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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The NBA in the 1970s: Enter The High Schoolers: Moses From Virginia And Chocolate Thunder From Lovetron

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 sixth 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.

Enter The High Schoolers: Moses From Virginia And Chocolate Thunder From Lovetron

Once the Spencer Haywood case made the four year rule passe it was only a matter of time until players would be signed straight out of high school. In 1974, the ABA Utah Stars selected Moses Malone of Petersburg, Virginia in the third round of the draft. His high school team had won 50 straight games and two consecutive state championships, attracting the attention of more than 200 colleges--despite the fact that Malone's grade point average was not high enough to be eligible for an NCAA scholarship until he suddenly became an "A" student during his last semester. The miraculous grade increases and the tons of money being offered under the table led ACC Commissioner Bob James to call Malone's situation "the worst recruiting mess I've ever seen." Even though Malone's body had not yet filled out and matured, he averaged 17.7 points per game and 12.9 rebounds per game in two ABA seasons, making the All-Star team as a rookie. After the NBA-ABA merger, Portland selected him in the ABA dispersal draft but traded him to the Braves for a first round pick. He played briefly for the Braves before Houston acquired him for two first round picks. Two years later he won the first of his three regular season MVPs and the first of his six rebounding crowns en route to a Hall of Fame career.

Malone's success did not go unnoticed. The 76ers looked far and wide for a dominant big man as part of their rebuilding process after the disastrous 1972-1973 season. Darryl Dawkins, a 6-10 senior center at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida, impressed Sixers' Coach Gene Shue with his play in the 1975 state finals. Once the Sixers' brass decided to select Dawkins it became imperative to keep word of their young prospect from other teams. They convinced Dawkins to not play in postseason tournaments so scouts from other NBA organizations would not find out about him. The Sixers accomplished this by hiring Dawkins' high school coach to be Philadelphia's Florida scout, his first job being to "baby-sit" Dawkins and keep him hidden until the NBA draft. The plan worked and the 76ers made Dawkins the first high school player ever chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. He signed a $1.5 million, seven year deal with the Sixers.

Dawkins enjoyed a long NBA career and played in the NBA Finals three times as a Sixer but he never made the All-Star team and, unlike Malone, did not become a dominant NBA center. He is best known for shattering two backboards and for the creative nicknames he invented to describe himself (Chocolate Thunder, Master of Disaster, Sir Slam) and his spectacular dunks (Gorilla, Yo Mama, In Your Face Disgrace, Left Handed Spine Chiller Supreme, Hammer of Thor, etc.) Borrowing lingo from Parliament Funkadelic, he spoke of his "interplanetary funkmanship" and claimed to be from the planet "Lovetron." His backboard shattering dunk over the Kings' Bill Robinzine inspired this momentous sobriquet from Dawkins: "Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam." Ironically, the careers of the two trend setting big men intersected when Malone replaced Dawkins as the Sixers' starting center in 1982-1983 and led the team to the championship, winning the regular season and Finals' MVPs in the process.

Another player made the jump straight from high school to the NBA in 1975. Bill Willoughby, a second round pick of the Hawks that year, played eight NBA seasons but never averaged even 10 points per game. It took 20 years until Kevin Garnett became the next player to make the leap directly to the NBA from high school, but the signings of Malone, Dawkins and Willoughby paved the way for this to happen and also made it seem less shocking when increasing numbers of players invoked the hardship rule to leave college for the pros after only one or two seasons.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM