Bob McAdoo learned what it was like to be forgotten shortly after he was traded to the Detroit Pistons 2½ years ago. He had been Rookie of the Year in 1973 while playing for the Buffalo Braves, and he led the NBA in scoring in '74, '75 and '76. But by 1979 he was a vagabond with a big contract and big problems, and when he was traded to the wretched Pistons—his fourth team in four seasons—people gradually forgot about him.
But now, in the playoffs, people are beginning to remember where Bob McAdoo was, and where he belongs. Coming off the bench for the Los Angeles Lakers, the 6'9" McAdoo averaged 17 points a game and shot 56.1% as the Lakers pounded Phoenix in four straight games and then swept the San Antonio Spurs in four to reach the NBA finals. Those figures don't compare with McAdoo's numbers when he was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1975 (34.5 ppg, 14.1 rebounds), but, as San Antonio Forward Mike Mitchell so eloquently puts it, "When Can Doo get on, he can do."
McAdoo just needed a place to do his thing. After being traded around and finally put on waivers by Detroit on March 11, 1981, he was determined to sit out this season rather than play for another doormat. He even turned down a reported offer of $300,000 a year from the New Jersey Nets, who had picked him up late last season. The Nets were a young team with a promising future, and their new arena in the Meadowlands was only a 20-minute drive from McAdoo's home in Ramsey, N.J. "One week Larry Brown [the Nets' coach] wanted me," says McAdoo, "one week he didn't. Early in the year they were going bad, and Larry blamed the players. Even though it was home, I didn't want to be somewhere where they have a four-year plan. I wanted to win right away."
Every NBA owner wants to win right away, and that's why McAdoo has been shuffled twice for the astonishing sum of five first-round draft choices, one second-round pick and thousands upon thousands of dollars.
McAdoo might still be sitting at home had it not been for an injury to Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' starting power forward and backup center. Kupchak's misfortune on Dec. 19 turned out to be McAdoo's "dream come true," and on Christmas Eve the Lakers signed him to a contract reportedly worth $175,000 for the rest of the 1981-82 season.
Not all of the Lakers were happy about the acquisition. "Just what we needed," grumbled one at the time, "another scorer." "You could see it when I came to L.A.," McAdoo says. "I think everybody was watching and waiting to see how I was going to fit in."
McAdoo arrived on Dec. 26 and in a way presented the first real challenge to new Coach Pat Riley. "Everything—his image, his problems with coaches—was discussed before we got him," Riley says. "We still felt he was the ideal guy. Everywhere else Mac had played, he was expected to carry the load every night. This team is too strong for any one player to be a disruption."
It took McAdoo a month to get in shape, and during that time Riley experimented with several starting lineups. In that 14-game period Kurt Rambis, Mark Landsberger and Jim Brewer averaged only 10.3 points a game among them as Kupchak's replacement and, as Riley quickly found out, "a lot of teams were playing us five on four." Teams still drop off Rambis, who became the starting power forward, to help out on Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but when McAdoo comes into the game for Rambis, they no Can Doo.
"When they play those five together," San Antonio Assistant Coach Morris McHone said of McAdoo, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes, "all five can score. When you surround McAdoo with those other players, it makes him much better. And he's already good enough."
Nothing McAdoo did was enough to please the Detroit fans, especially a heckler known as Leon the Barber, who nightly bellowed, "McAdoo, McAdon't, McAwill, McAwon't." "The thing that hurt me the most was that I was made out to be a malingerer and a bad guy," McAdoo says. "But I was just doing what was expected of me. I was supposed to be the main attraction, score a lot of points and clear the boards. I had to do it all every night."
McAdoo had left the University of North Carolina after his junior year and was drafted by the Buffalo Braves, for whom he had his finest years. He averaged 28.2 points a game in a little more than four seasons before being traded to the New York Knicks after he had demanded a $500,000-a-year contract.
New York was already loaded with talent when it picked up McAdoo on Dec. 9, 1976, and yet, like Spencer Haywood before him, Mac was expected to be a savior. New York wanted idols to replace the recently retired Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley, and it wanted to win right away. The Knicks improved their record from 40-42 to 43-39 and made the playoffs in McAdoo's second year, but the great savior experiment was judged a failure.
"Anytime you have a team with Ray Williams, Michael Ray Richardson, Spencer Haywood, Lonnie Shelton, Earl Monroe and Bob McAdoo," McAdoo says, "you've got to look elsewhere for the problems. They just weren't patient enough." On Feb. 12, 1979, the Knicks unloaded McAdoo on the Boston Celtics for three first-round picks.
McAdoo had been third in the league in scoring when the Knicks shipped him to Boston, but he never fit in with what was a bad Boston team. McAdoo complained to Player-Coach Dave Cowens about too little playing time, and that gave birth to his reputation for selfishness. President-General Manager Red Auerbach later told The New York Times, "Bob was more concerned with personal achievements than team achievements." Before the 1979-80 season Boston traded McAdoo to Detroit for M.L. Carr and draft choices that would become Robert Parish (through a trade) and Kevin McHale.
Things went from bad to worse when the Pistons' other star, Center Bob Lanier, was traded to a contender, the Milwaukee Bucks. "When Lanier was gone," McAdoo says, "all the fans' anger switched to me."
During his first year in Detroit, McAdoo separated from his wife, Brenda, a New Jersey lawyer. That was also the year in which his father, to whom McAdoo had always been very close, died. And the year he had a couple of injuries, which kept him out of 22 games. Playing for a bad team didn't help. "I always used to get butterflies on the day of a game, thinking about how I hoped we could win," McAdoo says. "In Detroit I just hoped we wouldn't get embarrassed. It was pitiful."
It was during McAdoo's second year in Detroit that things began to go completely sour for him. Conflicting stories are told about what happened. A series of nagging injuries caused him to miss all but six of the 73 games the Pistons played before he was waived. He says Detroit Coach Scotty Robertson suggested that he retire, and that when he was finally ready to play shortly after the league trading deadline had passed, Robertson and General Manager Jack McCloskey refused even to let him put on a uniform and sit on the bench. "I told them I would gladly play 10 minutes or no minutes. I just wanted to be in uniform," McAdoo insists. "I didn't need to take abuse from the fans while I was in my street clothes. The front office told me I could go on home, then they told the press that I didn't want to sit on the bench at all because I didn't want to take the abuse from the fans."
The Pistons claim that McAdoo was healthy enough to make a contribution but refused to do it. "He could have given us 10 to 12 minutes a game," McCloskey says. "He said that he didn't want to play part-time because it would drive the value of his next contract down. Prior to that, I might have been the only guy in Detroit who thought Bob McAdoo was really injured, but after he said that, I lost all respect."
Soon the word was out that McAdoo was a malingerer. "Ever hear anybody call a white player a malingerer?" asks former Laker great Elgin Baylor. "Ever? Think about that."
The Lakers haven't thought about it at all. Los Angeles needed someone who could score maximum points in minimum minutes and serve as an effective backup to Abdul-Jabbar. At 30, McAdoo is still eager to shoot his quick-release jumper, an awkward-looking shot from which he pulls his hands back so fast it looks as if he's burned his fingers. "Mac's done everything that's been asked of him," Riley says. "I don't know if he could carry a team anymore. And he would probably like to start, but he likes his role here."
For now, McAdoo feels he's home at last—even if home is a furnished studio apartment overlooking a parking lot in Culver City. McAdoo has finally come to grips with who he is and where he is, and he'd dearly love to help the Lakers win a title. "I'm sure that accepting his role with this team was part of his struggle in the beginning," says Kupchak. "Do you know who he is? You're bringing off the bench what was at one time the most exciting player in the NBA. It's not just a case of him being happy to be here, to be anywhere in the league. Mac is a star."