Al Bianchi: Dr. J's First Pro CoachWhile 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:25 AM