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Friday, October 19, 2012

Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part II: Two Championships in Three Years with the Nets

"That was the time when I had the most fun playing basketball. Between age 21 and age 26, I genuinely was empowered with this ability to do anything that I wanted to do on a basketball court and anything that I had ever dreamed of doing."--Julius Erving, describing his ABA career

This series of articles focuses on Julius Erving's playoff career but the 1973 offseason and 1973-74 regular season significantly impacted not just Erving but the status of the ABA itself and thus what happened during that period must be described in order to place Erving's overall career in proper context. By the end of the 1972-73 season, the Virginia Squires had two future Hall of Famers on their roster--Julius Erving and George Gervin--but the cash-strapped franchise did not have the financial resources to retain the services of either player. Erving, dissatisfied with the terms of his original contract with the Squires, tried to jump to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks after his 1971-72 rookie campaign but a court ruling forced him to play for the Squires in 1972-73. The Squires realized that they could not keep Erving for the long term, so in the summer of 1973 they traded him to the New York Nets with Willie Sojourner for George Carter and $1 million cash. Nets' owner Roy Boe also compensated the Hawks. Several years later and after much legal wrangling, the Milwaukee Bucks (the team that owned Erving's NBA rights by virtue of selecting him in the 1972 NBA Draft) received two draft picks plus cash from the Hawks. Gervin started the 1972-73 season with the Squires and made the All-Star team for the first time but the Squires then traded him to the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs soon shifted Gervin from forward to guard and he won four scoring titles after the ABA-NBA merger, setting a record for guards that lasted until Michael Jordan captured 10 scoring crowns.

It was a coup for the ABA that Erving not only stayed in the younger league but that he ended up in New York; the ABA was starving for more media coverage and now arguably the sport's best player had arrived on a huge stage after spending two years in Virginia. Steve Jones, three-time ABA All-Star and respected pro basketball analyst, told Terry Pluto (as quoted on p. 319 of Pluto's 1990 book Loose Balls), "When a player as gifted as Julius takes the court, he believes that he has no limitations. He can try any move because he can make any shot. I guarded Julius when he was in that stage of his career; it wasn't much fun. If you put him in historical perspective, the only other player in the same class is Michael Jordan. Michael has a much better jumper than Julius but, believe it or not, Julius played much higher above the rim and was a far better rebounder than Michael. It would be fun to see a young Erving play a young Jordan just to see how it came out, because those two guys are players who have no limits." With Erving in New York, the Nets in particular and the ABA in general had to be taken a lot more seriously. Erving denied feeling any extra pressure because of the size of his contract or the attention he would receive in the world's biggest media market: "I put the most pressure on myself because of my ambitions to be the best basketball player ever," Erving said. "What happens around me can't put any more pressure on me than that."

The Nets started out 4-1 in the 1973-74 season before losing nine in a row and falling into last place. Kevin Loughery, who replaced Lou Carnesecca on the Nets' bench prior to the season after Carnesecca returned to St. John's University, initially wanted to use a full court pressing and trapping defensive scheme that took advantage of the athleticism of Erving and other New York players--but the system relied too much on Erving playing like Superman and Erving was feeling all too mortal due to the tendinitis afflicting his knees, the first time he had experienced such a problem. Loughery quickly realized his mistake, as recounted in this quote from Marty Bell's The Legend of Dr. J: "My original concept seemed perfectly suited to the Doctor. He plays so hard, so fast. But no one could play that way for 84 games. By the third week of the season I had run him into the ground. I was in the process of destroying the best player on my team, maybe in the game" (pp. 94-95 of the 1981 updated and expanded Signet version of Bell's classic book, the best Erving biography). Loughery called a team meeting and admitted that his coaching errors had cost the team. He tweaked the defense--reverting to a sagging man to man with zone principles that enabled Erving to freelance but did not require Erving to wear himself out--and devised ways to get Erving the ball on the move so that Erving did not have to create so much offense one on one against a set defense. Loughery also inserted muscular rookie guard John Williamson into the starting lineup. The Nets lost 107-105 at San Diego but then they won 19 of their next 22 games.

Erving's quiet, thoughtful leadership played a big role in the team's success. Erving said, "The reputation of the Nets last year was that if you got up on them early they'd start squabbling among themselves. They were losers. From the minute I knew I was coming here I was preparing myself to stop that from happening again. I knew I'd have leadership responsibilities, not as the designated leader--that's the role of the team captain, Bill Melchionni--but on a different basis. There has to be criticism among players on a team, but I guess what I've tried to do is make it constructive and cut down on meaningless griping at each other. I don't think you should cuss at a guy for missing a pass. You should boost him up by saying something like, 'It's all right. We'll get it next time.'"

In 1973-74, Erving's scoring average dropped from 31.9 ppg to 27.4 ppg but he won his second consecutive scoring title while also ranking third in blocked shots (2.4 bpg), third in steals (2.3 spg), sixth in assists (5.2 apg), seventh in rebounding (10.7 rpg) and ninth in two point field goal percentage (.515). Erving made the All-ABA First Team for the second year in a row and won the first of three straight regular season MVP awards. He played a major role in the Nets' improvement from 30-54 to 55-29, the best record in the league; the Nets accomplished this despite having the youngest starting lineup in pro basketball (average age of 22.6 years old, according to the January 14, 1974 Sports Illustrated).

In the first round of the playoffs, the Nets faced the Squires, who fell to 28-56 without Erving and Gervin but still qualified for the playoffs as eight of the 10 ABA teams participated in postseason competition. Erving battled foul trouble but still scored a game-high 24 points as New York beat Virginia 108-96 in game one. He also had nine rebounds and a game-high 12 assists. Virginia guard Roland "Fatty" Taylor was ejected at the 6:13 mark of the first quarter after hitting John Williamson with two forearm shots to the back of the head; Taylor claimed that Williamson had elbowed him first. Virginia Coach Al Bianchi was ejected in the third quarter.

Erving scored a game-high 35 points while also contributing six rebounds and five assists as the Nets cruised to a 129-110 victory to take a 2-0 series lead. The Squires cut the margin to 2-1 with a 116-115 win at home after Erving missed a last second shot and Mike Gale failed to convert a putback attempt at the buzzer. Jim Eakins scored a game-high 31 points for the Squires, while Erving led the Nets with 29 points in addition to pulling down 12 rebounds and passing for three assists.

Rookie forward Larry Kenon scored a game-high 25 points and had a game-high 11 rebounds while Erving and Williamson added 21 points each as the Nets blew out the Squires 116-88 to take a 3-1 series lead. Erving added nine rebounds and tied Gale for team-high honors with five assists. Kenon led the Nets in scoring in game five with 22 points and Erving contributed 21 points, six rebounds and five assists (tying second year guard Brian Taylor for the team lead) as New York advanced to the second round with a 108-96 win. Erving averaged 26.0 ppg against Virginia, his lowest scoring average in the first four playoff series of his career.

In the Eastern Division Finals, the Nets faced a much bigger challenge: a Kentucky team that posted the second best record in the league (53-31) thanks largely to the efforts of two future Hall of Fame big men, Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Erving scored a game-high 35 points and had eight rebounds as the Nets beat the Colonels 119-106 in game one. The Nets only led 52-51 at halftime but Erving scored 13 third quarter points as the Nets widened the margin to 90-75. Kenon added 20 points and a game-high 15 rebounds, while Issel scored 22 points and Gilmore contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds.

Erving scored a game-high 27 points and had six rebounds as New York cruised to a 99-80 game two victory. Reserve forward Wendell Ladner, who the Nets acquired from Kentucky in a midseason trade, contributed 15 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and five steals in just 29 minutes.

The Nets took command of the series in game three with an 89-87 win. Erving scored a game-high 30 points and he also grabbed 14 rebounds. New York held Kentucky scoreless for more than six minutes in the fourth quarter. Issel led the Colonels with 26 points, while Gilmore contributed 15 points, 27 rebounds and five blocked shots. Erving scored eight of New York's final 12 points, including a dunk that gave the Nets their first lead of the game (83-81) and a 20 foot game-winning jumper at the buzzer. Terry Pluto's Loose Balls contains a quote (p. 284) from Dave Vance about Erving's game-winning shot:

I was the GM of the Colonels when Julius made that shot, and Kevin tells a great story about what went on in that huddle.

When they called time-out with 15 seconds left, Kevin went down on his knee and started to draw up a play. He didn't get very far when this huge hand landed on his shoulder.

"Kevin," said Julius. "I'll take the last shot."

Kevin said he got chills when he heard Doc say that. It was almost like the voice of God.

So Kevin said, "Okay, guys, if Doc misses--"

The hand came back on Kevin's shoulder and Julius said, "Kevin, I won't miss."

That just stopped Kevin. Finally, he said, "Okay, let's get Doc the ball and let's go."

I can still see Julius floating to the right in the air, the shot leaving his hand, and he just ran right into the dressing room after he let it go. Julius knew it was in and he knew he had won the game.

Erving capped off a great series by once again leading both teams in scoring, dropping in 27 points on 13-22 field goal shooting and controlling eight rebounds as the Nets won 103-90 to complete the sweep and advance to the ABA Finals. Erving scored 19 first half points as the Nets built a 64-49 halftime lead before cruising to victory. Kentucky Coach Babe McCarthy said, "Now I think the Nets are the best team I've seen in the ABA. You can talk about their inexperience but Julius Erving has three years of it and he rises to the occasion." Erving averaged 29.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg and 3.0 apg in his second "Final Four" appearance in three professional seasons.

Basketball Hall of Famer Adolph Rupp, who had recently retired as the coach at the University of Kentucky and who served as Vice President of the Board for the Kentucky Colonels, was very impressed by Erving: "Up until now I always thought that Jerry West was the greatest basketball player I ever saw, with Oscar Robertson right behind him, but I think right now that Julius Erving is the best." Rupp also called Erving "the Babe Ruth of basketball."

The Utah Stars defeated the two-time defending ABA champion Indiana Pacers in seven games in the Western Division Finals to earn the right to face the Nets. The Stars led the ABA in two point field goal percentage (.493) and free throw percentage (.789) in the 1973-74 season. Utah's lineup included three 1974 ABA All-Stars: All-Defensive Team forward Willie Wise plus guards Ron Boone and James Jones. Jones made the 1974 All-ABA First Team, ranking second in the league in two point field goal shooting during the regular season (.551). Jones led the ABA in playoff two point field goal percentage with a blistering .581 mark, a sensational figure for a guard. He ranked fifth in the league in assists during the regular season (5.2 apg) and he improved to third during the playoffs (5.4 apg). Boone and Wise each received All-ABA Second Team honors. Zelmo Beaty, a two-time NBA All-Star who earned three straight ABA All-Star selections as well (1971-73), was hampered by some injuries but still averaged 13.4 ppg and 8.0 rpg during the regular season. Former ABA All-Star (1970) Gerald Govan led the team in rebounding (8.8 rpg) during the regular season and he ranked fourth in the ABA in playoff rebounding (13.7 rpg). The Utah Stars had a lot of talent and versatility; Wise may have been the best defensive forward in pro basketball at that time and the Boone-Jones duo comprised one of the top backcourts in either league. Utah went 51-33 in the regular season, the best record in the Western Division and the third best record in the league behind New York and Kentucky.

It is important to understand just how good the Stars were in order to fully appreciate what Erving and the Nets accomplished in the 1974 ABA Finals. In game one, Erving scored 47 points on 19-29 field goal shooting while also contributing 10 rebounds, three assists, two steals and one blocked shot as the Nets beat the Stars 89-85. Erving made 13 straight shots from the field and he scored 12, 14 and 15 points respectively in the first three quarters, mounting a serious challenge to the ABA single game playoff scoring record (53 points, a mark Erving already shared with Roger Brown). Kenon, the only other Net to score in double figures, came up big with 18 points and a game-high 20 rebounds, including nine offensive rebounds. Jones led Utah with 25 points; he made six shots in a row but late in the game the Nets shut him down by switching Erving on to him defensively. Beaty did not play due to a groin injury but the Stars still had four players score at least 12 points.

The Stars came out fighting in game two--literally: less than a minute after the opening tip, Boone decked Taylor, who got up off the ground and punched Boone in the face. Pro basketball was a much rougher game back then; neither player was ejected or even received a technical foul. The Nets raced to a 61-37 halftime lead en route to a 118-94 victory. Erving scored a game-high 32 points on 12-21 field goal shooting and he had another solid floor game: nine rebounds, four assists, three steals, three blocked shots. Kenon only scored six points but he once again controlled the boards, grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds. Jones and Wise led the Stars with 19 points each.

Beaty returned to action in game three, scoring 22 points and grabbing a game-high 16 rebounds as the Stars outrebounded the Nets for the first time in the series. Utah built a 15 point fourth quarter lead but the Nets stormed back to force overtime after Taylor hit a buzzer beating three pointer to tie the score at 94. Erving and Kenon each scored four points in the overtime as New York won 109-103. Erving led the Nets with 24 points and 13 rebounds and his seven assists trailed teammate Mike Gale by one for game-high honors but Erving also committed six turnovers while shooting just 9-22 from the field and 6-11 from the free throw line. Jones had 28 points, nine rebounds and six assists, while Wise not only played strong defense against Erving but he also contributed 20 points and 12 rebounds. Kenon (18 points, 12 rebounds) and center Billy Paultz (17 points, 12 rebounds) were two of the six Nets who scored in double figures.

The Stars avoided the sweep with a 97-89 game four win. Jones scored a game-high 24 points, Boone added 22 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists, Beaty scored all 18 of his points in the second half, Govan grabbed a game-high 23 rebounds and Wise did an excellent job defensively against Erving while also contributing 19 points. The Stars again won the rebounding battle. Erving finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, while Williamson and Taylor scored 17 points each. Erving shot 9-20 from the field. How unusual is it that Wise held Erving to fewer than 20 points on .450 field goal shooting? Erving eventually played a total of 33 Finals games (11 in the ABA, 22 in the NBA) and he scored at least 20 points in 31 of those games, including a streak of 26 straight 20 point games that is second in ABA/NBA Finals history to Michael Jordan's 35 game streak. Erving shot at least .500 from the field in five of his six trips to the Finals, falling short only in 1983 when he shot .469 as a 33 year old during Philadelphia's 4-0 sweep of the L.A. Lakers.

Wise scored a game-high 34 points, grabbed eight rebounds and passed for six assists while playing all 48 minutes in game five but the Nets pulled away in the fourth quarter, claiming their first ABA title with a 111-100 win. The Nets owned the boards 54-34 as Kenon led the Nets with 23 points plus 11 rebounds and Paultz scored 21 points while grabbing 12 rebounds; Erving had a quiet night offensively by his standards (20 points on 8-18 field goal shooting, four assists) but, like all great players, he found another way to make his impact felt: Erving hauled in a game-high 16 rebounds, his best rebounding performance of the 1974 playoffs. Erving felt that his individual performance in game five "was not complete. But we won and that's what's important." Erving explained, "I still have lots of room for improvement. The main thing I want to do is maintain consistency. That's what I'm striving for. I don't think I'll ever run any faster, jump any higher or shoot any better. And I don't think my defense needs much improvement. I think I can block shots as well as anyone in the league. But it's maintaining consistency, under pressure, that is most important to me."

Erving averaged 28.2 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, 1.8 spg and 1.4 rpg during the Finals, shooting .518 from two point range, .333 (1-3) from three point range and .750 from the free throw line. Erving led the ABA in playoff scoring (27.9 ppg) for the third time in his three year career. He also ranked fourth in blocked shots (19), fourth in three point field goal percentage (.455), fifth in two point field goal percentage (.531), fifth in assists (4.8 apg), eighth in steals (22) and 12th in rebounding (9.6 rpg), earning the 1974 ABA Playoff MVP award.

Utah Coach Joe Mullaney was very impressed by Erving: "He's just a fantastic player. He's exceptionally gifted. He's spectacular. He has a unique talent. He has that real long body, a soft touch on his shots, amazing physical equipment and he's so unselfish, something you rarely see in a player of his caliber."

Stars' General Manager Arnie Ferrin--who played for three seasons in the BAA and the NBA in the late 1940s/early 1950s--said of Erving, "He's as good a basketball player as I've ever seen. Obviously, he's the best forward in the game. We used to debate quite frequently at home whether Bob Cousy or George Mikan was the best player in the game. But now the game has changed drastically. You have to ask yourself--if you were inheriting a pro franchise--would you rather have the best forward, center or guard in the game. There is no better forward than Julius."

Wise lavishly praised his adversary, saying that it was a "beautiful feeling" being on the court with Erving and adding, "He's basketball at it's best."

Erving appreciated all of the compliments but declined to compare himself to the legends who preceded him: "When my career is all over, then they can judge me. Then it will mean something." Erving said that he planned to play for seven more seasons. "That would give me 10 seasons. I'll be 31 then. I don't want to play as long as Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain. I want to play as long as I can be a positive factor. Then I'll hang it up." It is interesting that one can find similar quotes from other great players, including Michael Jordan--who was just starting his career when a 37 year old Erving was playing his final season--and Kobe Bryant. Jordan swore that he would not stick around as long as Erving did and Bryant has recently said that he will probably retire when his current contract is through. The reality is that if a player is healthy enough to extend his career then the love of the game combined with the inevitable increases in player salaries make it very difficult to walk away from the sport.

The 1973-74 Nets are one of the most underrated teams in pro basketball history; they went 22-3 down the stretch--10-1 to finish the regular season and 12-2 in the playoffs. The Nets tied the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks' pro basketball record for best playoff winning percentage (.857), a mark that stood until Erving's 1983 Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 (.923); thanks in part to an expanded playoff format, the 2001 Lakers currently hold the record after going 15-1 (.938).

After the playoffs ended, Erving did not participate in the Rucker League during the summer of 1974 in order to rest his knees and enable the tendinitis to settle down; he also made weekly visits to the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, where he received treatment with "an electro galvanic stimulator and cybex isokinetic exercisers" (p. 152, Legend of Dr. J). With Erving presumably rejuvenated and the 26 year old Paultz being the Nets' oldest starter, it seemed like the young Nets were creating a dynasty but the 1974-75 season provided a rude awakening to anyone who assumed that the Nets would just roll to a second straight title. Erving's knees began bothering him early in the season and it also soon became apparent that the Nets were not as unified or efficient as they had been in 1973-74.

Meanwhile, an already strong Kentucky team had become even more powerful under the direction of a new coach, former Milwaukee Bucks' assistant Hubie Brown, who later won two NBA Coach of the Year awards in addition to becoming arguably the sport's best TV analyst. New York and Kentucky traded the Eastern Division lead for most of the season before the Colonels won their final nine regular season games. The Nets won their last three games but prior to that they lost four in a row to let Kentucky back in the race.

Kentucky and New York each finished the season with 58-26 records, so on April 4 the teams faced off in a one game playoff at Kentucky for the Eastern Division title. Artis Gilmore dominated with 28 points, 33 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots in a 108-99 Kentucky win; he single-handedly outrebounded the Nets and the Colonels enjoyed a 56-30 advantage on the boards overall. Erving scored a game-high 34 points on 12-23 field goal shooting while also contributing six rebounds and four assists. The boxscore for that game appears in the 1975-76 ABA Guide but the individual player statistics were not included in either the regular season or the playoff totals.

Erving increased his scoring average slightly to 27.9 ppg but he finished second in the league behind George McGinnis, who averaged 29.8 ppg. Erving ranked fourth in the league in both steals (2.2 spg) and blocked shots (1.9 bpg), he tied for sixth in three point field goal percentage (.333) and he finished eighth in rebounding (10.9 rpg). He won his second straight regular season MVP, though he shared that award with McGinnis--the only time in ABA or NBA history that two players received that honor; while the media members split their votes between Erving and McGinnis, the Sporting News presented its 1975 ABA Player of the Year award--selected by the ABA players--to Erving alone. Erving set his regular season career scoring high with a 63 point outburst in a 176-166 quadruple overtime loss to San Diego; Erving tied Zelmo Beaty for the second most points scored in an ABA game, falling just four points short of Larry Miller's record.

The Nets faced the Spirits of St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. New York went 11-0 versus St. Louis during the regular season, so on paper this looked like a great matchup for the Nets. The Nets extended that winning streak to 12 with a 111-105 game one victory. Erving played 47 minutes and led the Nets with 32 points while also grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing off six assists. New York outscored St. Louis 34-24 in the fourth quarter, spoiling a great game by St. Louis rookie Marvin Barnes, who scored a game-high 41 points and had a team-high 12 rebounds. St. Louis fought gallantly in the first game and served notice that the series would be more competitive than most people might have expected but game two produced a stunning result: the Spirits clobbered the Nets 115-97, stealing homecourt advantage. Barnes--who was selected as the ABA's Rookie of the Year prior to the game--poured in a game-high 37 points and he snared 18 rebounds, while fellow rookie Maurice Lucas single-handedly outrebounded the entire Nets team in the first half en route to controlling a game-high 21 rebounds. Lucas also scored 14 points. Dynamic guard Freddie Lewis--a key member of three Indiana Pacers championship teams--played all 48 minutes for St. Louis, contributing 28 points, six rebounds and three assists. Kenon led the Nets with 28 points and 12 rebounds, while Erving suffered through the worst game of his ABA career: six points on 3-14 field goal shooting in 29 foul-plagued minutes. Coach Loughery watched the final minutes of the debacle from the locker room after being ejected for receiving his second technical foul; assistant coach Rod Thorn, who took over for Loughery, also received a technical foul during the game, as did Ladner.

Erving's nightmarish game two performance was clearly an aberration but it was equally clear that the young, physical Spirits were not the slightest bit intimidated by the Nets. Erving and Barnes, who did not guard each other during the series, had a shootout in game three: Barnes finished with a game-high 35 points and 14 rebounds in a 113-108 St. Louis win, while Erving had 30 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Barnes scored nine of his points in the final 4:48, while Erving countered with eight points during that stretch as the Nets tried to erase a 98-86 deficit. Lucas again led both teams in rebounds (18) while also contributing 14 points and Lewis again played all 48 minutes, scoring 30 points and passing for six assists. St. Louis' frontcourt quartet of Barnes, Lucas, Gus Gerard and Don Adams set the tone in the paint with their physical play, while Lewis ran the show from the backcourt.

Game four would be critical, as the Nets could either tie the series and regain homecourt advantage or else fall into a deep 3-1 hole. Everything hung in the balance with the score tied 87-87 and less than five minutes remaining in the game but St. Louis held New York without a field goal the rest of the way and won, 100-89. Erving scored a game-high 35 points on 13-25 field goal shooting and he added eight rebounds and five assists but the other Nets combined to shoot just 24-63 from the field (.381) and St. Louis again dominated the boards (62-44). Barnes led St. Louis with 23 points and 20 rebounds, though he shot just 10-27 from the field. Lucas added 20 points and 18 rebounds, while Lewis scored 19 points as he went the distance for the third straight game.

Back home in New York, the Nets fought very hard to stave off elimination; they led by as many as 16 points but St. Louis staged a furious rally capped off by a Lewis drive that put them up 104-103 with 90 seconds remaining. The Nets went back on top 107-104 after Erving hit a shot with :54 remaining but Lewis cut the margin to 107-106 by making two free throws with :19 left in the fourth quarter. Erving then either lost control of the ball or had it slapped away by Adams and the ball bounced off of Erving's leg before going into the backcourt. That costly turnover gave Lewis the opportunity to close out the series with a game-winning jumper at the three second mark, completing an upset that stunned the Nets and the rest of the basketball world. Erving scored a game-high 34 points and had 12 rebounds and six assists and the Nets even won the rebounding battle 46-38 but they had no answer for Lewis, who led St. Louis with 29 points--including 10 in the final two minutes, capped off by the clutch shot that dethroned the ABA champions. Lewis again played all 48 minutes and he missed just one minute of action in the entire series. Barnes added 17 points and 14 rebounds.

After the game, Erving said, "We've been confused all year. So this is how it ends: a basket in the last few seconds to put an end to our confusion." Erving averaged 27.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 5.6 apg, 1.8 bpg and 1.0 spg during the series but he shot just .455 from the field, the worst postseason field goal percentage of his career up to that point. Erving failed to lead the league in playoff scoring for the first (and last) time of his ABA career, finishing fourth behind George Gervin (34.0 ppg), George McGinnis (32.3 ppg) and Marvin Barnes (30.8 ppg).

The Nets reacted--or, perhaps, overreacted--to their shocking first round playoff loss by trading away two key members of the 1974 championship team, Larry Kenon and Billy Paultz. The Nets also shipped out reserve guard Mike Gale. All three players landed in San Antonio in two separate trades that brought Swen Nater, Rich Jones, Kim Hughes and Bob Warren to New York. Nater, a two-time ABA All-Star, led the ABA in rebounding in 1974-75 (16.4 rpg; he later would become the only player to lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding) and the Nets believed that Nater represented a major upgrade over Paultz--but Nater did not fit in with New York's running game and he performed so poorly in the first half of the 1975-76 season that the Nets traded him to Virginia for Jim Eakins. Wendell Ladner, the energetic forward who served as Erving's de facto bodyguard on the court, died in an airplane crash in the summer of 1975. Instead of having the athletic Kenon and the burly Paultz by his side and Ladner available to provide a boost off of the bench, Erving was now surrounded by a frontcourt cast consisting of journeymen centers Eakins and Hughes and journeymen power forwards Jones and Tim Bassett. Meanwhile, Kenon made the All-Star team three times with San Antonio and Paultz performed very well for the Spurs as they blossomed into a contender not just in the ABA's final season but for the next several years after the merger.

New York still had a very good starting backcourt consisting of the powerfully built streak shooter John Williamson and savvy point guard Brian Taylor but, compared to the star-studded squads in Denver and San Antonio, the Nets looked like a one man team; the Nuggets were so powerful that the 1976 ABA All-Star Game pitted their roster against a squad comprised of the best players from the league's remaining teams--and Denver won!

One player cannot single-handedly win a championship in a team sport but a great basketball player can have more of an impact than a great football player or a great baseball player--and Erving had a phenomenal impact in the 1975-76 season. My NBCSports.com article The Ultimate "Five Tool" Players discussed the few players who have led their teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in the same season and explained the significance of Erving's 1975-76 performance:

Julius Erving put up the first--and most impressive--five-tool season. In 1975-76, he led the ABA in scoring (29.3 ppg) and ranked in the top seven or better in the league in each of the other four categories. He also placed eighth in two point field goal percentage and seventh in three point field goal percentage. Erving actually came very close to being a five-tool player in each of the three previous seasons, missing by just .6 apg and .2 spg in 1972-73, .8 rpg in 1973-74 and .6 spg in 1974-75. All of that was just a warm-up for Dr. J's final dramatic operation in the ABA, when he led the New York Nets to the 1976 championship over the Denver Nuggets, topping both teams in all five statistical categories during that series: 37.7 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 6.0 apg, 3.0 spg and 2.2 bpg. Performances like that inspired the two quotes that best summarize Erving's impact on the game: ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere once said, "Plenty of guys have been 'The Franchise.' For us, Dr. J is 'The League'"; Pat Williams, the 76ers General Manager who acquired Erving shortly after the 1976 ABA Finals, later said of Erving, "There's never been anyone like him, including Michael. If Julius was in his prime now, in this era of intense electronic media, he would be beyond comprehension. He would blow everybody away."

In 1975-76 Julius Erving had one of the greatest--and most underrated--all-around seasons in pro basketball history; Erving captured his third scoring title while also ranking third in steals (2.5 spg), fifth in rebounding (11.0 rpg), seventh in assists (5.0 apg) and seventh in blocked shots (1.9 bpg). Michael Jordan later received a lot of publicity--and one Defensive Player of the Year award--after notching back to back seasons with 200-plus steals and 100-plus blocked shots but in 1975-76 Erving tallied 207 steals and 160 blocked shots to become the first 200-100 player. Erving, Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only players to record at least 200 steals and 100 blocked shots in a season since those numbers have been officially tracked (1972-73 in the ABA, 1973-74 in the NBA); Erving and Olajuwon are the only players who have had both a 200-100 season and a 100-200 season (Erving had 190 steals and 204 blocked shots in 1973-74, narrowly missing becoming the only member of the 200-200 club).

Erving was even more dominant during the playoffs, leading the ABA in playoff scoring (34.7 ppg) for the fourth time in his five year career while also ranking second in rebounding (12.6 rpg), third in blocked shots (2.0 bpg), third in steals (1.9 spg) and sixth in assists (4.9 apg). He shot .533 from the field--the best playoff field goal percentage of his 16 season career--and .804 from the free throw line.

The Denver Nuggets, coached by Hall of Famer Larry Brown and featuring Hall of Fame players David Thompson (the 1976 ABA Rookie of the Year) and Dan Issel, led the ABA with a 60-24 record. Denver's roster also included Bobby Jones--a very good all-around player who inherited the mantle from Willie Wise as the best defensive forward in either league--and perennial All-Star guard Ralph Simpson, who ranked second in the league in assists (7.1 apg) while also averaging 18.0 ppg and 5.4 rpg. New York finished second at 55-29 and San Antonio--boosted by New York imports Kenon and Paultz--went 50-34. Kentucky defeated Indiana in a first round mini-series to earn the right to face Denver in the Semifinal round and the Colonels pushed the Nuggets to seven games before Denver prevailed.

New York battled San Antonio in the other Semifinal matchup--and the teams "battled" in every sense of the word, as the series featured very physical play from both sides and a few altercations as well: one of the newspaper headlines during the series read, "Game and Fight Won by Nets." The Spurs led the ABA in blocked shots mainly thanks to Paultz, who topped the league with a 3.0 bpg average. Paultz also averaged 16.5 ppg and 10.4 rpg, while Kenon contributed 18.7 ppg and 11.1 rpg; both players made the All-Star team, as did future Hall of Famer George Gervin (21.8 ppg)--but the team's best player that year was James "Captain Late" Silas, who finished second in the MVP voting after averaging 23.8 ppg (sixth in the league) and 5.4 apg (fifth in the league). Silas earned All-ABA First Team honors, while Gervin made the All-ABA Second Team.

Taylor was New York's only All-Star other than Erving; while Erving was clearly the best player in the New York-San Antonio series, the Spurs had the four next best players, so even if Taylor played one of San Antonio's All-Star guards to a draw Erving had to outduel the Spurs' other All-Stars for the Nets to have a chance--and that is what happened as Erving averaged 32.1 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 4.6 apg in the third "Final Four" appearance of his professional career.

Erving scored a game-high 31 points and grabbed eight rebounds as New York opened the series with a 116-101 win; Gervin led the Spurs with 20 points. Silas scored 10 points on 3-10 field goal shooting in 26 minutes before suffering a chip fracture in his right ankle, an injury that ended his season.

If the game one loss and Silas' injury deflated the Spurs, they recovered very quickly, blowing out the Nets 105-79 in game two. Kenon scored a game-high 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, Gervin added 22 points and 13 rebounds and Paultz scored 20 points while controlling a game-high 18 rebounds. Erving led the Nets with 27 points and he also had seven rebounds. "It's evident we didn't play with intensity," Erving said after the game. "We were flat. It was more what we didn't do than what they did." The Spurs took control of the game late in the second quarter with a 17-4 run. One newspaper article noted that portions of game two were televised nationally and stated that this was "the ABA's first network exposure in several years."

Erving's game-high 31 points did not prevent the Spurs from taking a 2-1 lead with a 111-103 win; Erving almost had a triple double, finishing with 10 rebounds and eight assists. Kenon led the Spurs with 28 points and he had 16 rebounds as the Spurs outrebounded the Nets 57-46. Kenon scored 24 points in the second half to help the Spurs bounce back from a five point halftime deficit. Gale contributed a career-high 22 points plus 11 assists and after the game he admitted to feeling extra satisfaction sticking it to his old team. Lest the Spurs get too giddy, San Antonio Coach Bob Bass sounded a cautionary note: "The pressure is still on us." The Spurs had to win game four to avoid giving homecourt advantage back to the Nets.

Erving scored a game-high 35 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and dished off four assists as New York knotted the series at 2-2 with a 110-108 win. Erving scored 11 fourth quarter points, including the game-winning dunk. Williamson added 31 points, including 20 in the second half. Gervin led San Antonio with 28 points. Game four featured a fight between Taylor and George Karl, a journeyman guard who is now best known for his success as an NBA head coach. Both benches cleared and it took several minutes to restore order. ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere eventually fined 14 players--eight Nets and six Spurs--for their actions during the fracas, with Taylor, Karl, Jones and Williamson receiving the largest punishments ($300 each). Erving and Kenon were not fined, while Gervin and Paultz were among the 10 players who were fined $100 each for leaving the bench area.

Erving scored a game-high 32 points and contributed 10 rebounds and six assists as New York again triumphed 110-108 to take a 3-2 series lead. The Spurs opened the game with a 12-2 run but Erving scored nine second quarter points to help the Nets catch up by halftime. Gale, who finished with 20 points on 10-16 field goal shooting, used a screen to elude Al Skinner's defense and attempted a jumper to tie the score with just four seconds left but Erving swatted Gale's shot away. "I don't know how high I got up but it was high enough," Erving said after the game. "I hit the ball with a full hand, just smashed it back to the floor. It felt good." Gale shook his head as he described the play to reporters: "I thought I had it. It looked good all the way. It seemed like it had eyes...and then he came out of nowhere."

The Spurs tied the series at 3-3 with a 106-105 win despite Erving's game-high 41 points and 12 rebounds; Erving poured in 31 second half points, spearheading a Nets' rally that came up just short. With the Spurs clinging to a 102-101 lead, Erving missed two free throws at the 1:46 mark of the fourth quarter but soon after that he buried a jumper to put the Nets up 103-102. Erving played in 59 "Final Four" games during his professional career and he averaged 24.1 ppg in those contests but that turned out to be his only 40 point game in that round of the playoffs (he finished with seven 40 point playoff games overall, including three in the ABA Finals and one in the NBA Finals).

Gervin led the Spurs with 37 points in game six and the three former Nets again played key roles for the Spurs: Gale scored 20 points, Paultz scored 19 points and Kenon also scored 19 points, including the two game-winning free throws with three seconds left.

Jones did not dress for the game or even show up at the arena; Loughery later said that Jones did not play due to "mental distress." Jones had been a central figure in the game four brawl in San Antonio and there were also rumors that San Antonio authorities were after him in connection with unspecified financial problems dating back to when Jones played for the Spurs, so Jones and/or Loughery decided that it would be best if Jones laid low.

Jones made a triumphant return to action in New York as the Nets captured game seven, 121-114. Gervin scored a game-high 31 points in defeat. Erving led the Nets with 28 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists, while Jones added 25 points and 11 rebounds. Taylor scored nine points in a stretch lasting less than three minutes to ignite a pivotal New York run. "This was the most important game in the history of the franchise," an exultant Loughery declared. "We had to win and we had to play well." A standing room only crowd of 15,964 cheered the Nets on and another 1000 people were turned away, a remarkable show of support for a team that had previously struggled to attract fans even after winning the 1974 championship.

The Nets faced a big challenge against Denver and Erving elevated his performance literally and figuratively, assaulting the hoop from all angles as he opened the Finals by scoring a game-high 45 points on 17-25 field goal shooting and 11-11 free throw shooting. He also had 12 rebounds and four assists. Erving nailed the game-winning jumper from the baseline as time expired in New York's 120-118 win, completing a closing flourish during which he scored 18 of the Nets' final 22 points, with eight of those points coming on dunks. The 6-9, long-armed Bobby Jones guarded Erving for most of the game--including that final play--and he later said, "It's tough to defend him, knowing he's always going to the hoop and never knowing how." Thompson led the Nuggets with 30 points; seven Denver players reached double figures in scoring, including rookie center Marvin Webster, who tallied 14 points and a game-high 18 rebounds. An ABA record crowd of 19,034 attended the game at Denver's McNichols Arena.

The Nuggets won game two 127-121 but Erving was even more spectacular: he scored 48 points on 17-26 field goal shooting and 12-16 free throw shooting and he narrowly missed posting a triple double, finishing with 14 rebounds and eight assists. He scored 25 points in the fourth quarter, breaking Joe Fulks' 29 year old Finals record for points in one quarter (21; Isiah Thomas tied Erving's mark during the 1988 NBA Finals) and setting a pro basketball record for points in one quarter of a playoff game (Sleepy Floyd established a new standard in 1987 with a 29 point quarter versus the Lakers). Erving's 37 second half points eclipsed Elgin Baylor's 1962 record for points in one half of a playoff game (33, set in the Finals versus the Celtics; Erving still holds the Finals record, but Floyd holds the playoff record with 39 points). Nets not named Erving shot 29-78 (.372) from the field, spoiling Erving's record-setting effort. Simpson led the Nuggets with 25 points, while Thompson, Jones and Issel scored 24 points each. Denver set a new ABA attendance record, 19,107.

Erving had 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots in New York's 117-111 game three win. He scored eight points and blocked two shots in the final two minutes; in the game's last 31 seconds, Erving scored on a reverse layup, made two free throws and embarked on a coast to coast drive punctuated with a reverse dunk. Erving shot 11-23 from the field and 9-11 from the free throw line. "I feel like I can do just about anything I want to do," Erving said. Erving received more help from his teammates than he had in game two: Williamson scored 28 points and Rich Jones added 22 points and 10 rebounds. Thompson scored a game-high 32 points, while Issel had 25 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.

Bobby Jones said that Erving "came out of nowhere" to get those late game blocked shots, prompting the New York Times' Dave Anderson to write, "That's not surprising. Doctor J performs in nowhere. He is the best basketball player in captivity, perhaps in history. But the Nets are competing for the American Basketball Association championship and, sadly, that's nowhere. Only 12,243 customers attended Thursday night's game...the NBA can't call itself the best basketball league until it features the best basketball player...The NBA without Dr. J is like boxing without Muhammad Ali, football without O.J. Simpson, baseball without Tom Seaver. The shame is that some people, possibly many people, don't appreciate Doctor J's skills because ABA games are not shown on national television. Out of sight, out of mind. It's as if Nureyev was dancing on a street corner, as if Picasso displayed his paintings in a park...Over his ABA career, the six foot six inch forward has averaged 30.8 points in 45 playoff games. The highest scoring averages in NBA playoff history are 29.7 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 57 games and 29.1 by Jerry West in 153 games."

Erving and the ABA belatedly received some national media coverage as Howard Cosell and ABC's Wide World of Sports showed up for game four to document Erving's sensational play--and Erving did not disappoint, leading both teams with 34 points, 15 rebounds and six assists as New York took a 3-1 series lead with a 121-112 win. Erving shot 11-20 from the field and 12-15 from the free throw line and he provided plenty of footage for ABC, delivering an assortment of dunks and spectacular moves. The Nuggets took an 11 point first quarter lead but Erving scored 10 straight third quarter points to put the Nets ahead for good. Williamson (24 points) and Taylor (23 points) provided solid support for Erving. Issel led the Nuggets with 26 points and tied Erving for game-high rebounding honors.

Denver won game five 118-110 even though Erving again led both teams in scoring (37 points), rebounds (15) and assists (five, tied with Denver's Chuck Williams for game-high honors); Erving's brilliance could not quite overcome Denver's balance: six Nuggets scored in double figures, led by Issel and Simpson (21 points each). Williamson scored 24 points but Taylor only scored 13 points before being ejected for punching Denver guard Monte Towe. Denver took an early 11 point lead, the Nets countered with a huge run that put them up 49-33 in the second quarter but the Nuggets stormed back to go ahead 89-73 by the end of the third quarter. Denver dominated the boards 51-32 as no Net other than Erving grabbed more than four rebounds.

The Nuggets built an 80-58 lead midway through the third quarter of game six and seemed poised to send the series back to Denver for a seventh game but the Nets turned the game around with a furious full court press; Erving got all five of his steals in the final 17 minutes as the Nets outscored the Nuggets 54-26 down the stretch to win 112-106 and claim the ABA's final championship. Erving led the Nets in scoring (31 points), rebounds (19) and assists (five) but he received support from Williamson (28 points, including 24 in the second half) and Taylor (24 points). Erving scored 18 third quarter points to start the Nets' rally and Williamson scored 16 fourth quarter points to complete it as Erving dominated the boards and spearheaded a suffocating defense that gave up just four field field goals in the final 12 minutes; Loughery realized early in the 1973-74 season that he could not use that pressing defense throughout an 84 game season but it proved to be a devastating weapon just when the Nets needed it the most. Thompson scored a game-high 42 points, finishing the series with a 28.2 ppg average. Issel had 30 points and 20 rebounds. Denver's Coach Larry Brown said, "You can't tell me there's a more courageous club than the Nets. You can't tell me there's a greater player than Julius Erving."

"We knew this might be the final championship in this league and we wanted it," Erving said. He was the easy choice for Playoff MVP honors after setting ABA Finals records for points (226) and scoring average (37.7 ppg, the fourth highest pro basketball Finals average at that time and still sixth on the all-time list); Michael Jordan holds the all-time Finals scoring record (41.0 ppg in six games in 1993), followed by Rick Barry (40.8 ppg in six games in 1967), Elgin Baylor (40.6 ppg in seven games in 1962), Shaquille O'Neal (38.0 ppg in six games in 2000) and Jerry West (37.9 ppg in seven games in 1969). Erving shot 79-134 from the field (.590) and 66-84 from the free throw line (.786).

Erving's brilliance during the 1975-76 regular season and the 1976 playoffs inspired awe among players, coaches and media members. Bobby Jones said, "He destroys the adage that I’ve always been taught--that one man can't do it alone. To be honest, I enjoy watching him. I know he's doing things I'll never see again." In Pluto's Loose Balls (p. 320), former Nets' broadcaster John Sterling remembered that during the 1975-76 season Loughery said to Erving in a huddle, "I called that timeout because I wanted to tell you that you've just played the greatest three minute stretch of basketball I have ever seen." Perhaps the most eloquent tribute came from Pete Axthelm in the May 21, 1976 issue of Newsweek: "No one has ever controlled and conquered the air above pro basketball like Julius Erving, the incomparable Dr. J of the New York Nets. The Doctor not only leaps higher and stays aloft longer than most players dream possible, but he uses his air time to transform his sport into graceful ballet, breathtaking drama or science fiction fantasy--depending upon his mood of the moment and the needs of his team. At 26, Erving has established himself as the most exciting offensive player in basketball. And last week as he led the Nets to their second American Basketball Association title in three years, the Doctor persuaded many people that he may be the greatest player of all time."

In Sports Illustrated's May 4, 1987 Julius Erving tribute issue, John Papanek wrote:

It has been said that unless one saw him play in the ABA, one never saw the real Dr. J. And it's true. In May 1976, he was still a curiosity to most of America, just like the ABA's red-white-and-blue circus ball and the three-point field goal. That spring, nobody outside of New York or Denver (except subscribers to a fledgling cable-TV service called Home Box Office) saw, during one ABA championship series, the greatest individual performance by a basketball player at any level anywhere--ABA, NBA, BAA or UCLA.

What the Doctor did for the New York Nets against the Denver Nuggets in that playoff series was score 226 points, grab 85 rebounds and block 13 shots. But the numbers don't tell the story. You had to see the man and hear the music.

...Some combination of rocket-powered takeoffs, airborne course corrections, swooping finger-rolls and one-handed rebounds always showed up in an Erving game. Over these six championship games, though, something mind-boggling seemed to occur about every other minute.

Erving's greatness has stood the test of time; the August 1998 issue of Basketball News contained some quotes from Loughery about Julius Erving and Michael Jordan (Loughery is the only person who coached both players). Loughery said, "There are a lot of similarities between the Doctor and Michael. I think the ability to handle the ball probably puts Michael a tad ahead of the Doctor." However, Loughery added, "In the last year of the ABA, Dr. J. probably played as good a season as anyone who ever played...The Doc put on some show every day." Loughery's final verdict: "As it turned out, Michael did become the greatest ever. But when you talk about greatness, it was pretty close between Doc and Michael. You can never leave out Bill Russell, either, because he won 11 championships with the Celtics."

In the April 1997 Slam, Julius Erving offered his take on the various comparisons that are made about him and other great players:

"I think basketball is just a game. Let me put it this way: To me, Marvin Gaye is the greatest singer ever. You know what I mean? You listen to Luther and all of these other great singers, but when Marvin comes on, I gotta stop! He moves me. I gotta stop and say, 'That's the man.' Now someone may come along and lay 10 or 20 tracks and get the job done. You know, one of the ages, a classic. But it's not Marvin, who is the standard for me.

I think sports is the same thing. This is not going to determine whether or not there's going to be peace and happiness in the world (Erving laughs); it's not about life or death. It's about choices and tastes. Yes I do believe that we need to support the tradition and recognize what others have done, but we don't need to play one off against the other. Just because Michael comes along doesn't change anything.

What I'm talking about is how these players made you feel when you see them play? Elgin, Connie, myself, Michael. To know that you are watching something special happen that's artistic. Something that is profound. Something that is going to make you sit back and say, 'I'm moved.' Why recognize a guy at the expense of another guy? Enjoy it, because there's only a handful of people who are going to move you."

Sources: Various ABA Media Guides, John Grasso's ABA game by game logs, http://webuns.chez-alice.fr/home.htm, personal correspondence with Matthew Shuh, selected archival syndicated AP and UPI newspaper game recaps, The Legend of Dr. J by Marty Bell, Loose Balls by Terry Pluto, personal correspondence with Chris Nugent.

Previous article in this series: Julius Erving's Playoff Career, Part I: Yes, Virginia, There is a Man Who Can Fly

Highlight Video

It is a myth that Julius Erving did not develop a good midrange jump shot until he entered the NBA. Check out this footage from game one of the 1974 New York-Kentucky series. You can tell both by watching the video and by listening to the commentators that the jumpers Erving hits are part of his normal repertoire, not some aberration (the first part of the video features a variety of Erving highlights plus an early interview with Erving but the latter part of the video shows Erving in action versus Kentucky):

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM



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