali about the 53 point game I wanted to hear Bianchi's recollections to "complete the circle" so to speak.

The funny thing is, I have no formal journalism training and have received zero instruction about how to conduct an interview, yet I watch and read interviews conducted by people who have tons of formal training, a producer talking in their ear and a stack of prepared notes in front of them--and yet they still make factual errors and seem to be terminally incapable of asking an interesting question or eliciting any kind of meaningful information. As I have remarked to more than a few people recently, this is a funny business.

The Erving/Gervin/Kobe/LeBron comparisons that you made are interesting and at some level there is validity to what you are saying--in a limited sense--but where I think that your analogy breaks down is that Kobe is vastly superior to Gervin as an all-around player. Kobe rebounds, passes and defends in addition to being a scorer who has no skill set weaknesses.

I do see similarities between Erving and LeBron as dunkers/finishers, as I mentioned to Bianchi. Paul Silas once told me that a young Erving did not shoot well from the outside but that he would just get to the hoop at will, something that Silas had heard about but found difficult to believe until he experienced it firsthand (see my recently posted article about the ABA-NBA Supergames).

An important difference between a young Erving and a young LeBron, as you mentioned, is shot selection. When Dr. J was not a great outside shooter he did not shoot a lot of outside shots. LeBron's shot selection is much worse than Erving's was.

 
At Saturday, February 28, 2009 9:11:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

David, I didn't intend to be critical of anything you did or did not ask Bianchi. I did not know the context of the interview, obviously, and as I said, I enjoyed the interview anyway. I think you do ask better questions during interviews than most reporters and I agree that follow-up questions are nice. I just thought I'd mention Wilt since I'm always interested in hearing more about him, and because interesting anecdotes and opinions seem to come out of any interview regarding Wilt.

As for the Erving/Gervin/LeBron/Kobe comparison, I'm aware of Gervin's shortcomings on defense and some other areas, and that's why I was focusing strictly on offense. The main point, I guess, is that having a more complete, polished offensive game may not necessarily mean having a better one. The quotes about Erving and Gervin illustrate this point. For another example, you also had an interview with Billy Cunningham where he said Chet Walker had "more of an arsenal in a set offense" than Julius Erving. While Chet Walker may have had a more complete offensive skill set, I think most people would agree that Julius Erving was still more of a "force" on offense than Walker.

To a certain extent, this point applies when comparing LeBron and Kobe. Kobe obviously has one of the most polished, complete skill sets we've seen from a wing player. But I think LeBron has the potential to be just as good an offensive player even if his skill set is never as complete as Kobe's. When LeBron has it going, he's a force of nature. If he would stop shooting so many jumpers and take it in more (or develop more of a post up game), I'd take LeBron over Kobe as an offensive player.

 
At Saturday, February 28, 2009 9:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Periodically, I just feel the need to vent, because I look at the interviews that are archived on this site and the stuff that I read/hear at larger media platforms and the whole situation just makes no sense to me at all.

I did a big piece about Wilt Chamberlain versus Shaq for which I interviewed Dolph Schayes, Oscar Robertson, Warren Jabali, Dr. Jack Ramsay and others but this was the first chance I ever had to talk with Dr. J's first pro coach. Even though it was a brief interview, it was a special moment for me, because I have really tried to interview as many people who played or coached with or against Dr. J to get their firsthand impressions of him. Bianchi has been involved with the NBA for decades and if I have the opportunity to interview him at greater length I will certainly ask him about Wilt and a host of other subjects.

Billy C told me that Chet Walker was a better one on one player than Dr. J, which surprised me because I considered Dr. J to be a premier one on one player. When I asked Billy C to clarify what he meant, he answered, "Julius was the greatest open court player who ever played. Chet Walker was a better jump shooter and he had, I think, a little bit more of an arsenal in the set offense. But by no means am I taking anything away from Julius Erving."

I think that you are talking a little more about LeBron's potential than about his current abilities. I have no doubt that LeBron will surpass Kobe; of course, some people would argue he has already done so. Whether or not LeBron will be better than Kobe at his peak is still to be determined. It is not clear whether or not LeBron will improve his shot selection, develop a post game and/or become a more consistent outside shooter. If he does those things and still retains his jumping ability/explosiveness--as opposed to not developing in those areas until a decline in his athletic ability forces him to do so--then of course he will be better than Kobe ever was.

That is a big "IF," though.

As things stand now, Kobe can get to wherever on the court he wants to go and he is a serious scoring threat from all areas. LeBron is terrific in the open court and when he has driving lanes to the hoop but he is much more limited when his access to the paint is denied. As for their floor games, I think that people sometimes rely too much on raw numbers. Kobe is a great rebounder, passer and defender, as is LeBron; their numbers are affected by their roles on their specific teams and their placement on the court (LeBron plays forward, while Kobe plays guard). If LeBron needs to get 10+ rebounds or 10+ assists he can do that and so can Kobe. LeBron plays in an offense in which he dominates the ball, while in the Triangle offense the assists tend to be more spread out. I think that Pip is the only player who averaged 7 apg in the Triangle (when MJ averaged 8 apg he was playing pg for Doug Collins) and he only did it once. Kobe is not going to put up LeBron-like assist numbers in the Triangle, nor is he going to rebound like a forward, but that does not mean that LeBron is a better passer or rebounder than Kobe. I've seen firsthand that when both of those players are going for a rebound that Kobe can beat LeBron, even when LeBron has inside position.

 
At Wednesday, July 18, 2012 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Gino said...

This is an excellent blog that I discovered by accident.

I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, an ABA town. We had the Squires, and they were strong in the beginning, not much in the end. But I am happy to say that I had the opportunity to see Julius Erving and George Gervin while they were in their prime years. It was a joy to watch. After the 72-73 season, we finished 42-42, and Erving was dealt to the Nets. We were heartbroken, but we still had Gervin and George Carter (18.4 ppg)for a while. Gervin played nearly all of the season for us, but he was sold to the Spurs, and that was really the end of the Virginia Squires. We lasted a couple of more years, but with all
of the stars sold off, there was nothing left in the tank. Attendance dropped to around 1500 a game, and by the time the merger came around, the league pulled the plug.

Ervin and Gervin were at their best in the ABA. A lot of people heard about those days, but never actually witnessed them. I'm proud to say that I did.

 

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