A man in possession of an air-travel card, a six-pack of Visine and absolutely no discernible wits set off on a punishing crusade through the pro basketball playoffs last week. Determined to establish an interplanetary endurance record in the art of observing loose-ball fouls, he was equally intent on breaking the barrier of the 24-hour day. Unslaked by the desultory regular season, he kept muttering to himself, "I be lookin' for some real 'ball now." In six cities, seven days and four different time zones, he seemed to have found it.
MONDAY LANDOVER, MD.
Government sources say Washington Bullets Coach K. C. Jones may be replaced at any moment by the mascot dachshund, Tiny. Because the famous solo artists who make up the Bullets were humiliated in the 1975 finals and failed to win their division this year; because Elvin Hayes, Dave Bing and Phil Chenier have been on personal roller coasters; and because Jones, always a quiet, withdrawn sort, seems to have lost communication with his team, the Bullets must beat the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight or the coach is gone.
Washington is in horrid straits owing to mental errors by Hayes, Bing and even Wes Unseld. They have bestowed on Cleveland two last-second victory gifts and a 3-2 edge. Jones says his rumored demise is "just paper talk," but impeachment talk is in the D.C. air again.
May 9, 1976
Typically, the Bullets rush off to a 17-point lead in the first half. But Cleveland's Austin Carr leaves the bench to score 27 points and the Cavaliers rally to a six-point deficit, 81-75.
Washington's maligned Hayes is everywhere, combining 28 points with 13 rebounds and eight blocked shots. The Cavs' starting guards, Dick Snyder and Jim Cleamons, are nowhere, shooting 19 times and missing 19. Then Cleveland Coach Bill Fitch parks his hot Carr in the garage in order to go with his starters. The Cavs tie at 88, but Fitch's move looks questionable when Cleamons, not Carr, misses two open game-winning jumpers in the last minute.
In the overtime Washington slips ahead. With 1:02 left, Hayes banks in his pet turnaround for the clinching basket and a 102-98 victory. "It's a rhythm thing. Nobody been stopping that shot for eight years," Hayes says. "Our early lead meant nothing. You don't lose games in the first quarter." Hayes is asked if you win games in the first quarter. "Oh, sure," he says.
Chief Gentry, the trainer for Tiny, cries out in the locker room. "Tiny, Tiny! Where are you?" The dog is found being trampled by the press in the coach's office. Tiny obviously wants the job.
Jerry Colangelo, general manager of the Suns, wakes up in New York after an evening at P.J. Clarke's with his high school baseball buddy, Jim Bouton. It is 4 a.m. Phoenix time, barely 15½ hours before tip-off for "the product."
Because of Colangelo's business acumen—he likes to refer to the Suns as "the product"—he has become a renowned survivor. Early on, the GM began firing coaches and taking the reins himself. Big talents with bigger temperaments betrayed him. Once fifth in the NBA in gate receipts, the Suns dropped to 16th.
Bad apples were exchanged for nameless Suns who rose faceless, unselfish, in the West. Tonight before a record 13,192 they face the Seattle SuperSonics, for a chance to advance to the division finals.
As Colangelo flies home, Paul Westphal plans the menu for a victory party. Ricky Sobers sees One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alvan Adams wolfs down "my usual steak and good old asparagus." Garfield Heard listens to jazz. Starters now, these men were nowhere near Phoenix last season. Dick Van Arsdale was. The very first expansion Sun, Dick sits at home with his twin brother Tom. He says he "hasn't been this excited since high school."
The Phoenix coach, John MacLeod, hits golf balls. It is about the only time MacLeod is out of a suit. Not a leisure suit like Glen Campbell and those other polyester turkeys wear. A real suit. Glen plaids, pinstripes. Vested suits, for heaven's sake. Carol MacLeod says her husband looks "classy" in suits.
The Suns look even classier in the game. Westphal, Sobers and the long-lost UCLA volleyballer, Keith Erickson, combine to make 26 of 38 shots. Seven Suns score in double figures. Phoenix romps 123-112.
While it is still a contest, Colangelo yells at Referee Jake O'Donnell. The official stares him down. Colangelo stares right back. Then MacLeod walks down the sidelines and shouts at his boss, "Jerry, come on. Settle down. Shut up."
Later the two laugh about the incident. Two years ago as a rookie coach, MacLeod lost 18 straight on the road for Colangelo. Now he instructs him in how to act during playoffs. Classy.
There is blood on the ABA tracks. In the NBA they only talk nasty, but in the younger league they put up their dukes. The Kentucky-Denver matchup, tied 3-3, has burst into fire and ice.
Hubie Brown, coach of the defending champion Colonels, and Larry Brown, leader of the heir-apparent Nuggets, are at swords' points, sarcastically referring to one another as "that genius."
L. Brown blasts H. Brown for not controlling his players. H. Brown calls L. Brown "the biggest crybaby in the league."
Kentucky has Denver stymied with an offense using the quick penetration of Bird Averitt. The Bird has been flying with 40 points in one victory, 34 in another.
As the ABA's largest crowd ever, 18,821, settles in, Hubie Brown buries the hatchet. "This crowd, this arena and this game," he says, "will be a tribute to our league and to basketball."
One man makes it so. David Thompson comes to play. The Denver rookie has been frustrated so far in the series. After one Nugget defeat he sobbed shamelessly.
Now with his team behind, Thompson soars and dives and banks for 10 second-quarter points and a 57-56 Denver half-time lead.
In the third quarter the Nuggets are behind again when that inevitable magic moment arrives. Thompson floats above the lane. Artis Gilmore goes up in front of him. At the ceiling Gilmore cleanly blocks while Wil Jones bangs Thompson from the side. But somehow David pulls back the ball, double-pumps, hangs some more and lofts it over everybody for the score. It is a slap-five-and-stomp-your-brains-out play. It is the beginning of a 17-6 Denver spurt in which he scores 11 points.
The Nuggets' lead is 10, then 16 while Thompson is hitting eight straight baskets from all over. At the end of Denver's 133-110 victory, Nugget Bobby Jones has five blocks, Ralph Simpson 14 assists and Dan Issel 24 points and 12 rebounds in outplaying his old teammate Gilmore. But dynamite David Thompson, who says, "Once I get going, it's hard to stop," contributes 40 points, 10 rebounds, five assists.
"Fantastic, simply amazing," Gilmore sighs. "This kid is in a category of his own."
THURSDAY RICHFIELD, OHIO
Welcome to the Coliseum in the cow pasture. The land of the maniacs. The Din of Destiny. They are lined up on the highways for hours dressed in miners' helmets with revolving lights on top, driving vans with toy dead chickens tied behind. Raging in the parking lot, they vow to kidnap a German shepherd and sic him on poor Tiny, the dachshund. This is the NBA's largest playoff crowd, 21,564 screamers here to watch their beloved Cleveland Cavaliers do it to Washington one more time.
Thankfully, the frightening vigilante menace never breaks out to mar the final contest in what has been an exhausting, emotional and dramatic series.
After the Bullets' Chenier (31 points) and the Cavs' Dick Snyder (23) have shot the lights out; after The Old Man and The E (Cleveland's Nate Thurmond and Washington's Elvin Hayes) have chewed up the low battlegrounds; after both teams have spilled their hearts out there on the wood, fittingly it comes down to 85-85. Cleveland ball. Twenty-four seconds left.
The Cavs work the clock down to nine seconds and call time. "We've got a foul to give. Tell K.C. Tell him," a Bullet executive screams. "Shut up, we know it," another exec screams back.
Suddenly Snyder has the ball isolated on Wes Unseld. He fakes middle, then drives left to the basket. As Chenier rushes under, Snyder is in the air from eight feet, flinging the ball high on the glass. It drops. Cleveland wins 87-85. Instant hysteria.
Multitudes attack the court and swing on the rims and climb on the backboards. There is a moment of panic when, in slow motion, one basket support topples into the crowd.
Kids leap from the stands and flatten press tables. Grown-ups tear posters and throw chairs. The wife of Tiny's trainer blindsides two writers and sends them sprawling. Fights break out. Mob violence threatens. It is The Day of the Locust minus Abe the dwarf.
At 2 a.m. they are still cheering radio replays. Friends hug strangers and kiss and dance into the wee morning. Cleveland Owner Nick Mileti wanders around in a daze. Finally a journalist named Dennis hops down from his barstool and an overwhelming feeling of déj√† vu descends. It must be The Night of the Locust. Dennis is, yes, a dwarf.
New Englanders don't know whether to laugh or cry. Their Boston Celtics had wiped out the Buffalo Braves twice but then Ethnic Purity entered the picture: it was the little prince himself, Ernie DiGregorio.
Ernie D is from Providence, of course. Speaks with broad a's. Knows about quahogs. New England's own. So all the man did for Buffalo in Games Three and Four was scatter the Celtics into Canada with arching mortar passes and clutch baskets. We love our Celtics but, oh, you Ernie. He tied up the series all by himself.
Bob Ryan in the Globe writes a love letter to DiGregorio, calling him "the most gifted floor leader since the Cooz...that rarity among pro athletes in that he always says hello first."
Rhode Island Senator John Pastore phones Red Auerbach regarding the Celtics' decision to black out the telecast of the game in New England. The blackout is lifted. We love our Celtics but, oh, you election year.
It is nearly forgotten that John Havlicek, out with "torn fascia" (which is not an Andy Warhol starlet but a foot injury), is returning to the Celtic lineup, that Dave Cowens land Paul Silas, your essential greatest-power-forward-to-go-unrecognized-in-history, are ready to abandon conservatism, kick butts and take names.
Comes the eve. When the Braves discover Ernie D cannot dribble past Charlie Scott's long arms, they begin running around, as DiGregorio says later, "like chickens with our heads cut off."
Havlicek moves the Celtics. The tag-team duo of Hurricane Red (Cowens) and Paul Maul (Silas) wrestles McAdoo into the upper decks. Red cranks up for 30 points while Maul adds 15 to his 22 rebounds. Above all, Scott envelops Ernie D as the Celtics win 99-88 while taking a whopping 30 more shots than Buffalo. "And we're supposed to be the running team," DiGregorio says.
The feeling exists that now that the Celtics have cut the head (Ernie D), the body will die. "I want to get this series over with," says Cowens. "You get tired of looking at the same damn guys. It seems like practice."
The champions are tired. Having finished off the Pistons in Detroit just 39 hours earlier in a torturous overtime game, the Golden State Warriors must begin the Western Division finals as dawn comes up like thunder 'cross the Bay, so that television may be accommodated. The Warriors seem in emotional tatters after their tough battle against the put-upon Pistons, whose coach, the hyperactive Herb Brown, emerged as the most unexpectedly adroit tactician since Marko Todorovich was guiding Tri-Cities in 1951. In the deciding contest Rick Barry wailed so much about the refereeing that teammates seeking to restrain him pushed him over a chair in the runway. Whereupon a kindly old Motown gentleman tried to poke out his eyes with a cane. "My kids should die if I hit anybody on those fouls," Barry said later.
Like all good Catholic boys, Mr. Hair-So-New is bright and shiny on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns. Many Warriors have harsh words for CBS, but Barry, an off-season announcer for the network, says the 11:40 a.m. starting time is merely "an evil we have to live with."
The brunchlike atmosphere takes its toll as both teams throw air balls, dribble off their sneakers, yawn a lot. Even Barry misses three early layups before scoring eight of 10 Warrior baskets in the middle of the first half for a 42-32 Golden State lead.
The Warriors spend most of the time after intermission wondering how many times Clifford (Sting) Ray will scowl and jam before he gets it right. One of his dunks bounces so high off the rim the infield fly rule is invoked. "I lose sight of the ball up close," says Ray.
After Barry finishes with 38 points and six steals in Golden State's 128-103 victory, he admits he missed Mass. "I'm not devout," he says. "I figure He knows what's happening."
What's happening is that Denver and New York are still alive in the ABA; Boston, Cleveland and Phoenix still kicking in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors go home to take a nap.