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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: One Big Happy League

I 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 ninth 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.

One Big Happy League

In May 1971 the NBA and ABA agreed in principle to a merger, but the NBA Players Association objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would drive salaries down by reducing the competition for players' services; they contended that a merger of the leagues violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and had previously filed a legal action that became known as the Oscar Robertson lawsuit (Robertson was the President of the Players Association at the time). The players sought not only to prevent a merger but also to strike down the onerous option clause that bound a player to a team for an additional season after his contract expired. A U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee approved the merger but stipulated that the option clause was illegal and could not be part of player contracts in the combined league. The NBA refused to accept this and merger negotiations broke down.

The ABA never achieved financial stability, largely because of its failure to obtain a national network TV contract. Years of struggling against the NBA took their toll and by the end of the 1975-1976 season the ABA was on the brink of financial collapse. Meanwhile, the NBA settled the Robertson suit in February 1976, agreeing to eliminate the option clause and pay $4.3 million to 479 players. This removed the last legal hurdle to a merger between the leagues and in the summer of 1976 the NBA and ABA agreed to terms: four ABA teams (Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs) would pay $3.2 million each to join the NBA for the 1976-1977 season. In addition, the ABA teams would not receive any money from the league's television contracts for three seasons and the Nets would pay $4.8 million to the Knicks for the right to operate in their territory. The owners of the remaining ABA teams received financial compensation and their players were distributed to the pre-merger NBA teams in a dispersal draft. Dan and Ozzie Silna, two brothers who owned the ABA's St. Louis Spirits, opted to receive a share of NBA television revenue in perpetuity in lieu of a lump sum buyout; to this day the NBA continues to pay millions of dollars to the Silnas, beneficiaries of perhaps the greatest deal in the history of sports.

The merger brought a wealth of talented ABA players into the combined league. The most prominent of these players was undoubtedly Julius "Dr. J" Erving, the three time ABA MVP who eventually became the only player to win MVPs in both leagues, but the contributions of numerous others should not be overlooked. In 1976-1977, the first season after the merger, four of the league’s top ten scorers were former ABA players. Don Buse of the Indiana Pacers led the league in assists and steals. Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone each ranked in the top five in rebounding and Gilmore and Caldwell Jones each finished in the top five in blocked shots. Five of the ten starters in the NBA Finals played in the ABA. Ten of the 24 All-Stars played in the ABA and, except for Rick Barry, each of those players began their careers in the upstart league. Erving scored 30 points with 12 rebounds in the midseason classic and became one of the few All-Star MVPs selected from the losing team.

The Nets, who won the last ABA title thanks to a superhuman performance by Erving (who led both teams with per game averages of 37.7 points, 14.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 3.0 steals and 2.2 blocks in the Finals), traded for Nate Archibald and looked forward with confidence to their first season in the NBA. However, Erving wanted the team to honor a previous commitment to renegotiate his contract in the event of a merger and he sat out the preseason when the Nets failed to do so. Owner Roy Boe was strapped for cash between the merger fee and the additional money owed to the Knicks. He felt that the only way to satisfy Erving and solve the team's financial problems was to sell Erving to another team. Boe offered Erving to the Knicks in lieu of the indemnity payment but they turned him down. Instead, the 76ers purchased Erving from the Nets and signed him to a six year contract for a total cost of $6 million. Pat Williams, then the 76ers' General Manager, offers a priceless account of the Erving deal. When he informed the Sixers owner that it would be possible to buy the great Dr. J from the Nets, Fitz Eugene Dixon, who had only recently acquired the team and had not followed the sport real closely, replied, "Now, tell me, Pat--who exactly is this Erving fellow?" Williams described him as "the Babe Ruth of basketball," whereupon Dixon agreed to the unprecedented expenditure by saying, "Fine and dandy."

Erving joined a talented roster that included George McGinnis, Doug Collins, and Lloyd Free, who later legally changed his first name to "World" because he was--at least in his own estimation--"All-World." The Sixers finished 50-32, winning the Atlantic Division with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Erving and McGinnis shared the offensive load, averaging 21.6 and 21.4 points per game respectively. Both players were selected to the All-NBA Second Team. The Rockets captured the Central Division with a 49-33 record, while the Bullets, Celtics, Spurs and Cavaliers earned the remaining playoff berths; in the wake of the merger the NBA expanded the playoffs by one team per conference. Pete Maravich's Jazz still languished near the bottom of the East, but he had his finest NBA season, leading the league in scoring (31.1 points per game) and scoring 68 points in one game, at the time a record for a guard. Meanwhile, without Erving and with Archibald missing most of the season due to injuries, the Nets limped to a 22-60 record, worst in the league.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers to the Pacific Division title with the best record in the league, 53-29. He ranked among the leaders in scoring (26.2 points per game, third), rebounding (13.3 rebounds per game, second), field goal percentage (57.9 percent, first) and blocked shots (3.18 blocks per game, second). Abdul-Jabbar was an easy choice for MVP and for the All-NBA First Team. The Nuggets, ABA Finalists the year before, won the Midwest Division with a 50-32 record. David Thompson followed up his ABA Rookie of the Year honors by finishing fourth in the league in scoring (25.9 points per game) and making the All-NBA First Team. The 49-33 Portland Trail Blazers made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, mainly because star center Bill Walton was healthy enough to play in 65 games. Portland was 44-21 in those games, but only 5-12 with Walton out of the lineup. Walton averaged 18.6 points per game while leading the league in rebounding (14.4 rebounds per game) and blocked shots (3.25 blocks per game); he made the All-NBA Second Team. The Blazers also benefited greatly from the acquisition of power forward Maurice Lucas, an ABA veteran who led the team in scoring (20.2 points per game) and helped Walton greatly on the boards (11.4 rebounds per game, ninth in the league). The other playoff qualifiers in the West included the Warriors, Bulls, and Pistons.

The early playoff rounds went according to form, although the Sixers and Lakers were extended to seventh games in the Conference Semifinals by Boston and Golden State respectively. Houston eliminated Washington in six games in the other Eastern Conference Semifinal, while the Blazers pulled off a mild upset, knocking off Denver, also in six games. The Blazers were playing better and better as the playoffs progressed and they swept the Lakers in the Western Finals, even though Abdul-Jabbar outscored Walton 121-77. Philadelphia eliminated Houston in six games in the Eastern Finals.

The Sixers literally jumped on the Blazers from the opening tip of game one of the Finals, Erving scoring on a sensational dunk after the center jump. He finished with 33 points and Collins scored 30 in a 107-101 victory. The Sixers won game two, 107-89. Near the end of that game Dawkins and Portland forward Bobby Gross got in an altercation after a rebound. Dawkins fired a wild punch, but Gross ducked and Collins took the brunt of the blow; he later needed four stitches to close the wound. Then Maurice Lucas clocked Dawkins from behind. Dawkins and Lucas were both ejected and fined $2500. The series shifted to Portland for games three and four and between the fight and the change of scenery the momentum had clearly shifted as well. Portland won game three 129-107 and took game four 130-98. McGinnis was mired in a 16-48 shooting slump through the first four games. "I feel like a blind man searching for a men's room," he lamented. Although he did not complain about it much at the time, in the 1977 Houston and Portland playoff series McGinnis received pre-game injections of Xylocaine and cortisone to ease the pain of a severely pulled groin muscle. "I had no feeling in my left leg from the hip to just below the knee," he recalled later.

Once Portland evened the series it seemed like all the wind had been taken out of the Sixers' sails. The Blazers won game five 110-104 in Philadelphia and clinched the title in game six, 109-107, after several Sixers missed opportunities to send the game into overtime. Erving had a marvelous series, averaging 30.3 points per game, but he could not rescue the Sixers from their bad defense and the poor shooting of McGinnis. Walton clinched the Finals MVP with 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists in the final game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:56 AM

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