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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: The Hawk Soars Into the NBA; Willis Reed Limps Into Immortality

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. I will now publish that chapter in a series of 12 installments.

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.

Introduction: The Sport Of The Seventies

The 1969-1970 NBA season did not merely mark the end of the 1960s in a chronological sense; the league was in a state of transition on a number of levels. Bill Russell, the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' dynasty, retired in 1969 after claiming his eleventh championship in 13 seasons. Six of the titles came at the expense of the Los Angeles Lakers, who featured the superstar duo of forward Elgin Baylor and guard Jerry West. The 1969 loss was particularly galling for the Lakers. That season Baylor and West were joined by Wilt Chamberlain, who was already the league's all-time leading scorer and had been the driving force on the 1967 champion Philadelphia 76ers, who set the mark for best regular season record (68-13). A Lakers' championship seemed to be a foregone conclusion. Prior to the game seven showdown in L.A., Lakers' owner Jack Kent Cooke hired the USC marching band and had hundreds of balloons placed in the rafters of the Forum. The band would perform amid descending balloons after the Lakers won the game. Player-coach Russell and his veteran teammates drew great inspiration from the Lakers' blatant disrespect and won, 108-106. West performed so valiantly in defeat that he became the only player from the losing team to win the Finals MVP.

Russell's retirement appeared to open the door for the Lakers to finally win the title in 1970, but they still had to deal with several worthy challengers. Young guns such as Milwaukee Bucks' rookie Lew Alcindor (soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), the New York Knicks' Willis Reed, and the Baltimore Bullets' Wes Unseld eagerly awaited the opportunity to prove themselves in championship play.

While the league's greatest players battled to claim the ultimate prize, the NBA found itself in bitter competition with the upstart American Basketball Association. The NBA and the ABA fought to sign players, to attract fans, and to win court cases that would change the shape of sports (not just basketball) forever. Lucrative television deals vaulted the National Football League (NFL) to prominence in the 1960s and pro basketball seemed ready to enjoy the same good fortune in the 1970s. Pro basketball was promoted as the "Sport of the Seventies."

The NBA in the 1970s was not short on action. Eight different franchises won championships. Showmen such as Earl "the Pearl" Monroe, Connie Hawkins, "Pistol" Pete Maravich, Julius "Dr. J" Erving, George "Iceman" Gervin and many others performed dazzling acts of wizardry. Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins dismayed purists by entering the NBA straight from high school, gained notoriety by shattering two backboards, and amused fans by naming his sensational dunks (he also frustrated his coaches by his frequent indifference to rebounding and defense…). By the end of the decade the groundbreaking court cases were resolved, the leagues had merged and the NBA was about to enter into a golden age--although no one would have predicted that at the time considering the league's declining television ratings and problematic public image. The NBA went through some rough patches during the 1970s but it was seldom dull--on court or in court. Our story begins with a Hall of Fame player who played in both rival leagues but whose greatest challenge was a lengthy legal battle with the NBA.

The Hawk Soars Into The NBA; Willis Reed Limps Into Immortality

Connie Hawkins, an immensely talented freshman at the University of Iowa, was falsely implicated in the 1961 college basketball point shaving scandal. Although he was never charged with or convicted of any crimes, his college career ended in disgrace and the NBA blackballed him from the league. In 1961-1962, Hawkins won the MVP as a 19 year old rookie in the new American Basketball League. Unfortunately, the ABL folded early in its second season. He then traveled the world for four years with the Harlem Globetrotters but he did not enjoy all the clowning around that was part of the job description; Connie Hawkins wanted to play serious basketball against the best players in the world.

When the American Basketball Association was founded in 1967-68 as an American Football League-type rival for the NBA, it was eager to attract name talent. The ABA welcomed many players unfairly shunned by the NBA, including Hawkins, Roger Brown and Doug Moe. By this time Hawkins was already pursuing legal action against the NBA. When he signed to play with the ABA's Pittsburgh Pipers his representatives inserted clauses in his contract that enabled him to become a free agent at the conclusion of his two year deal or in the event that he was traded. This was very unusual, because up until that time pro basketball teams retained the option to re-sign or trade players as they saw fit. Hawkins needed these provisions because a key element in winning or successfully settling his lawsuit with the NBA would be his prompt availability to play in the league. Hawkins finished first in the ABA in scoring (26.8 points per game), won the MVP, and led the Pipers to the championship. A knee injury cut short his second season with the Pipers.

Meanwhile, Hawkins' case against the NBA picked up steam. Shockingly, it soon became apparent that the NBA had never thoroughly investigated his guilt or innocence before blackballing him; in essence, he was banned on the basis of his name being mentioned in a newspaper article about the scandal! The NBA did not want to publicly admit this but it also realized that taking the case to trial would be a losing proposition. In the summer of 1969 the NBA reached an out of court settlement with Hawkins worth over $1.2 million. This total included damages (for lost wages), a five year no-cut contract with the Phoenix Suns (who owned Hawkins' rights after losing the coin toss for Alcindor), deferred compensation, and payment of legal fees. Hawkins immediately transformed the Suns, a 16-66 expansion team the previous year, into a contending team. Despite still being slowed by his injured knee, he averaged 24.6 points per game, ranking sixth in the league in scoring. Hawkins earned a spot on the All-NBA First Team.

While Hawkins made the most of his opportunity to play in the NBA, several of the league's elite teams eagerly awaited the start of the playoffs. For the first time since 1949-1950 the Celtics did not qualify for postseason play; the two-time defending champions fell to 34-48 without Russell. Chamberlain sustained a devastating knee injury early in the season, further raising the championship hopes of the other contenders. Chamberlain contradicted the pessimistic evaluations of his doctors and vowed to return before the end of the season. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks roared out of the gates, winning their first five games, losing one and then setting a league record with an 18 game winning streak. They finished the season with a league best 60-22 record. Rookie Alcindor carried the second year Milwaukee Bucks to a 56-26 record and a second place finish behind the Knicks in the Eastern Division. In the West, a talented Atlanta Hawks team led by Lou Hudson finished first with a 48-34 record. Baylor and West guided the Lakers to second place with 46 wins; Chamberlain kept his word and returned to the lineup with three games left in the season.

The Lakers faced Hawkins and the Suns in the Western Division Semifinals. The Suns shocked the Lakers by taking a three to one lead in the series, but the Lakers regrouped behind Chamberlain's rebounding and West’s scoring to win the series in seven. Hawkins averaged 25.4 points per game, 13.9 rebounds per game and 5.9 assists per game.

Atlanta defeated Chicago 4-1 in the other Western Division Semifinals, while Milwaukee advanced to the Eastern Division Finals by knocking off Philadelphia four to one. The Knicks won a thrilling seven game series against the Bullets, their archrivals. The Knicks took the first two games, including a double overtime affair in game one, but the Bullets evened the series after four games. After that the teams traded wins, with New York advancing after a 127-114 game seven win at home. Considering that the series went the distance, it is interesting that the game scores were not particularly close, including a 21 point Knicks' win in game five and a 14 point Bullets' win in game three. Both Conference Finals proved to be anticlimactic: the Lakers swept the Hawks, while the Knicks dispatched the Bucks four games to one.

The balanced and deep Knicks were favored to defeat the Lakers in the Finals. They did not disappoint in the first game, winning 124-112 behind Reed's 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists. Chamberlain tallied 17 points and 24 rebounds, while West scored 33 points and Baylor contributed 21 points and 20 rebounds. The Lakers bounced back to win game two, with Reed scoring 29 points and Chamberlain 19. Game three featured one of the most famous shots in NBA history. The Lakers trailed 102-100 with three seconds left. Chamberlain inbounded to West, who took a few dribbles and nailed a shot from three quarters court. The shot was amazing not just because of the situation and distance but the way that West released the ball, followed through and casually walked to the sidelines as if nothing remarkable had happened. Meanwhile, stunned Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere fell to the ground under his own basket. Unfortunately for West and the Lakers, the NBA did not adopt the three point shot for another decade and the Knicks recovered to win in overtime, 111-108. Baylor had a triple double (13 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), West scored 34 points and Chamberlain added 21 points with 26 rebounds. Reed dominated with 38 points and 17 rebounds. In game four the Lakers evened the series behind West’s 37 points, 18 assists and five rebounds.

The momentum seemed to turn in the Lakers' favor early in game five when Reed tore a muscle in his right thigh while driving around Chamberlain. The Lakers led 25-15 at that point. With Reed out, Chamberlain possessed a decisive advantage over anyone the Knicks used against him in the post, but the Lakers tried so hard to force the ball in to him that they got out of rhythm and turned the ball over repeatedly. The Knicks stormed back to win 107-100. The Lakers finished with 30 turnovers; West did not make a field goal in the second half and Chamberlain managed only four second half points. Back home in L.A. for game six the Lakers made the appropriate adjustments and destroyed the Knicks 135-113. Reed was unable to play and Chamberlain rang up 45 points and 27 rebounds.

Game seven has become an integral part of the lore not just of pro basketball but of all American sports. Reed took painkilling injections in his injured leg and limped out onto the court. He only managed four points and three rebounds but his inspired teammates rolled to a 113-99 victory. Walt Frazier was magnificent for the Knicks with 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds. Like Reed, West took painkilling injections before the game, as he had suffered injuries to both of his hands earlier in the series. He still managed to score 28 points, while Baylor added 19 and Chamberlain had 24 rebounds to go along with his 21 points. Reed, who already had won the regular season and All-Star MVPs in 1970, was selected as Finals MVP; he became the first player to win all three awards in the same season, a feat later matched by Michael Jordan (1996 and 1998) and Shaquille O'Neal (2000).

While Chamberlain posted good numbers in the decisive game, it is somewhat puzzling that the Lakers did not do a better job of exploiting the fact that Reed was basically playing on one leg. A possible answer may be found in Chamberlain’s frequent lament: "Nobody roots for Goliath." He felt that his achievements were dismissed because of his size and he took great pride in accomplishing things that did not depend on physical dominance, like becoming the only center to lead the league in assists (702 in 1968). He did not want to be perceived as the bad guy and consequently he did not look at a limping Willis Reed like a shark would look at blood on the water.

Chamberlain certainly did not react the way that Michael Jordan did during a similar situation in a December 31, 2001 game versus the Nets (as recounted in Michael Leahy's March 3, 2002 Washington Post article titled "For Jordan, Insatiable Drive Yields Heavy Toll"):

He [Jordan] had been astounded, earlier in the season, when the New Jersey Nets' Kenyon Martin, in the midst of trying to guard him, jocularly confessed that he was playing with a back injury that hampered his movement. Jordan went on to score 45. Why, why, why had Martin been so naïve to tell him that? he asked later. Didn't Martin know he was a predator who 'went for the kill' against weakened quarry? It illustrated, he said, why you never let on about the severity of an injury.

Jordan's heroics that night were not in game seven of the NBA Finals or against a Hall of Fame player like Reed but the point is that Jordan eagerly pounces on any weakness that he detects in his opponents; given the same set of circumstances that Chamberlain faced, it is easy to picture Jordan going right at the hobbling Reed (in a similar vein, Russell once commented that he would have taken it as an insult if someone had played against him on one good leg). Of course, a major difference between Jordan and Chamberlain is that Jordan can bring the ball up the court and free himself for the shot, while Chamberlain depended upon his teammates to feed him the ball in the post; perhaps in game seven the Lakers were not effective or persistent enough in isolating Chamberlain versus Reed.

It should be emphasized that this comparison between two of the greatest players ever is not meant to suggest in any way that Chamberlain was not a winner; after all, he was the dominant player on the 1967 76ers and the 1972 Lakers, each of whom won the championship and posted the best regular season records in league history at the time. Chamberlain could not have had the individual and team success that he did without possessing tremendous drive. The fact that he was even playing in the 1970 championship series only months after suffering a serious knee injury testifies to his desire and intensity.

As the years passed a certain mythology arose that the 1970 Finals matched a team of stars (the Lakers) versus a well balanced team that emphasized passing and defense (the Knicks). DeBusschere commented: "The feeling that we were a team heightened most at the finals because they set Chamberlain, Baylor and West--best center, best forward, best guard--against a team of just guys. We weren’t supposed to have a chance." Calling the Knicks a "team of just guys" is a bit disingenuous considering that the Knicks had a Hall of Fame coach (Red Holzman) and four Hall of Fame players on their roster: Reed, DeBusschere, Frazier and forward Bill Bradley. What's more, none of the Knicks' stars were older than 30, while Baylor (35), Chamberlain (33) and West (31) were all past their thirtieth birthdays. It is true that by the conclusion of the 1970 playoffs West (3708 points, 30.9 points per game) Baylor (3623 points, 27.0 points per game), and Chamberlain (2990 points, 25.8 points per game) were the three leading scorers in NBA playoff history. That is impressive and unprecedented, but it also reflects the fact that all three players were past their primes. Baylor's chronically bad knees would soon force him to retire and, as noted above, Chamberlain had not completely recovered from his early season knee injury. West still had plenty of great games left, but his body was also battered and bruised from so many years of battling deep into the playoffs. The Knicks were hardly an underdog team without a chance; there is a reason that they had homecourt advantage for game seven. None of these facts diminish Reed's courage, Frazier's clutch game seven performance and the overall greatness of the 1970 New York Knicks. Quite the opposite: the 1970 Knicks should be remembered as a great team, not as an underdog.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:50 AM

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