As if Louisvillians weren't wrought up enough, they discovered recently that Dan Issel of their beloved Colonels had been force bussed over to Baltimore in exchange for over $600,000, and that Travis Grant had been un-force bussed in from San Diego to take his place. Issel, who is white, was a college hero at Kentucky and a five-time All-Star. He had sacrificed much, including scoring and his center position to Artis Gilmore, so that the Colonels could win a championship. Grant, who is black, was a college hero at Kentucky State and averaged 25 points per game on the Coast in the role of "spot" shooter; he let the opponent pick the spot, any spot.
Even without Issel—who wound up in Denver as a result of another deal—the Colonels should be the best in the ABA again. Under the wise tutelage of Hubie Brown, Gilmore finally came into his own last season, scoring 24 points a game and averaging 16 rebounds, as well as continuing to play the best pivot defense in the pros. Tom Owens, whom Kentucky got in the Issel deal, gives the Colonels a valuable backup center who can switch to forward, where defensive whiz Wilbert Jones, playoff surprise Marvin Roberts and the vagabond rookie, Jimmie Baker out of Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Hawaii, already provide impressive depth. The backcourt also is deep in reinforcements that Brown platoons in units. There are Hound McClain, Bird Averitt and even some real people, Louie (Mr. ABA) Dampier, and rookies Allen Murphy and Jimmy Dan Conner.
Kentucky won 22 of its last 25 games in a stretch drive that saw the Colonels nip New York for the regular-season title, then romp through the playoffs. It should be a three-team contest this time because St. Louis has the spirit, singular and plural.
The glorious turncoat, George McGinnis, once said that St. Louis "led the world in crazies." But now Marvin Barnes, Maurice Lucas, Gus Gerard and company will get a Thorn in their side—new Coach Rod, who has a most fertile mind. Barnes, Lucas and Gerard formed an all-rookie front line last season, and their future together is awesome. Bad Marvin is interchangeable at center-forward with Lucas, who is even badder (he buckled Gilmore with a punch in the jaw and gave Julius Erving a black eye). While Lucas, who will be the regular center, has a tendency to foul, Barnes has no glaring weaknesses at all. Gerard merely leaps through ceilings. Veteran Don Adams is around, supposedly, as a steadying influence.
While the big men are babies, the back-court is seasoned and poised. In a major coup, Don Chaney arrives from the Celtics with those long arms and that wondrous intangible, character. He complements floor general and scorer Freddie Lewis perfectly while backup Guard Mike Barr supplies defense.
In New York the dynamic, extraterrestrial Dr. J will be at it again, this time assisted by some new interns. After their playoff collapse the Nets tried to trade off everybody but the janitor in what looked like a panic move. Then they realized that what they needed was rebounding and intermittent rests for Julius Erving's knees. Swen Nater, who led the league in rebounding last season, came from San Antonio in a trade for Larry Kenon. Rich Jones, another strong retriever who can play defense, arrived from Texas a little later. They will enable Erving to forget about the defensive basket and hightail it for his electrifying moves on the break, where he is most dangerous. The Nets are so rich in backcourt that veteran Bill Melchionni might wind up assistant coaching more than playing. Smart and speedy Brian Taylor has become one of the most feared guards in the league, and as long as John Williamson's personality continues to be enigmatic, Al Skinner or rookie George Bucci could slip past him to start.
Dr. J may be even more fabulous and the Nets better than ever, but honors for most improved should go to the Virginia Squires. After last year's fiasco, nonimprovement would mean exile to the Eastern League. Following their 15-victory season, the Squires' center, David (Daze) Vaughn, summed up the futility by getting arrested for appearing on his front lawn in nothing but a T shirt. Coach Al Bianchi got three probable starters from Denver for the rights to David Thompson: 6'10" Center Mike Green, Guard Mack Calvin and Forward Jan van Breda Kolff. While Green and Calvin will miss some early games because of injuries, the estimable cornerman Willie Wise is hale and hearty. Rookie shooter Ticky Burden has beaten out Dave Twardzik in backcourt; now that Calvin has injured his knee, Ticky will have a bigger scoring burden.
The heaviest load in this division, however, would have fallen on the shoulders of Joe Mullaney, who, almost up to opening day, had a job as coach of the Baltimore Claws. Then came the league's decision to close the Claws, who had looked shakier and shakier in the preseason. Even if ownership had come up with enough money to keep Issel and convince DeBusschere that the team could operate for the season, Mullaney and the Claws would have finished somewhere under Chesapeake Bay. At least they won't have to go through that agony. What remains now, apparently (aside from legal tangles), is a dispersal draft of the Claw players, recognized in civilian life as a rummage sale. Among the availables are Dave Robisch, who was Issel's replacement, Chuck Williams, Mel Daniels, Stew Johnson and George Carter.