The New York Nets have a doomsday weapon called the Dr. Dunk. Their coach chews gum and cheers at the same time and looks kind of cute. The roster is loaded with players who grab headlines as readily as rebounds. Through judicious management, aggressive leadership and a lot of money, the Nets have assembled an exciting team in the last couple of years, with plenty of fizz, pizzazz and a serving of razzmatazz. Watching it is like watching your first magic show. You get the feeling something is about to happen, but you never know what.
The Nets lead the league in enchantment and in the exuberance that is common to the young and gifted. And, like many kids, when they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are horrid. Where they are bad is usually on the road.
Last week, for example, they dropped three away games, causing Coach Kevin Loughery to swallow his chaw of Doublemint. At home, the Nets have lost only four games so far this season, which is why they have been in or around first place in the ABA's Eastern Division.
This was supposed to be the week these defending champions all but cinched the division title, allowing them to relax for a month of reading stock reports and endorsing hair transplants while awaiting the playoffs. Instead, New York wound up folded by Utah, spindled by Denver and finally mutilated by Kentucky. They began the week 2½ games ahead of the Kentucky Colonels and wound up dead even with them. "It's been a negative week," said Julius Erving in Louisville Saturday night.
Part of the problem was that Center Billy Paultz's back went snap, crackle and pop every time he moved. Also, Guard Brian Taylor had some sore knuckles and, though Loughery kept praying, the bench was about as effective as mail-order religion.
The Nets have had nightmares before. They lost nine straight near the beginning of last season before they woke up screaming and moved a young guard by the name of John Williamson into the lineup. That was Loughery's first year and after his teeth stopped chattering he guided the team to the division title and a sweep of the playoffs in which the Nets won 12 of 14 games.
At times last week even Erving seemed sluggish, as if he were wearing too many clothes. He scored only 14 points while Denver plastered New York with a 34-point defeat, then came back on tired knees and had but 15 against Kentucky. Dr. J was Dr. No.
The team centers around Erving. His nickname could be "Doughnut," since he was made to dunk. An Erving dunk is the most exciting play extant, the Doctor soaring high and free and slamming the ball down with a flourish.
Erving leads the club in nearly everything but broken promises and drives sportswriters to despair as they strive to compose a lead paragraph that does not mention his name. But the rest of the players hasten to point out that the team could not win 10 straight games, as it did in late November and December, or take 28 out of 33 during one stretch, if it were a one-man team. In fact, listening to everyone moan about his identity crisis, you almost expect the team trainer to be Sigmund Freud.
"Sometimes I watch Julius do something that I know I'll never see again on a basketball floor," says Brian Taylor. "He's a legend in his own time, but there are a lot of good players on this ball club. Julius happens to be the greatest. Look at the championship teams of the past. Each one has had an identity. That is what we are trying to establish."
The franchise also is striving to establish its name. The Nets are situated in Nassau County, an hour away from Times Square. They are out to woo Knick fans and didn't hurt that effort by hiring Dave DeBusschere as vice-president and general manager. "I know we have a better team than the Knicks," says Forward Larry Kenon. "But you know it's kind of hard fighting tradition."
No matter how many championships his teams win, Kevin Loughery never will be another Red Holzman. Where once pro basketball coaches seemed to be irascible men who smoked cigars, now there is a movement to the child instructor. "Communication" is the password, and people like Denver's Larry Brown, Utah's Tom Nissalke, Kentucky's Hubie Brown and Loughery have the gift. Loughery is two weeks shy of 35, disdains neckties and flaunts his shirt collars. During games he paces the sidelines, crawls around on his knees, wears down his teeth chewing gum and keeps heckling the referees. "I know I'm a pain," he shrugs, flashing an impish grin.
Against Utah on Monday night, Loughery was hit with a costly technical foul at the end of the game. It was the finale to a debacle that saw Larry Kenon miss a dunk shot and Erving turn the ball over twice, three in a series of errors committed in the waning minutes. Loughery was penitent in a heart-to-heart with team Captain Bill Melchionni and Erving the following day. A few weeks ago when he was thrown out a game against Denver, he apologized to the team publicly. That's communication.
Against Utah, both Paultz and Taylor were sidelined with injuries similar to those that shelved them for parts of last season. Taylor is the team's best defensive player. He has hands that could take the wallet out of a gnat's pocket and leads the league in steals. Without Taylor and Paultz the Nets throw up a "no-name" defense. "Defense is the name of the game for us," Taylor says dourly. "Even with our offensive ability, we've been winning on the defensive end."
The Nets traveled to Denver to find that the game was sold out and desperate fans were telephoning the Nuggets' office offering up to $50 for a ticket. The people who could not get in missed a good show. The Nuggets went through New York like a virus. In the third quarter, Denver scored 13 field goals and nine of them were lay-ins. Loughery was so frustrated that he yanked his starters midway in the period and left them on the bench the rest of the way.
Paultz played against Denver until his back tightened but he was in the lineup again on Friday night when the Nets dropped by the Nassau Coliseum for a game with St. Louis. Taylor, who had been hoping to rest and avoid further damage to his jammed fingers, decided he ought to get back in, too, and the result was a 117-110 Nets' victory with Erving scoring 30 points and Kenon and Paultz each getting 20. "We still didn't blow them out," said Taylor afterward. "We have to be concerned."
This is Taylor's third year and he is the team's emerging leader. "Julius sort of leads by his actions," says Taylor. "And Mel is our old, wise owl. I like to think I will be able to lead in the future."
In the Net housecleaning before last season, one of the players kept on was Melchionni. He had played two years in the NBA but in 1968 had refused to report to Phoenix in the expansion draft because he was only making $12,000 a year and the Suns would not pay his moving expenses. He retired, sat out a year, then joined the Nets in 1969. Even though he is only 30, Mel is the sage on a team whose starting lineup averages 24 years. "We're young," says Mel, "and that's why we sometimes have periods of poor play, like a week at a time. We tend to revert back to our playground games. When we learn not to, we'll be great."
Earlier in the week, Loughery had reflected on coaching. "I love to compete," he said. "The thrill of the big games, when everybody's up, when it's on the line, that's the fun. That's what it's all about." And the Kentucky game on Saturday night would be a big one. New York came to Louisville with its lead over the Colonels shrunk to one game. Both teams had helium in their hearts.
New York's defense was resolute enough, but with Erving suffering one of his rare off nights, the team needed offensive help. Unfortunately, it was an evening when everyone's fingertips turned cold. Only Melchionni, with six of eight field goals, could shake that icy feeling and the Colonels won, 95-84. Listening to Loughery, you would have thought differently.
"I really liked the game," he said. "I didn't like the end result, but I liked the way we played defense and hustled."
And so with a month to go, and four more games with Kentucky, the Nets are going to have to work. They meandered at times last year but recovered splendidly. If it happens again, they may look back at last week and say: "Thanks, I needed that."