Though it is too soon to certify the final nationwide results—the ballots on the New York Nets appear to have been impounded, for instance—the time seems about right to draw certain conclusions from the early samplings of a few precincts in pro basketball's mergerific season. Namely, that the famous Artis Gilmore cannot turn junk into jewelry by himself but that somebody named Dave Twardzik possibly can. That the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers cannot prosper while their leading scorers occupy hospital beds. That the Kansas City Kings have not reverted to the American Basketball Association, their lineup only looks that way. And finally that David Thompson will not soar right out of a building one night while leading the Denver Nuggets to Venus, Mars and an 82-0 season. Well, maybe not.
It should be noted that all of the above news items involve former ABA teams and players—the ABA, as you may remember, being that poor little league with the beach ball, the degree-of-difficulty shot and the 300-point games. A touch of irony here: when the NBA finally took in Denver, San Antonio, Indiana and the Nets as indentured servants (each club had to fork over a $3.2 million indemnity payment) the intent was to make more money, not to disturb the class structure on the playing floor. That much was obvious when the dispersal draft benefited a few NBA teams while virtually excluding former ABA clubs. At least they were better off than in the college draft, where they had even fewer choices. None, to be exact. All of which made it quite interesting that last week the ABA survivors—teams and individuals—were being very upwardly mobile.
Just a quick glance past the 24-second clocks around the league revealed that:
•The San Antonio Spurs beat the Team of the Century Philadelphia 76ers on opening night and then took on last year's NBA finalists, Phoenix and Boston. The Spurs got 41 points from Larry Kenon in a victory over Phoenix, then got 37 from George Gervin and led the Celtics by seven points in the second half before losing. Alas, the Spurs have since succumbed to injuries that have wiped out most of their backcourt, including star James Silas. Coach Doug Moe is frustrated. "What gets me down," he says, "is there are so many terrible teams in this league and here we are decimated and losing, so what can I say?"
•The Los Angeles Lakers have been rescued from guaranteed pathos by the appearance in backcourt of former ABA Guards Don Chaney, Mack Calvin and, especially, the missile-launching Bo Lamar. A few weeks ago Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn, who surely had resigned himself to another endless season of Cazzie Russell defense, sat watching Lamar at his first practice session, mumbling almost pleadingly, "Do it, Bo." Now, as Lamar continues to heave everything from the Santa Monica Freeway and average 12 points in 20 minutes' playing time, Hearn bellows into the mike, "Bo, Bo, Bo"—drawing the name out.
•The Indiana Pacers' young leader, Billy Knight, missed four games with a bad ankle but the Pacers put together a four-game winning streak anyway. They scared the ill-prepared Celtics in their opener before losing in overtime. Knight, who scored 29 points against Boston, said there was too much clogging in the NBA lanes and that he preferred the ABA. The Market Square Arena fans, expressing true joy that the NBA had finally returned to its home ground, screamed, clapped, stomped, booed and shouted at the Celtics' coach. What they shouted was, "You're outta the bar now, Heinsohn."
•The Kansas City Kings have undergone cosmetic surgery by adding four ex-ABAers—Guards Ron Boone, Brian Taylor and Mike Barr, plus the league's reigning backup center, Jumbo Jim Eakins. Boone and Taylor are a nifty pair, averaging a combined 35 points, while Jumbo says, "I always heard that if there was no ABA, Jim Eakins would be out in the street. Times have changed. I'm here. Everytime I play I'm out to stick it in their faces." Against Seattle he was merely seven for seven from the floor.
•The Philadelphia 76ers finally got to practice with Julius Erving. Using what is basically an all-ABA front line of Dr. J, George McGinnis and Caldwell Jones, the Sixers are supposed to be on their way to 17 consecutive world championships. Golden State's Rick Barry, voting in opposition, proved he may still be the best all-round forward in the game by stopping Erving in his tracks last week. Still, the 76ers defeated the Warriors at Oakland.
•The New York Nets, destiny's dolts, have won four games without Erving or any other facsimile of an inside man. This is akin to Jimmy Carter capturing the lemonade vote without Amy. When the Nets win one more contest, Coach Kevin Loughery should be declared Coach of the Year on the spot if only for enduring the gunning, hilariously incompatible backcourt of John Williamson ("I'm so happy. This league is all I've dreamed of) and Tiny Archibald ("Some guys around here are just out for numbers. I'm in a web. This is very unenjoyable").
•The Portland Trail Blazers, while getting a UCLA-era, superhuman effort out of the Mountain Man, Bill Walton, have filled out their lineup with two key ABA graduates, Maurice Lucas and Dandy Dave Twardzik, who enable the Blazers to run like nobody else in the NBA and to lead the Pacific Division. What happens when an opposition shot goes up is that Walton and Lucas head for the defensive board while Twardzik and the other Blazers sprint in the other direction. Thus Portland barely edged Philly's juggernaut by the amazing count of 146-104. Before that, the Blazers got 80 points in a half against Atlanta, and Hawk Coach Hubie Brown wailed, "What is this, a track meet?"
The ABA impact has been felt in other areas as well. While Detroit Piston Coach Herb Brown waits for Marvin Barnes to recover from a sprained ankle and come save his job, he has inserted in his place little-known M.L. Carr, an ABA teammate of Barnes at St. Louis. (Trivia pause: no less than eight St. Louis Spirits, a last-place ABA team, are now playing heavy roles in the NBA—not including a ninth Spirit, the infant wayfarer, Moses Malone, who of course starts in a lot of airports, most recently Houston's.)
At Buffalo the other day Bird Averitt, ex-Kentucky, fired a rainbow that hit the back side of the backboard. "I don't know about that other league," Coach Tates Locke screamed at the Bird, "but over here we got rims on only one side of the board." Averitt was so mad at that he didn't give up the ball for 12 days, but he did help the Braves to one of their four victories by scoring seven points in the final five minutes against Philadelphia. Yep, the 76ers lost another one.
It is fairly remarkable how positively unawed the new NBA personnel are by their new surroundings. Barnes says the league has "better gyms," and Williamson admits it is nice to have all those people in the stands. But to San Antonio's George (Ice) Gervin, a big drawback is not being able to have his nickname printed on the back of his game jersey. "The NBA don't allow nothing but real names," Gervin says. "I thought Ice was slick." Of the famed NBA stars, Gervin says, "Yeah, I'm surprised. Except for Pistol [Pete Maravich] and Big Dave [Cowens] beating on our head, all I'm seeing out there is a whole lot of mess."
And Mike Green, Seattle's outspoken backup center, late of Virginia, admits to mixed emotions about his own transfer. "What you think the NBA is, heaven?" he says. "There's too much jamming the middle here. Guys spend half their lives learning how to play the game, and then they can't use anything because it's all jammed up." C'mon, Mike, isn't anything better? "Yeah," says Green. "In this league I get paid."
The early returns from Colorado are encouraging to all those who have prayed for the ABA. At the end of last week, the Denver Nuggets were the only unbeaten team in the pros. Coach Larry Brown has used vast depth, a Popsicle schedule and a lot of home games to get off to a quick start. Nevertheless, Thompson and his mates are no flukes. Last week after embarrassing the New York Knicks in a nine-point game that could have been 59—"We paid them to play in this league?" shouted one Denver fan—the Nuggets went on the road and used 36 points by Thompson to come from behind and beat Chicago 93-85. The next night they won their seventh straight by defeating Milwaukee 105-103. These were Denver's first real tests. "On the road we may have trouble," says Brown, "but we don't lose many at home."
The Nugget coach likes to produce ABA-deprecating one-liners like "Now that we're in the bigs we can fly to games non-stop." But away from home the Nuggets warm up with the red, white and blue ball. They want to remember where they came from during their holy crusade for recognition.
On the season's opening night in New York, Brown and his old college and pro teammate, San Antonio's Moe, watched the Lakers and Knicks play an error-filled game. "All Doug could say was how awful they were," says Brown. "But I was in shock just realizing we were finally in the same league. It really was a thrill."
The grand experiment in Denver is the transition of Thompson to guard. The Nuggets lead off with Dan Issel, Bobby Jones and Gus Gerard—history's last all-white front line?—while Thompson is in backcourt with the tough quarterback, Ted McLain. As he was at Boston, newcomer Paul Silas is the sixth man.
Thompson says that as a guard he is "more alert and I see things better," but he appears uncomfortable away from the basket. Sometimes he forces shots. His quickness is not so evident as when he is a cornerman, driving against taller forwards, and his rebounding prowess is often wasted when he is so far from the hoop. Yet even on an off-shooting night against the Knicks' Living Legends 1 and 1A, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, Thompson managed 24 points, including a couple of high-rise numbers that brought the house down.
"My, my," said Earl the Pearl in that marvelous way of his, "it would be hard for this young man to look bad. This team seems to have everything. The dudes are rolling as long as they keep that donut on the ledger."
One dude who cannot seem to get rolling is the 7'2" Gilmore. Billed as the ABA's best center, which he was, the former Kentucky Colonel has run into problems in Chicago, where his arrival coincided with illness to veterans and rookies, team adjustments to new Coach Ed Badger and a switch to a novel style, the half break. Sometimes the Bulls rush to mid-court with the ball, then stop dead.
Gilmore has not really played badly for 2-5 Chicago, just not enough. He averages 16.4 points and 13.6 rebounds in only 33 minutes of court time. Also he has not asserted himself, especially on offense. Against Milwaukee one night he took five shots. As a team the Bulls are shooting a preposterous 38% although Gilmore is near 50%. A performance against Atlanta when a rookie named Tommy Barker got 19 rebounds and made Gilmore look terrible was especially instructive.
"This Barkley [sic] really played well," Gilmore said, missing the name. "Apparently I'm not looking for my offense."
Badger says he is trying to get the Loop's new hope to set up on the right side of the basket as often as on the left to avoid double teams, and also to throw the outlet pass quicker and to avoid dribbling the ball "down where every midget in the world can take a shot at it. When my team gets tight," Badger says, "they revert to their Neanderthal tendencies."
That sounds like the kind of description Moe has been using to define his San Antonio club in recent days. At New Orleans last Friday the Spurs seemed to jump out of their slump while taking a lead on the Jazz. But they were only setting the stage for Maravich to score five baskets in 1:44 of the third quarter. That took the fight out of the visitors, and the Pistol went on to record 20 points for the period as the Jazz won 127-119. "I don't consider San Antonio an ABA team anymore," Maravich said. "They're a division team, and they're going to be trouble before this is over."
Back home in Texas the Spur zealots already have earned a similar reputation. While ABA players may have to make adjustments on the court, NBA fellows must get used to the particularly obscene rabble-rousers who turn Hemisfair Arena into a revenge of the Alamo.
"San Antonio is shops and outdoor cafés and artsy-craftsy deals and a canal [actually the San Antonio River] running through the city," says Boston's Dave Cowens, who had never been there before. Will he want to go back? The Celtic victory there was marked by nasty challenges being exchanged between Cowens and some end-zone fans and the husky center leading a contingent of fist-swinging Celtics into the crowd.
"Bunch of drunken Mexicans, right?" somebody asked San Antonio Trainer Bernie LaReau.
"Naw," said LaReau. "If Cowens ever goes into the Mexican seats, he'll never come back."