Into the land of Easter enchilada hunts, 10-minute tornadoes and the instant pageantry of Dancing Mu√±oz rode the New York Nets and their traveling alumni show. San Antonio's daily scandal sheets were belching fire. The Baseline Bums were in full throat. Even black-hatted Ernest Mu√±oz, a Tex-Mex version of the Establishmentarian sideline hoofer, Dancing Harry, seemed overwhelmed by the variety of his own moves.
What occasioned all this thunder last week was a mere first-round playoff series between the Nets and the San Antonio Spurs. But attrition being what it is these days in the American Basketball Association, it was also a semifinal series. Moreover, it was internecine warfare among new Nets and old Nets and new Spurs and old Spurs. And more than that, if the screaming headlines and frenzied conversation in the local taco parlors were to be believed, the contest had turned from basketball into a grudge battle between two distinct social classes gone berserk, SPUR BLOOD UP FOR NET KNOCK, roared the San Antonio News. CRAZY MAN, IT'S THE PSYCHO SERIES, wailed the San Antonio Light.
The playoffs had started ordinarily enough in New York when Julius Erving, the incomparable Dr. J, scored his team's first seven points and 31 all told as the Nets whipped the Spurs 116-101. New York Coach Kevin Loughery said it might have been his team's best game all season, that the Nets could have "beaten the world" this night.
Late in the third quarter of that first contest, San Antonio's star guard, James Silas, was bumped in the air by the Nets' Brian Taylor, and he fell to the floor, chipping a bone in his right ankle. This meant that the Spurs would be without their leader and his 24 points a game for the rest of the series, which meant that the Spurs would become all excited and hyped and play over their heads, which meant that the Nets would laugh a lot and achieve the anticipated degree of overconfidence while being blown off their own court in the next game.
April 25, 1976
This kind of nonsense happens in pro basketball regularly and, sure enough, it happened here.
In truth the Nets are the Doctor and a few good interns in backcourt. No more. While they missed 68 shots, and Coby Dietrick forced Erving away from the offensive boards, the Spurs won Game 2, 105-79. Presto, a reverse runaway.
Before anybody could say, "What's up, Doc?" it was obvious the Nets and Spurs already had accommodated those aficionados of postseason activity who look for such basic playoff baggage as the famous "key injury," the surprising 41-point "turnaround" and, of course, the dreaded "home-court advantage."
In the Nets' case, the latter had crumbled because of the apathy of barely 14,000 people—total—during the two games at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. "We had no excuse for being flat," said Loughery. "But when you see people screaming for you, you get yourself up. Our fans don't react. They start to, then they go back to their painted positions."
As the series moved to Texas, the Spurs knew they would have no such problem with their own supporters. At San Antonio's HemisFair Arena, hard by the Alamo, the cry is "Remember the trades"—those being the off-season deals with the Nets which brought three Spur starters from New York in Larry (Mr. K) Kenon, Billy Paultz and Mike Gale.
Ironically, the limelight was on a fourth man involved in the New York-San Antonio negotiations, namely the bearded now-Net forward, Rich Jones.
The first two games had been bruising encounters, but really not much different from most playoff competition. Nevertheless, Spur Coach Bob Bass vehemently complained that his club was taking unnecessary beatings. Said Bass, "The bad blood is boiling."
San Antonio GM John Begzos singled out the 6'8" Jones, calling him a "cheap-shot artist. Jones did that stuff with our club for two years, and he hasn't stopped. He low-bridged Gale in New York. He's good at elbowing little guys from behind. If he keeps it up, he's going to take somebody out of a game or somebody is going to take him out."
The San Antonio press, which leans toward sex crimes, violence and the assorted disgusting sicknesses in our everyday society for front-page fare—FAMILY STALKS RAPIST was one charming tale told last week—made great hay out of all this.
Meanwhile, Loughery was incensed that a general manager would use such incendiary language. Jones said he understood. "Begzos doesn't have it up here," the player said, pointing to his temple. "My game is intimidation and being aggressive. If I want to hurt someone, I'll knock him upside the head with a forearm, not just set a tough pick. Begzos is shooting his mouth off to sell tickets."
What concerned the Nets more than words was the change Silas' injury effected on the San Antonio lineup. With much of the team's backcourt offense gone, Bass still was able to move the versatile 6'7" George (Ice Man) Gervin to guard, insert Dietrick at forward and be helped rather than hurt by the move. Dietrick's good defense on Erving enabled the Spurs' other cornerman, Kenon, to concentrate on offense, where he tends to be explosive when in the mood.
The San Antonio strategy of going to Kenon and Paultz down low against the weak New York middle worked so well in the second game that the two ex-Nets combined for 50 points and 28 rebounds while Gale, the other New York expatriate, had a team-record 13 assists. "The Nets are just another team," said Mr. K. "I don't get fire in my eyes or anything."
Kenon's revelation could have fooled the 10,000-plus Texans who filled the HemisFair for Game 3 and watched him put on a second-half number that rendered the constant scuffles and infighting meaningless.
The Nets jumped off fast, making 12 of their first 19 shots to go ahead by 10 points in the first quarter. Double-teaming inside, blunting Kenon and Paultz, the New Yorkers challenged Gale to hit from afar while Taylor kept Gervin away from his favorite spots. At the half Kenon had only four points and San Antonio was behind 53-48.
But after intermission the Nets went into that characteristic coma of theirs featuring team members alternately running around or standing around waiting for the Doctor to do something impossible. All the Nets got from their first 13 trips down the floor in the second half was one foul shot. Meanwhile, here came Kenon.
"It was time I had an outasight game," he was to say later. Kenon scored from deep in the corner to give San Antonio the lead at 54-53. He drove the baseline for a finger roll three-point play to give the Spurs the lead again at 64-62. He hit from 15 feet at the end of the quarter to put San Antonio ahead 75-73, this time for good.
The Spurs increased their margin to five points early in the fourth quarter before Kenon put in a turnaround jump shot from way out and converted the free throw after being fouled. Then he made a steal in the New York lane and, sweeping past three men, raced downcourt for a fast-break jammer. The San Antonio lead was 85-75, and when Gale stole the in-bounds pass for another layup, Dancing Mu√±oz and the Baseline Bums started waving the Texas state flag and spilling their Pearl over everybody.
The Spurs' final 111-103 victory included Kenon's 24 second-half points and Gale's career-high 22. But Paultz refused to be overly optimistic. "We're in good shape," he said, "unless the Doctor starts to go crazy. That can happen anytime."
Despite his 89 points in three games, Erving acknowledged that he was not making the big play when the Nets needed it. "I don't think any 40- or 50-pointer from me is going to save us," he said. "Our offense is incompetent. We can't afford the luxury of making bad judgments anymore."
In between tornado warnings the Nets held tough, serious workouts in advance of Sunday's fourth game. Taylor insisted there were no intimations of last spring, when New York won the opening game of a first-round series against St. Louis, then lost four straight. "That time there was bickering and unhappiness after three games," he said. "Now I sense a positive feeling. We have a chance to see what kind of men we are."
The San Antonio newspapers continued to demonstrate what kind of journals they were by publishing captions under pictures of Loughery and Erving, describing them, respectively, as "Mr. Obnoxious..." and "...beaten like a borrowed mule." Upon hearing the latter designation, Dr. J's eyes lit up just a bit. "We'll see," he said.
What everybody saw in Game 4, staged at the HemisFair, included the inevitable outburst of fury and fists; a nifty end; a resurrection appearance by the Nets' John Williamson; and, finally, the basic all-purpose, win-a-game, save-a-series dramatic sky dunk by Erving.
After Taylor and Spur reserve Guard George Karl had a punch up, beckoning both benches to join in a five-minute brawl; after San Antonio had seemed in a commanding position with eight-point leads all afternoon; after the husky Williamson had returned from a sore ankle, which had sidelined him for seven games, to keep New York in contention with 25 points in the second and third quarters (31 total); and after the Spurs had blown a seven-point lead with 2:49 to play, the game came down to this: Gervin standing at the New York baseline in possession of a defensive rebound with the score 108-107 San Antonio and 20 seconds left; Taylor leaping up from behind him to grab the ball and fling it to Dr. J; amid confusion, nine fellows waiting for a whistle to blow; and ultimately, the Doctor taking one power dribble and flying to the hoop for his quintessential slam.
The San Antonio bench complained bitterly that Taylor was both out of bounds and guilty of a foul on his steal. Instead, Erving was awarded a free throw, on a foul by Dietrick. He converted it for his 35th point and a 110-108 lead. When the Spurs could not get a decent shot off in the last 14 seconds, the series was tied and on the way back to New York.
"That's a long afternoon," said Erving later. "I didn't know the dunk was through until my hands were on the rim. It felt like a shot of life."
It wasn't a shot a borrowed mule makes every Sunday.