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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's First Pro Coach, Passed Away

Al Bianchi, Julius Erving's first pro coach with the ABA's Virginia Squires, died of natural causes on Monday at the age of 87. Bianchi scored 5550 points during a 10 year NBA playing career, averaging 8.1 ppg with a career-high 10.3 ppg average in 1961-62. He was Wilt Chamberlain's teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers for a little over a year, and Bianchi retired just one season before Chamberlain led the 76ers to the 1967 NBA title.

Bianchi won 283 games as a head coach in the ABA and the NBA. He also served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns from 1976-87 and again from 2001-02. Bianchi won the 1971 ABA Coach of the Year award. He was the General Manager of the New York Knicks from 1987-91, during which time he made two key moves that contribute to the team's resurgence in the 1990s: he traded Bill Cartwright for Charles Oakley, and he signed future All-Star guard John Starks. The Cartwright trade also yielded a draft pick that Bianchi used to select Rod Strickland.

I interviewed Bianchi during All-Star Weekend in Phoenix in 2009. Our conversation was not scheduled in advance; I recognized him across the room at the Legends Brunch, approached him and he very graciously spoke with me about his time coaching Julius Erving in the ABA. Here is an excerpt:

Friedman: "Describe the way that Julius Erving played in the ABA that was even above the level of greatness that we saw in the NBA."

Bianchi: "When he went to the NBA, one of the knocks that Red Auerbach and some of the people said was that he was (just) OK--and it was a natural tendency for the NBA to downplay the ABA players a little bit. They said that he could not shoot from the outside."

Friedman: "He developed the outside shot later, though, right?"

Bianchi: "What he did was, he scored. I don't know if you can say that he was not a good outside shooter, but he scored. He was a guy who could put points on the board. His outside shot was more than adequate and I used the phrase that we never had so many players (on the bench) pay attention to the game until I got Julius that year that he came in as a rookie. Over a long period of time, when you have players sitting on the bench, they might be wandering around (and not closely watching the game). When we got Julius, every game was a new highlight film. He did something different. He would come underneath and dunk and he had those enormous hands and everybody was paying attention to the game."

Friedman: "I talked to Rod Thorn and Bobby Jones about Julius as a teammate. You had Julius when he was really young, just 21 years old. Talk about the way that he interacted with his teammates and the leadership style that he had even as a young guy coming into the league."

Bianchi: "One of the great things about Julius is that even though he came in as a young man he was very, very mature. He knew the ways of the game and from the first day the players accepted him. It was like he had been there for five years. He just had that kind of personality. They respected--they could see that this guy was on a different level and also he was one of them. He had that maturity."

I am glad that I had that chance encounter with my basketball hero's first pro coach, who I found to be an engaging and pleasant interview subject. Rest in peace, Al Bianchi.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 PM



At Friday, November 01, 2019 10:35:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nice piece. I think that casual sports fans (an oxymoron actually) tend to downplay how important getting on with the guys is. Not necessarily getting on well, but getting on at least well enough to command teammates' respect. Two recent great players that come to mind that fail in that regard are Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, now teammates.

Durant's tendency to whine and how he took the easy route to the Warriors indicate, to me, a lack of mettle. I saw in the news lately that Kyrie's mood swings have been problematic to his team, and before Brooklyn too. Bianchi's talking point that Erving, at 21, commanded the respect normally due a seasoned veteran speaks volumes. I'd argue that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the best midsize players of their respective generations because they commanded respect, from the get-go of their careers, much like Erving did. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, kind of sandwiched between Erving and Jordan, were pantheon-level great leaders too.

Kawhi Leonard is the only player today that commands respect at that level, i.e. that has the iron championship mettle that Erving, Magic, Bird, Jordan, and Bryant had. Lebron's supreme talent has made up for his leadership deficiencies.

At Friday, November 01, 2019 12:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you.

I agree with you about Durant.

There have been conflicting reports about Irving, so I am not sure what to make of that situation yet.

I agree that Jordan and Bryant commanded respect early in their careers, albeit with different personal styles that Erving's.

You are correct that LeBron's talent has to some extent compensated for his leadership deficiencies, but I would argue that if LeBron were a better leader then he may have won more titles, or at least advanced further in the playoffs (I am thinking of 2010 and 2011 specifically, but there are other examples as well).

At Friday, November 01, 2019 1:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To your point, if Lebron had the toughness and alpha-leadership of an Erving or any of the aforementioned others, he'd realistically be going after Bill Russell's record of 11 rings. With his awesome talent, three rings rates underachievement for sure.


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