Certainly there was more to it than just John Roche. There were other New York Nets out there last week, scrambling and jostling and dunking and generally shocking the stuffings out of the Kentucky Colonels, the ABA's answer to the Mongol hordes—or at least to the Los Angeles Lakers. But when it came to hard brass, to downright punk-kid audacity, it was Roche, coolly dribbling, dribbling and brazenly shooting from somewhere out beyond the popcorn stand, who had enough all by himself to stun the Colonels.
His late-model Pete Maravich haircut flopping (dryly, of course) and his pointy, pale Black Irish face pursed in a boyish mirror of his boldness, Roche backed Kentucky into a desperate corner. He led the Nets, whose two top scorers, Rick Barry and Bill Melchionni, were unable to play, to the 100-92 victory that gave New York a 3-1 lead in this playoff series. It was one of those rare sports events in which a team clearly and badly outmanned puts its inferior parts together perfectly and wins on guile, intuition and a special, nourishing sense of desperation.
Those parts that make up the Nets all learned their basketball in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia, where intuition—bred in countless three-on-three playground games—is the essence of the sport. In its third win over Kentucky, New York discarded its offensive patterns, most of which were designed to open shots for Barry. Instead, the crew played a glorious schoolyard game: pick-and-roll, give-and-go, hit the open man and, occasionally, let someone go it all alone, one-on-one.
Roche, the 22-year-old rookie from Manhattan's East 66th Street and the University of South Carolina (often called East 66th Street South), was the focus of it all. Floating like that old soap commercial, he controlled the ball 99 and 44/100% of the time. He drove off picks and hit teammates coming around. He used his deft crossover, between-the-legs and behind-the-back dribbles to penetrate down the lane, where he passed off to other, open Nets or pulled up beyond his 6'3" to fire floaters over the looming inner Kentucky defense of 6'9" Dan Issel and 7'2" Artis Gilmore. Roche scored his pro high of 38 points. And in the end—after the team had used up all its inventiveness merely staying even with the Colonels—he gambled and made the desperate shot that clinched New York's victory. With the 30-second and game clocks blinking away, Roche swished a three-point basket from far out on the left sideline, lifting the 14,896 fans in the Nets' shiny Nassau Coliseum right out of their brand-new, multi-colored seats. It was easily the most lucrative gate ever drawn by an ABA game.
Ironically, Roche's shot was something the Colonels never expected to worry about. The New York series was to have been a laugher for them. Before the season began, the Nets were expected to be contenders in the Eastern Division. But as soon as the action started New York was left muddling around with masters of the inept like the Carolina Cougars and the Pittsburgh Condors. The Nets eventually righted themselves enough to finish third, though a mere four games over .500 and a tidy 24 games behind first-place Kentucky. Then, in the closing week of the season, Melchionni, one of the ABA's four best guards and a 21-point scorer, fractured a hand. It was a bad break for New York, true. But it turned out to be an even worse one for the Colonels because it was Roche who took over Melchionni's playmaking assignment. Meanwhile, Kentucky, which set an ABA record with 68 wins during the season, entered the playoffs completely healthy.
The first two games of the series quickly proved the Colonels were not as robust as they seemed. With Barry at the top of his game as the best shooting and passing forward in the pros—he scored 50 and 35 points—and Roche adding 31 in each game, the Nets swept the first two easily, 122-108 and 105-90.
After one of the defeats a New York sportswriter was nabbed by Louisville police for scuffling with a fan and Colonel Coach Joe Mullaney said, "They got the wrong man. We're the ones who should have been arrested." At least they should have ticketed the Colonels for overtime parking. Kentucky's powerful inside offense, which accounted for 54 points per game from Issel and Gilmore during the regular season, is based on getting the ball to the team's two big men in their favorite low-post positions. To counteract this, New York Coach Lou Carnesecca installed a special sagging defense. Bearlike Forward Tom Washington draped himself on Issel's right shoulder and Center Bill Paultz rested his 240 pounds of what looks suspiciously like baby fat on Gilmore's back. The other Nets—particularly gritty Guard Ollie Taylor, who played with a rubber burn from one of Gilmore's sneakers on one arm, a contusion on the other, a badly swollen thumb and strained tendons in his right foot—sagged in to deflect passes and generally harass the big men. The Colonels played right into Carnesecca's trap by taking few of the outside shots that might have forced the Net defenders out of their sag and also by simply standing around in lyric poses.
On offense, Roche helped break down the Kentucky complex, trapping the defense by simply dribbling back out of trouble spots and often hitting the man left open by the double-teaming. Pro scouts frequently criticized Roche when he was in college because they felt he needed to control the ball too much to be a good professional player. But this year he has adjusted well to playing in the Nets' backcourt even though Melchionni handled the ball most of the time, and in the playoffs his dribbling skills became an important bonus.
In the third game, played at New York, Mullaney shifted the Colonels into a more conventional defense. It was admittedly risky strategy because most of his first-unit players are not strong head-to-head defenders, but Kentucky won 105-99. Substitute Walt Simon hit seven of his first eight outside shots to help draw out the Nets' defense, doubled at guarding Roche well and finished the game with 25 points, all despite the fact that he was a bit stunned by the heady surroundings.
After that, most ABA officials considered New York's first two wins as aberrations. And when Virginia Vice-President Johnny Kerr, whose team had just completed a four-game sweep of the Floridians, arrived on the day of the fourth Colonels-Nets game to arrange playing dates for the Eastern finals, he talked first to Kentucky.
Kerr probably would have purchased plane tickets to Louisville right then, despite the 2-1 New York advantage, had he known that a few miles away in Hempstead Rick Barry was in bed with a strep throat and 103° fever. Barry took another dose of Erythromycin, rolled over, and a player named John Baum, who earlier had been cut by Chicago of the NBA, started in his place. Baum scored 25 points and took seven shots without missing to begin the second half.
Baum's string carried the Nets through the third period and then Roche opened up in the fourth. Taking his shots off Washington's picks and short, crisp passes, he scored 17 points in the last quarter. He put New York ahead for good 93-92, sinking a foul shot with 2:07 remaining to play. And when the Nets regained possession at 1:50 following a wild Kentucky attempt to force the ball into Gilmore, Roche began to wear down the clock. The Colonels, by now back in their trapping defense, attempted to triple-team him with 12 seconds left on the shot timer, and he calmly bounced a pass outside to Paultz. The defenders wheeled and headed off to trap Paultz—who flipped the ball back to Roche. With five seconds on the shot clock, Roche toed the three-point circle and swished a jumper to give New York a 96-92 lead.
"When I first heard Rick couldn't play I thought, 'Well, it's going to be an early summer,' " Roche said. "Then we thought about it a little more seriously and we agreed if we could keep it close maybe something would break for us in the fourth quarter. When I got that ball for the three-pointer I thought about dribbling closer, but I knew it was time for us to make our break. If somebody had told me before the game that it would come down to one shot, I'd have been glad to hear it. We played without two guys who usually score 52 points."
Seven seconds after Roche's last shot, Mike Pratt scored a three-pointer for Kentucky. But in a gutty call of the sort too rarely seen in the critical closing moments of pro games, Referee Norm Drucker nullified the basket. Issel had set an illegal moving screen on Taylor, who was guarding Pratt.
Pratt shot considerably more successfully the next day at Kentucky when he and another sub, Les Hunter, combined for 42 points as the Colonels' won 109-93, despite Barry's return to the Nets' lineup.
New York finished off the upset series with a home-court win Monday night, a suitable ending to a special basketball success story. Still, it was that third victory that remained the most extraordinary. Like the cat who had dared to look at the Queen, the young Nets had dared to look up, and they got a full glimpse of beauty.