Before the New Jersey Nets beat the Indiana Pacers 120-114 in Indianapolis last week for a club-record 11th straight victory, Len Elmore of the Nets was standing at the edge of the Market Square Arena court, chatting up the Pacers' Billy Knight. A white-haired woman in the first row arose. "Billy!" she bellowed. The two turned. "Is he going to win tonight?" she said, pointing at Elmore.
Elmore and Knight looked at each other and smiled. But the woman, cross now, persisted. "Tell him!" she cried. "He won last night! We gotta take turns on this."
As the Hoosier harridan soon found out, if there's one team you can't negotiate with these days, it's the Nets. Led by a couple of forwards, 30-year-old Wallace Edgar (Mickey) Johnson and 22-year-old Charles Linwood (Buck) Williams, last week they also knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers 110-96 and rebounded from a 133-108 streak-ending comeuppance in Boston to beat the New York Knicks 100-96 at home.
Johnson and Williams are the NBA's two most common surnames, but little else about the Nets follows form. They sustained their streak with two other top forwards—Albert King and Mike O'Koren—ailing. And despite being one of the league's shortest teams, averaging just a smidgen under 6'7", they lead the NBA in outrebounding opponents; at week's end, the Nets' margin was more than six a game. Something's in the air in East Rutherford, where the Nets play their home games, besides carcinogens.
How have the Nets survived, and thrived, at less than their fittest? Says Darwin Cook, a starting guard, "Simple. We've been forcing people defensively, and then offensively things just come naturally." Indeed, during the streak they scored only two more points per game than during their first 26 games this season, but their defensive average improved by six points in that time.
And they are at last being appreciated. When New Jersey rose to the occasion—it was Mahwah Night—and beat the Lakers last week, the first sellout crowd ever at Byrne Meadowlands Arena bore witness. With Saturday's defeat of their cross-river rivals, the arriviste Nets were 25-14, good for third in the NBA's aristocratic Atlantic Division. Meanwhile, the 13-24 Knicks, who start Edmund Sherod, a guard the Nets let go twice, were last.
It's more than a coincidence that New Jersey has won 21 of 32 since Mickey Johnson joined the team on Nov. 10. Johnson was the late throw-in in the trade that sent Guard Phil Ford to Milwaukee for the rights to Fred Roberts, an erstwhile BYU star now playing in Italy. Johnson, who's considered a "small" forward although he's 6'10", got a chance to start when King suffered a knee injury on Jan. 1. For the 21 points and 8.5 assists he averaged in his first four starts, Johnson was named NBA Player of the Week. And in his fifth start, in the win against L.A., Johnson shot 15-for-21 and had seven rebounds and four steals. Even pop music seems to have taken notice: Toni Basil's recent No. 1 hit, Mickey, has been following Johnson around like a tail. The organist at the Meadowlands began playing a quick riff of it after each Johnson bucket. He doesn't particularly like the association. "That song's about a gigolo," he says. "I'm not a gigolo."
But this Mickey has been around. He's a nine-year veteran, from tiny Aurora (Ill.) College, playing with guys who all seem to be recent alumni of the ACC, and he isn't caught up in Coach Larry Brown's rah-rah, undergrad atmosphere. If the team bus is set to leave at 5:30 p.m., most of the players will show at 5:15. Johnson ambles up at 5:29. But then, his attitude upon coming to the Nets wasn't just cavalier; it was hostile. "He was devastated by the trade, and I could see it in everything about him," says Brown. "So we had a few heart-to-hearts."
Truth is, Brown hadn't wanted Johnson. "I wanted Roberts and a first-round pick," he says, "and I thought we'd get that. I didn't want an older small forward who might by his presence kill the confidence of O'Koren and Albert. It was [General Manager] Bob MacKinnon's decision."
And Johnson wanted no part of the Nets. "I resented coming here," he says. "I didn't think it was in my best interests to leave a veteran team, one of the top five, and come to an inexperienced one. It [the move] has turned out O.K., but I still don't know. It could happen that I'll be traded tomorrow."
With King fit again, Johnson resumed his sixth-man role in the win over the Knicks, but he may have made himself too valuable to let go. He's New Jersey's best player in "the breakdown," that time when the 24-second clock hits a single digit and the options in the Nets' double-post offense have been exhausted. Since trading Ray Williams to Kansas City during the off-season, New Jersey hadn't had anyone who could "do" the breakdown. But against L.A., with the Nets nursing a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, Johnson found himself in the backcourt with the ball as the shot clock hit six. He let go a 27-footer that swished through, crisp and clean and no caffeine. Suddenly the score was 100-88 Jersey, and the Nets were on their way to their second-largest victory margin of the season.
It was the kind of shot Ray Williams would have made last year, when the Nets surprisingly qualified for the playoffs. But with Guard Otis Birdsong, an even more notable shooter than Williams, coming back from a knee injury that kept him out of 47 games last season, Williams became expendable. "A team can't have $1.4 million invested in two players at the same position," says Brown. "It wouldn't be fair to either of them. And we thought Phil [whom the Nets received for Williams] and Otis getting back together would take some of the pressure off Otis."
It didn't. Brown wanted Birdsong—then 26, the oldest starter—to be the Nets' leader. He and Ford had been a proven backcourt combination at Kansas City from 1978 to 1981. But Birdsong, a three-time all-star, struggled at the start of the season. Like an elevator, Otis would be up and down, scoring 20 one night and pressing the next. A bout of flu, a series of poor games and then the sudden trade of his close friend—Ford hadn't performed up to expectations, either—left Birdsong disconsolate. Brown even took him out of the starting lineup for a week.
Birdsong reappeared as a starter on Dec. 29 after his replacement, O'Koren, had suffered a broken right wrist, and shot nine-for-14 in a win over Atlanta. Having shuffled five different starting guard combinations, Brown at that point settled on Birdsong and Cook. He uses nine-year veteran Foots Walker as a group sedative, sending him in when his "young kids"—a favorite Brown tautology—need settling down.
Brown's biggest young kid is Center Darryl Dawkins, the former 76er who seems to have found in New Jersey the college team he never played for. His rebounding (5.2 per game) is slightly off from last season, and he's still foul-prone, causing Elmore and Mike Gminski to log a lot of minutes in relief. But Dawkins is shooting .611 and contesting and blocking—2.1 a game—more shots than ever. "Darryl has to be doing something right," says Birdsong. "We won 11 in a row with him. It's like in Philadelphia—people criticized him a lot, but they'd still get to the finals." Adds Buck Williams, "One ingredient we didn't have last year was the 6'11" guy who could block shots and clog the middle. It's freed me up. I'm going outside for the jump shot, and I'm able to put the ball on the floor more."
Even after winning Rookie of the Year honors last June, Williams, a 6'8", 215-pound power forward, felt he should improve his jump shot and also drive more. He pursued those goals while dominating the Southern California Pro Summer League and then assisted Brown at a teaching clinic in Italy. "I'd show kids fundamentals and it refreshed me," he says. "I probably got more out of it than they did."
So far Williams has been the team's constant. He trimmed his California-shaped sideburns just before the streak began. (Gminski did the opposite, forswearing shaving until the Nets lost.) Only once in 21 games before the loss to the Celtics had Williams failed to attain double figures in points and rebounds. He ranks third in the NBA in field-goal percentage (.610) and second in rebounding (12.9), and is only beginning to explore his enormous talent.
That could be said for the young kids as a group. Admitting that the Nets had played "tight for four quarters" against New York after its embarrassing defeat in Boston, Williams said, "Our problem is learning how to accept winning and losing," by which he meant the Nets had taken both the streak and its inevitable end too seriously. But Williams wasn't about to regrow his burns, and Gminski, clean-shaven in beating the Knicks, once more put away his razor.