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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Wayback Machine, Part III: The 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball has a sweet cover photo of New York Net Julius "Dr. J" Erving suspended in mid-air, operating on Denver Nugget Dan Issel. In the 1976 ABA Finals--the league's swan song before the ABA-NBA merger--Erving led both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (6.0 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg) while carrying his Nets to a 4-2 victory over a dominant Denver team that featured two Hall of Fame players (Issel and David Thompson), a Hall of Fame coach (Larry Brown) and the best defensive forward in pro basketball (Bobby Jones).

The first post-merger edition of the CHPB had fewer pages (272) than the 1976 (304 pages) and 1975 (288 pages) editions, largely because the pro basketball world had contracted from 28 teams in two leagues at the start of the 1975-76 season to 22 teams in one league. In addition to 22 team profiles, lists of 1976 statistical leaders from both leagues, a detailed account of the ABA Dispersal Draft (which included future Hall of Famers Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone plus future Coach of the Year Mike D'Antoni), a "TV/Radio roundup" and a complete schedule, the 1977 CHPB employed an all-star cast of writers to describe what the new NBA would look like. Woodrow Paige from the Rocky Mountain News--better known now as ESPN's Woody Paige--contributed a feature story titled "How Dr. J Will Dissect the NBA," Bob Ryan--another veteran newspaper writer who is now better known for being an ESPN personality--answered the question "Is John Havlicek the All-Time Best Performer?" and Roger Director--a sportswriter who became a big-time TV writer, producer and story editor in the 1980s--contributed a pieced titled "So You Want to be a Referee."

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1977 CHPB:

1) When I interviewed Woody Paige he told me that the two times in his career he walked away "amazed" were the first time he saw Julius Erving and the first time he saw John Elway. This is how Paige described Erving in his feature story:

"My personal thoughts about Erving already have been established during his five professional seasons. Writers aren't supposed to idolize, only report. But it's difficult to distinguish between the two when describing Erving. He is the greatest I've ever seen. I have watched him play some 70 times, but when I am old and feeble, surrounded by a multitude of grandurchins, I will remember distinctly and tell them again and again of the first time I saw Dr. J play."

Later in that same piece, Paige quoted Vince Boryla, a veteran pro basketball player, coach and executive:

"Nobody I ever have seen could play the game like he does. And he does it so effortlessly. And none of it takes away from his team play or his ability to play great defense. Elgin Baylor was the best I'd ever seen for a long time. We thought he was so quick. Baylor was like a stagecoach, though, compared to Erving. Erving can make his move, shoot and start back on defense before Baylor could take two steps."

LeBron James is justifiably lauded for his ability to play forward, guard and even center at times but it is unfortunate that some people have forgotten--and many people are too young to remember--that before James was even born Erving did the same thing and he did it with even more flair while leading the Nets to two championships in three years. Paige explained Erving's amazing versatility and even had the foresight to predict Erving's eventual shift to guard, which happened a decade later in Erving's final two seasons:

"Dr. J may be the only player in the game who can be utilized in any of the three positions without hurting his team or throwing off his game plan. For the Nets, he is primarily a forward. But because of injuries and weaknesses in the past at center, and when [Coach Kevin] Loughery wants more speed in the lineup, Erving moves into the middle. During the playoffs he was at guard for segments and he may end his career there. He can dribble and pass and run like a guard; he can rebound and shoot like a forward; and he can box out and throw the outlet pass like a center. He has the uncanny ability to pull down a rebound, throw the first pass on the break and then race down the court to score off it.

Because of his skill around the basket, clubs are forced to double-team him, setting up the Erving passes to the center for so-easy baskets. Dr. J has fantastic peripheral vision that allows him to go up, pull the ball back from a possible shot and make the good pass just before his feet return to Earth."

Paige conceded that it would be harder for Erving to get to the hoop in the NBA and stated that the nature of the sport is that a small forward cannot dominate quite the same way that a 7-2 center like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can but Paige correctly predicted that in the NBA Erving "will win games and he'll be consistent." Erving's Philadelphia 76ers were the winningest team in the NBA from 1976-77 through 1982-83, they won the 1983 championship in dominant fashion, they made it to the Finals four times in those seven seasons and five of their six playoff series losses came against teams that had future Hall of Famers at center.

During the 11 years that Abdul-Jabbar and Erving played in the NBA together, Abdul-Jabbar won two MVPs, one Finals MVP and four titles, while Erving won one MVP--the first such award claimed by a non-center in the NBA in nearly 20 years--and one title. Much like Abdul-Jabbar blocked Erving's path at times--his teams beat Erving's teams two out of three times in the Finals--Dwight Howard, the league's most dominant big man for the past several years, has already blocked James' path to one title (2009) and now that Howard has joined the Lakers he may block James' path more times.

2) Bob Ryan argued that while Bill Russell has "unchallenged supremacy" as the most valuable player in pro basketball history, John Havlicek "could, by virtue of a variety of skills, contribute to the winning of more games in more different ways" than any other performer in the sport's history. When Havlicek retired he ranked in the top ten on both the career scoring list and the career assists list. Ryan declared that in 1969-70, 1970-71 and 1971-72 Havlicek "was the most consistently brilliant all-around player who ever set foot on the court." Havlicek was certainly great during that period--culminating in averages of 28.9 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 7.5 apg in 1970-71--but Ryan's statement is still a bit over the top in light of Oscar Robertson averaging an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his career (including 30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 11.4 apg in 1961-62, the first and only time that a pro basketball player averaged a triple double for an entire season), not to mention the all-around brilliance displayed by players such as Elgin Baylor and Jerry West (Ryan blithely dismissed Erving from consideration because Erving had spent his entire career to that point in the ABA, an indication of Ryan's bias not just for Boston players but also against the ABA).

While Ryan somewhat overstated his case, the sad reality now is that Havlicek is underrated--if not completely forgotten--by just about anybody born after 1980, so it is worth mentioning some of his accomplishments. Havlicek began his career as a sixth man and likely would have won the Sixth Man Award several times if that honor had existed during his career. Unlike Erving and James, Havlicek could not play center but Ryan is correct that Havlicek was an extremely versatile and gifted player: he was a key contributor on eight championship teams (six while playing alongside Bill Russell plus two more after Russell retired) and in 1970 and 1972 he ranked in the top ten in scoring, assists and free throw percentage. Havlicek made the All-Defensive Team eight times (including five First Team selections)--and that honor did not exist until the seventh season of his 16 year career. Havlicek won the 1974 Finals MVP and even though it was almost impossible for a non-center to win the regular season MVP during his career he did earn five top 10 finishes. Havlicek still ranks 15th in pro basketball history in career points (26,395), ahead of every currently active player except for Kobe Bryant and ahead of legendary forwards Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Larry Bird. He also ranks 28th in pro basketball history in career assists (6114), ahead of every currently active player except Jason Kidd, Steve Nash and Andre Miller and ahead of many other renowned passers, including Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

It is interesting that in the 1976 CHPB, Commissioner Emeritus J. Walter Kennedy left Havlicek off of his all-time NBA team. Havlicek made the official 35th Anniversary Team in 1980-81 and he also made the cut for the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List in 1996.

3) Roger Director's article provided John Nucatola, then the NBA's Supervisor of Officials, the opportunity to explain in detail how the NBA selected and evaluated its referees. Three interesting candidates were in the pipeline at that time: Don Nelson (a former player who became a Hall of Fame coach), Bernie Fryer (a former player who later served for three decades as an NBA referee before becoming the NBA's Vice President and Director of Officials) and Evonne Maxwell (who tried unsuccessfully to become the league's first female referee). Nucatola told Director that the league encouraged former players to try out but that other than Nelson and Fryer not too many had chosen to do so. Nucatola noted that the job required that candidates not only know the rules and be in good physical condition but also that they have the right mindset and personality to deal with 10 players, two coaching staffs and a potentially hostile crowd. Referees must be in control--of both themselves and the game situation--at all times and yet not be arrogant. That balance is difficult to maintain, as the NFL is finding out this season with their replacement referees--people who may be very experienced and competent for lower levels of the sport but are totally out of their depth at the pro level. Every drunk fan thinks that he can be a referee but it is actually a difficult and thankless job.

4) Ryan and Paige co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that Washington would defeat Phoenix in the 1977 NBA Finals. Washington posted the third best record in the East--just two games behind Erving's East-leading Philadelphia 76ers--but Washington lost in the second round to Houston while the 76ers toppled the Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA Finals. Phoenix, the 1976 Western Conference champions, dropped to 34-48 and did not make the 1977 playoffs. Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers posted the best record in the league (53-29) but were swept by Portland in the Western Conference Finals. Erving was still a Net at press time or else Ryan and Paige undoubtedly would have ranked the 76ers higher than they did.

5) While the 76ers team preview did not include Erving, it is interesting to read the mini-profiles of some of his future teammates. George McGinnis hardly received rave reviews: "Shot selection is still an alien concept to a guy who has been doing as he damned well pleases on the floor since he was in junior high...Would have had trouble guarding a phone booth...Friendly guy who doesn't realize he is only scratching his potential." Those words proved to be very prophetic, as the talented McGinnis was out of the league just five years later at the age of 32; he showed flashes of brilliance at times and helped lead the Indiana Pacers to back to back ABA titles in 1972 and 1973 but he did not display the same level of dedication to his craft that Erving and Havlicek did as they managed to be highly productive well past the age of 35.

Doug Collins received praise for his ability to move without the ball, a skill that was somewhat wasted on this particular squad: "Should be equipped with flares on the floor...That's about the only way he'll ever attract the attention of either McGinnis or, especially, [Fred] Carter out there."

Kobe Bryant's father, Joe Bryant, was not quite the two way performer that his son became: "A long way from the All-Defensive Team but he's not alone on this club."

6) Although the Nets won the 1976 ABA championship thanks to Erving's all-around brilliance, the Nets' team preview pointed out the team's serious weaknesses: "Erving was once again the best passing forward with five assists a game...If only the others threw the ball to Erving in open situations the way he does it for them, no telling what he could average. But they don't." While Erving "is an intelligent defensive forward," the Nets' overall defense was panned for relying on "street gang defensive maneuvers...hang on and bang on." Finally, the team's struggles on the boards compelled Erving to crash the defensive glass like a center instead of being able to fully take advantage of his open court skills. "Take away Dr. J and New York is a completely mediocre team." That, in fact, is what happened: the Nets sold Erving to the 76ers and dropped from champions to 22-60, the worst record in the league.

7) Erving's profile said a lot in a few words: "The complete player...Can do it all and does...Among top 10 in seven different categories last season...Led the ABA in scoring as usual and was MVP again...Has really improved outside shooting in last two seasons and now can score from anywhere by any means against anybody at any time."

8) Future 11-time championship coach Phil Jackson was nearing the end of the line as a backup forward with the New York Knicks: "Not very productive last year, primarily because he fouled too damn much...Legitimate intellectual...Interested in comparative religions, as befits the son of a preacher...Forward on the All-Hook Shot team...Great on the zone press."

9) Phoenix guard Ricky Sobers played solidly as a rookie in 1976 but his mini-profile noted that he might also have been auditioning for another sport: "Must make up his mind whether he wants to play basketball or become the second coming of Kid Gavilan...Had many fights during the regular season and one per playoff round (Tommy Burleson, Rick Barry, Kevin Stacom)...When he sticks to business, however, he can play the game."

10) Jamaal Wilkes, a 2012 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, enjoyed a very productive second season: "Essentially a flawless player...No more astute young defensive player and a scrappy rebounder...Poses a difficult matchup problem because he's quick and so much stronger than he looks."

11) Bill Walton played in just 86 games in his first two seasons but he had already showed flashes of his true potential: "Don't doubt that he could lead his team to a title someday just because you hate beards, vegetables and left-wing politics. He can really play." Walton enjoyed the best season of his career in 1976-77, earning the Finals MVP while leading the Trail Blazers to the first and only championship in franchise history.

12) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ranked second in scoring (27.7 ppg), won his first rebounding title (16.9 rpg) and claimed his fourth MVP in his first seven seasons but not everyone was impressed: "Paid more lip service than any player in the game, but the fact remains everybody thought his teams would dominate forever, and he's been on one exactly one champeen in seven years" (yes, the author wrote "champeen"). Within a decade of those words being written, Abdul-Jabbar won five more championships, two more MVPs and a Finals MVP while also breaking Wilt Chamberlain's regular season career scoring record.

Wayback Machine, Part I looked at the 1975 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part II looked at the 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:28 AM

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