Beneficiaries in the will

August 15, 1976

Now that the red, white and blue ball has bounced off to that great playground in the sky, the only remaining question about the pro basketball merger is: Who are the beneficiaries in the last will and testament?

Well, judging from what happened last week, they are Chicago, Portland, Kansas City, Detroit and the Federal Reserve Bank. The NBA held a remnants sale, clearing out the leftover stock of string-bean centers and power forwards from the late ABA. In the process, pro teams expended one last salvo of money in amounts that had been common during the nine-season basketball war, but are unlikely to be heard of again, now that peace has been declared. In a span of about 20 minutes, 11 NBA franchises forked over $2,832,750. No returns or exchanges. All sales were final.

The dispersal draft was held to parcel out 20 men who played for the now-defunct ABA teams in Kentucky and St. Louis. The Bulls began the buying—Chicago was awarded that privilege because it had the worst record in the NBA last season—by announcing that they considered it "an honor" to pay $1.1 million for Artis Gilmore, the 7'2" center, late of the Colonels, who several weeks ago was rumored to be suffering from a heart ailment. That piece of misinformation must have caused severe chest pains for Chicago fans, who ever since the draft was announced in June have been having glorious visions of the stouthearted big man pulling in rebounds and slapping away opponents' shots.

In Gilmore, the Bulls acquired the rarest sort of player, a pivotman good enough to turn a team around all by himself. Last season he had 24.6 points, an ABA-leading 15.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots per game. But Chicago was by no means the only club that significantly strengthened itself. Portland traded Guard Geoff Petrie and reserve Center-Forward Steve Hawes to Atlanta for the second choice in the draft, then used it to select 6'9" Maurice Lucas. The Trail Blazers also had the fifth pick and snapped up 6'10" Moses Malone. Kansas City got rugged Guard Ron Boone, one of the ABA's least-known good players, and Detroit added former Spirit of St. Louis Marvin Barnes, thereby shattering the Knicks' hopes.

Aging New York has fallen on lean times lately with two consecutive losing seasons. To compound matters, the Knicks did not have a first-round pick in the recent college draft, Commissioner Larry O'Brien having taken it away as a penalty for their improper signing of George McGinnis a year ago. In the dispersal draft, New York was hoping to wind up with the 6'9" Barnes, a 24.1-points-per-game scorer who carried a $500,000 price tag, a whopping contract and an unsavory reputation that dates to his college days at Providence, when he hit a teammate on the head with a tire iron. Said one general manager, "Frankly, a lot of teams don't want to take a chance on Barnes. He's got great ability, but that's a lot of money to spend for someone you can't be sure about. New York has the money, and it needs to make a big splash."

The Knicks' hopes for getting Barnes were tied to underfunded Atlanta's willingness to trade its pick. But the Hawks preferred Portland's offer, and New York's big splash became a swan dive. By the time the Knicks made the sixth pick, all they could come up with was 6'10" Randy Denton, a journeyman center who is not likely to start in the NBA. In fact, he could well end up as New York's No. 3 pivotman.

Excluding the Knicks, the upcoming season could be one in which last year's losers become winners. Because of the impending merger, a large number of underclassmen applied for hardship status this spring, and that increased the pool of talent in the college draft. Then there was the added bonus of last week's selections. "If there was ever a right time to have a bad season, we picked it," says Kansas City General Manager Joe Axelson. "We got Richard Washington of UCLA in the college draft, and now Boone. We're a lot better off."

The major surprise last week was Portland. The Trail Blazers currently have nine big men on their roster, including Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, Lloyd Neal, rookie Wally Walker, Lucas and Malone. However, Wicks is unsigned and would love to play in Los Angeles, and there are already rumors that Malone will go to New York for Walt Frazier or cash. "We're open for a deal," says Executive Vice-President Harry Glickman. "We'd be idiots if we weren't. We'd like to clean it up in the next couple of weeks."

With the addition of Gilmore, a five-year ABA All-Star, and unsigned rookie Scott May, the Bulls figure to recover from last season's 24-58 record. Gilmore's deliberate style dovetails with the Bulls' pattern offense, and he will repair a defense that leaked layups. He is also consistent, having scored fewer than 20 points in only 21 of Kentucky's 94 games last season.

"We'll be right back in the race," says Norm Van Lier, the Bulls' feisty floor leader, who is so excited about the arrival of Gilmore that he had some advice for the Bulls' front office in its search for a coach to replace Dick Motta. "I told them to hire me."

The consensus in the NBA is that Gilmore is not only with a team perfectly suited to his talents, but also in the conference where his abilities will pay off most handsomely. In the Eastern Conference, many of the centers—notably Dave Cowens of Boston and Bob McAdoo of Buffalo—play like oversized forwards; the true centers, such as Los Angeles' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Seattle's Tom Burleson, Detroit's Bob Lanier and Walton, are in the West. And now so is Gilmore. He will be picking on someone his own size, rather than chasing after the gnats.

The Midwest Division was the worst in the NBA last season, with Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit all performing dismally. Now they should be much tougher, and the Midwest (which adds both Denver and Indiana from the ABA) should again have the sort of bruising race that was a division tradition until a year ago.

Piston Coach Herb Brown is not that familiar with pro personnel, having joined Detroit only last season, so he spent the past few weeks checking out Barnes. Brown is convinced that Barnes is a bad actor—but only because he becomes downcast when his team is not successful. "From the reports I get, he really wants to win," says Brown. "He's a heck of a competitor. He was the guy we wanted all along, but I was really afraid that we weren't going to get a shot at him."

In St. Louis Barnes committed a number of minor transgressions, but he attracted special notoriety when he quit the team early in the 1974-75 season. He then returned to lead the Spirits to an upset victory over the New York Nets in the playoffs. "That convinces me that he is a great player," says Brown.

Barnes will play forward in Detroit, where Center Bob Lanier is as well established as General Motors is. And this season Lanier will get some unaccustomed rest as a result of the Pistons' selection of Alabama's 6'9" Leon Douglas in the college draft. Together, Lanier, Douglas and Barnes probably can bench-press the Midwest Division.

Of the 20 players available in the dispersal draft, eight did not get picked. Most prominent among them was Steve Green, a good-shooting rookie forward with Utah and St. Louis last season. Green carried a $100,000 price tag, and the NBA teams apparently considered him to be no bargain. Green and the others who were not selected are now free agents.

This was the second dispersal draft in NBA history. In 1950 the Chicago franchise folded, and the names of its best players, Max Zaslofsky, Andy Phillip and Bob Cousy, were put into a hat. The Celtics plucked out Cousy, which turned out to be a bit of sleight-of-hand worthy of the selectee himself. That was the first step in building the Boston dynasty, a fact not lost on the teams that last week were hoping the death of the ABA would allow them to come alive.