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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Celtics Were the First Bad Boys

ESPN's 30 for 30 episode "Bad Boys" originally aired last month. Here are three important truths to take away from that documentary:

1) Isiah Thomas is one of the most underrated players in pro basketball history. He was tough, he was fearless and he had an impeccable skill set: he was a tremendous ballhandler, he was a gifted passer who racked up legitimate assists (not fake ones given to him by generous scorekeepers), he rebounded well for his position, he was a solid individual defender who played heavy minutes for one of the best defensive teams of all-time and even though he was not a great outside shooter he made a ton of clutch jump shots throughout his career--and he was a good enough shooter that defenders could not just sag off of him. Thomas dropped 25 points on the L.A. Lakers in the third quarter of game six of the 1988 NBA Finals while playing on one leg, setting an NBA Finals single quarter record and the tying ABA/NBA Finals record set by Julius Erving during the 1976 ABA Finals; veteran NBA reporter Jack McCallum called Thomas' heroics "one of the top five offensive performances that there ever was." Thomas sacrificed a lot of his scoring and assist numbers to blend in with Detroit's team concept--so the "stat gurus" will forever underrate his value--but a strong case could be made that Thomas is the greatest 6 foot and under (don't believe his listed height of 6-1) player ever.

2) The Pistons were not the NBA's first "Bad Boys" or even the baddest of the bad. The Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Boston Celtics were a brutally physical team--think back to McHale clotheslining Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals and M.L. Carr undercutting Julius Erving in the 1980 Eastern Conference Finals and the way that their whole frontcourt mauled the Philadelphia 76ers' frontcourt in game seven of the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals while the officials swallowed their whistles. Erving was one of the classiest players in pro basketball history, someone who rarely received technical fouls and never got into fights--but during a November 1984 regular season game he took a swing at Bird after getting frustrated by Bird's roughhousing tactics (and verbal taunting, something that Erving never did on the many occasions that he outplayed Bird and other players). James Worthy put it best during "Bad Boys": "We knew that they (the Pistons) were a good team, a very physical team, but 'Bad Boys' was something that, nah, they didn't get much respect from us. Playing against the Celtics--it didn't get any tougher, no one got any badder. You could call the Celtics 'Bad Boys' back in the early '80s."

Erving's 76ers overcame the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980 and 1982 despite the Celtics' rough tactics and then in 1983 the 76ers brought in Moses Malone as the final piece to their championship puzzle; although the 76ers had proven that they could circumvent the Celtics' physical tactics without changing their own style, they needed Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The Pistons followed a similar path in the mid to late 1980s, adding Rick Mahorn, John Salley and Dennis Rodman in order to matchup with the size, strength and physicality of the Celtics' frontcourt--but the idea that the Pistons did something fundamentally different from what the Celtics had been doing for years is nonsense. The Celtics taught the Pistons how to use physicality to gain an edge and win championships but then the Celtics got mad and lost their composure when they received a dose of their own medicine.

3) The Adrian Dantley-Mark Aguirre trade was not a product of politicking by Thomas on behalf of his boyhood friend Aguirre but rather a shrewd basketball move made by Detroit General Manager Jack McCloskey to put the final championship piece in place. Dantley resented Dennis Rodman's increasingly large role on the team and Aguirre was a much better passer than Dantley; bringing in Aguirre improved the Pistons at both ends of the court and the Pistons rolled to two straight titles with Aguirre and Rodman splitting time at the small forward position. Dantley wanted the Pistons to be his team, while Aguirre fit in perfectly; in his second year with the Pistons, Aguirre voluntarily gave up his starting role to Rodman, an unselfish act that Dantley would never have considered doing.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:03 PM

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

NBA Enters Post-David Stern Era

David Stern completed his 30 year tenure as NBA Commissioner on February 1, turning the reins over to his long-time trusted deputy, Adam Silver. Until fairly recently, the consensus opinion seemed to be that Stern was vying with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the title of greatest sports commissioner of all-time. In the past decade or so, Stern has been assailed by increasingly vocal critics who disapprove of his allegedly dictatorial leadership style and who blame Stern for some problems/controversies that the league faced, including lockouts in 1998 and 2011, the Tim Donaghy scandal and the voided Chris Paul trade. I strongly feel that the NBA should do more to recognize, honor and support its retired legends--including but not limited to the "Pre-1965ers"--and that the NBA should belatedly complete the ABA-NBA merger by finally granting official status to ABA statistics; it is disappointing that Stern did not use his power to make those things happen. Nevertheless, Stern's overall track record is very positive. I wrote my David Stern legacy column in October 2012 after Stern first announced his plan to retire as NBA Commissioner in February 2014 and I stand by the conclusion I declared at that time:

When I think of David Stern, I think of his response to the "Malice in the Palace"; he immediately issued several lengthy suspensions, he suspended Ron Artest for the entire season and when media members asked Stern if a vote had been taken about those punishments Stern replied, "It was unanimous, one to none." That is leadership; he did not pass the buck, he did not wait to see which way the wind was blowing: he made it very clear that players who go into the stands to fight with fans will not be playing in his NBA. In contrast, when I think of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, I think of Selig shrugging impotently as the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie--and, much more seriously, I think of Selig turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the abundant evidence of rampant PED cheating in his sport. For 30 years, Stern has looked the part of a commissioner and, much more significantly, he has acted the part. You never doubted who was in charge of the NBA with David Stern at the helm.

Stern may have rubbed some people the wrong way by acting like he was the smartest man in the room and by using his intelligence and strong will to lead the NBA on a certain path--but the reality is that he often was the smartest man in the room and the decisions he made resulted in skyrocketing revenue that benefited owners and players alike, a pioneering drug policy, global expansion of the game, innovative community service programs like NBA Cares, increased executive employment opportunities for women and minorities (the NBA has consistently been far ahead of the other pro sports leagues in this regard) and overall development of the league that would have been unimaginable when Stern first took office; under Stern's watch, the NBA went from having its premier event--the NBA Finals--televised on tape delay to having its top stars become one-name global icons: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron.

Stern does not deserve all of the credit for the NBA's tremendous growth--throughout his tenure the league had a steady stream of great stars and great teams--but he deserves a lot of credit for not only making sound marketing decisions but also for disciplining owners, players and anyone else who stepped out of line and conducted themselves in a way that could potentially damage the league. Stern's leadership was equally evident during good times and during bad times; he not only helped the league derive maximum benefit from the skills and charisma of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and other stars but he also guided the league through the dark days of the Donaghy scandal and through contentious labor negotiations that might have caused serious damage to the NBA if the league had not been fortunate enough to have a strong, wise leader at the helm.

David Stern has carved out a very prominent place not only in NBA and sports history but in the cultural history of the United States and the world, because the NBA's impact cuts across socioeconomic and national borders; in the early 1980s, no one could have imagined that basketball would be the global game that it is today and that the NBA would be able to touch the lives of young people so profoundly in so many different countries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Julius Erving Offers Thoughtful, Moving Reflections in his Autobiography

Dr. J--Julius Erving's autobiography, written with the assistance of Karl Taro Greenfeld--is a candid, unflinching look at the life of an American sports icon. Erving's rise, literally and figuratively, is described in a captivating, evocative manner; the reader learns how Erving emerged from a single-parent home to become not just one of the greatest basketball players of all-time but also a dignified, highly respected man who has positively influenced many lives. Erving flew to the hoop with grace and power but he never put on airs.

Erving's parents divorced when he was three years old and he only saw his father--Julius Winfield Erving Sr.--a few times before the elder Erving died from injuries that he suffered in a traffic accident. Young Erving was raised by his mother Callie Mae Abney alongside older sister Alexis Alfreda (known as Freda) and younger brother Marvin (who was nicknamed Marky). The family lived in public housing in a racially mixed neighborhood in Hempstead, Long Island. Erving did not face much overt racism in Long Island but he experienced culture shock as a youngster when he, his mother and his siblings visited their relatives in the Deep South. A sign declaring "WELCOME TO KLAN COUNTRY" greeted them when they drove into North Carolina and Erving's cousin Bobby told him, "White people are devils"--but Erving's mother told her son, "All people are the same. Black. White. We're all the same. There's good and bad people among white and black. You remember that."

Erving's character formed early, shaped by his mother's wisdom and his own internal moral compass; Erving would always be a leader but not a radical, a free thinker but not a revolutionary, a man who followed the rules but was never afraid to improvise when necessary (p. 28):

Mom says if I do my homework first, then I can play. I have to keep quiet in class. I must go to school. I should respect my elders.

I stand by the rules, move with care and respect and wariness, and agree to abide by the penalties of failure and rewards of success. Despite what I have seen in the Jim Crow South, the injustice that makes Bobby hate, and even the violence of our own Parkside Gardens, when even as a child I can get a sense that some lives just aren't as highly valued as others, I seek shelter in the security of rules, the snugness of being tucked into a line, of being a number in a column rather than a soul out of place, alone.

Early in his life, Erving dealt with death, loss and suffering. His father was not much of a presence in his life before passing away, cousin Bobby drowned as a young child and Erving suffered a serious knee injury playing street football; for a while it seemed questionable if he would ever walk without a limp, let alone resume being the fastest running/highest jumping kid in his peer group. Erving wore a cast on his leg for three months, during which time he watched basketball both in the neighborhood park and on TV, where he caught his first glimpses of Elgin Baylor--and began to form a vision of how the game could be played artistically (p.35): "For the first time, I have this idea that certain ways of playing basketball are more beautiful than other ways. That there is scoring, putting the ball in the basket, but also the artistry of how that scoring is done. This is a new idea, an idea I have never heard spoken aloud: that some basketball players look better than other basketball players because of the way they play."

Erving resumed playing various sports after his leg healed and his streetball exploits attracted the attention of Don Ryan, a 19 year old Salvation Army basketball coach. Ryan invited Erving and Erving's friend Archie Rogers to become the first black players on the local Salvation Army team. Erving won the MVP award in his first season of organized basketball and his squad dominated the local teams. Ryan taught the kids more than just how to play basketball; Erving remembered that Ryan insisted that his players "win without bragging and lose without crying."

After Erving's mother married Dan Lindsay, the family moved to Roosevelt, Long Island and Erving came under the guidance of high school coaches Earl Mosley and Ray Wilson, two men who picked up where Ryan had left off both in terms of coaching basketball on the court and also setting an example for how to act off of the court.

Erving came of age during the 1960s, an era scarred by war, assassinations and civil unrest, but his faith in the American ideal never wavered. He believed in the United States, despite her shortcomings: "It is a force for good. It is the greatest nation. And if I work to the best of my abilities, then I will be rewarded" (p. 123).

The dreadful day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, a group of black kids--eager to exact revenge against any white person they can find--gathered menacingly around Stephanie, one of Erving's white classmates. Erving went into the middle of the crowd, insisted that they stop harassing Stephanie and then he walked her home: "This is our hope, as a nation, I think, that two kids--the little black boys and little white girls of Dr. King's speech--can just walk together, and share their dreams, and in sharing somehow give strength and validity to each other's dreams. Teachers, our parents, Ray Wilson, Earl Mosley, Don Ryan, they keep telling us we are American's future. Adults repeat the sentiment so much it becomes a platitude, as meaningless as a car advertising jingle, but now, at this moment, as Stephanie thanks me for walking her home, it becomes real" (p. 128).

No one is flawless and the one aspect of Erving's life that has surprised and disappointed some of his fans is his infidelity to Turquoise Brown, his first wife and the woman with whom he had three children (at the time that she wed Erving, Turquoise also had a son from a previous relationship). In Dr. J, Erving frankly describes his attitude toward women and sex; his first sexual experience came at the hands of an older step-cousin who, essentially, molested/assaulted him when he was 13 years old. By the time he reached college and had attained a certain status as a big man on campus, Erving's attitude about sex had been set: "Perhaps it is a product of the impersonal manner in which I was introduced to sex, but I divide women into two categories. There are those who I  consider relationship material, who I view as good girls, and then there are those who I see more as objects, as bad girls. I know that's simplistic and even offensive to many women, and that among the so-called good girls there are plenty of bad people and vice versa, but I am mired in that kind of patriarchal thinking on the subject and it will take years for me to break out of it. My struggle to respect women and to see them all as God's creatures is one of the ways I've had to rise above my own circumstances and perhaps the cultural norms of when and where I was raised" (pp. 158-159).

While Erving wrestled with temptation off of the court, he literally rose above the crowd on the court. He earned a slot as an alternate for the 1970 U.S. Olympic Development camp; the camp consisted of a pool of 40 players from which the 1972 U.S. Olympic Basketball team would be selected. After a player got injured, Erving came to the camp one week into the proceedings, made the squad and earned team MVP honors during a European exhibition tour. He also excelled at the University of Massachusetts; Erving is one of just five players who averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg during an NCAA career.

Most fans probably think of Erving as a dunker and/or a flashy scorer but Erving's game was always well-grounded in the sport's fundamentals. Early in his career, he made his name primarily as a rebounder, though he also was an excellent scorer, passer and defender. Erving's big hands, outstanding leaping ability and impeccable timing enabled him to outduel bigger and stronger players on the boards. Erving attracted the attention of the ABA's Virginia Squires, who signed him to a five year contract after his junior season.

Erving made a quick adjustment to the professional game on the court, averaging 27.3 ppg, 15.7 rpg and 4.0 apg as a rookie in the 1971-72 season. He elevated those numbers to 33.3 ppg, 20.4 rpg and 6.5 apg in the playoffs, a tremendous beginning to a very underrated postseason career. Off of the court, Erving experienced some of the challenges typically encountered by young men who achieve fame and fortune very quickly; Erving and a fellow University of Massachusetts student named Carol developed a serious relationship before Erving turned pro but after Erving joined the ABA he enjoyed the company of many different sexual partners. In his book, Erving does not attempt to justify his behavior (he misled Carol to believe that they were still in a committed, monogamous relationship) but he explains his mindset/shortcomings: "But I'm still a young man, just twenty-two now, and while the idea of fidelity to one woman seems the righteous and moral thing to do, I know enough about my own failings to recognize it's not realistic" (p. 219). After his rookie season, Erving traveled back to Amherst (Carol was still enrolled in college) and--without admitting that he had already cheated on her--suggested to Carol that they have an "open relationship," telling her that only after they have had other partners could they truly know if they were meant to be together. She is understandably skeptical of such an arrangement and Erving recalls thinking at that time, "I may have negotiated away the best thing I ever had" (p. 221).

During the summer of 1972, Erving jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, teaming up with the incomparable Pete Maravich. Erving only spent part of the preseason with the Hawks before a court order forced him to rejoin the Squires but Maravich left an indelible impression on Erving: "One of the things that makes Pete so great is his hang time, and no one talks about that. He can leave the floor and sort of stay up there long enough to fake one way and then pass another...Pete Maravich is the most skilled basketball player I have ever seen" (pp. 226-227).

Erving had already sold his Virginia residence, so when he returned to the Squires he stayed at the home of team owner Earl Foreman;  Foreman spent most of his time at his Washington, D.C. home. Erving entertained various young ladies at Foreman's place but then he met Turquoise Brown. Erving knew that he had, as he put it in the book, "problems with fidelity" but he quickly felt a powerful attraction to Brown, who he married early in 1974. By that time, Erving had been traded to the New York Nets. He celebrated his homecoming by winning the first of his four regular season MVPs en route to leading the Nets to the 1974 ABA title.

Erving's Nets fell short in the 1975 playoffs but bounced back to claim the 1976 championship in the final season before the ABA/NBA merger. In the 1976 ABA Finals versus the powerful Denver Nuggets, Erving operated at the highest possible level, leading 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) as the Nets prevailed four games to two. Erving could have justifiably devoted a whole chapter to that series alone and a strong argument can be made that this was the greatest single-series performance in pro basketball history but Dr. J describes the series in just two pages.

The financially strapped Nets sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving led the 76ers to the NBA Finals four times in 11 seasons but it took the acquisition of Moses Malone in 1982 to push the team over the hump; the 76ers had long needed an elite big man to match up with Hall of Fame centers like Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish. Walton's Portland Trailblazers defeated the 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, while Abdul-Jabbar teamed with Magic Johnson to knock off the 76ers in the 1980 and 1982 NBA Finals.

Erving is justifiably proud of his 1981 NBA regular season MVP,  noting that he was the first non-center to win the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson (1964): "I am contributing to this transformation of the game, in that the most exciting players are now playing facing the basket instead of with their backs to it. I feel like this is some vindication of my style, of the game played on the rise and above the rim" (p. 338). Throughout the book, Erving points out that each era has its own context, making it difficult to fairly compare players from different eras; for instance, during Erving's career star players tended to not question the coaches and many coaches favored using a balanced attack--but more recent superstars such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have the power to get coaches fired and do not hesitate to demand (in word or simply by the way that they play) to fire up more than 20 field goal attempts per game (a level that Erving regularly reached in the ABA but that he only topped once in his NBA career while adhering to the guidelines of coaches Gene Shue, Billy Cunningham and Matt Guokas).

Erving filled the last blank space on his basketball resume when the 76ers claimed the 1983 NBA championship. Erving does not discuss that magical title run in great detail, concluding, "No matter how old I get, no matter what I accomplish, I still see a lanky fifteen-year-old staring back at me. I'm still Mom's son and Marky's brother. I'm still Junior" (p. 379).

Erving later adds, "Basketball doesn't recede in importance. Perhaps it was simply never as meaningful as it seems. It is why you know me,  know my name, but it is not me. It is my profession, what I do--it's a strange profession in that those who become very good at it also become famous. Great dentists and accountants are unremarked upon when they enter a restaurant. Great basketball players are never unnoticed" (p. 389).

During various media appearances to promote Dr. J, Erving has stressed that his autobiography is not primarily a basketball book and this is true; Erving focuses much more on his upbringing, his internal thought processes about non-basketball situations and his off court life than he does on his basketball career, though he clearly--and quite correctly--expresses the opinion that his basketball accomplishments have not been given their full due.

However, Erving makes a point of mentioning that he does not appreciate Larry Bird saying that Michael Jordan was the best player he ever faced: "...I find that a little disrespectful. We beat them up pretty bad in some playoffs, and they got the better of us in others, but those are the toughest matchups for both of us. I don't think it's fair for Larry to say that Michael is the best based on one great playoff game, the 63-point performance in Boston Garden. But then, Larry is always playing mind games, so he's probably trying to psych out Magic and me" (p. 325). Erving and Bird shared a tremendous rivalry, a rivalry that has sadly been forgotten by far too many commentators and fans. Erving is right to insist that this rivalry should be remembered and respected. Later in the book, he declares that Philadelphia's game seven win against Boston in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals "may have been the most important game in my career. Back then, those Sixer-Celtic series felt bigger than championship finals, or certainly more emotional. Those games are tougher and more mentally draining than any others I've ever played" (p. 356). As for his infamous fight with Bird in November 1984, Erving is not proud of what happened and he notes that neither he nor Bird will autograph photos of them fighting. Erving also says that he considered it "office politics, the squabbles of men at work" and that it never affected their personal or business relationships.

The 1982-83 76ers set a record (since broken by the 2000-01 Lakers) by going 12-1 in the playoffs but their core players were too old to establish a dynasty; the 76ers failed to defend their title, losing in the first round of the 1984 playoffs. Erving attributes the 76ers' decline to the accumulated wear and tear of the previous several extended postseason runs, noting that Bird's Celtics were swept in the 1983 playoffs and that Erving's 76ers swept Johnson's Lakers in the 1983 playoffs: "Long playoff runs tire out a team, as we are forced to return again and again to our emotional and spiritual wells" (p. 390). During the 76ers' 1984 first round loss to the Nets, Erving realized that his days at the top of the sport were numbered: "My knees are sore and my groin injury has recurred throughout that series, so I'm hobbled, feeling my age and playing through pain, averaging over 18 a game but never exerting my will the way I have in playoffs past" (p. 390).

Ultimately, though, Erving is much more focused on larger issues than he is on his basketball career or anyone else's basketball career. The death of his sister Freda before the age of 40 as a result of colon cancer reminds Erving again of the fragility of life and the mysteries of existence: "I don't understand God's will. I don't understand His plan. The universe sometimes seems arbitrary to me, its cruelty as unthinking as a mousetrap. When Marky passed, I forced myself to keep moving forward, as I did with Bobby, Tonk, and Wendell, but when I go with Mom and Freda to Marky's grave in Rockville Centre, I think again about the substance of this life, about the extinguishing of the body and the mysteries of the soul. I always believe that Marky travels with me, and I sometimes feel him there, but I also know that this is the story I tell myself in order to soften the harsh truth of his being gone" (p. 363; Tonk was his father's nickname, while Wendell refers to Wendell Ladner, a New York teammate who died in a plane crash).

Erving feels like he entered pro basketball through the "side door," so it was very important to him to leave the sport through the "front door," to retire at a time of his choosing when he still could perform at a high level. His 1986-87 Farewell Tour featured an amazing outpouring of love and respect from across the country and around the world. 

Erving briefly worked as an analyst for NBC's NBA coverage but he was never comfortable on camera: "It takes a certain knack, a quickness of mind, and an ability to say nothing while sounding like I am saying something. I have to learn to speak while a producer is talking into my ear, giving me some statistics that I can use in support of a vacuous thesis about the first half of a basketball game that will be forgotten tomorrow...I find the analyses numbing. It is remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. Even here, in this book, I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim" (pp. 402-403). 

Erving's life since retiring from the NBA has not been easy; he has weathered the death of his son Cory, the death of his mother and a divorce from Turquoise. An associate ripped off Erving for several million dollars in a golf course deal and--though Erving denied it at the time--Erving's financial troubles contributed to his decision to sell off over 100 pieces from his personal memorabilia collection, including championship rings and MVP trophies.

It is a natural human tendency to downplay and/or excuse one's own flaws and shortcomings but Erving is very candid and blunt about his personal failures. Many people were shocked about the 1999 revelation that Erving was the father of young tennis star Alexandra Stevenson, who had been raised by her mother Samantha, a sportswriter who had an affair with Erving: "Samantha obviously did a fantastic job as a single mom raising her daughter, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for both of them. As I said, there are facets of my life that are less than heroic. This is an area where I wish I could have done it differently...There is no villain here, though I would say--and this is my book--that there is one person who is more at fault in this affair than the rest, and I raise my hand" (p. 408). Erving later had a second child out of wedlock with a different woman, to whom he is now married and with whom he is raising a family: "Whatever shame I feel at having sired children out of wedlock is balanced by the fierce pride I take in them, all of them...As I say, mine is an American life, fully lived, and I am not above reproach for my shortcomings. I hear my mother's stern voice and still feel her disappointment" (p. 418).

Dr. J tells Erving's story articulately and passionately; the book provides great insight into Erving's life.

Postscript:

Erving spoke with Keith Olbermann about his life and his philosophy:



The entire interview is tremendous but Erving's comments about basketball and aesthetics struck a particular chord with me and they echo my feelings about the sport. I quoted the passage (from page 35) in which Erving described his first thoughts/visions about playing basketball beautifully and artistically; Erving told Olbermann that George Gervin possessed that artistic quality and that Kevin Durant is the active player who most embodies this trait.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:39 PM

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wayback Machine, Part IX: The 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

The front cover photo of the 1983 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball showcased new school versus old school: the Lakers' Magic Johnson dribbled the ball in the open court with the 76ers' Julius Erving in hot pursuit. Fourth year pro Johnson had already won two NBA titles and two NBA Finals MVPs, while 12 year veteran Erving owned four regular season MVPs (three in the ABA, one in the NBA), two ABA championships and two ABA Finals MVPs. The two superstars had just squared off in the 1982 Finals, with Johnson's squad prevailing four games to two.

The 1983 CHPB contained 350 pages, making it the largest edition of the series yet. It included 23 team profiles, lists of the 1982 NBA statistical leaders, the complete 1982-83 schedule, a list of all 225 players selected in the 1982 NBA Draft and a "TV/Radio roundup." The 1983 CHPB had five feature stories: Pete Alfano contributed "What Next for Dr. J?" and "Dave DeBusschere's Rescue Mission," Bill Libby described "The Magical Mystery Tour," Willie Schatz wrote "TV's Dick Stockton: A View From Courtside" and Bob Ryan added "Robert Parish Pivots to Celtic Glory."

Steve Hershey and George White co-wrote the "Inside the NBA" article, predicting that the Milwaukee Bucks would beat the L.A. Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. The Bucks posted the third best record in the Eastern Conference and swept the second seeded Boston Celtics before falling 4-1 to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. No other team won a game against the 76ers in the 1983 playoffs and the 76ers owned the record for best single season playoff winning percentage (12-1, .923) until the 2001 Lakers went 15-1 (.938) in an expanded postseason format. The 1983 Lakers' quest for a repeat ended when the 76ers swept them 4-0.

In addition to their prognostications, Hershey and White also editorialized about the overall state of the NBA: "As long as the owners cling to the antiquated policy of no revenue sharing, the financially-strapped teams have no hope. A year ago, 17 of the 23 teams lost money and, with a disappointing contract and escalating salaries--the average now is $214,500--there is no reason for optimism in the future."

Here are some interesting notes, quotes and quips from the 1983 CHPB:

1) Alfano, a New York Times' writer, had covered Erving since the Doctor arrived in New York for the 1973-74 season, so he had a front row seat as Erving led the New York Nets to a pair of ABA championships. "What Next for Dr. J?" examined the entire arc of Erving's career, focusing on his quest to win an NBA championship. The NBA title eluded Erving during the first six seasons of his Philadelphia 76ers career and after the 76ers lost to the Lakers in the 1982 Finals it seemed fair to wonder if Erving would ever complete the one blank space on his professional resume--and if he would do so as a top level performer, as opposed to being along for the ride. Erving's frustration was palpable right after the 1982 Finals ended: "Never has the walk [back to the locker room] been tougher to take. I've never been more hurt than right now. If you don't win, you're always second-best, bridesmaids, but there is nothing embarrassing about this. I'm just discouraged and hurt."

Still, Erving maintained an upbeat attitude: "There will always be tomorrow. My only regret would have been if I were quitting, and I'm not. I'm just going to keep banging and playing this game I love so much. I'll be back next year and running around like a rookie. Let's face it, I've been through a lot in my career and most of it was good. This should be the worst thing that happens in my life."

Erving concluded, "I feel there is a plan for us. You have a will of your own and you are given choices. Your destiny is affected by your will. People don't understand that destiny is broad. Many times I have to battle my will. Certain times I have great strength, other times great weaknesses."

Prior to the 1982-83 season, the 76ers acquired Moses Malone to match up with the Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Boston Celtics' Robert Parish and the other All-Star/All-NBA/future Hall of Fame centers who had repeatedly thwarted Philadelphia's championship dreams in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Malone and Erving proved to be a well-matched duo, complemented by All-Stars Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones. In the 1982-83 season, Erving was no longer the best player in the NBA--or even on his own team--but he made the All-NBA First Team and he finished fifth in MVP voting, so he was still an elite performer who played a crucial role for arguably the greatest single season squad in pro basketball history.

2) Alfano's DeBusschere profile described the Hall of Fame forward's smooth transition from being a great player to being a general manager--for Erving's ABA champion Nets in 1973-74--to being the ABA Commissioner. DeBusschere's newest challenge was serving as executive vice president/director of basketball operations for his old team, the New York Knicks, and trying to revive their slumping fortunes. DeBusschere enjoyed a remarkably diverse and successful athletic career. At just 24, he became the youngest coach in NBA history, serving as player/coach for the Detroit Pistons. He also played Major League Baseball, posting a 3.09 ERA in spot duty for the Chicago White Sox during the 1963 season. DeBusschere made the All-Star team three times as a Piston but he became a two-time champion--and a legend--after being traded to the Knicks. He was the final piece in their championship puzzle, providing rugged defense, dependable rebounding and solid scoring. DeBusschere had some classic confrontations with fellow Hall of Famer Gus Johnson.

DeBusschere built some solid Knick teams and he drafted Patrick Ewing but DeBusschere was not able to restore the franchise's former glory. He died of a heart attack in 2003.

3) Bill Libby called Magic Johnson "arguably the best player in pro basketball," noting that Johnson won the 1980 Finals MVP after scoring 42 points on 23 field goal attempts in the clinching contest and then he earned the 1982 Finals MVP after scoring 13 points on just three field goal attempts. Johnson did whatever it took for his team to win, proving to be a triple threat as a scorer, rebounder and passer. The media members who voted for the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards favored Larry Bird over Johnson until the late 1980s but Libby's comment was right on target: while Malone was the league's most dominant force in the early 1980s, Johnson was the league's best all-around player (a similar distinction could have been made several years ago between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant or in recent years between a healthy Dwight Howard and LeBron James).

Johnson became embroiled in controversy when his publicly critical comments about Coach Paul Westhead seemed to directly result in Westhead's 1981 dismissal but Johnson established himself as the player of the decade by leading the Lakers to five championships, including the league's first back to back titles (1987-88) since the curtain closed on the Bill Russell era in 1969. 

4) Dick Stockton is a class act on and off of the air. For many years he was the leading national NBA play by play announcer, developing great chemistry with several different analysts, including Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn and Hubie Brown.

When I approached Stockton face to face--without prior notice--at a Cleveland Cavaliers game and asked him if he could take a few moments to answer some questions for my upcoming Andrew Toney article, he could have politely--or impolitely--declined: he was a big-time national TV star who had no idea who I was. Instead, Stockton warmly agreed to my request and he enthusiastically answered my questions. I bumped into him on a few subsequent occasions at other games and he always gave me a friendly greeting. I can assure you that this is not typical behavior in this business.

Schatz' feature described how Stockton became captivated by sports journalism after attending the 1953 NBA Finals as a kid and watching Leonard Koppett file his game report from press row. Stockton graduated from Syracuse and steadily worked his way up the broadcasting totem pole until he earned the plum assignment as CBS' lead play by play announcer on NBA games. In the article, the then-39 year old Stockton said, "The test is longevity"; he is still working NBA and NFL games three decades later--and he has been honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame--so Stockton has passed that test with flying colors.

5) Casual fans may think of Robert Parish as the Boston Big Three's version of Ringo Starr but The Chief finished fourth in MVP voting in 1982 and his performance that season convinced many people that he was the best all-around center--if not the best player, period--in the NBA. Ryan's article quoted Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham stating that Parish deserved to win the MVP, while New York forward Maurice Lucas said, "There wasn't a better center in the league this year." Ryan cited Parish's impressive statistics (including a career-high 19.9 ppg, 10.8 rpg and 2.4 bpg) but hastened to add that Parish's impact could not  be quantified purely by using numbers; Ryan noted that Parish's shooting range distorted opposing defenses and Parish's ability to run the floor gave the Celtics more options on the fast break. It is important to remember that for most of NBA history--until the emergence of the back to back champion Pistons in the late 1980s, followed by the dominance of the Jordan-Pippen Bulls in the 1990s--it was very rare for a team to win an NBA title without having an All-Star caliber center; such a center might very well be the most valuable player on his team--or even in the entire league--even if there was a forward or a guard who was a more versatile all-around performer. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West are two of the greatest all-around players in pro basketball history but each player won his lone NBA title only after teaming up with a Hall of Fame center. Larry Bird likely would not have won a single championship without the production Parish provided at both ends of the court.

6) Bird shot just .427 from the field in the 1982 playoffs, including .412 in Boston's seven game loss to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference Finals. His CHPB profile included some criticism of his postseason play: "Do we see a chink in the armor?...Perhaps the best all-around player in the league, but he had a problem in the playoffs...Made only 41 percent of his shots (54-131) in Eastern Conference Finals...Took only five shots in the second half of Game Seven, when team desperately needed points...Kept saying that his team didn't need him to score, that he could contribute in other ways..."

7) Parish's profile began with this bold declaration: "The Celtics' Most Valuable Player." The author explained, "Took over leadership when Larry Bird and Tiny Archibald were hurt and triggered 18-game winning streak."

8) The CHPB combined perceptive analysis with sharp one-liners; M.L. Carr's profile deftly deconstructed how he had become more of a towel-waver than a contributor: "Words speak louder than action...This part of the Carr never stops running...Self-appointed locker room spokesman...Displays a great defensive stance, then lets most guards in the league drive around him."

9) Former All-Star Larry Kenon had not yet celebrated his 30th birthday but he was already on the downside of his career (he would play his final NBA game in 1983): "Envious of Dr. J, he started calling himself Dr. K, then settled for Mr. K during his 20-ppg days in San Antonio. Now it's plain old K, as in struck out."

10) Mark Aguirre's profile included high praise from Erving: "He makes his teammates better, and that's usually the sign of a great player." Aguirre averaged 18.7 ppg as a rookie but a broken foot limited him to 51 games. He was often mocked for his round physique but he actually had one of the lowest body fat percentages (9.7) on Dallas' team.

11) Kelly Tripucka, son of star Notre Dame quarterback Frank Tripucka, had a great rookie season, averaging 21.6 ppg, earning an All-Star selection and finishing tied for 11th (with Dan Roundfield) in MVP voting: "Julius Erving and Larry Bird were the only forwards in the East to outscore him...Led all rookies in scoring...Was fourth in the league in minutes played...Highest scoring rookie since Bernard King (24.2 ppg) in 1977-78."

12) Tripucka's Detroit teammate Isiah Thomas became just the fourth rookie to start in the All-Star Game: "An instant leader who helped this team increase victory total from 21 to 39...Has that rare quality of making his teammates better players." Although I am not a big fan of the shorthand phrase "making his teammates better," I agree with the CHPB's assessment that both Thomas and Aguirre--who later teamed up to win back to back titles (1989-90) with the Detroit Pistons--made their respective teams significantly better.

13) Before he went to New York and solidified his status as a future Hall of Famer, Bernard King's career and life were on the brink: "Came back from edge of utter abjection of only a couple of years ago to reestablish himself as one of basketball's most unstoppable offensive forces...Legal problem and entanglement with drugs and alcohol had threatened to obliterate his career with Utah but, given a second chance by Al Attles, he has played the best basketball of his life." King averaged 23.2 ppg in 79 games for Golden State in 1981-82.

14) Kobe Bryant's father Joe played for Philadelphia and San Diego before landing in Houston for the 1981-82 season: "Believed San Diego was an extended scene from Animal House...Parttime clown, parttime basketball player. Can't seem to keep the two apart...When he isn't on stage with the funny stuff, he possesses a fair amount of professional talent...Can get inside occasionally for some muscle baskets, handles the ball well enough to play guard in an emergency and has also filled in at center."

15) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar often received unwarranted criticism during his career but the 1983 CHPB praised his contributions to the Lakers' 1982 championship team: "Absolutely no respect for the rocking chair...Put another outstanding season (23.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg) in the record books at age 35. Opposing centers will be unhappy to hear the opinion of noted sports physician Dr. Robert Kerlan: 'With his body, he could easily play until he's 40.'...Still the most imposing defensive player in the league (third in blocked shots with a 2.72 average) and still the game's best passing center."

16) Defense is perhaps the most underrated qualitiy about Julius Erving individually and about his Philadelphia teams collectively. Erving annually ranked among the league leaders in steals and blocked shots, Maurice Cheeks was a top notch defensive point guard, Lionel Hollins was a tenacious defender as a point guard or a shooting guard, Bobby Jones was the best defensive forward in the league for several years and Caldwell Jones was an undersized but very solid defensive center. The Philadelphia team profile in the 1983 CHPB gave Erving and his teammates the credit that they deserved:

You don't get to the Finals three times in six years without playing defense. Stop and think how all those dunks and fast breaks originate. Steals and blocked shots is the answer. The 76ers may not look like they're playing defense in the classic sense, but they do more to disrupt what other teams want to do than almost anybody.

Cheeks may be the most underrated defensive guard in the league. He had more steals (209) than anyone. Caldwell Jones and Erving were ninth and 10th in blocked shots, averaging 1.80 and 1.74 respectively, and there's your transition game. For straight-up defense, Hollins is excellent and everybody knows about Bobby Jones, a six-time selection to the All-Defensive Team. All in all, playing defense is this team's best quality.

17) Erving's profile reflected both his individual greatness and the urgency of his quest to become an NBA champion: "Frustrated once more...Another magnificent effort was wasted...The only thing left to conquer for this incomparable talent is an NBA championship ring and time is running out...Averaged 25 ppg in Finals against the Lakers, almost singlehandedly taking over segments of games, but it still wasn't enough...Scored 20 points in the second half of the stunning upset of the Celtics in Game Seven of Eastern Conference Finals...Also accounted for 18 of his 23 points in the second half of do-or-die Game Five victory over Lakers." The profile concluded with these words: "As classy off the court as he is on...Patient and personable to everyone...Very popular with opposing players...And the best of all--he shows no signs of slowing down."

18) Second year guard Andrew Toney emerged as a big-time player and the 76ers' second leading scorer behind Erving: "Has a great jumper and can stop on a dime...Difficult to defend because he has no favorite spot and unlimited range...A vastly underrated passer, too...His 52.2 shooting percentage was third in league among guards...Has ability to score in bunches."

19) George Gervin averaged 32.3 ppg en route to winning his fourth scoring title, second in ABA/NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain's seven at that time. Gervin's profile noted that he began his career playing alongside another future Hall of Famer in the ABA: "'I went to the School of Dr. J and I'm proud to say it,' Gervin says of his old Virginia Squires' teammate. 'He schooled me, not in basketball, but in life.'"

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

Wayback Machine, Part V looked at the 1979 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VI looked at the 1980 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VII looked at the 1981 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

Wayback Machine, Part VIII looked at the 1982 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:02 PM

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Monday, August 26, 2013

LeBron James Talks About Personal Growth, Lists his Top Three Basketball Players of All-Time

It would be easy for LeBron James to gloat and to defiantly assert that his detractors were wrong--but the very fact that James is not doing that is just one more example of how much he has improved his mental and psychological approach to life. In a recent interview, James refused to take the bait and say that his critics had been wrong about him. Instead, he declared, "No, I've changed. I've changed for the right. I've grown as a basketball player; I've gotten better. I've grown as a man. When you make mistakes or you have done something that you did not feel was the best choice to make, it's how you come back from adversity, it's how you come back from those pitfalls that define who you are as a man and as a professional athlete." Whether or not you root for LeBron James and the Miami Heat, his ability to recognize his flaws and implement positive self-change deserves respect. Such introspection is not easy to do, particularly for a person who has already achieved significant wealth and success.

The portion of the interview in which James talked about that personal journey has been overshadowed, though, by his response to a question about the greatest basketball players of all-time. James chose Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Julius Erving. The backlash against James' selection of Erving is unfortunate and it reveals how little those critics know about basketball history. It is also sad that Magic Johnson, who James added as a fourth choice after saying that it was too difficult to just mention three players, lashed out by bragging that he should be ranked ahead of Bird and Erving because he won more NBA championships. If Johnson wants to deal that card, then he should know that the deck is still stacked against ranking him in the top three: Bill Russell leads the championship pack with 11, John Havlicek won eight rings and Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen won six championships together--to mention just four Top 50 players who won more championships than Johnson's five. It should also be noted that Johnson's teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six titles, including one without Johnson (Johnson never won a ring without Abdul-Jabbar).

All great players should be appreciated for their unique contributions to their sport and sometimes in our haste to rank players there is a tendency to diminish or demean one player in order to elevate another player. I included Erving in my 10 player basketball Pantheon in 2008 but I did not rank those 10 players, preferring instead to describe the qualities that made each of those players so great. I don't know if Erving is the greatest player of all-time or the third greatest player or the ninth greatest player--and no one else can definitively answer that question, either--but I know that Erving absolutely belongs on the short list of the very greatest players in pro basketball history. He played at an exceptionally high level for 16 seasons, winning four regular season MVPs, three championships and two Finals MVPs; his playoff career is one of the most distinguished--and underrated--in pro basketball history, as indicated by the impressive list of his postseason accomplishments appended to Part IV of my series about Erving's playoff career. In the 1976 ABA Finals--playing against a Denver team stacked with Hall of Fame players David Thompson and Dan Issel, Hall of Fame Coach Larry Brown and the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time (Bobby Jones)--Erving authored arguably the greatest single series playoff performance in the sport's history, leading 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) as he carried his undermanned New York Nets to an upset win over the Nuggets.

If Erving had played his entire career in the NBA or if he had played in today's era of media saturation then his abilities and accomplishments would receive the full respect that they deserve. Check out some great articles that put Erving's career in proper historical perspective.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 AM

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Thursday, August 01, 2013

Julius Erving's Poetic Perspective on Basketball Greatness

Julius "Dr. J" Erving is my all-time favorite player and George "Iceman" Gervin ranks very highly on my personal list as well. After Erving's rookie season with the Virginia Squires in 1971-72, he jumped to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks to join forces with Pete Maravich and the two young superstars played one-on-one games after practice. Maravich felt that this was the best way for them to learn about each other's games and develop camaraderie. Erving carried that idea with him when a court ruling forced him to return to the Squires; the Squires signed Gervin in the second half of the season and Erving played one-on-one against him. Gervin later modestly claimed that he never won a single game against Erving but more important than the results of those encounters is the idea of playing for the love of the game, playing for a challenge and playing to make each other better.

Erving and Gervin later faced each other in a pair of high scoring seven game playoff series, with Erving's New York Nets prevailing over Gervin's San Antonio Spurs in the 1976 ABA playoffs and Gervin's Spurs defeating Erving's Philadelphia 76ers in the 1979 playoffs. By 1976, the slender Gervin had shifted from forward to guard so the two players did not often face each other one-on-one in those series but in 1985-86--Erving's second to last season and Gervin's final season--both players were starting guards; Gervin had taken the place of the injured Michael Jordan for the Chicago Bulls, while Erving had moved to the backcourt in the wake of injuries to Andrew Toney and Sedale Threatt.

Prior to Erving's 76ers playing Gervin's Bulls in Chicago, Erving offered a wonderful quote about Gervin (as published in Bob Sakamoto's January 17, 1986 Chicago Tribune article): "He personifies being at one with certain elements in the universe that, at least theoretically, are supposed to have a certain effect. When I see him play, sometimes it makes me think about the psychic side of the sport, abstract things that can be introduced to the sport and explained through his motion. It really is a tribute to him that he can trigger this in me, because I`ve seen a lot of players come and go, and he's probably my favorite."

Few athletes performed with the grace and style of Erving and Gervin--and few athletes speak about the game of basketball as lovingly and poetically as Erving, someone who understands that you play the game not only to win but also to create something that is memorable and inspirational for the fans. I love Erving's description of how he felt when he played against Larry Bird

When I get the ball in my hands and when you turn and you face him, when you take the initiative to aggressively face him, then he has to react. He may not react physically but his heart jumps if you turn and you really look at him like you mean business. His heart might even stop for a second, especially if you are good. This is when you start playing the game as you were when you were a kid, because this is when you are playing basketball and you are not working. To me this has always been a beautiful experience because I can look in a guy's eye and I can also tell if he means business and I can also feel whether my heart stops or stands still or not. If I'm looking at him and he's looking at me and we have got the same thing in mind--playing basketball and playing it the way that nobody else in the world plays it--then I think we create something beautiful.

That joyful spirit of "playing the game as you were when you were a kid" is precious and fleeting--both for the athlete in his prime and for the fans enjoying that athlete's artistry. It is more than 30 years since Erving spoke those words but they still resonate and I can still see him in my mind's eye soaring to the hoop over Bird.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:35 AM

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part IV: A Graceful Descent

Championship Defense Falls Short

The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers may be the greatest single season team in NBA history but age and injuries prevented that squad from becoming a dynasty. Julius Erving (34 years old) and Bobby Jones (32) were both well into their 30s by the time the 1984 playoffs began. In 1983-84, Andrew Toney made the All-Star team for the second straight season and he averaged a career-high 20.4 ppg, but his career lasted just four more injury-shortened seasons. In 1983, Maurice Cheeks earned the first of his four All-Star selections and he had another solid season in 1984 (12.7 ppg, 6.4 apg, 2.3 spg, .550 FG%) but his emergence was not enough to overcome the declines suffered by the team's other key players.

Moses Malone was still young chronologically (29) but he was a 10 year veteran who had entered pro basketball straight out of high school and--even though no one could have realized this at the time and even though he played until he was 39--his best years were already behind him: Malone shot at least .500 from the field and averaged at least 14 rpg in each season from 1979-83 but he never matched either of those marks for the rest of his career; in 1982-83, Malone made the All-Defensive First Team for the first (and only) time in his career but in 1983-84 his 1.5 bpg average did not even lead his team in that category. In 1983-84, Malone led the NBA in rebounding (13.4 rpg) for the fourth straight season while also ranking 11th in scoring (22.7 ppg) but after winning back to back MVPs he dropped to 10th in the balloting and he slipped to the All-NBA Second Team after earning First Team honors two years in a row.

Erving ranked 12th in the league in scoring (22.4 ppg) and he averaged 26.2 ppg in February 1984 when Malone missed several games due to injuries. Erving led the 76ers in blocked shots (1.8 bpg, eighth in the league) and he ranked second on the team in scoring, steals (1.8 spg, 10th in the league) and rebounding (6.9 rpg) while also ranking third in assists (4.0 apg). He posted better averages than he did in 1982-83 in every category except for blocked shots (his average remained the same but he took over team leadership from Malone, a remarkable feat for an aging small forward). Erving earned his last All-NBA First Team selection in 1983 and he made the Second Team for the final time in 1984. Of the 20 oldest players in the NBA during the 1983-84 season (ranging in age from 33 to 37), Erving ranked first in scoring, edging out the 37 year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (21.5 ppg). Erving and Abdul-Jabbar were the only two players on that list who averaged at least 20 ppg.

In a 1992 interview conducted by Academy of Achievement, Erving offered an interesting take on the impact that fans can have on the game and the role that psychology plays in the evolution of an elite athlete:
When the crowd appreciates you, it encourages you to be a little more daring, I think. That's probably what the home court advantage is all about. With the crowds on your side, it's easier to play up to your potential. Generally, you'll have more players on the home team playing up to their potential than on the road team. Talented people sometimes react adversely to being booed or jeered or going into a foreign arena. It takes them a little longer to get focused and to reach their full potential and to get into stride, get into sync. You'll find some teams that are good home teams that are lousy road teams because of that. The perception is that the home team will always have an advantage. When you find a team that's a great team on the road, they're generally listed as a championship caliber team, because they've been able to overcome this. This is simply one of the psychological aspects of the game, which a lot of people write about and very few people study. I don't think I began to study it until I was in my late 20s. The last eight or nine years of my career I spent more time in learning about it because that's where there was a greater learning curve available for me, versus trying to physically jump higher or shoot straighter or run faster. The psychic side opened doors for me, physically and mentally and allowed me to become a better player at an older age. In 1981, at age 31, I was voted the best player in basketball and the most valuable player in the league. That's considered old. You have a lot of guys who start out at 20 now and this was after playing for 10 years. I thought that was something that I needed to credit--understanding the psychic side of the sport versus physically going out and doing anything differently.
Clearly, Erving studied his craft--and himself--very carefully and he did everything he could to maximize his productivity as an older player but the 1983 championship proved to be the crowning point of the Erving era in Philadelphia because young dynasties were emerging in Boston and Los Angeles under the leadership of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson respectively. Bird's Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA (62-20), while Johnson's Lakers topped the Western Conference with the league's second best record (54-28). Those teams combined to win every NBA title from 1984-88, facing each other in three of those five championship series. The 76ers went 52-30 in 1983-84, the league's third best record but 10 games behind the Celtics in the Atlantic Division race.

Injuries decimated the 76ers during the 1983-84 season; they went 3-6 without Malone at one point, part of a 3-8 stretch extending from late January through mid-February that was their worst skid since a 3-10 run during February-March 1979. The 76ers even briefly dropped to a second place tie (with the Knicks) in the Atlantic Division, putting in jeopardy their streak of never falling below second place since Erving joined the team in 1976. Erving pinpointed another problem in addition to the injuries: during the 76ers' dominant 1983 playoff run four players--Malone, Erving, Toney and Cheeks--provided the bulk of the scoring while the other players had much less prominent roles but that is not sustainable during the 82 game grind of the regular season. Erving said, "Even if we had not suffered the injuries, mentally there were problems. We had developed bad habits that were directly because of our success last year."

In the first round of the playoffs, the 76ers faced the 45-37 New Jersey Nets. On paper and based on playoff experience, the 76ers superficially looked like clear favorites but the Nets went 3-3 versus the 76ers during the regular season and as soon as the teams took the court in the postseason it became apparent that the Nets were a nightmare matchup for the 76ers. Micheal Ray Richardson, a 6-5 multi-talented guard who led the NBA in assists and steals during the 1979-80 season, played some of the best basketball of his career during the 1984 playoffs; he only averaged 12.0 ppg and 4.5 apg in 48 regular season games while he battled drug addiction but during the postseason he seemed to be clean, healthy and at the top of his game (sadly, he suffered another drug relapse two years later and the NBA banned him for life). Second year power forward Buck Williams was too big and strong for Erving or Jones to guard. Center Darryl Dawkins, who never reached his full potential in Philadelphia, was eager to get some revenge against his old team.

The Nets raced to a 39-29 first quarter lead in game one at Philadelphia en route to a 116-101 win. Philadelphia cut the margin to 97-91 at the 6:56 mark of the fourth quarter but New Jersey responded with a 15-2 run. This was the 76ers' first loss in 10 playoff games and their worst playoff opening loss in 18 years, while the Nets posted the first playoff victory in the franchise's NBA history. Williams led both teams in minutes (46), points (25) and rebounds (16). Otis Birdsong scored 24 points and Richardson provided a glimpse of coming attractions with 18 points, a game-high nine assists and six rebounds. Toney had 24 points, five assists and four rebounds. Malone added 20 points and 11 rebounds but he shot just 6-14 from the field and he only scored four points in the second half. Erving contributed 18 points, a team-high eight assists and seven rebounds but he also shot poorly from the field (6-16). Cheeks, who finished with 15 points and four assists, said, "Everything they did, they did well. Everything they tried, they did exactly right."

The Nets countered the 76ers' aggressive, trapping defense by relentlessly driving to the hoop. New Jersey Coach Stan Albeck explained, "Nothing stops pressure defenses better than layups."

During the championship season, the 76ers often fell behind before rallying to win but Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham had emphasized throughout the 1984 campaign that the 76ers were relying too much on their confidence in their ability to overcome any deficit. He offered this blunt appraisal of the loss: "There is not really a lot I can say. They outplayed us in every phase of the game." Cunningham lamented his team's defensive breakdowns: "Micheal Ray Richardson was doing things to us that we don't let Magic Johnson do."

Philadelphia cruised through the 1983 playoffs with a 12-1 record but after New Jersey's 116-102 game two victory the 76ers were one loss away from being swept out of the 1984 playoffs. Richardson scored a game-high 32 points, passed for a game-high nine assists, grabbed seven rebounds and swiped four steals. He shot 12-23 from the field, including 3-7 from three point range--an outstanding percentage for a player who shot just 14-58 (.241) from behind the arc during the regular season. "We're going for a sweep," Richardson declared.

The Nets did not just beat the 76ers--they humiliated them, building a 79-55 third quarter lead. The 76ers trimmed the deficit to five points, 91-86, but Richardson nailed a three pointer and converted a three point play as the Nets pulled away again. Dawkins added 22 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots, while Williams contributed 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots in a game-high 44 minutes. The Nets won the rebounding battle 42-32 and they shot .563 from the field while holding the 76ers to .451 field goal shooting. The game did not look like an upset as much as it looked like a younger, faster and hungrier team outclassing an older, slower and lethargic team. Malone led the 76ers with 25 points and 12 rebounds but he shot just 8-18 from the field  (.444, well below the .536 field goal percentage he posted in the 1983 playoffs). Toney finished with 22 points on 9-16 field goal shooting but he committed seven turnovers. Cheeks and Clint Richardson scored 13 points each but Cheeks needed three stitches over his left eye after taking a hard fall in the third quarter and he did not return to action after suffering that injury. Erving added 12 points and eight rebounds but he shot just 5-13 from the field.

The 76ers avoided the sweep by winning game three, 108-100. Erving wore his championship ring to the arena, explaining to the media, "I don't usually do that. I wore it to show the team how much it takes to win it." Erving scored a game-high 27 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter and five during the 76ers' 9-0 run to finish the game. He shot 12-20 from the field and tied Cheeks for team-high honors with five assists. In an April 23, 1984 article for the New York Times, Dave Anderson described Erving's heroics:

If the 76ers do survive this series, they will remember what Julius Erving did yesterday in their moments of truth down the stretch. With his team trailing, 100-99, and 91 seconds remaining, Doctor J put them ahead and kept them ahead. In those 91 seconds, he showed why he was the only current player among the 12 selected for the NBA's 25th anniversary team. In moments of truth, some players don't want the ball. He not only wants it, but even steals it.

Anderson's lyrical words are apt, though he got some of the facts wrong: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the other active player selected for the NBA's anniversary team in 1981 and the anniversary being celebrated was the 35th, not the 25th (that kind of inattention to detail could perhaps explain why Anderson later praised Vincent Mallozzi's terrible Julius Erving biography).

Malone returned to form with 21 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, a game-high 17 rebounds and a game-high five blocked shots. Cheeks added 19 points, while Toney had 17 points and four assists. Williams led the Nets with 21 points and 17 rebounds in 47 minutes. Richardson finished with 16 points and 11 assists but Cheeks held him to five points and two assists in the second half. Dawkins had 16 points and six rebounds. Cunningham said, "Our object is to make it back to Philadelphia. We don't lose three in a row in Philly very often."

The 76ers achieved Cunningham's goal, winning game four 110-102. Erving and Malone each scored a game-high 22 points. Malone had 15 rebounds and three blocked shots, while Erving contributed a game-high eight assists plus five rebounds. Cheeks scored 20 points and Toney added 18 points despite shooting just 5-13 from the field. Albert King led the Nets with 20 points. Williams had 16 points and a game-high 18 rebounds. Richardson tied Erving for game-high honors with eight assists but he only scored 13 points on 6-19 field goal shooting. The 76ers built a 95-77 lead and but the Nets, playing in front of a sellout crowd of 20,149 at Brendan Byrne Arena, cut the margin to 100-96 with 2:07 remaining. Bobby Jones scored a dunk and two free throws to hold the Nets at bay. Erving and Malone closed out the scoring by each sinking a pair of free throws. Erving said, "The inexperienced player's instincts are to go faster. The experienced player's instincts tell him to slow down, to gain control by maybe changing the pace. Those are the things the Nets are most lacking."

While Erving suggested that the 76ers were in the "driver's seat" now, the reality is that no NBA team had come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a five game series since Fort Wayne defeated St. Louis in the 1956 Western Division Finals. Perhaps that is why Cunningham sounded a more cautionary note than Erving: "We can't feel we've shown them anything. We won Sunday and Tuesday and can't relax now. We have to be even stronger." Cunningham also acknowledged that game four was a very tough contest: "It was as physical a game as I've seen in a long time. I'm glad it's not a seven game series. No one would survive."

After game four, Erving made an uncharacteristically brash statement, declaring that his team had not come all the way back just to "cough it up," that there was no way that the 76ers would lose and "you can mail in the stats." At first it seemed like Erving might not have to eat those words; the 76ers led game five 90-83 with 7:12 remaining but they collapsed down the stretch and lost 101-98. The 76ers had not lost three straight playoff games at home since 1969. The way that the young and physical Nets upset the defending champion was reminiscent of how the Spirits of St. Louis similarly stunned Erving's Nets in the 1975 ABA playoffs.

"Our season had more valleys than peaks and the playoff was indicative of the season--two peaks and three valleys," Erving said.

Some of the Nets' players said that veteran forwards Erving and Jones seemed tired in the waning moments, a charge that Erving declined to address. Erving scored just 12 points on 5-11 field goal shooting, though he contributed 10 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. After the game he said, "This is typical of the up and down season we had. I expected it to be a struggle. We forced them to play our kind of game and they responded to the challenge." He added, "The Nets made the big plays down the stretch and we didn't. They showed great character to win this series."

Richardson put on another great performance--a game-high 24 points plus six assists and six rebounds--but he also had plenty of help. Birdsong matched Richardson with 24 points and six assists, Williams had 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds in 46 minutes and King chipped in 15 points, four rebounds and four assists. Toney led the 76ers with 22 points on 8-15 field goal shooting. Malone finished with 19 points and a team-high 14 rebounds but he again shot worse than .500 from the field (6-14). Cheeks had 16 points and a game-high seven assists but he shot just 6-15 from the field.

Richardson averaged 20.6 ppg, 8.6 apg and 5.2 rpg during the series while shooting .494 from the field in 42.4 mpg. Williams averaged 18.4 ppg and a series-high 15.2 rpg in 45.0 mpg; he shot .597 from the field and was a dominant force in the paint at both ends of the court. Malone led the 76ers in scoring (21.4 ppg) and rebounding (13.8 rpg) but he shot just .458 from the field. Toney averaged 20.6 ppg on .519 field goal shooting. Erving ranked third on the team in scoring (18.4 ppg), second in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and first in assists (5.0 apg). He also averaged 1.6 spg and 1.2 bpg. Erving shot .474 from the field and .864 from the free throw line. Cheeks, who battled various injuries throughout the series, scored 16.6 ppg on .522 field goal shooting but he only averaged 3.8 apg, tying Toney for second on the team.

One More Eastern Conference Finals Showdown Versus Boston

In Erving's final three seasons he gradually descended from elite level to "merely" All-Star status: from 1985-87 he was still one of the 15-20 best players in the league but he was no longer consistently dominant. In 1984-85, Erving set career-lows in scoring (20.0 ppg, second on the team), rebounding (5.3 rpg, third on the team) and assists (3.0 apg, third on the team). He remained potent defensively, averaging 1.7 spg (second on the team) and 1.4 bpg (second on the team). Erving was the fourth oldest player in the NBA, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, former teammate Billy Paultz and Artis Gilmore. Of the 20 oldest players in the NBA (ranging in age from 32 to 38), Erving ranked third in scoring behind only Abdul-Jabbar (22.0 ppg) and 33 year old George Gervin (21.2 ppg).
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Saturday, June 08, 2013

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part III: Consistency, Frustration and then a Glorious Championship Run

"I've always tried to tell myself that the work itself is the thing, that win, lose or draw, the work is really what counts. As hard as it was to make myself believe that sometimes, it was the only thing I had to cling to every year--that every game, every night, I did the best I could."--Julius Erving

Julius Erving and the New York Nets did not have much of a chance to celebrate after winning their second ABA championship in three years; during the summer of 1976, the ailing ABA reached an agreement with the NBA to form--as a Sports Illustrated cover called it--"one big league" featuring "Dave" (Cowens) and "The Doctor." Four ABA teams--the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs--joined the NBA at a cost of $3.2 million each; Kentucky owner John Y. Brown received a $3 million settlement for folding his franchise, while the Silna brothers--owners of the St. Louis franchise--negotiated what was later called "the greatest sports deal of all-time": instead of getting a lump sum payment in 1976, they arranged for each of the surviving ABA teams to pay them a share of NBA television revenue in perpetuity.

In addition to the $3.2 million payment to the NBA, the Nets also had to compensate the New York Knicks $4.8 million over the next 10 years as indemnification for operating in the Knicks' territory. While Nets' owner Roy Boe scrambled to put together enough cash to keep his franchise afloat, Erving declared that the Nets had promised to redo his contract if the leagues merged; Erving's sublime talents and his box office value were a major reason for the merger, so Erving understandably wanted to be properly compensated but Boe denied that he had ever made that agreement with Erving and, in any case, Boe did not have the necessary funds to pay Erving more money. Erving missed training camp and the preseason as a result of the contract dispute. Boe tried to trade Erving to the Knicks in exchange for cash plus cancellation of the indemnification payment but the Knicks refused that offer. Philadelphia General Manager Pat Williams seized the opportunity to acquire the game's best player and right before the 1976-77 season began the New York Nets sold Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers in a $6 million deal, a staggering sum for that era, with roughly half of that amount paid to the Nets and the other half to Erving over the course of a six year contract.

Pat Williams' 20-20-20 Vision

Erving joined a Philadelphia team that already had two All-Stars: forward George McGinnis (who shared 1974-75 ABA MVP honors with Erving before jumping to the NBA) and guard Doug Collins. Erving explained the situation to this writer: "The first day that I reported to Philadelphia, Pat Williams said, ‘We are going to be a really good team, but we really need to have three guys scoring 20 points. We don't need anybody scoring 30 points on our team.' He said, 'You, Doug Collins and McGinnis can be 20 point scorers for us and that will make us a better team.' That was a specific conversation. Hey, I had no problem scoring (only) 20 points. I’m trying to collect the 'Ws.' I had already been on title teams in the ABA and we thought that this would bring us to the championship."

The 76ers started out 0-2 before winning four straight games to take over first place in the Atlantic Division, a position that they maintained the rest of the way (save for a couple days when they slipped a half game behind Boston) en route to a 50-32 record and the franchise's first division title since 1968. The 76ers were maligned as a run and gun, one on one offensive team that did not play defense but they ranked first in the league in blocked shots, third in the league in defensive field goal percentage and fourth in the league in defensive rebounds. Erving made a strong contribution at that end of the court, ranking second on the team in defensive rebounds (6.1 drpg), steals (1.9 spg) and blocked shots (1.4 bpg).

Erving instantly turned the 76ers into the biggest gate attraction in the NBA. The 76ers improved to 1-2 with a 110-101 win over the New Orleans Jazz in front of an NBA-record crowd of more than 27,000 in the Louisiana Superdome. The next night, Erving scored 27 points (tying McGinnis for game-high honors) in a 116-94 win at Houston, playing before a crowd of 15,676--the best attendance ever for an NBA game in Texas. Only 5832 fans showed up for the Nets' NBA home debut without Erving but a few days later 18,116 fans packed the Spectrum to watch Erving's 76ers improve to 3-2 after pounding his former team 104-80.

Erving finished fifth in the MVP balloting; he led the 76ers in scoring (21.6 ppg, 15th in the NBA) and the team came close to achieving the 20-20-20 balance that Williams wanted: McGinnis averaged 21.4 ppg (16th in the NBA) and Collins averaged 18.3 ppg despite missing 24 games due to injuries. Erving averaged 8.5 rpg (second on the team), and 3.7 apg (fourth) in addition to his aforementioned defensive contributions; he was still an excellent all-around performer but his per game statistics declined across the board because he played fewer minutes than he had played in his first five seasons. Erving's rebounding average was 2.2 rpg lower than his lowest ABA rebounding average but it turned out to be the highest rebounding average of his NBA career. This is not unusual; as the following chart shows, most of the top 10 rebounders in pro basketball history (based on rpg average) posted their best rebounding average early in their careers:

Rank Player Career RPG average/Best RPG average (season)

1) Wilt Chamberlain 22.89/27.2 (second season)
2) Bill Russell 22.45/24.7 (eighth season)
3) Bob Pettit 16.22/20.3 (seventh season)
4) Jerry Lucas 15.61/21.1 (third season)
5) Nate Thurmond 15.00/22.0 (fifth season)
6) Mel Daniels 14.91/18.0 (fourth season)
7) Wes Unseld 13.99/18.2 (first season)
8) Walt Bellamy 13.65/19.0 (first season)
9) Dave Cowens 13.63/16.2 (third season)
10) Elgin Baylor 13.55/19.8 (third season)

Selected Others:

50) Larry Bird 10.00/11.0 (fourth season)
111) Julius Erving 8.47/15.7 (first season)
176) Magic Johnson 7.24/9.6 (third season)
222) Michael Jordan 6.22/8.0 (fifth season)

Rebounding is a skill set that does not tend to improve with age/experience, at least at the professional level. It is important to note that even Erving's reduced NBA rebounding averages still annually ranked among the best at the small forward position.

The 1976-77 season shattered any old guard NBA pretense about the ABA being inferior; ex-ABA players accounted for four of the NBA's top 10 scorers, two of the top four rebounders and 10 of the 24 All-Stars. Erving won the All-Star Game MVP, one of the few individual honors that he did not capture during his ABA career. Indiana Pacer Don Buse led the league in assists and steals. Five of the starters in the NBA Finals began their careers in the ABA: Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik. David Thompson made the All-NBA First Team, while Erving, McGinnis and George Gervin made the All-NBA Second Team. The Nuggets and Spurs kept their rosters intact and immediately became perennial playoff teams; the Nets understandably had to rebuild after Erving's departure, while the Pacers similarly had to rebuild after the core players from their three championship teams aged, retired or finished their careers on other teams.

The 76ers earned a first round bye and then faced their old rival the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics were the defending NBA champions but the 76ers enjoyed home court advantage because the Celtics only went 44-38 in the regular season. Erving scored a game-high 36 points in the series opener, including a dunk with eight seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 111--but after being fouled on that play he missed both free throws in a two to make one penalty situation. Jo Jo White missed a jumper and the game seemed to be headed to overtime after Erving blocked Sidney Wicks' shot but the ball bounced to White, who hit the game-winning jumper from the left baseline as time expired. White scored 21 points in the Celtics' 113-111 victory. "I feel empty," Erving said after the game. "We came here to win and we don't have anything. We are 0-1." However, Erving also noted that even if he had completed the potential three point play, "We would have lost by one instead of two." Erving's former Virginia teammate Charlie Scott led Boston with 22 points.

In a battle pitting a veteran future Hall of Fame forward against a Hall of Fame forward in his prime, 37 year old John Havlicek poured in a game-high 31 points on 11-25 field goal shooting but the 27 year old Erving had 30 points on 14-24 field goal shooting as the 76ers evened the series with a 113-101 victory. Havlicek also had nine rebounds and six assists, while Erving countered with six rebounds and four assists.

Erving scored a game-high 27 points as Philadelphia reclaimed home court advantage with a 109-100 game three win in Boston. Collins added 25 points and Lloyd Free--he had not yet legally changed his first name to World--scored 22 points on 9-13 field goal shooting in just 18 minutes. The Celtics had not lost at home in the playoffs since 1975, a 13 game streak. Havlicek led the Celtics with 25 points.

Dave Cowens had 37 points and 21 rebounds for the Celtics--including 23 first half points on 10-10 field goal shooting--in Boston's 124-119 game four win. Collins led the Sixers with 36 points, McGinnis added 27 and Erving had 23. White contributed 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. Havlicek only scored 12 points but he dished off for 15 assists.

The 76ers achieved Pat Williams' 20-20-20 balance in game five at home--but the third member of the 20 point trio was Steve Mix, not McGinnis: Collins (23 points), Erving (22) and Mix (20) led the way as Philadelphia took control of the series with a 110-91 win. Scott topped Boston with 20 points.

The proud Celtics forced a seventh game as both White and Havlicek played all 48 minutes to carry Boston to a 113-108 game six win. White scored a playoff career-high 40 points and Havlicek added 25 points. Collins led the Sixers with 32 points, McGinnis scored 22 points and Erving had an off game with just 14 points on 7-20 field goal shooting.

The first six games of the series were high scoring and free wheeling but game seven was a grind it out slugfest. Free missed his first six field goal attempts before scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-27 field goal shooting as his 76ers outlasted the Celtics 83-77. McGinnis scored 22 points before fouling out. Erving contributed 14 points on 6-19 field goal shooting and he also had eight rebounds. Erving said, "Our bench and depth was the key to the win. We had more depth than they did. I never thought the starters would neutralize each other as much as they did." Collins was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 3-11 field goal shooting). White led the Celtics with 17 points on 7-24 field goal shooting but he did not score in the second half. Cowens pulled down a game-high 27 rebounds and blocked three shots but he only scored 11 points on 5-16 field goal shooting. This was just Boston's second loss in 13 seventh games.

Erving and Collins each scored 166 points (23.7 ppg) versus Boston. In his first NBA playoff series, Erving averaged 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.9 spg and 1.3 bpg while shooting .464 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. This was the first time in 10 career playoff series that Erving averaged less than 26.0 ppg but he decisively won his matchup with Havlicek, outscoring his rival in five of the seven games (Havlicek averaged 19.9 ppg). McGinnis averaged 15.6 ppg and shot just .380 from the field.

Philadelphia faced the 49-33 Central Division champion Houston Rockets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 76ers led 100-81 with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter of game one but the Rockets cut the margin to 120-113 late in the fourth quarter before Erving hit a jumper and two free throws to seal Philadelphia's 128-117 win. Erving led the 76ers with 24 points, Collins added 23 points and McGinnis finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Erving said, "I thought we were capable of getting good shots any time we wanted. If we rebound and go to the boards like we did, we can run. If we do, we'll continue to win."

Moses Malone poured in a game-high 32 points but he only scored 10 points in the second half as McGinnis--not known as a staunch defender--used his brawn to knock young Malone off of his favorite spot in the post. Houston Coach Tom Nissalke declared that Erving and McGinnis comprised "the best two players on one team in the league."

In game two, the 76ers' three star attack flourished again; this time McGinnis led the way with 21 points while Collins scored 20 points and Erving added 18 points as Philadelphia won 106-97. Malone only had seven points but Calvin Murphy (32 points) and Rudy Tomjanovich (22 points) picked up the slack.

When the series shifted to Houston, Malone returned to his dominating form with 30 points and 25 rebounds as the Rockets cruised to a 118-94 game three victory. This was the second of Malone's five 30-20 playoff games as a Rocket. Nissalke called Malone "the best rebounder in the game today" and Nissalke predicted, "In three years he will be one of the best players in the game"; Malone fulfilled that prophecy in 1978-79 when he won the first of his three MVPs. Nissalke changed his starting lineup for game three, replacing Goo Kennedy with the seven footer Kevin Kunnert. Kunnert responded with 12 points and 14 rebounds as the bigger Rockets won the rebounding battle 59-34 and slowed the 76ers' fast break to a crawl.

Erving led the 76ers with 28 points and he also had six assists but McGinnis only had 15 points on 6-18 field goal shooting and Collins scored nine points on 4-12 field goal shooting. "They killed us on the boards, they shot a lot better than we did, they had more control of the game than we did and they won the game," Erving said. "It might have been that we were lackadaisical or it might have been good defense. We were too liberal with the ball. We pushed it up fast, went for the jumper and missed it. The first two games we made it."

Free left the game in the second quarter with a bruised rib cage, an injury that would limit him for the rest of the postseason. 

The 76ers' running game was back in high gear in game four and they raced to a 107-95 win to take a 3-1 series lead. Collins scored 36 points--including 10 straight points during the decisive fourth quarter run--and Erving added 29 points. Kunnert had another strong game (21 points, 17 rebounds) but an ineffective Malone only scored five points. Rudy Tomjanovich led the Rockets with 24 points.

The Rockets overcame Erving's 37 point explosion to avoid elimination, sending the series back to Houston after a 118-115 game five win. The 76ers squandered an 84-69 third quarter lead. John Lucas and Tomjanovich each scored 21 points.

Houston led for most of game six until Darryl Dawkins and Mike Dunleavy hit consecutive baskets to put Philadelphia on top 91-87 near the end of the third quarter. Dawkins, who jumped to the NBA straight out of high school in 1975, scored 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter. The 76ers pushed the lead to 104-97 with 5:27 remaining in the fourth quarter but then they went scoreless for three minutes, allowing the Rockets to make one final rally. Erving broke that drought with a basket and two free throws to make the score 108-105 and then Houston countered with hoops by John Lucas and Mike Newlin. Henry Bibby made what turned out to be the game-winning shot with :37 remaining. Lucas' driving layup with five seconds left was disallowed by Jake O'Donnell, who ruled that Lucas had charged into Collins. Erving scored a game-high 34 points, snared nine rebounds and dished off for six assists in the 112-109 win.Collins added 27 points. Free did not play due to his rib injury and a partially collapsed lung. Lucas led the Rockets with 24 points.

"They didn't come out with any of that cheetah stuff," said Nissalke, referring to the 76ers' fast break attack. "They were coming down and setting up and shouting, 'Where's Doc?' It's unbelievable that a team that has lived and died by the fast break would run set plays like that, but he's the best forward who has ever played the game."

Erving averaged 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 6.0 apg, 2.0 spg and 1.2 bpg versus Houston in the Eastern Conference Finals while shooting .570 from the field and .800 from the free throw line. Erving's rebounding was below the standard he set during his ABA career but in all other statistical categories his performance mirrored his outstanding all-around production in his three previous "Final Four" (Division Finals/Conference Finals) appearances. Collins averaged 23.5 ppg and shot .604 from the field. McGinnis averaged 13.7 ppg and shot just .353 from the field. Malone averaged 17.2 rpg in the Eastern Conference Finals, the best rebounding performance in a series in franchise history at that time (Malone later surpassed that mark twice).

Philadelphia faced the Portland Trailblazers in the NBA Finals. Portland center Bill Walton finished second to the L.A. Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the MVP voting, earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team and beat out Abdul-Jabbar for All-Defensive First Team honors. Walton led the NBA in rebounding (14.4 rpg) and blocked shots (3.2 bpg). Portland finished second in the Pacific Division with a 49-33 record but defeated the 53-29 Pacific Division champion Lakers 4-0 in the Western Conference Finals.

Philadelphia Coach Gene Shue closed the team's practices to the public and the media prior to game one. Asked if Shue did this out of secrecy, a 76er official quipped that Shue did it because of "embarrassment" (the 76ers were not known for their diligent practice habits, something that irritated the hard-working Erving)--but once game one of the NBA Finals began it became clear what the 76ers had been hiding: the 76ers nullified the aggressive trapping of Portland's guards by having center Caldwell Jones bring the ball up the court. After Philadelphia's 107-101 win, Shue explained, "The strength of the Portland team is in the pressure their guards apply, so we attacked them at their weakest link."

"It was a good tactic," Portland Coach Jack Ramsay admitted. "It worked very effectively. We tried several things against it, but none worked very well." Ramsay also said that to win the series Portland had to hold the Erving-McGinnis-Collins trio to around 60 total points.

"This is what I call net cutting time," Erving said. "The playoffs--I love them. This is the best time of year, what we work for all winter. Not everybody gets the chance to be here and as long as I'm here I'm going to do something. I'm going to make my presence felt."

Erving scored a game-high 33 points, shooting 14-24 from the field and making all five of his free throws. He also had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Collins had a similar stat line: 30 points, 12-23 field goal shooting, 6-6 free throw shooting, six rebounds, six assists, two steals. McGinnis scored just eight points on 3-12 field goal shooting in 22 foul-plagued minutes and his game one struggles foreshadowed what would become one of the major stories of the series. Walton's performance also provided some foreshadowing: he produced 28 points, a game-high 20 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. Portland committed 34 turnovers, an astounding total for any game, let alone game one of the NBA Finals. Philadelphia also enjoyed the advantage from the free throw line, shooting 27-32 compared to Portland's 15-18.

Collins scored a game-high 27 points as the 76ers took a 2-0 lead with a 107-89 win. Erving added 20 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals. Bibby scored all 15 of his points in the first half as the 76ers built a 61-43 lead and he finished with a game-high 11 assists. "People put us down all the time," Bibby said. "They say we're a bunch of one on one players, we can't play team ball, we don't execute our plays well, we can't do the job on defense. They keep saying it--but we keep winning."

Erving added, "A lot of people think that we're a bunch of renegades. They think that a good, well-drilled team can run us apart. We are trying to prove them wrong. Portland is very singular in its offensive strategy. There is one basic play they like to run 75 percent of the time--they set up Walton in the pivot and then try to free their cutters for layups. We know this, we've drilled against it and we've been able to stop it."

Walton led Portland with 17 points and a game-high 16 rebounds. Portland turned the ball over 29 times.

In the fourth quarter, Dawkins threw Portland small forward Bobby Gross to the court as they battled for a loose ball. Dawkins took a swing at Gross but missed him and instead connected with Collins, who needed stitches above his right eye after the game. As the officials tried to restore order--not just among the players but also among dozens of fans who came on to the court--Portland power forward/enforcer Maurice Lucas came up behind Dawkins and hit Dawkins in the head. Dawkins and Lucas squared off to fight but emerged unscathed after several wild punches failed to connect. Both players were ejected; NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien fined Dawkins and Lucas $2500 each but did not suspend either player. That skirmish may have initially seemed like just an afterthought--tensions erupting in a blowout game as one team takes a seemingly commanding 2-0 series lead--but in retrospect the entire tide of the series turned. The Blazers pulled together and rallied, while the 76ers--an emotionally fragile group under the best of circumstances--fell apart the rest of the way, a development that would have seemed improbable after their two impressive victories. Dawkins ripped a urinal off of the wall in the locker room and later expressed disappointment that none of his teammates had warned him about Lucas' sneak attack.

Enjoying the comforts of home after suffering two brutal road losses, the Blazers ambushed the 76ers in the first quarter of game three, taking a 32-12 lead. The 76ers battled back to only trail by four in the fourth quarter but Walton's consecutive hoops ignited a 26-10 run to put the game away. Portland won 129-107, their 16th straight victory at Memorial Coliseum and their 44th in 49 games (regular season and playoffs). The Blazers slashed their turnover total to 16 and Walton dominated at both ends of the court: 20 points, 18 rebounds, nine assists, four blocked shots, two steals. Lucas scored a game-high 29 points and he swiped 12 rebounds. Erving paced the 76ers with 28 points and five assists while also grabbing 11 rebounds but he received little help from anyone other than Collins (21 points on 9-13 field goal shooting). McGinnis scored 14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, though he did contribute a team-high 12 rebounds.

If the 76ers thought that a 22 point blowout loss would be the low point of the series then they were sadly mistaken. The Blazers made nine of their first 10 field goal attempts in game four, sprinted to a 19-4 lead and never let the 76ers get closer than 11 points the rest of the way, cruising to a 130-98 win. During garbage time, the Portland reserves pushed the margin to 41 (126-85). Speedy guard Lionel Hollins scored a game-high 25 points for the Blazers, while Lucas (24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists) and Walton (12 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists, four blocked shots) controlled the paint. Erving, who led Philadelphia with 24 points, did not like his team's mindset: "We got to challenge the other team. Be aggressive. Get some big axes and chop arms and legs." No other 76er scored more than 15 points and McGinnis was almost invisible (five points, six rebounds, 2-8 field goal shooting).

Game five started out very much like game four; the Blazers took a 16-9 lead as the 76ers missed 11 of their first 14 field goal attempts. The Blazers led by 22 points in the fourth quarter but this time the 76ers rallied, cutting the margin to 101-96 after Joe Bryant's long jumper with 3:26 remaining. Lucas countered with a jumper and then Hollins' layup extended the lead to nine. The Blazers won 110-104 to move within one victory of the young franchise's first NBA title. Gross led Portland with 25 points, Lucas added 20 points and 13 rebounds and Walton dominated inside (14 points, 24 rebounds, two blocked shots). Erving poured in a game-high 37 points, grabbed nine rebounds and passed for a team-high seven assists but only three other 76ers scored in double figures--and none of them shot better than .400 from the field.

The 76ers led 22-18 in the first quarter of game six before the Blazers went on a 39-20 run. Portland led 67-55 at halftime. The 76ers stayed in contact throughout the second half and then pulled to within two points after McGinnis' jumper with :18 left in the fourth quarter. McGinnis then tied up Gross for a jump ball and won the tap. The 76ers missed three potentially tying shots in the waning seconds--by Erving, Free and McGinnis--as Portland held on for a 109-107 win. Walton posted one of the most awesome stat lines in Finals history--20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocked shots, seven assists--and he was selected as the Finals MVP. Gross led Portland with 24 points, while Hollins chipped in 20 points. Lucas had a very solid game (15 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals).

Erving authored the first and only 40 point game of his NBA playoff career (he scored at least 40 points in seven of his 48 ABA playoff games). In addition to his 40 points on 17-29 field goal shooting, Erving had a game-high eight assists plus six rebounds and two steals. McGinnis broke out of his long playoff slump with 28 points and 16 rebounds but Caldwell Jones was the only other 76er who scored in double figures (10 points on 5-8 field goal shooting).

Erving averaged 30.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.0 apg in the NBA Finals. He shot .543 from the field and .857 from the free throw line. His 2.7 spg is still a record for a six game NBA Finals. Collins scored prolifically (19.7 ppg) and efficiently (.505 field goal shooting), while McGinnis was neither prolific (13.0 ppg) nor efficient (.388 field goal shooting).

According to information collected by Harvey Pollack and published in the 76ers' 1978 media guide, Erving led the team in playoff dunks (34, with a single-game high of five) and three point plays (converting 15 of 20 opportunities). Erving scored at least 20 points in 16 of Philadelphia's 19 playoff games--including each of the final 10--and he also posted six of his 11 highest scoring NBA playoff games. The 1977 postseason turned out to be Erving's most prolific NBA playoff campaign in scoring (27.3 ppg, third in the league), field goal percentage (.523) and steals (2.2 spg, fourth in the league).

Shortly after the 1977 NBA Finals ended, the New York Times' Sam Goldaper wrote, "The recently concluded National Basketball Association season will be best remembered for two significant events--the emergence of Bill Walton as one of the game's dominant centers and the proof that Julius Erving could play the game of basketball as well as anyone who had ever played before him."
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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM

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