The NBA in the 1970s: The Rolls Royce Backcourt Drives Off With The TitleI wrote the chapter about the NBA in the 1970s for the 2005 anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. This is the fourth of 12 installments reprinting that chapter in its entirety.
I have removed the footnotes that accompanied the original text; direct quotations are now acknowledged in the body of the work and I will post a bibliography at the end of the final installment. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.
The Rolls Royce Backcourt Drives Off With The Title
The Celtics were the class of the league in the 1972-1973 season, racing to a 68-14 record, only one game off the Lakers' mark set the year before. Dave Cowens was selected MVP, Paul Silas added rebounding and toughness, and John Havlicek had yet another outstanding season. The Bullets (52-30) won their third straight Central Division title behind the 21.2 points per game and 14.5 rebounds per game of Elvin Hayes, acquired in the offseason from the Rockets. The Philadelphia 76ers represented the opposite end of the spectrum. They hit rock bottom in 1972-1973 after a steady free fall since Wilt Chamberlain led the team to the 1967 championship. Sixers' star Billy Cunningham signed a deal to play with the ABA Carolina Cougars and although he later decided that he wanted to remain with the Sixers, a court ruling forced him to honor the contract with the Cougars. Without the "Kangaroo Kid" the 76ers collapsed to a 9-73 record, worst in NBA history; Cunningham won the ABA MVP that season. While the Sixers got the short end of the stick, the NBA did get a superstar forward to replace Cunningham: Rick Barry was compelled by court order to return to the Warriors after playing out his contract with the ABA's New York Nets.
Rick Barry's arrival in Golden State brought his career full circle. In 1965-1966 he was the Rookie of the Year for the then San Francisco Warriors and the next year he won the scoring title (2775 points, 35.6 points per game) while leading the Warriors to the NBA Finals. After that season he became the first big NBA star to jump to the ABA, signing with the Oakland Oaks, but a court ruling stated that he either had to play out his option year with the Warriors or sit out a season before joining the Oaks. Barry chose to sit out. The next year Barry won the ABA scoring title (34.0 points per game), becoming the first and only player to capture scoring crowns in both leagues. The Oaks won the championship, but Barry missed a sizeable portion of the regular season and all of the playoffs due to injury. The Oaks moved to Washington, D.C. for the 1969-1970 season and Barry signed with the NBA Warriors, contending that his deal with the Oaks included an escape clause if the team left the Bay area. Again the courts ruled against Barry and he averaged 27.7 points per game for the Washington Capitols. In the offseason the Capitols became the Virginia Squires, but Barry complained so vociferously about this move that the team dealt him to the Nets. Barry enjoyed two successful seasons with the Nets and decided that he wanted to remain with the team, but there was the issue of the contract that he had signed with the Warriors in the wake of the Oaks move to Washington. The courts ruled that he could not remain with the Nets after his contract with the club expired in 1972, so after five eventful years Barry ended up right back where his career began. He held the dubious distinction of being the one player in this time period who repeatedly lost his court cases, in contrast to Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, and others who eventually ended up with the teams for which they wanted to play. Nevertheless, Barry's legal travails opened the way for numerous other players to jump leagues, including Zelmo Beaty, Joe Caldwell and Cunningham.
In his return to the Bay Area, Barry averaged 22.3 points per game, made the All-NBA Second Team and led the Warriors to a 47-35 record, good enough for second place in the Pacific Division. The Lakers and Bucks again stood at the top of the Western Conference, winning the Pacific and Midwest Divisions respectively with identical 60-22 records. The Chicago Bulls, a tough, defensive minded team paced by high scoring forwards Bob Love (23.1 points per game) and Chet Walker (19.9 points per game), grabbed the other playoff spot, winning 51 games and finishing second in the Midwest Division.
One of the biggest stories of the season turned out to be one of the smallest players in the league. Coach Bob Cousy of the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (formerly the Cincinnati Royals) knew that his squad did not have the horses to make the playoffs, so he granted tremendous freedom to third year guard Nate "Tiny" Archibald, who measured 6-1, 160. Archibald became the only player to ever lead the league in scoring (34.0 points per game) and assists (11.4 assists per game) in the same season. He joined Jerry West on the All-NBA First Team. The Kings finished last in the Midwest Division with a 36-46 record but attracted many fans to watch Archibald perform.
"Pistol" Pete Maravich of the Atlanta Hawks was another flashy guard who fans flocked to see. He joined the Hawks in 1970-1971 after setting the all-time NCAA Division I career scoring record by averaging an astounding 44.2 points per game. He averaged 23.2 points per game in his rookie year and 19.3 points per game in an injury marred second season but the Hawks, which had seemed to be a team on the rise, slumped in the standings. Maravich's fancy ball handling and passing skills caused many critics to label him a "showboat" and "hot dog."
Some of the criticisms of Maravich were muted, at least temporarily, by his performance in the 1972-1973 season, when he ranked fifth in scoring (26.1 points per game) and sixth in assists (6.9 assists per game) and made the All-NBA Second Team. Maravich knew that he was ahead of his time: "You're going to see forwards and centers throwing the ball behind their backs, just like I do. The time will come before we know it." In fact, he was literally a decade ahead of his time, because Magic Johnson later became a beloved superstar doing similar things. Johnson came along at the right time and had teammates who caught his passes instead of fumbling them out of bounds.
Maravich's competitive fires burned as fiercely as those of the other greats of the game and he was not satisfied with individual statistics or achievements: "I'm not pleased with anything I've done so far...All I want to do is win the title and I'll quit. A title would be the highest level you can attain. They'll say 'He was a hot dog--but he was a champion.'" He also understood that fans paid good money to watch professional athletes and deserved to be entertained: "(Fans)…should get total satisfaction from watching a game." While some of Maravich's success in 1972-1973 came from increasing maturity, George Vecsey noted, "…there is more evidence that he was finally playing with teammates who could cope with his ability." Johnson later assessed Maravich's impact on basketball history: "Maravich was unbelievable. He was ahead of his time with the things he did." Isiah Thomas concurs: "The best showman of all time? I'd have to say Pistol Pete."
Maravich's Hawks played the powerful Celtics to a standstill after four games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but the Celtics won the next two to close out the series. Maravich averaged 26.2 points per game and 6.7 assists per game in the playoffs. The Knicks obliterated the Bullets in the other Eastern Conference series, taking the first three games en route to a four to one decision. In the Western Conference, Barry and the Warriors pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, defeating the Bucks in six games. The Bulls extended the defending champion Lakers to the limit, losing 95-92 in game seven. The Lakers overpowered the Warriors four to one in the Western Conference Finals, while the Knicks savored a gritty seven game triumph over the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals; Havlicek was severely hampered in the latter part of the series with a painful shoulder injury.
By this time the Knicks were peaking and their "Rolls Royce" backcourt of Frazier and Monroe was in full flower. "There's never been two players together that were so good in the same backcourt. They were the best ever," raved teammate DeBusschere. The Lakers narrowly took game one of the NBA Finals but the Knicks reeled off four consecutive wins to claim their second title in four years. Willis Reed's numbers were up and down throughout the season and the playoffs due to his injuries, but he was again selected as the Finals MVP. A dissenting vote on the Finals MVP later came from Frazier: "They (the media) always jerked me around. When I didn't get the MVP that year (1970) they told me it was because they judged by the season; and when I didn't get it in 1973 they said it was because they judged by the series..."
posted by David Friedman @ 1:30 AM