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Thursday, December 02, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: The Dynasty That Never Was; the Opera Isn’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings

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 10th 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 Dynasty That Never Was; the Opera Isn’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings

The 1976-1977 season was a breakthrough for Bill Walton and the Blazers. Injuries cost Walton 47 games in his rookie season and 31 games in his second year but he missed "only" 17 games during Portland’s title run. During his outstanding college career at UCLA he had experienced some knee troubles but it later became clear that Walton had congenital structural problems with his feet. Altering his movements to accommodate his foot injuries led to the knee ailments. Dr. James Nicholas, a New York physician whose clients included Jets' quarterback Joe Namath, once examined Walton and told him simply, "You don’t belong in this league, young man."

During the brief stretch that Walton was relatively healthy he was a dominant player and his Blazers looked like a dynasty in the making. By the 1978 All-Star Break, Portland was 40-8 and had won 44 straight home games. They pushed their record to 50-10 after a 113-92 win over the 76ers on February 28, but Walton badly sprained his left ankle in that game and missed the rest of the regular season. Portland went 8-14 the rest of the way without Walton, but still finished with the best record in the league. Walton's impact was so profound that he won the MVP even though he only appeared in 58 of 82 games. Denver again won the Midwest Division, this time with 48 wins, while Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles and Milwaukee completed the playoff field in the Western Conference.

The 1977-1978 season concluded with the closest, most exciting contest for the scoring title in league history. Pete Maravich seemed to be heading for his second straight scoring crown until he was slowed by injuries, culminating in a blown out knee that ended his season before he played enough games or scored enough points to qualify for the title. From then on it was a race between ABA standouts George Gervin and David Thompson. They dueled until the last day of the regular season, April 9, 1978. That afternoon Thompson seemed to clinch the scoring title with a stunning 73 point outburst (tied for third best in NBA history) in a 139-137 loss to the Pistons. He scored a record 32 points in the first quarter, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's mark for points in one period (31), which had been set in his famous 100 point game. Thompson scored 53 points in the first half. Overall, he shot a blistering 28-38 from the field and 17-20 from the free throw line. Gervin's Spurs faced the Jazz in the Superdome that evening. The Iceman broke Thompson's hours-old record by scoring 33 points in the second quarter. He also had 53 points by halftime. Gervin knew that he needed 59 points to pass Thompson and he finished the game with 63. Amazingly, he played only 33 minutes (Thompson logged 43) as the Spurs lost 153-132. Gervin launched 49 shots, making 23, and he matched Thompson by converting 17-20 from the free throw line. Less than two weeks later, Thompson became the highest paid player in NBA history, signing a five year, $750,000 per year contract with the Nuggets. This surpassed the salaries of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ($650,000 per year) and Maravich ($600,000 per year). Thompson later won the 1979 All-Star MVP (becoming the only player to win All-Star MVPs in the ABA and the NBA), but a drug problem soon diminished his production considerably. His career ended prematurely after he sustained leg injuries falling down a staircase while partying at New York’s Studio 54.

Gervin led the Spurs to the Central Division title with a 52-30 record. Sixers' Coach Gene Shue, already on thin ice after his team's collapse in the 1977 Finals, was fired after Philadelphia stumbled to a 2-4 start. New Coach Billy Cunningham, only recently retired as a player after a severe knee injury, rallied the Sixers, who won their second straight division title with a conference best 55-27 record. The other Eastern Conference playoff teams included the Bullets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Hawks, none of whom won more than 44 games. Julius Erving (20.6 points per game), George McGinnis (20.3 points per game) and Doug Collins (19.7 points per game) seemed to be poised to make a return trip to the Finals. The Sixers easily swept the Knicks in the Eastern Semifinal but had to wait a week while San Antonio and Washington slugged it out in the other Eastern Semifinal. The underdog Bullets eventually prevailed in six games. Bob Dandridge, who won a title playing alongside Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson with the 1970-1971 Bucks, joined Washington as a free agent before the 1977-1978 season and proved to be a key addition, particularly in the playoffs. The Bullets were devastated during the regular season by injuries, hence their mediocre record, but their strong frontline, anchored by Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge and Mitch Kupchak, peaked during the postseason. They took the Sixers' homecourt advantage with a 122-117 game one win and closed out the series in six games.

In the West, Walton got an extra week of rest because Portland earned a first round bye. Then the Blazers faced Seattle in the Western Semifinals. The Sonics started the season 5-17 but closed with a strong 42-18 mark after Coach Bob Hopkins was replaced by Lenny Wilkens. Seattle was an excellent defensive team whose offense was built around the talents of guards Gus Williams, Fred Brown, and Dennis Johnson. The Sonics knocked off Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers in the first round but Portland beat Seattle three out of four times in the regular season. The big question was whether Walton could perform effectively after being out of action for nearly two months. In game one he scored 17 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in 34 minutes, but Seattle won, 104-95. Although Walton's statistics were not bad, he limped noticeably throughout the game and could not walk without pain the next day, spending most of the time in the whirlpool. Two days later he practiced but did not run. His availability for the second game was questionable at best. Early in his career Walton refused to take painkilling injections, but this time he relented. Walton scored 10 points with six rebounds in 15 first half minutes. He did not play in the second half but the Blazers hung on to win, 96-93. When Walton's foot was x-rayed the next day a fracture was found in the tarsal navicular bone below his left ankle. Blazers' team doctor Robert Cook denied that the injections contributed in any way to the fracture, stating that the painkilling drugs were administered in a part of his foot "completely separated from the area of the break." In the other Western Semifinal the Nuggets took a three games to one lead over the Bucks, but Milwaukee won two straight before losing game seven 116-110 in Denver. The Sonics finished off the Walton-less Blazers, took the home court advantage in the Western Finals with a 121-111 win in game two in Denver and eventually captured the series in six games.

It is unlikely that too many preseason prognosticators selected Washington and Seattle for the 1978 Finals. Washington was built around its veteran frontcourt, while Seattle's strength was its young guards. These differences lent some intrigue to the matchup. Due to scheduling problems, Seattle faced the same disadvantage that the Bullets had dealt with in the 1975 Finals: playing game one at home and then going on the road for the next two. Seattle was not fazed by this, winning the first game 106-102 and taking a three games to two lead in the series. The Bullets faced the prospect of their third final round loss without a single championship but Washington Coach Dick Motta picked an appropriate slogan for his scrappy team: "The opera isn't over until the fat lady sings." The Bullets blew Seattle out 117-82 in game six and the series came down to a seventh game in Seattle. Johnson, who played valiantly in the postseason, went 0-14 from the field and his backcourt mate Williams shot 4-12. The Bullets became only the third NBA team to win a game seven in the Finals on the road. Unseld was awarded the Finals MVP for his rebounding, passing, and bone crushing picks.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:25 AM

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At Sunday, December 19, 2010 2:07:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I've always wondered what would have happened if Walton was able to stay relatively healthy and that Blazers team stayed together for several more years.

A 1979-80 series between the Blazers and Lakers would have been incredible. I think the Lakers would have come out on top. The Blazers were unable to contain Kareem in 1977 (even though Walton and Lucas were almost always doubling-up on him), and I think the Blazers won that series because Kareem had an overachieving but very ordinary supporting cast which had been weakened by injuries.

 
At Monday, December 20, 2010 2:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree with you that the 1980 Lakers would probably have beaten a hypothetical 1980 Blazers team with a healthy Bill Walton but basketball history would have had an additional fascinating chapter if Kareem and Walton had contested several Western Conference Finals with both players in their primes.

 

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