Mel Daniels was out on his Indiana ranch breaking some colts when he heard the news. Freddie Lewis was sitting in his living room in Indianapolis. Down in North Carolina, Byron Beck and Lou Dampier were practicing for an exhibition game against the U.S. Olympic team. Beck let out a whoop and threw the basketball the length of the floor; Dampier sat down on a bench and shook his head.
All their trials, Lord, soon be over.
As pro basketball enters its first consolidated, expandable, assimilated, mergerama year, these four NBA players are all that remain of the original ABA. Oh, there are a couple of old Oakland Oaks hanging around coaching. A few red, white and blue 30-second clocks. One solitary three-point circle (in Indianapolis' Market Square Arena—you couldn't get it off with a nuclear attack). But everything else is gone.
No more Butch Booker and Brian Brunkhorst and Willie Somerset having his false teeth stolen from the locker room. No more Irv Inniger and Elvin Ivory and Helicopter Hentz shattering two glass backboards in one game. No more Leary Lentz and Lonnie Kluttz and Les Selvage—bless his heart—throwing up 26 three-point prayers in a single night. No more Marlbert Pradd.
October 24, 1976
Though the merger or the absorption or the surrender or whatever one wishes to call it does not affect the Dave Cowenses and Rick Barrys and Kareem Abdul-Jabbars in the same way it does ABA people ("All it means is two more trips to New York to see the folks," says Abdul-Jabbar), the new 22-team league is a welcome conclusion to most of the game's thorny problems.
What is important now is that the New York Nets, or somebody, guarantee us a look into the future by coming to terms with the best player on earth, Julius Erving. For probably it is the wondrous Dr. J, more than any greenbacked lawsuit, who brought about the holy consummation.
When Erving decided to hold out for a renegotiation of his $230,000-plus annual salary during the preseason, not everyone considered him all that wondrous anymore. Yet as soon as veteran NBA supporters witness a couple of the Doctor's basic impossible, incredible, unbelievable sky-jams, who will deny him a sultan's ransom? Last week Erving and Nets President Roy Boe continued to cross swords over Fort Knox while 14 CBS-TV executives fingered the panic buttons. This Friday night the network begins its expanded 54-game regular-season coverage with the Nets at Golden State; CBS has scheduled Erving's Nets no less than 12 times during an 18-week period.
That should satisfy those ticket-buyers who gobbled up every seat in sight for Erving's debuts around the NBA, especially one J. Smiley of Detroit. On the day merger was announced Mr. Smiley appeared at Cobo Arena, whipped out his $200 Ford Motor Company payroll check and mumbled something like, "Gimme all you got for the Doctah."
While the Nets as well as all basketball need their physician, the Knicks among other teams may require a mortician. Intradivisional play counts for little this season, with everybody playing everybody else four times at most. "You won't have control of your own destiny any more; they've taken out the divisional meaning," says Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn.
Ah, but. "We won't have to worry about playing Portland and Seattle six or seven times anymore," says Golden State's Barry. "We get bored seeing each other so often."
The ABA graduates will only occasionally be boring, but they may be in for some hard rain during the early competition. "We have to prove ourselves," says Indiana's Darnell Hillman, "and they [the NBA regulars] are gonna make us prove ourselves."
Chicago's 7'2" Artis Gilmore arrived in the Windy City from Kentucky to the herald of trumpets only to be "carded" (asked for his ID) in the Bombay Bicycle Club, a local watering hole. After that Gilmore was rudely battered around in exhibition games, once taking an opposition hook shot full in the face. "I am not Muhammad Ali," said the gentle newcomer, "but I refuse to take such unprofessional cheap shots."
ABA philosophies certain to show up in the merger include a concentration on the running game, quick guard play with a lot of shooting from backcourt and less physical but more all-court defense. Whether old NBA hands believe it or not, ABA teams stressed perimeter barricades (to discourage the three-pointer) and left the inside lanes unclogged. Surely this is a condition to look for, not to mention hope for, in the realigned league. Moreover, despite the NBA's reputation for rougher stuff, ABA teams found preseason referees' calls much closer than they were accustomed to.
Denver committed 79 fouls in its first two exhibition games. Seattle shot 69 free throws against the Nets. An exchange between the Nuggets' David Thompson and Referee Richie Powers after a blocking call on Thompson may have been a preview of things to come.
Thompson: "I was there all day."
Powers: "I don't miss many, kid, but you know I'll be right."
In this new/old-look season, a man wouldn't be far from right to choose as division winners three old—Boston, Cleveland and Golden State—and one new—Denver. The Nuggets are smart, quick and deep. Their experience in the unique "passing game" offense as well as their pressing, trapping defenses make Denver an especially difficult team to prepare for.
L.A. Coach Jerry West, who steps in to lead the Lakers, says, "Denver has the kind of team everybody wants. They could win it all, they're that good."
The Nuggets sold an astounding 10,000 season tickets, after which their gifted flying boy, Thompson, proceeded to a) block a Bill Walton dunk shot in Denver, b) shatter a backboard in Portland, and c) put on a spine-tingling high-wire demonstration in Oakland. "The man never drove on me before," said Golden State's Jamaal Wilkes. "He never posted either. Yes, it was a surprise. What a talent. He beat me bad all night."
The Celtics' Heinsohn says of Denver's other forward, Bobby Jones: "Everybody talks about Erving, but Bobby Jones is a player's player. Right now he's as good as anybody in the league."
To a man, ABA personnel on both old and new teams are ready to show their wares. Outspoken Marvin Barnes of Detroit (né St. Louis) had a characteristically volatile September during which he interrupted his first appearance as a Piston by requesting permission to leave the bench and go to the bathroom. "I'm not the most stable guy, but I'm one of the world's greatest forwards," says Bad Marvin, not without accuracy. San Antonio's Larry Kenon, another brash young cornerman, sums up the general feeling of the old league when he says, "The good teams are still going to win the most games. It just so happens some of the ABA teams are the good ones."
As New York thrills to the yoyo heroics of Dr. J and Tiny A (Nate Archibald); as San Antonio roars out for notoriety with the pros' most raucous spectators; as Indiana contributes the game's finest unknown player in Billy Knight, who could wind up leading the league in scoring; Denver may be challenging for the NBA title.
But back to the Main Man. Always back to Erving. The Doctor. "I remember this guy," says Abdul-Jabbar, hearkening back to his teenage days. "One summer all of a sudden there was Julius Erving. Riis Park, up the Rockaway Peninsula. This skinny, bony kid. He didn't handle the ball much. Just rebounded. We measured hands once. His were bigger. He played up front, one-handed everything and stuffed over everybody."
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving finally together again in the same league. Can you dig it? Throw up the ball. The Doctah is in.
"THE BEST AGAINST THE BEST"
Representatives of the NBA and ABA met over lunch in New York one day last week to discuss such weighty matters as slam dunks and elbows. Dave Cowens ordered grilled cheese and a beer. Julius Erving chose the club sandwich with soda pop. This is part of what they said.
Cowens: You must know you're a marked man in this league, Doc.
Erving: By now I'm a marked man on my own team.
You embarrassed a lot of people by jamming on 'em. Nobody likes to be guarding a guy when the guy puts on some outrageous move and slams the ball through the floor and the crowd goes nuts. People are keying on you, like O. J. Simpson.
E: I expect that.
C: Everybody who asks me about the ABA says can I handle the Doctor? I say, well, I imagine so. I've been around six years and handled a lot of people and, by the way, the Doctor plays forward and I play center.
E: I get the same thing. "How you gonna get Dave? What you going to put on Kareem?" Hey, when did I start playing the middle? The questions are ridiculous.
C: Wait till you hear the crowd in Cleveland. You talk about noise. Twenty thousand start screaming from the time you do layups to the end. I firmly believe if a guy played there every night, he'd lose his hearing.
E: I never played in front of that many before. People talk about ABA teams sneaking up on the NBA. I think we're beyond that stage. Everybody knows Denver will be tough. But there are some players the public never heard of who can really do it. Billy Knight of Indiana is a super player.
C: Billy Knight? I thought he retired.
E: You're serious, aren't you? Geez. You'll be surprised.
C: Well, I have trouble remembering guys in my own league.
E: At least Knight's a forward, not a center. You probably know Silas and Gervin, right? Gervin will shock people more than anybody else coming in.
C: Silas. James Silas? I don't know Gervin. I'm not even a fan. I don't even know what team he plays for.
E: Take a guess.
C: San Antonio? Look, you have to realize my attitude. When I came in as a rookie, here I went against Chamberlain, Jabbar, Lanier. I never played them before. Was I gonna be amazed and awed or was I gonna make them respect me? I have to play against somebody before I can judge how good they are. Except for what you may do, I won't be surprised by anybody.
E: I think Gervin will surprise you.
C: There are a couple of tough customers waiting for you, Julius. Paul Silas denies the ball and pushes people around. Phil Jackson of the Knicks muscles you and elbows you and keeps you away. Leonard Gray out at Seattle knocks hell out of everybody. A powerful dude.
E: What about Golden State? Phoenix? Cleveland?
C: Naw. You won't have any problem with anybody at Golden State. I'm talking forwards now. Phoenix—nothin'. Cleveland's got Brewer. Washington's got Truck Robinson. What you'll do is clear out the side and drive right past them. Easy. You're asking the wrong guy about who's physical. Nobody's more physical than me.
E: Hey, were you impressed with McGinnis?
C: Offensively, I was. He didn't use his body as much as he could. As far as boarding, rebounding, defense—no. He doesn't screen off at all. He made All-Pro. But a lot of people didn't think he should have. Say, what about depth? Do you think the ABA teams are as deep as ours?
E: No. I never felt parity there. We're still not deep at center.
C: Each team will get deeper from now on. Everybody will have to use eight men rather than six.
E: Intelligence will be more of a factor. Players who play with their heads will have it all over the raw-skill guys.
C: The league is nowhere near as physically tough as it was. You used to get punched in the crotch, slugged in the mouth. Go up for a jumper and get kicked. We still got our cheap-shot artists but most of those fellas are gone now. The game is more finesse than ever.
E: I know Denver is concerned about people trying to intimidate them.
C: You always try to intimidate. It's part of the game. But intimidation doesn't come from a fist in the face. It comes from screening and blocking and putting on constant pressure.
E: Some guys quit and some don't. There're only about five NBA teams that are physical. I think the Nets will be physical.
C: Doc, do you feel an extra challenge this year?
E: I guess so but I don't think about it. If I give 100%, I know what will happen.
C: Well I'm glad about the merger. I look around and see a bunch of guys who shouldn't be playing in this league. Year after year they don't improve. Just pick up the checks. It's no motivation to play against these dogs. Now the best in the world are in one league. The best against the best at their best.
E: That's it. Really. I always boosted the ABA and promoted it and got the exposure. People know me. But the merger means more to our guys collectively. The ABA was part of my life, and I don't think it will ever be erased from memory. But this is so long overdue. It's a great, great feeling.