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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Roone’s Revenge

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 12th 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 have posted a bibliography at the end of this post. I hope that you enjoy my take on one of the most fascinating and eventful decades in NBA history.

Roone's Revenge

The NBA went through a dizzying roller coaster ride in the 1970s. The decade began with the retirement of the greatest winner in the history of the sport, lawsuits seemingly flying in all directions and a costly rivalry with the ABA. Teams such as the Knicks, Lakers and Bucks quickly stepped to the forefront, as a veritable galaxy of stars battled for individual honors and championship glory. By 1976, the resolution of various legal issues paved the way for a merger between the leagues. NBA attendance climbed to a record 8.8 million in 1975-1976 and nearly reached 10 million in the first season after the merger. Pro basketball seemed to be living up to its billing as the "Sport of the Seventies." The era of good feelings after the merger was short-lived, however. Although the NBA and CBS agreed to a four year, $74 million contract in 1978, each party soon became disenchanted with the other. In his classic book The Breaks of the Game, Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam explained the conflict: "CBS privately charged the owners with expanding too fast, out of greediness; the owners in turn thought that CBS had been too greedy, too concerned with ratings, to give their game a fair chance at developing its true constituency." CBS sought to boost sagging ratings by only televising the games of select marquee teams. Halberstam noted, "there were in effect two leagues--one consisting of the twenty two NBA member teams, the other a six or seven team league covered by CBS…"

Some of the seeds of future trouble were sown when the NBA's television contract with ABC expired in 1973. Many of the NBA owners at the time were new to the scene and had not been around for the previous decade when Roone Arledge, ABC's sports impresario, had overseen telecasts that effectively and enthusiastically presented the NBA to a growing national TV audience. These owners did not appreciate what Arledge had done for the league. All they cared about were the larger broadcast deals that the National Football League and Major League Baseball enjoyed; the NBA owners decided to claim what they felt was their fair share of the TV dollar. Although ABC had an option to renew its TV deal with the NBA, the NBA owners demanded that ABC split the contract with CBS and agree to televise Saturday afternoon games in October and November, knowing that ABC would not be able to comply without abandoning its coverage of college football. When ABC refused these terms, CBS ended up with the whole NBA TV package. Arledge took the NBA owners to court, but lost the case.

As Red Auerbach and a few wise NBA executives predicted, Arledge did not take this setback lying down. He launched a full fledged programming assault against CBS' NBA games. ABC promoted its Saturday college football games to an unprecedented degree, capturing the lion's share of ratings and Madison Avenue advertising dollars. The NBA and CBS soon conceded defeat and abandoned Saturday telecasts. Arledge attacked the NBA's Sunday games with a new program called Superstars--which pitted athletes from various sports against each other--and a Sunday version of Wide World of Sports, his wildly successful Saturday program. Halberstam notes, "In the first year of the CBS contract the ratings plummeted from 10 to 8.1; soon the decline became steady and very serious. Along Madison Avenue it was known as Roone's Revenge." The NBA's television troubles reached an infamous nadir when CBS chose to broadcast the 1980 Finals on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., an unthinkable indignity for the Super Bowl or World Series. One of the unsavory undertones of CBS' progressive neglect of the NBA was the perception of many observers that CBS did not want to showcase pro basketball because the vast majority of the league's players were black.

Another serious problem for the NBA as the decade closed was an escalation of on-court violence. The conclusion of game two of the 1977 Finals was marred by an ugly brawl involving the 76ers' Darryl Dawkins and the Blazers' Maurice Lucas. Early in the 1977-1978 season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar broke his right hand while punching Bucks' center Kent Benson in retaliation for an earlier blow that had gone unnoticed by the officials. Adrian Dantley, at the time a young player with the Pacers, was suspended for three days after following Dave Meyers of the Bucks to the locker room and attempting to fight him. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. In a December 1977 game, an altercation broke out between Lakers' forward Kermit Washington and Rockets' center Kevin Kunnert. Rockets' All-Star forward Rudy Tomjanovich came over to attempt to break up the fight and ended up in intensive care after Washington wheeled around and connected with a thundering punch that basically shattered Tomjanovich's face. Tomjanovich missed the rest of the season and Washington was suspended for 60 days by the league.

In the wake of these and other incidents the NBA formed a committee of league executives, referees, and players to look into ways to limit flagrant fouls and fighting. Over time the NBA developed a number of ways to regulate on-court violence: the addition of a third official so that "cheap shots" do not go unnoticed and lead to fights, automatic ejection for any player who throws a punch (even if it does not connect), a flagrant foul point system that culminates in fines and suspensions, and a rule that any players who leave the bench area during a fight are automatically suspended.

While declining ratings and escalating violence were serious causes for concern, two cornerstones of the NBA's dramatic recovery in the 1980s arrived in the fall of 1979: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Their rivalry for individual and team supremacy would push the league to new heights. The spirit of the ABA also played a major part in the 1980's renaissance as well: players such as Julius Erving (1981 MVP), Moses Malone (1979, 1982 and 1983 MVP), George Gervin and other ABA veterans were among the most successful and popular stars in the league; in addition, the adoption of the ABA's three point shot rule and All-Star Game Slam Dunk Contest added excitement and attracted fans.


Here are the two statistical charts that I researched for this project and that were published as part of this chapter:

The 1970s By the Numbers

Team Leaders


Milwaukee Bucks 492
Los Angeles Lakers 485
Balt./Wash. Bullets 483
Boston Celtics 477
Denver Nuggets 469

Division Titles

Balt./Wash. Bullets 6
Boston Celtics 5
Denver Nuggets^ 5
Los Angeles Lakers 5
Milwaukee Bucks 5


Indiana Pacers 3
Boston Celtics 2
New York Knicks 2
New York Nets 2


Charts includes ABA wins, division titles and championships.

^ Includes 1975-76, when the Denver Nuggets had the best record among the seven ABA teams that completed the season in a one division league.

Individual Leaders


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 22,141
Elvin Hayes 18,922
Rick Barry 18,389
Dan Issel 17,714
Julius Erving 16,763
John Havlicek 15,747
Pete Maravich 15,359
Spencer Haywood 15,053
Artis Gilmore 14,708
Gail Goodrich 14,692


Elvin Hayes 11,565
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 11,460
Wes Unseld 10,511
Artis Gilmore 10,353
Dave Cowens 9636
Paul Silas 8737
Sam Lacey 8120
Spencer Haywood 7724
Bob Lanier 7690
Dan Issel 7690


Norm Van Lier 5217
John Havlicek 4185
Rick Barry 4093
Walt Frazier 4092
Kevin Porter 4077
Nate Archibald 4077
Dave Bing 4012
Louie Dampier 3975
Jo Jo White 3819
Gail Goodrich 3769


Chart includes ABA statistics for Barry, Issel, Erving, Haywood, Gilmore and Dampier.

Tied players listed in order of per game averages.




Bjarkman, Peter C. The Biographical History of Pro Basketball. Lincolnwood (Chicago), Illinois: Masters Press, 2000.

Bjarkman, Peter C. The Encyclopedia of Pro Basketball Team Histories. New York: Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Brown, Gene (editor). The Complete Book of Basketball: A New York Times Scrapbook History. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Carter, Craig and Hareas, John (editors). The Sporting News 2001-2002 Official NBA Guide. St. Louis: The Sporting News, 2001.

Cole, Lewis. Dream Team. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1981.

Gilmartin, Joe. The Little Team that Could…And Darn Near Did! Phoenix: Phoenix Suns, 1976.

Halberstam, David. The Breaks of the Game. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

Harris, Merv. The Lonely Heroes: Professional Basketball's Great Centers. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

Lazenby, Roland. The NBA Finals: A Fifty-Year Celebration. Indianapolis: Masters Press, 1996.

Libby, Bill and Haywood, Spencer. Stand Up for Something: The Spencer Haywood Story. New York: Tempo Books, 1972.

Neft, David S. and Cohen, Richard M. The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Basketball (second edition). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Pluto, Terry. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Sachare, Alex. 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time. New York: Byron Preiss Multimedia, 1997.

Williams, Pat (with James D. Denney). Ahead of the Game: The Pat Williams Story. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Fleming H. Revell, 1999.

Wolf, David. Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story. New York: Warner Paperback Library, 1973.

Articles in Newspapers/Magazines/Journals:

All-Pro Picks. Street and Smith’s College & Pro Basketball Yearbook, 1972-1973.

Barry, Rick. “All the Fantasies Came True.” Sport, November 1975.

Dexter, Pete. “Darryl Dawkins the Powerful.” Inside Sports, April 30, 1980.

Gilmartin, Joe. “NBA Preview.” Street and Smith’s College, Pro and Prep Basketball Yearbook, 1976-77.

Gilmartin, Joe. “Where Does the NBA go from Here?” Streeet and Smith’s College, Pro and Prep Basketball Yearbook, 1977-78.

Izenberg, Jerry. “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Rick Barry!” Sport, April 1975.

Lapin, Jackie. “Phil Chenier is no Longer a Hardship Case.” Sport, April 1975.

Leahy, Michael. “For Jordan, Insatiable Drive Yields Heavy Toll.” Washington Post, March 3, 2002.

Libby, Bill. “Who Says Wilt’s in his Second Childhood?” Sport, March 1972.

Moore, Ralph. “George McGinnis is Discovering Defense in Denver.” Basketball Digest, February 1979.

NBA Briefs. Basketball Pro-Style, March-April 1980.

Papanek, John. “Off on a Wronged Foot.” Sports Illustrated, August 21, 1978.

Vecsey, George. “Pistol Pete is the Player of the Future, Admits Pistol Pete.” Sport, December, 1973.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM



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