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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wayback Machine, Part II: The 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The 1976 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball contained 304 pages, 16 more than the 1975 edition. Four diverse authors provided four interesting feature stories: Art Spander--who eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is also a respected golf writer--profiled Golden State Warriors' star Rick Barry, the second consecutive year that the CHPB included a feature about Barry; NBA Commissioner Emeritus Walter Kennedy--perhaps better known as J. Walter Kennedy, the namesake of the NBA's annual citizenship award--listed his All-Time NBA Team; Roger Director--who left sportswriting in the 1980s to become a writer, producer and story editor for hit TV shows such as "Moonlighting" and "Hill Street Blues"--described "The Zany World of the Globetrotters"; the Oregon Journal's Ken Wheeler examined the future prospects of an injury-prone young center named Bill Walton.

As usual, the CHPB included profiles of each of the NBA's 18 teams and each of the ABA's 10 teams, with mini-scouting reports on more than 300 players plus two pages listing the statistical leaders from both leagues. The CHPB had an "NBA TV/Radio roundup" of the local broadcasting crews for each NBA team and a complete 1975-76 NBA schedule but did not provide similar information regarding the ABA.

These notes and quotes will give you a revealing glimpse into the 1976 CHPB and, through that prism, a view of the basketball world in general at that time:

1) The vanity license plate on Rick Barry's $10,000 DeTomaso Pantera read "POO 24," a reference respectively to a horse Barry owned and Barry's jersey number; Spander commented, "Still, it's a bit unnerving to see this handsome, virile athlete with a license plate that reads POO." Spander detailed the whirlwind summer after Barry's Warriors won the 1975 NBA championship and he noted that Barry's brutal honesty--both as an interview subject and during stints as a CBS commentator--likely cost Barry the 1975 regular season MVP award (then selected by the players) even though, according to Spander, "No one will have a statistical season like Rick did--leading the league in two such disparate categories as steals and free throws, finishing second in scoring and being the only forward ranked in assists." Spander conceded that perhaps the actual winner, Bob McAdoo, had a season at least as good as Barry's (McAdoo led the league in scoring while ranking fourth in rebounding and fifth in field goal percentage) but called it "ridiculous" that Barry finished fourth in the balloting instead of first or second.

2) Here is Kennedy's All-Time NBA Team: forwards Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor, Joe Fulks and Bob Pettit, centers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, George Mikan and Bill Russell, guards Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and coach Red Auerbach. Kennedy mentioned that he regretted leaving out John Havlicek, Dolph Schayes, Lenny Wilkens and Dave DeBusschere. Abdul-Jabbar, Barry and Frazier were the only active players who made the cut; four year ABA veteran Julius Erving had yet to play an NBA game (except for some exhibition contests when he was briefly an Atlanta Hawk) and at the height of the NBA-ABA rivalry it is certain that Kennedy was not inclined to expand his list to include all of pro basketball as opposed to just the NBA (a few years later, basketball writers selected the NBA's 35th Anniversary All-Time Team, an 11 man unit that included nine of Kennedy's 12 selections, adding Erving and Havlicek to the mix while subtracting Barry, Frazier and Fulks). Kennedy refused to relegate any of his choices to the second team, arguing that those dozen NBA legends are so great they are all "first team." Memories of Fulks were likely already fading in 1976 and sadly may be almost completely gone now but Kennedy noted that Fulks' single game scoring record of 63 points--set in the pre-shot clock era--stood for more than a decade. Kennedy argued that Fulks "would be a superstar today" and noted that Fulks was one of just 10 players selected to the NBA's Silver Anniversary Team in 1971 (Pettit, Schayes, Paul Arizin, Russell, Mikan, Cousy, Bill Sharman, Bob Davies and Sam Jones were the others--and it must be remembered that the team consisted only of retired players, hence no Chamberlain, Robertson or West; the voters were players who had made the All-NBA First Team at least once in the league's first 25 years).

3) Director noted that Meadowlark Lemon got his start as a Globetrotter when Marques Haynes, then serving as the team's coach, took a fancy to Lemon and pulled the then-18 year old out of the crowd. Lemon joined the team full-time as soon as he finished his commitment to the U.S. Army. Director mentioned that the Globetrotters, who were of course once one of the best basketball teams in the world (even capable of beating George Mikan's Lakers), began their comedy routines as a way to stall during games and prevent running up the score against some of their outclassed opponents.

4) After an injury-plagued rookie season, Bill Walton received more attention for his political views and vegetarian diet than for his basketball skills. The Portland Trail Blazers issued an official statement that "deplored" public criticisms that Walton made of the FBI and the U.S. government. Meanwhile, many people wondered if Walton's body was sturdy enough and his mentality fierce enough to survive nightly battles in the paint. Walton said, "The people in Portland and the fans in the NBA have not yet seen me play my best basketball but they must remember I have been hurt. Caring for one's body is very important. Changing my diet to vegetarian, which consists of fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, herbs and juices, has done wonders for me. Such a diet has brought back my soul's consciousness. The consciousness comes back when we stop eating the carcasses of dead animals. Better vibrations occur. Our values are to learn that health, our bodies and our lives are more important than the value of money." In case you only know Walton as Luke's father or the sixth man on Larry Bird's third and final Boston championship team, it should be mentioned that Walton endured a second injury-filled campaign in 1975-76 but in 1976-77 a relatively healthy Walton played in 65 regular season games and then led Portland to the NBA championship. In the 1977 and 1978 seasons (before Walton got hurt yet again) he played the center position about as well as anyone has ever played it in terms of the all-around game, the ability to impact the action through scoring, rebounding, passing, defending and leadership.

5) The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan--a name that is still quite familiar not just to basketball fans but also to television viewers--picked the Washington Bullets to repeat as Eastern Conference champions and the L.A. Lakers to win the Western Conference thanks to the acquisition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks. He listed Boston and Buffalo as two other "major threats," while predicting that the defending champion Warriors might fall as far as third place in the Pacific Division. The Warriors actually finished with the best record in the entire league (59-23) and made it to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost in seven games to the 42-40 Phoenix Suns. The Lakers failed to win even half of their games and did not qualify for the playoffs. The Bullets had a solid season (48-34) before losing to Cleveland in the playoffs and then Boston defeated an injury-depleted Cleveland squad to make it to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years. The Suns fought valiantly but the Celtics picked up the second championship of the post-Bill Russell era. How could a Boston scribe like Ryan not see that coming? That just shows the perils of prognostication even for people who have a lot of experience and who enjoy insider access to the league.

6) John Havlicek's player profile said, "Formerly preferred playing forward, but now likes guard, where there's less banging and less endline-to-endline running." Havlicek's late career evolution foreshadowed a similar transition made by Julius Erving a decade later. One would think that guards run more than forwards, not less, so the stated reason for Havlicek's position change is a bit odd; Philadelphia shifted Erving so that he could post up smaller guards and also to make room in the lineup for Charles Barkley (it was not considered feasible to play two small forwards together, though later in his career Barkley would be deemed a power forward). As a Washington Wizard, Michael Jordan shifted in the opposite direction at times, moving from shooting guard to play small forward so that he could use his strength and post up skills without having to chase around smaller, quicker guards. Perhaps these transitions depend on an individual player's skill set, the roster composition of that player's team and the style of play in vogue in the league at the time.

7) This is the type of nugget that only the CHPB provided: Buffalo's Dale Schleuter "Holds unenviable distinction of being worst fighter in NBA history...Centers are ashamed to admit they've never kayoed him." Two thoughts: 1) Did Bert Randolph Sugar rank NBA fighters for the CHPB? 2) That kind of comment would be considered completely and totally politically incorrect in today's NBA, all the more so with the justifiable concerns about concussions and head injuries.

8) New York Knicks' forward Phil Jackson really got the treatment: "Before he shaved beard, looked like fuzzy erector set...Very intellectual; can even converse with (Bill) Bradley without an interpreter...To say that his style is awkward is to say that Jim Nabors will never play Hamlet." The future Zen Master is described as "Very intense, once got $1000 fine for shoving referee Earl Strom, but has since vowed to remain calm."

9) An unnamed player said of Wes Unseld, "When he sets a pick, it takes you 24 seconds to run around it."

10) Mike D'Antoni became famous for his "Seven Seconds or Less" offense in Phoenix but his player profile praised the "excellent hands and defensive anticipation" of the 24 year old backup guard for the Kansas City Kings.

11) Jerry Sloan's player profile noted that he "has the face of a washed-up middleweight" and that he is "Fearless and tactless on the court."

12) From the too much information department came this note about veteran center Nate Thurmond: "Has feet only a podiatrist would love."

13) Bob Lanier may be best known now for his community service work but he was a great, great player: "Such awesome grace has never before been present in a man of this size...Dainty movements coming from a man who sometimes weighs 280 suggests image of a ballerina elephant...The single most versatile offensive center--ever...Actually has more moves than Abdul-Jabbar, who has become almost strictly a hook man." Perhaps that praise may seem a bit extravagant but it is interesting to see how Lanier was perceived during the prime of his career.

14) Detroit Coach Ray Scott's nickname of "Chink"--in reference to his facial features--would go over even less well today than the ranking of Schleuter's purported lack of fighting prowess.

15) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed 17 games due to a broken hand after he punched a basket stanchion in response to Don Nelson poking him in the eye. Abdul-Jabbar averaged 30 ppg but critics sniped that he only ranked 29th in offensive rebounding (he ranked fifth overall in rebounding average with 14.1 rpg).

16) An ironic note that does not seem humorous in light of subsequent events: Kermit Washington, who later nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich with the most infamous punch in NBA history, is said to "have the potential to be next heavyweight champ."

17) Seattle Coach Bill Russell "was hired to make chicken salad out of chicken you know what and has begun to do just that." Russell lasted a total of four seasons in Seattle, winning between 36 and 43 games each year after inheriting a 26 win team.

18) Bill Walton's player profile stated, "Uncomfortable around reporters and mumbles answers with head down most of the time." Walton transformed himself from a reluctant talker who had a speech impediment into a TV commentator who is famous for his propensity to expound at length on any number of subjects.

19) The Indianapolis Star's Dave Overpeck picked Kentucky to repeat as the ABA champions by defeating the Denver Nuggets but the Colonels lost 4-3 in the Semifinals to Julius Erving's New York Nets, who went on to claim the final title in league history with an upset victory over the powerful Nuggets.

20) Classic CHPB one liner about San Antonio's journeyman forward William Franklin: "Spurs added him in the middle of last year when they were looking for a little more help on the boards...That's what they got--little help."

21) Utah's Jim Eakins is described as "a superior backup center...Not a championship-style pivot as a starter, though." Eakins finished the season with New York and received most of the minutes at center in the playoffs as Erving had one of the greatest playoff performances ever while leading the Nets to the title. In one of his MVP acceptance speeches, offensive rebounder extraordinaire Moses Malone thanked his teammates for missing so many shots and in a similar vein it could be said that playing alongside Eakins, Rich Jones and Kim Hughes enabled--or required--Erving to put up such gaudy numbers in the 1976 ABA playoffs.

22) The New York Nets' "Scouting Report" noted that Erving is the team's primary playmaker, "the beginning and/or end of most of what the Nets do." Regarding the team's defense, Erving's "skills in this department are underrated."

23) Erving's player profile described him as "Probably the most exciting player in the game today with marvelous scoring sweeps to the hoop" but also noted that he "hits the jumper from three point range and within." The idea that Erving either never developed a consistent jump short or at least did not have one until midway through his NBA career is false. Erving did not have a great jump shot as an ABA rookie but he quickly added that skill to his repertoire. The player profile also mentioned Erving's defensive prowess: "Unusual for big offensive stars, he frequently takes the other team's top forward on defense."

24) The ABA section concluded with a team profile for the Baltimore Claws, the former Memphis Sounds; that franchise folded before the season even began, followed soon thereafter by the San Diego Sails and Utah Stars as the ABA contracted from a 10 team, two division league to a seven team league with no divisions. The final ABA All-Star Game pitted the league-leading Nuggets against the best players from the other six teams--and the Nuggets won, something to keep in mind in light of the fact that a few months later the Nets beat the Nuggets in a championship series with Eakins, Hughes and Jones manning the frontcourt rotation alongside Erving.

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:15 AM

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