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Thursday, September 02, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Spencer Haywood Jumps Leagues; the Bucks Blank The Bullets

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 second 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.

Spencer Haywood Jumps Leagues; the Bucks Blank The Bullets

The economics of pro basketball exploded in the 1970s. The average player salary rose from $35,000 in 1970 to $180,000 a decade later and franchise values went up more than 600% in the same period. The major cause of the skyrocketing salaries was the competition between the NBA and the ABA for star players. The ABA opened a new front in this war with the signing of Spencer Haywood, the 19 year old star of the 1968 U.S. Olympic gold medalists. Haywood had only played one year of junior college ball and one year at the University of Detroit before he joined the ABA's Denver Rockets for the 1969-1970 season. At this time, NBA teams abided by the "four year rule," which stipulated that a player could not be drafted or signed to an NBA contract until his college class graduated; that is why Wilt Chamberlain played a year with the Harlem Globetrotters after he left Kansas before his senior season. The ABA subsequently signed numerous underclassmen, most notably Ralph Simpson (1970), Julius Erving (1971) and George McGinnis (1971), each of whom became All-Stars.

Haywood enjoyed a spectacular rookie season, leading the ABA in scoring (30.0 points per game) and rebounding (19.5 rebounds per game). He won the Rookie of the Year, the regular season MVP, and the All-Star MVP and averaged 36.7 points per game and 19.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, Haywood's success caused him to take a second look at his contract. Little did he know that his case would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court and forever change American sports. When Haywood signed with the Rockets his contract was announced as a six year, $1.9 million deal. In fact, the vast majority of the value of his contract ($1.5 million) would be paid to Haywood at the rate of $75,000 a year for 20 years after Haywood turned 40. The ABA devised this type of deferred compensation arrangement (known as the Dolgoff Plan) in order to be able to offer huge contracts to players. It involved paying a portion of a player's salary into a mutual fund or other growth fund for a ten year period. Payments to the player commenced after waiting for an additional ten years and typically lasted for 20 years. It was not clear if Haywood would receive the $1.5 million if, for any reason, he did not play the full six years for the Rockets or if the ABA folded at some point in the future. Haywood was unable to reach an agreement with the Rockets to restructure his contract, so he jumped leagues and signed a six year, $1.5 million deal with the Seattle Supersonics. This contract paid Haywood $100,000 a year for 15 years--all cash, no deferred compensation and no Dolgoff Plan. Agent Ron Grinker later observed, "The ABA paid in paper money, but the NBA responded to that by paying in real dollars, and it nearly bankrupted both leagues."

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues: the Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the Supersonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-1971 season and he played in only 33 games for the Supersonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the Supersonics permanently.

The overturning of the four year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971 the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship. Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by writer Jackie Lapin in the April 1975 issue of Sport: "…almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify--with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker’s son."

The competition between the leagues for players also extended into a battle for markets. In 1970-1971 the NBA expanded into Buffalo, Cleveland and Portland, in no small part to keep the ABA out of those cities. After the addition of those teams the NBA reorganized the Eastern and Western Divisions into conferences with two divisions each; also, Atlanta switched to the Eastern Conference and Milwaukee moved to the Western Conference. The defending champion Knicks won the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record, while the 42-40 Bullets took the Eastern Conference's Central Division. The Lakers acquired high scoring guard Gail Goodrich in the offseason but lost Elgin Baylor to a season ending knee injury after only two games. They still finished first in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division with a 48-34 record.

The Bucks pulled off the biggest off-season trade in the league, shoring up their backcourt with Oscar Robertson, nine time member of the All-NBA First Team. Robertson teamed with second year players Alcindor and Bob Dandridge to turn the Bucks into a dominant team. Milwaukee went a league best 66-16, broke the Knicks' one year old record by winning 20 straight games, and easily captured the Midwest Division by 15 games over Chicago. Alcindor won the scoring title (31.7 points per game), ranked fourth in rebounding (16.0 rebounds per game) and was selected regular season MVP.

The only blemish on the Bucks' season was a 1-4 record versus the defending champion Knicks. A championship showdown between the teams seemed to be inevitable but Willis Reed was hampered by a knee injury and the Bullets defeated the Knicks 93-91 in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals. Milwaukee overwhelmed the Lakers four to one in the Western Conference Finals, winning game five 116-98; Elgin Baylor and Jerry West both missed the 1970-1971 playoffs due to injuries. In the Finals, Wes Unseld--the Bullets' valiant but undersized (6-7) center--proved to be no match for Alcindor and the Bucks notched the first Finals sweep since 1959.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:48 AM

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