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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wayback Machine, Part V: The 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

In 1978, the Bullets finally captured their first NBA title after the franchise fell short in two previous NBA Finals appearances (1971 as the Baltimore Bullets and then 1975 as the heavily favored Washington Bullets), so it is fitting that the front cover photo of the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball showcases much-maligned Bullet Elvin Hayes guarding Philadelphia's George McGinnis. The back cover photo shows Philadelphia's Julius Erving seemingly walking on air past New York's ground-bound Lonnie Shelton, who has a "Where did he go?" befuddled look on his face; Erving's legs appear to be making a walking motion but both of his feet are off of the ground so it looks like Erving has been photoshopped into the picture--but of course photoshop did not exist in 1979.

The 1979 CHPB totaled 288 pages; it contained 22 team profiles written by Steve Hershey and Pete Alfano, lists of the 1978 NBA statistical leaders, selected all-time NBA records, a list of all 202 players selected in the 1978 NBA Draft, a complete schedule and a "TV/Radio roundup." Paul Attner--who covered the Bullets for the Washington Post before becoming a senior writer for the Sporting News--contributed a feature story titled "The Big E's Biggest Triumph," Tom Meschery described "Lenny Wilkens' SuperSonic Miracle," Dan Lauck recounted "David Thompson's Leap to Fortune" and Darrell Simmons explained "How to Make the NBA at Age 28."

Hershey and Alfano co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that the Philadelphia 76ers would beat the L.A. Lakers in the 1979 NBA Finals. Both of those teams lost in the conference semifinals, though they did face each other in three of the next four NBA Finals (1980, 1982, 1983); the Seattle SuperSonics (picked to finish third in the Pacific Division) avenged their 1978 NBA Finals loss to the Bullets (picked to finish second behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division) and captured the first--and only--championship in franchise history.

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1979 CHPB:

1) Attner mentioned that--even though many members of the media portrayed the Big E as a selfish stat-chaser and a loser--no one could question Elvin Hayes' talent: "Perhaps no big man in the history of the NBA has been blessed with such versatility. He is not only tall but has coils for legs. His 6-9 frame is dominated by huge chest and arm muscles that give him formidable strength. He runs like a gazelle, often filling the lanes on a Bullet fast break. And his shooting touch can defy the logic of basketball technique." Hayes made the All-Star team in each of his first 12 seasons and he averaged a robust 22.9 ppg and 13.0 rpg during his playoff career.

Hayes averaged 21.8 ppg, a league-best 13.3 rpg and a league-best 41.3 mpg during the Bullets' 1978 playoff run, including 20.7 ppg and 11.9 rpg in Washington's seven game victory over Seattle in the NBA Finals. He felt tremendous joy and relief after winning the championship in his 10th season:

I'm at peace. I'm at peace again with the world and myself. That seventh game, it was the worst pressure I've ever had. People had written that I was a quitter, that the team would never win a title with me and I thought of every bad thing that had ever been said about me. That game was the opportunity to put it all to rest and we did...

Now all they can say is that Elvin Hayes is a winner.

2) Meschery portrayed Lenny Wilkens as a well-respected but somewhat inscrutable figure--a great player who was in the process of making a name for himself as a great coach. Wilkens took over a 5-17 Seattle team and guided the SuperSonics to the 1978 NBA Finals (and then all the way to the championship a year after Meschery wrote his CHPB profile of Wilkens). Prior to that, Wilkens coached in Portland and Meschery--who served as Wilkens' assistant coach there--asserted that, with all due respect to Wilkens' successor Jack Ramsay, Wilkens deserved credit for laying the groundwork for Portland's 1977 championship by contributing to the development of both Bill Walton and Lionel Hollins.

Meschery considered Wilkens' demeanor and coaching style a welcome change from the drill sergeant mentality that had long dominated the profession and he concluded, "...Durocher was wrong; good guys can finish first."

3) David Thompson is a Basketball Hall of Famer but were it not for drug problems and a knee injury he might have been earned a spot on the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list. Thompson was at the height of his powers in 1977-78, earning his second consecutive All-NBA First Team selection after averaging a career-high 27.2 ppg and losing the closest race for the scoring title; George Gervin edged Thompson on the final day of the season after Thompson scored 73 points, the "non-Wilt" single game scoring record until Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a 2006 game; Gervin had the last word with a 63 point outburst that was good enough to secure a .07 ppg lead. After the season, Thompson signed a five year deal with the Denver Nuggets for $4 million, the richest contract in pro basketball history at that time (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pistol Pete Maravich reportedly made in the vicinity of $600,000 a season, while Julius Erving and George McGinnis each reportedly made about $500,000 a season). Most of Lauck's piece about Thompson focused on that record-setting contract and the ripples that it sent around the pro sports world.

Though it seemed like the best was yet to come for the 23 year old Thompson, he never made the All-NBA Team again and by 1984 his career was over. In 1978 no one could have predicted such a dramatic fall for the 6-4 guard/forward nicknamed "Skywalker" but Lauck's article contained a little foreshadowing with its references to Thompson's unassuming demeanor and the way that Thompson's play initially slumped after the details of his new contract were publicized. Many observers later theorized that all of that extra cash and the accompanying pressure were more than Thompson could handle. Lauck noted that Thompson was better suited to play in a small market like Denver than a media fishbowl like New York or Los Angeles--but the reality is that the temptations and the burdens that come with being a marquee star are inescapable regardless of where one lives and plays.

4) Several years before Spud Webb won the Slam Dunk Contest and became a folk hero in Atlanta, 5-8 Charlie Criss caught Coach Hubie Brown's eye, earned a roster spot with the Hawks as a 28 year old rookie and averaged 8.5 ppg in an eight season NBA career. Criss helped New Mexico State make it to the 1970 NCAA Final Four but while his teammates Sam Lacey and Jimmy Collins became first round draft picks Criss was not drafted because scouts considered him to be too small to play at the highest level. Simmons' story recounted Criss' journey from winning the Eastern League MVP and playing against the Harlem Globetrotters in Europe to becoming the Hawks' leading scorer off of the bench in 1977-78 (11.4 ppg).

5) Julius Erving's scoring average dipped from 21.6 ppg in 1976-77 to 20.6 ppg in 1977-78 but Erving made the All-NBA First Team after being relegated to All-NBA Second Team status in his first NBA season. Erving accepted a reduced offensive role so that fellow All-Stars George McGinnis and Doug Collins could flourish but after the 76ers lost to Portland in the 1977 NBA Finals and fell to Washington in the 1978 Eastern Conference Finals it became apparent that asking the team's best player to sacrifice the most probably is not the best approach. Erving's profile discussed this issue: "There are only glimpses now of what he used to do regularly...He says he can live with this lower profile on a team with too many players who have to have the ball...No question, however, that he is the team leader...Should be the focal point of the offense this season, thus adding several points to his average...Even on a part time basis, he is the most exciting player in the league, the man who made the dunk an art form."

While the 1979 CHPB  Erving profile accurately explained Erving's offensive capabilities, it incorrectly asserted that Erving "has defensive weaknesses," though it did add, "Plays the passing lanes well, however, and double teams the ball." Erving made the ABA All-Defensive Team in 1976 and he played a key defensive role for the New York Nets when they won two ABA championships but early in his NBA career he received a bad rap for supposedly gambling too much on defense, an accusation that his ABA opponent and NBA teammate Bobby Jones--one of the greatest defensive players ever--emphatically rejected: "In the type of defense that we played, if one person gambled it was kind of like a spider web type of thing--the web stretches. If one guy goes, the other four sort of cheat and leave their men a little bit to help out in case the ball moves and a guy becomes open. You just keep rotating around. I don't think it (going for steals or blocks) is selfish at all. I think that it's good. You have to put pressure on the offense because shooters are so good. The offense has such an advantage because it can initiate what takes place, so as a defender you have got to try to instigate something to throw them off and make them do something they don’t want to do. The old term, 'pressure will bust the pipe,' is very true. It will make people change what they want to do." Billy Cunningham, who coached Erving and the 76ers from 1977-85, praised Erving's defense: "Julius had the great ability to block shots. His anticipation defensively for steals and creating turnovers was just wonderful and he was definitely underrated in that regard. He took a great deal of pride in his defense. We had to rely on our quickness more than physically overpowering teams. If Julius went for the steal and missed, there was supposed to somebody there giving him support until he recovered and got back into the defensive set."

It is strange that Larry Bird, a good team defender but a poor one on one defender who routinely was assigned to guard the opposing team's worst frontcourt scorer, made the All-Defensive Team three straight years in the 1980s but Erving--who not only was a good team defender but who was not a liability in one on one situations--never made the NBA All-Defensive Team despite annually ranking among the league leaders in both steals and blocked shots; it is true that defense cannot be completely measured just by looking at those numbers but, as the comments by Jones and Cunningham indicate, Erving completely fulfilled his defensive responsibilities and he was not simply accumulating individual statistics at the team's expense.

6) As indicated above, the CHPB's analysis was not always on target--but the CHPB always delivered great one-liners. Former ABA All-Star Caldwell Jones started at center for the 76ers ahead of Darryl Dawkins, who jumped straight from high school to the NBA in 1975. Jones' CHPB profile drily noted, "Has the job only until Darryl Dawkins matures...May have it another 10 years."

7) The Boston Celtics drafted Larry Bird as a junior eligible, meaning that if he returned to Indiana State for his senior season they only retained his rights until the next NBA Draft. This turned out to be yet another shrewd decision by Red Auerbach; Bird led Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA Championship Game before losing to Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and he then joined the Celtics for the 1979-80 season, winning Rookie of the Year honors over Johnson. The CHPB called Bird the Celtics'  "Top Rookie (1978-79 or 1979-80?)" and Bird's profile included these comments: "Averaged 30 points at Indiana State and is said to be a better passer than shooter...The next great white hope."

8) Phil Jackson, who averaged 2.4 ppg for the New York Knicks in 1977-78, was nearing the end of his playing career. He joined the New Jersey Nets in 1978-79 but played in just 75 games over the next two seasons before retiring. His CHPB profile demonstrated the perils of trying to predict the future: "Has shaved his beard, trimmed his hair but will always be considered a hippie...Honest to the point where management cringes when he opens his mouth...Has considered coaching but does not view it as a permanent vocation once his career ends." Just 12 years later, Jackson won the first of his record 11 championships as an NBA head coach.

9) The Detroit Pistons fired Herb Brown--Larry's brother--and hired none other than Dick Vitale to replace him. The CHPB described Vitale as "A rah-rah, win-one-for-the-Gipper coach, who talks about restoring pride, honor and enthusiasm...Has a five year contract, so anyone who can't sing the fight song will be gone." Vitale lasted just 12 games into his second season before the Pistons fired him; he went just 34-60 as an NBA coach but he landed on his feet at ESPN, for whom he still analyzes college basketball more than 30 years later.

10) In 1977-78, Pete Maravich seemed to be cruising to his second straight scoring title before he blew out his knee. He tried to avoid season-ending surgery and gutted it out for a few games before going under the knife. Maravich's New Orleans Jazz went 26-24 with him and just 13-19 without him; much like Kobe Bryant later did with the 2006 and 2007 L.A. Lakers, Maravich single-handedly kept the Jazz in playoff contention. Despite missing 32 games, Maravich--an All-NBA First Teamer in 1977 and the third place finisher in the MVP race behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton--still made the 1978 All-NBA Second Team and the CHPB called him "the best all-around guard in creation...One of the all-time great passers and ball-handlers." At that time, Maravich owned the third highest scoring average (25.2 ppg) for a guard in NBA history, trailing only Jerry West (27.0 ppg) and Oscar Robertson (25.7 ppg).

Every year, the CHPB included a short sidebar after each team profile. In the 1979 edition, the sidebar subject was "club oddity" and the one for the Jazz was eerily prophetic: Pete Maravich experienced such severe chest pains on February 25, 1977 that he "thought I might be having a heart attack" but the team doctor cleared Maravich to play--apparently, Maravich just had some muscular soreness in his chest from lifting weights--and Maravich poured in a career-high 68 points. Barely a decade later, Maravich died of a heart attack. The autopsy revealed that the 40 year old Maravich had a congenital heart defect that is usually fatal before the age of 20, so it is incredible that Maravich had a 10 year NBA career.

11) Austin Carr--best known to younger fans as the Cleveland color commentator who uses catch phrases such as "Throw the hammer down!"--was one of the greatest scorers in college basketball history  before becoming the Cavaliers' first All-Star. The CHPB said that Carr "has more moves than a belly dancer but two knee operations robbed him of his quickness...He's the only guard to challenge Paul Westphal for the Ambidexterity Team."

12) When Bo Ellis played for Marquette, Coach Al McGuire called him "the Secretariat of college forwards" but after Ellis averaged just 4.3 ppg in his rookie season the CHPB disagreed with that notion: "Played more like a $1500 claimer with the Nuggets."

13) In one of the most bizarre deals in pro sports history, the Boston and Buffalo owners swapped franchises. New Buffalo owner Irv Levin then moved his team to San Diego. At press time for the CHPB the San Diego squad still did not have a nickname--or a head coach. Gene Shue eventually took the reins for the Clippers, leading them to a 43-39 record, two wins shy of earning a playoff berth.

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

Wayback Machine, Part III looked at the 1977 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part IV looked at the 1978 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 AM



At Friday, July 19, 2013 6:03:00 PM, Blogger Gatas Negras said...

Wow' incredible. Someone else remembers those Complete Handbooks?!? I bought those books religiously every year in several sports: pro basketball, pro football, baseball, college football and basketball. I used to look forward to buying them every year when a new season was starting. After 30+ years in my basement I finally threw them all out last year. But I scanned and saved some of my favorite pages. All good memories you brought back. I remember Magic being on the front cover for the 1980-1981 season. I remember one with Moses Malone on the back cover dunking. I'll have to own my documents and revisit those books!


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