If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is in Los Angeles and George McGinnis is in Philadelphia and Dan Issel is in Denver and Charlie Scott is in Boston; if Dave Bing is in Washington and Swen Nater is in New York and Archie Clark is in Detroit and Mack Calvin is in Virginia; if Marvin Webster is in the hospital and Mendy Rudolph is behind a TV microphone and Bill Walton weighs 400 pounds and the Nets and the Nuggets are trying to get out of the ABA; if Chet Walker is insisting on retirement and Darryl Dawkins is considering puberty and the Jazz is wondering how to lure Alexander Belov, its tenth-round draft pick, out of Russia, and Wilt Chamberlain is playing volleyball, just answer these two questions in this season of your raging discontent, Mr. Confuso Professional Basketball: Why isn't Kansas City in Omaha anymore and where oh where is the immortal Levern (Jelly) Tart?
After the most frenetic off-season since the unveiling of the red, white and blue peach basket, pro hoops begin this week with not one but two new commissioners, not two but 20 important personnel changes, not 20 but nearly 100 times as many headaches, potential disasters and threatened lawsuits. One look out the windows of his penthouse suite, or wherever it is an instant czar gazes for inspiration, and the ABA's Dave DeBusschere may fondly recall the days when he was a White Sox pitcher and a Piston player-coach at almost the same time, while the NBA's Larry O'Brien may wish he were back being burglarized by G. Gordon Liddy.
After adjudicating the McGinnis matter by putting Mike Burke and the Knicks in their place and awarding Gorgeous George to his rightful owners, the 76ers, O'Brien now finds himself facing a possible player strike, an improbable merger and the curious workings of the college draft, the reserve clause and the option clause. (O'Brien thought the New Hampshire primary was tough?) DeBusschere has the Claws to worry about—not a Japanese sci-fi monster but the Baltimore Claws, a new franchise that teetered through the preseason in such desperate financial straits and administrative disarray that not even another top-40 hit by Francis Scott Key could save it. In addition, the ABA commish was about to announce a network TV contract when the Nets and Nuggets hit him with the news that they were applying to join the rival league. Carl Scheer, president and general manager of the Denver team, said, "It is time to get our heads out of the sand." DeBusschere must have felt like throwing Scheer into quicksand when the television discussions came to a screeching halt.
Possessed of two of the most exciting players in the game in Julius Erving and rookie David Thompson, the Nets and Nuggets would be well advised to start their own league, fill it up with the Jones boys (there must be at least 50 of them in pro ball now—Caldwell of San Diego, Dwight of Atlanta, Jimmy of Washington, etc.) and call it the OBA, for Outtasight Basketball Association.
Though ABA arguments on the comparative merits of McGinnis and Erving usually end in agreement that over a hard series McGinnis' strength combined with Erving's tarnished knees give the former the edge, McGinnis is not likely to terrify the NBA the way he did the younger league. But for a single game Dr. J is the best and a subject of absolute awe among his toughest critics, the players. The other day even Portland's normally serene Walton was overheard heatedly describing to his former college pal, Jamaal (Silk) Wilkes of Golden State, how "The Doctor" had wowed the populace in an August charity game. Walton spoke with atypical excitement and used hand swoops. Wilkes was wide-eyed.
No less dazzled seemed the country boy Thompson when he got a load of his new home in Denver. "It's a large city. It's a small town. It's young. It's pretty. The people are friendly. It's like Raleigh," said the North Carolina State star. If so much wholesomeness sounds suspiciously like the lyrics from a Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. song, at least Thompson has not threatened to change his name to Denver.
Thompson could have had Atlanta or Manhattan or Hollywood and Vine, or anywhere else in the NBA. Instead, he hopped in a van with 5'7" teammate Monte Towe and chugged off to the Rockies.
Thompson missed the first 12 shots he took in Denver's exhibition opener, but he won't miss many more. Marvin Webster, the Nuggets other rookie "prize," won't miss any at all. After breaking his foot, the Human Eraser showed up in camp resembling a human balloon, promptly got sick and happened to mention to team officials that he had a liver ailment and, by the way, hadn't completely recovered from his hepatitis of a year ago. The Nuggets, who had signed Webster for nearly $2 million, must have contemplated erasing the Eraser before calming down and coming up with enough money to pay Kentucky's John Y. (Why) Brown for Issel's defaulted contract with Baltimore.
Everybody tends to ridicule the ABA for its lack of good centers, but a check of last year's NBA rosters shows such pivotmen as Jim Fox at Seattle, Leroy Ellis at Philadelphia, Lloyd Neal at Portland, John Gianelli at New York and Otto (Say No) Moore at New Orleans. Cleveland's Jim Chones is considered a rising star in the NBA, but he was an ABA castoff. If Clifford Ray had led his team to the ABA championship, there would have been guffaws: nobody laughed when Ray helped Golden State to the NBA title.
As another example of increasing parity (or dilution of talent) there are always America's media darlings, the wonderful New York Knicks, who at times last year fielded a lineup of Tom Riker, Mel Davis, Harthorne Wingo, Jim Barnett and Jesse Dark.
One center nobody puts down went from Milwaukee to Singapore to Pakistan to Malaysia before winding up in Los Angeles. Not long after arrival, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, "L.A.'s changed. I've changed." But the most dominating figure in the game has not changed enough to stop the beautiful people in Bel Air from guaranteeing each other another Laker dynasty. Maybe even Doris Day will come out to the Forum once more.
Abdul-Jabbar has never lost a championship while playing for a Los Angeles team (he was 3-0 at UCLA), and while the current Lakers have not been known to play defense during their relentless pursuit of statistics and salaries, Kareem should be keen again after all those bitter winters matching wits with the thick snows and the thicker playbooks in Milwaukee.
"We'll put defensive pressure on people. We'll smother teams," says Abdul-Jabbar. First, Coach Bill Sharman must get his men's minds off their potentially incredible scoring averages. To these ends, when Guard Gail Goodrich held out all through the preseason, the joke was that the Lakers were offering him a no-cut, no-shoot contract. Cazzie Russell, another noted tommy-gunner who must relish the presence of Abdul-Jabbar, reveals priorities when he says, "All the older guys talk about the legs going first. Me? If my right arm goes, I'm through."
Most refreshing for the pro game is the possibility that teams will follow the lead of the two defending champions, the Warriors and the Colonels. Somewhere along the line their coaches, Al Attles of Golden State and Hubie Brown of Kentucky, recognized that "super teams," or a single man who can control a division race by himself, are things of the past.
Attles and Brown—two former underachieves off the mean streets of Jersey, the one a black battler from North Carolina A&T, the other a white whippet who wore a crewcut at Niagara—used a "team" to win. Not five men—not even eight—but 10 or 11 individuals substituting, platooning, helping, filling a role, cheering each other, contributing to a championship. Their victories—especially that of Golden State, which had only the remarkable Rick Barry among players Sonny Hill had never heard of—confirmed that excellent purses, at least the quality of old silk, can now be made from, say, nylon. Sows' ears still won't do. Beyond that, a sport finally had two championship leaders who refused to take themselves seriously. In the frenzy of a close late-season contest with the Nets, the effervescent Brown leaned over the press table and vigorously kissed a woman reporter. "Hell of a game, isn't it?" he said. And Attles must have been the first winning coach in history to be kicked out of the last game of a 4-0 championship sweep, thus having to watch the crowning achievement of his professional life on TV in the locker room.
But how much do coaches know anyway? When the CBS-TV microphones picked up the conversation in the Washington Bullets' sideline huddle during that final NBA series, the cat was out of the bag for all men who make a living at the glamorous art of Xs and Os. Hardly anyone can forget the Bullets' coach, K.C. Jones, momentarily mute while Assistant Bernie Bickerstaff furiously scribbled patterns and diagrammed plays as one time-out drew to a close. When the Bullets broke from the huddle, the coaches screamed, "O.K. O.K. What we got? What we got?" and Mike Riordan, dripping with sarcasm, said, "We got 24 seconds to shoot."
Pro basketball confusing? You got to love it.