Quickly now, what ever happened to the Sport of the Seventies? You may vaguely recall that the sport was referred to as "professional basketball," and—woo, boy—was it going to be great. Those huge, lithe, perfectly sculptured athletes bounding over the hardwood floors. Spectacular action. Ingenious strategy. Magnificent competition. Leading to...mammoth crowds. Soaring television ratings. Lucrative endorsement contracts. Professional basketball was going to light up America. It was going to do in the '70s what professional football did in the '60s. Namely, happen. It was going to make us forget football, not to mention old, dull baseball and Charlie's Angels, too. Professional basketball was going to replace politics, ice cream, sex and the church. Is it all coming back now? Well, the Sport of the Seventies is reviving memories of the NBA's unsettled early history. In the eyes of 76er General Manager Pat Williams, the league is coming off "the most fascinating off-season in the NBA, a wild, crazy, topsy-turvy year."
For instance, the mass exodus of name players—Marvin Webster, Rick Barry and Bill Walton—from the Pacific Division may well cause it to go from riches to rags in one fell swoop. For instance, the momentous trade that shifted Bobby Jones to Philadelphia and George McGinnis to Denver practically guarantees the 76ers and Nuggets the Atlantic and Midwest Division titles, respectively, again and sets up a probable showdown in the NBA finals next spring. For instance, during the preseason the new three-referee system and the no-hand-checking rule led to hundreds upon hundreds of foul calls, justifiable coach-squawking and still another NBA novelty, the two-hour, 40-minute game.
For instance, the who-would-have-believed-it union in Boston of that old fire-eater Red Auerbach and that young, finger-lickin' Kentucky Fried Chicken ace from the despised American Basketball Association, John Y. Brown. John Y. is a good ole Kentucky boy, who did a little carpetbagging in Buffalo and traded franchises with former Celtic owner Irv Levin during the summer. Now Massachusetts is contemplating a lottery based on picking the correct number of days Brown and Auerbach coexist. Which leads to a final for-instance: the regeneration of the Atlantic Division, where, if you can keep this straight, Webster has become the latest savior in New York; Marvin Barnes has become the latest savior in Boston; the Buffalo Braves have moved out to become the latest savior in San Diego; and the Washington Bullets, after finally acting as their own savior, have moved in as champions of the world.
Is this any way to run a sport? Much less, the Sport of the Seventies? And all of this on the eve of the NBA's 33rd season?
October 15, 1978
Quick, dramatic changes transform basketball as no other sport, owing to the domino effect one star player can have on a team...whoops, a division...whoops, a conference...whoops, the entire league. Thus we have Walton, with his broken foot, demanding to be traded from Portland, and the Trail Blazers mysteriously agreeing, though the league MVP still has a year left on his contract. In effect, he is being treated as a free agent, although the Blazers feel he could still wind up in Portland by mid-season if they can't make a deal they feel will benefit the team. Walton's gripe concerned Portland's medical practices—specifically the use of painkillers for injured players. Without Walton, Portland has little chance of winning the Pacific title.
Then there is free agent Barry—didn't he once play out his option in Sheboygan?—whose talent may enable Houston to win the Central Division title. For Barry this is stop No. 5 in his 12-season NBA and ABA career.
Rick doesn't want to cause problems in Houston. So his first concession was to Moses Malone, who wears No. 24, which Barry has worn throughout his career. The solution: at home Barry will wear No. 2, on the road No. 4. And it didn't even have to go to arbitration.
How significantly the Jones-McGinnis deal alters the style and character of their new teams could be readily observed in the preseason. Jones, a clean-living, religious soul, worried about how teammates would react to his 10 p.m. bedtime and waited around after practice to run extra laps when everybody else forgot. "Bobby said 'yes sir' one day and we all nearly dropped our teeth," says 76er Assistant Coach Chuck Daly. Meanwhile, in the smile-high, do-or-die atmosphere of the Denver Nuggets, McGinnis vowed to mend his notorious semi-industrious ways. "George has never had to work in his life," says Coach Larry Brown. "I told him we can't afford that luxury."
Then there is Seattle and New York and the Webster affair. What to make of that? The 7'1" Webster, the Human Eraser, transformed a bad Seattle team into a playoff monster that came within a few minutes of the league championship. That done, Webster wanted a five-year contract, a lot of money ($3 million), and, reportedly, extras such as a car for his wife, paid trips and hotel accommodations for his parents and a no-trade clause. Seattle owner Sam Schulman, for no apparent reason that any partially sane human being could imagine, refused the no-trade and Marvin is a Knick.
Everybody in the NBA knows how much Webster wanted to stay in Seattle. Forget the "good of the game" and the "balance of power" laments. How about the good of Marvin? Webster is a quiet, sensitive, small-town, small-school (Morgan State) guy who, when his wife Mederia gave birth to a baby son in Greensboro, N.C. during the preseason, had to be driven from training camp to Newark Airport so he could fly to see her. "Drive myself?" Webster said. "I don't even know where Madison Square Garden is."
How is Webster going to find his senses if New York starts off slowly; if he can't produce the miracles Knick fans expect of him; if the New York media bombers take their obligatory potshots? Moreover, a serious question remains whether Webster, late of group-togetherness among the Sonics, can find peace and happiness among the self-indulgent, spotlight-hunting Knicks. "I'm afraid that Marvin has been thrown to the dogs," says one NBA coach. "That New York club is a kennel. They'll eat him alive."
The sounds emanating from the Knick camp, however, don't exactly sound like yips and yaps. Bob McAdoo and Spencer Haywood, the two psyches-in-residence who don't have the easiest time sharing the bone, er, ball, or getting along with each other, seem positively ecstatic over the prospect of lining up alongside Webster. "It's the first time I've played on a team with somebody bigger than me," says McAdoo. "I won't have to be responsible for blocked shots or defense on the tall guys." When McAdoo won the scoring championship three years running as a center in Buffalo, there was speculation that if he ever had a towering, rebounding playmate around the glass, the slim, 6'9", jump-shooting machine might open up and go for, oh, say, maybe 100 points some night.
In the preseason, all Knicks seemed to be aware of their roles. Coach Willis Reed arranged to have Webster and McAdoo ride to and from practices together and renew a friendship that began back in high school in Greensboro when Webster used to visit his future wife, who lived down the block from McAdoo.
"I told our big men the way I think. It's a marathon the way the centers play the game today. McAdoo's just not big enough. At 218 pounds Bob can give the big centers hell in a 20-game series, but not over a whole 82-game season. His game won't change. Marvin will just give him more freedom," Reed says.
And what of Haywood, who arrived on the Knicks scene three years ago to hosannas and has led the world in sulking ever since? "I came here all alone, expected to replace Reed and [Dave] DeBusschere by myself," says Haywood. "I suffered, but it made me a better man. Now look around here. Marvin's got a cast. The thing is, in New York all the attention and the fans and the press can be so detrimental. Marvin's got to learn they aren't the archenemy. If he's not ready for all of this, he could get crushed."
Webster is unconcerned. "New York demands performance. I know that. But I can't change personalities. I want to get everybody together here. If we win, all our reputations will be enhanced," he says.
Reed, who, like Webster, was raw in his early pro years, has been working with the new pivotman. The coach says Webster has small hands, is inexperienced for a fourth-year man and is still unproved on many levels. "It may take two more years for Marvin to be the player he should be," Reed says.
Webster's presence certainly makes the Knicks more competitive than they have been since Reed hobbled into retirement. Along with the question marks surrounding the other new boys on the Eastern Seaboard—Jones at Philly; Barnes, Billy Knight and Tiny Archibald at Boston—Webster's potential has put the Atlantic Division into what Celtic Coach Satch Sanders calls "a wait-and-see posture." Which is further complicated by the unexpected presence of defending champion Washington in the division.
What does that mean? "It means the Bullets won't make the playoffs," says Philly's Julius Erving. Aw, Doc, you never were one to let us wait and see.