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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Forgotten History of the "Foul Game" Between the Virginia Squires and Denver Rockets

Julius Erving was arguably at the peak of his athletic powers during his two seasons as a Virginia Squire. From 1971-73, Erving scored at least 40 points in a game 20 times (including two playoff games), highlighted by an ABA single game playoff record 53 points as a rookie in 1972 (tying the mark set by Roger Brown), and a 58 point outburst in 1973 against the New York Nets, who he would later lead to two ABA titles in three seasons. Erving shot 18-31 from the field and 22-22 from the free throw line in his 58 point game while also grabbing 15 rebounds and dishing for six assists.

Al Bianchi was Erving's first pro coach, and Bianchi told me how much the young Erving impressed him: "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."

In 1972-73, Erving averaged a career-high 31.9 ppg while winning the first of his three scoring titles. Led by Erving, the Squires averaged 114.1 ppg, ranking fourth among the 10 ABA teams while also surpassing the top scoring team in the NBA that season (Houston, 112.8 ppg).

On October 26, 1972, the Squires routed the Denver Rockets, 155-111. At the instruction of Denver coach Alex Hannum, the Rockets spent the final 17 minutes of the game committing fouls on almost every play. After the game, Hannum said, "I wanted to see what would happen if we played extreme pressure defense like some other clubs in the league. There's been a trend on the part of some teams to play an aggressive defense, pressing almost every time down the floor. I told our players to foul every time they were going to give up a layup, but I didn't want intentional fouls." 

Erving scored a game-high 22 points to pace eight Virginia players who reached double figures in scoring. Erving also had 11 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals in just 33 minutes; as both the fouling rate and the Squires' lead increased, Bianchi removed Erving from the game.

Hannum added that he did this "experiment" to highlight a "bad trend": Teams "establish their aggressiveness early. They put their hands on you, then they push and pretty soon they are knocking you down. Time and time again that's the team that gets ahead. The trend is toward a pressing, slashing type of game, and I think that's bad."

Hannum explained, "I wanted to see how far you could go without hurting your team's chances. I do not plan to use these tactics again." Denver committed 56 fouls, shattering the ABA record of 46. Seven Rockets fouled out, surpassing the previous ABA record by two. The Rockets only dressed 10 players for the game, so after the sixth player fouled out the Rockets only had four eligible players, and by the end of the game they were down to three eligible players. Referees Joe Gushue and Jess Kersey determined that the Rockets could keep disqualified players Ralph Simpson and Dave Bustion on the court but that if either of those players committed a foul then a technical foul would be assessed against the Rockets; the Rockets finished the game with two team technical fouls, but I have not been able to confirm when those technical fouls were called.

Earlier in the game, Gushue told ABA Press Relations Director Mike Recht that he planned to file a report with the league regarding Hannum's fouling tactics.

The Squires set an ABA record with 92 free throw attempts, and the teams combined to set an ABA record with 86 fouls, surpassing the previous record of 81. The Squires tied an ABA record with 53 fourth quarter points--and they only made four field goals during the final stanza!

If those incredible numbers are unfamiliar to you, the reason is simple: officially, those numbers do not exist!

Less than two weeks after the so-called "foul game," ABA Commissioner Robert Carlson announced, "After a hearing, I have imposed an appropriate sanction upon Hannum and directed that the game be forfeited by Denver to Virginia and all other statistics with respect to that game expunged from the record book."

Among other things, that ruling meant that Erving lost 22 points from his season and career scoring totals. That might not have seemed significant early in the second season of Erving's 16 year pro career, but he later became just the third player to score more than 30,000 career points. If those 22 points had not been wiped out, Erving would have finished his career with 30,048 points instead of 30,026 points--and Erving would have finished the 1972-73 season with 2290 points, exactly matching his rookie total (but in fewer games). In his third season, Erving scored 2299 points. He was a remarkably consistent player, averaging at least 20 ppg in each of his first 14 seasons.

Not counting the forfeit win, the Squires went 4-3 versus the Rockets during the 1972-73 season, including 4-2 when Erving played. Erving averaged 31.7 ppg in those six games, including a pair of 38 point performances.

The "foul game" is just a footnote to Hannum's great coaching career. He led the St. Louis Hawks to the 1958 NBA title and then he guided the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1967 NBA title. Those are the only two teams to win a playoff series against Bill Russell's Boston Celtics during Russell's 13 season career! Hannum's 76ers were the first NBA team to win at least 65 regular season games, finishing with a 68-13 record. Hannum then coached the Oakland Oaks to the 1969 ABA title, becoming the first coach to win both an NBA championship and an ABA championship. Larry Brown is the only other coach to accomplish that feat--and Brown was the starting point guard for the Oaks' championship team, earning the second of three straight ABA All-Star selections while winning the second of his three straight assist titles. The Oaks later became the Virginia Squires.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:07 PM



At Monday, November 21, 2022 12:21:00 AM, Blogger ABA Nuggets Fan said...

Fascinating story about coach Hannum and the Denver Rockets. I grew up in Denver, got to see the ABA Nugs play one home game vs. the Squires, and then listened on the radio as Dr. J ripped the heart out of our team in the playoffs in 1976. Decades later, the 6th game is hard to watch many years later both because of the fouls the weren't called, but also the Denver just couldn't sink shots. My guess was that a Ralph Simpson got traded for his game 6 performance (1 for 9). But who knows. Keep the ABA stories coming. And Thanks!

At Monday, November 21, 2022 12:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

ABA Nuggets Fan:

You're welcome!

ABA history is one of my passions, so I will provide as many ABA stories as I can.

One of my sources is the Newspapers.com archive, where I am finding some great background information about ABA history. BasketballReference.com just lists the "foul game" as a forfeit win for Virginia with no other details, but various newspapers provided the details and quotes that I included in my article.


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