HPB 1969-73: “Almost like pure basketball”

SWC75

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“Almost like pure basketball”

Despite the Knick’s wonderful year, the predominant thinking in the NBA was that the team that had the next great big man would have the next great dynasty. And the next great big man was 7-2 Lew Alcindor, who had led UCLA to three straight national championships. (It would have been four but freshmen were not eligible.)

“The NBA Finals” on Alcindor: “John Wooden often said Alcindor was the most valuable college player ever. The UCLA coach emphasized that most valuable didn’t necessarily mean most talented. It simply meant that Alcindor was the kind of gifted, versatile player who could take a team beyond the sum of the players. Without a doubt, he was the best college-age center in history, the kind of player to whom al the adjectives apply. Well-schooled. Intelligent. Dominating. He was the single player around which a championship could be built.”

In his first year, the Bucks stumbled to a 16-13 start but when they got their roles figured out they went on a 40-13 run that was better than the Knicks had over the same stretch, (34-19). But they came up short in the playoffs, losing in 5 games in the Eastern semi-finals. Alcindor was immediately the leagues’ most productive center Chamberlain missed much of the season. Russell was retired. Nate Thurmond averaged 21.7 points and 17.7 rebounds but was also dealing with injuries, playing only 43 games. Elvin Hayes was a forward who played some center for the San Diego Rockets and averaged 27.5/16.9. Wes Unseld was at 16.2/16.7, Willis Reed 21.7/13.9. Big Lew scored 28.8, second in the league to Jerry West and pulled down 14.5 rebounds per game. With his size and length, he was league’s most intimidating shot blocker, although that wasn’t an official stat yet.

The problem as his supporting cast. There were some good players but most of them were staring at Lew’s belly button. The second leading scorer was 6-1 Flynn Robinson at 21.8. Then came 6-5 205 Jon McGlocklin (17.6) and 6-6 195 Bob Dandridge (13.2). Nobody averaged more than Robinson’s 5.5 assists. The second leading rebounder was 6-5 195 Greg Smith (8.7). Dandridge was third at 7.7. There was some size on the bench with 6-10 245 Dick Cunningham and 6-9 235 Don Smith but mostly it was Alcindor and bunch of guards and swing-men. They had a lot of speed and agility but also a lot of Big Lew taking on entire front lines of other teams. Still, it was enough to finish 30 games over .500, just four games behind the Knicks.

Meanwhile in Cincinnati, things were not going well. The Royals, with Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson, had been the third best team in the East behind the Celtics and 76ers for years. But then Bob Cousy, who had bene a successful coach at Boston College, was called in to put the team over the top. Instead, he destroyed it, concluding that his players were the problem. He even activated himself, age 41 and not having played in more than 6 years, to try to run the team from the court. Cousy then traded Lucas to the Warriors and tried to trade Robertson to the Bullets. But Oscar had a no-trade clause, giving him veto power over any proposed trade. And he vetoed this one. But he wanted to get away from Cousy and when a trade to Milwaukee was proposed, where he could join Alcindor and the incipient dynasty, he agreed.

The Bucks also added 6-8 215 Bob Boozer and 6-2 Lucius Allen, who had been a key player on Alcindor’s UCLA teams. Lew upped his game to a league leading 31.7 points and 16.0 rebounds, which finished a close 4th to Chamberlain, (18.2), Unseld (16.9) and Elvin Hayes (16.6). Robertson muted his previous scoring but still got 19.4 ppg, 5.7 rebounds and 8.2 assists. Dandridge turned into a borderline star player with 18.4 ppg and 8.0rpg. McGlocklin scored 15.8. Smith hustled his way to 11.7/7.2 while Boozer averaged 9.1/5.4 coming off the bench.

Robertson’s contributions went beyond the numbers: Ed Jucker, his coach at the University of Cincinnati: “No one was equal to him. I always called him a complete ball player and there are not many complete players. But he could play any positon.” Kansas Coach Dick Harp: “He had unbelievable control of a basketball game and many times he looked like he was taking a walk in the country when he did it. He was so much in control of things. He had the size, the quickness, everything. He had all those great blessings but among them he had great judgement about what to do with the ball.” Modern observers have described Robertson as a 60’s version of Magic Johnson who could score like Michael Jordan but Pete Newell had a different comparison. “Oscar played forward more like Larry Bird plays forward. He was such a great passer. He bought the ball up even though he was playing forward. He was so tough when he got the ball. Oscar would go down and get it. Then they’d clear for him and he’d just take it on his own. There was no way you could stop Oscar one-on-one from penetrating and getting his shot.” Oscar was more truly a point guard in the Bucks phase of his career but he gave them someone who was in charge out there and someone who could make his teammates better.

The result was a juggernaut. Coached by Minoa native Larry Costello, the Bucks swept all ten exhibition games, lost their second regular season game and the ripped off 16 in a row, two short of the record 18 game winning streak the Knicks had had the year before. Later came a 10 game winning streak and a 20 game streak that did beat the Knick’s record. They won games by 20 or more points 19 times, the peak being reached on January 10th when they destroyed the Bullets 151-99. They outscored their opposition by an average of 11.9 points per game, 6.4 more than the second highest point differential, which belonged to the Bulls. Nobody scored as much as the Bucks did, (118.4) and only the defending champion Knicks and the Bulls, (coached by defensive fanatic Dick Motta), and gave up less than the Buck’s 106.3, (they were 105.0 and 105.4, respectively).

They wound up 66-16, then the second best record in NBA history to the ’67 76ers. The NBA was now split into four divisions Atlantic, Central, Midwest and Pacific and the Bucks were in the Midwest Division with the Bulls, Suns and Pistons, which they won by 15 games, even though everybody in the division had a winning record. The realignment had been necessitated by the addition of three new teams, the Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Portland trailblazers. That watered down the league and tended to produce better records than the established teams would normally have had but none of the expansion teams were in the Midwest.

There was one note of concern: They’d played the Knicks five times and lost four of them, three times failing to reach 100 points. Willis Reed’s tough, physical style of play seemed to get in Alcindor’s head. But the Knicks had a problem of their own: their old rivals, the Bullets. The Bullets had won the East in 1969 but been swept by the Knicks in the playoffs. They almost got their revenge in 1970, losing in seven games. It seemed unlikely, though, that they would be a problem this time. They struggled through the regular season 42-40, barely enough to win the league’s weakest division, the Central. Wes Unseld had sprained an ankle. Gus Johnson’s knees were giving out. Earl Monroe was dealing with sore knees of his own, on a pulled muscle. But Reed also had sore knees: he was beginning his decline at the end of his last good season. The Bullets, featuring two players who averaged 17 rebounds a game that season in Johnson and Unseld, could not be kept off the boards. They wiped out a 2-0 Knicks lead in games by winning four of the least five games of the series, including the seventh game 93-91 when Bill Bradley missed a shot at the buzzer, ending the Knicks brief reign.

The Bucks had had an easy time of it in the West, beating the Warriors 4-1, including a 136-86 game 5 win, after they’d won by 11, 14 and 12 points in their other victories. They then did the same to the Lakers, winning their four games by 21, 18, 11 and 18 points. Wilt held Lew to 25.0 ppg but Lew held Wilt to 22.0 ppg. The Bucks had four other guys average at least 13 ppg.

The finals weren’t any more difficult. The Bullets had shot their …you know what… in beating the hated Knicks and they had no answer for the big man in the middle. Gus Johnson could only play in two games. The result was the second ever 4-0 finals sweep and the first since 1959. The Bucks won by 10, 19, 8 and 12 points, comp0leting a 12-2 post season run. Alcindor averaged 27.0 ppg and 18.5 rpg. Oscar Robertson finally got his championship ring, (like Jerry West he’d not won the national title in college, either, despite going to two Final Fours), and averaged 23.5 points and 9.0 rebounds and Dandridge averaged 20.3. Robertson, who scored 30 in the final game: “It was almost like pure basketball.”

The new NBA dynasty had arrived and the Bucks prepared to dominate the 1970’s in basketball. Or so everyone thought.



Meanwhile, the ABA was fighting to survive. While some NBA players jumped to the new league, most of them were just using the new league for leverage to get better contracts. Meanwhile franchises were shifting as in a shell game, although for the first time, their defending champion stayed put. The Pacers remained popular in Indiana. But the Miami Floridians became a “regional” team just called the Floridians, joining the Carolina Cougars and the Dallas Chaparrals, who became the Texas Chaparrals. The Floridians played “home” games in Miami Beach, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach. That’s hardly a way to develop a consistent fan base. The New Orleans Buccaneers became the Memphis Pros, who wound up being run by the league. There was a plan to make then a regional team, too, called the Tennessee riflemen. They would play games in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Buffalo Gap. Buffalo Gap?!?

The former Oakland Oaks had become the Washington Capitals, then moved to Norfolk to become the Virginia Squires. This caused their star, Rick Barry, to demand a trade. The handsome Barry had already begun his television career and didn’t want to be stuck in Norfolk. He was traded to the former New Jersey Nets where were now the New York Nets. The Los Angeles Stars were playing in front of empty seats and so moved to Utah to become the Utah Stars. The Pittsburgh Pipers merely changed their name to the Pittsburgh Condors. Marty Blake, the general manager said “I don’t know if they picked Condors because they’re birds of prey or because they’re about to become extinct.”

George Mikan had resigned as commissioner. The league decided they could resolve their lack of a TV contracts by hiring a TV executive, Jack Dolph, to replace Mikan. Dolph had been director of sports for CBS since 1959. He’d once written a memo to his superiors to “forget about the ABA”. Now he had to make them remember. What he was able to negotiate is that CBS would televise the ABA All-Star game and six Saturday games for very little money. At least it was some exposure. Six million people watched the All-Star game, which exceeded the total attendance of all previous ABA games. Bill Daniels, the owner of the Utah Stars, had a better idea. He had made his money in a new field called cable TV and decided to televise a game between his Stars and the Pacers through that medium. “The game went by cable TV throughout the northwest. About 300,000 people in over 40 cities in all of Idaho, all of Montana and half of Wyoming saw it.” It was a start.

The new league was getting into some trouble, or at least some controversy, with its player acquisition techniques. It was accused of holding secret drafts of undergraduates. Two players who played in the 1971 NCAA Tournament were found to have signed with ABA teams- Howard Porter of Villanova and Jim McDaniel of Western Kentucky. The achievements of their teams were expunged from the NCAA record book. The NBA and ABA were already having merger talks but they feel through in part because of that, because their allowing players to be “hardship” cases and because the ABA was engaged in a lawsuit against the senior league. The ABA would have to stand on its own for a while.

The Virginia Squires were able to stand on their own feet, even without the handsome face and dulcet tones of Rick Barry. They’d come up with a new star from North Carolina in 6-5 Charlie Scott who averaged 27.1 ppg, fourth in the league. They’d also acquired the services of another ex-Tar Heel, Doug Moe, who seems to have played for everyone in the ABA at one time or another. They also had the equally well-traveled Larry Brown and 6-9 Ray Scott from the NBA. George Carter, a former Bonnie, added 19 ppg. Coached by former Nat Al Bianchi, the won the East with a 55-29 record, over a coming power, the Kentucky Colonels, (44-40), who had the league’s rookie of the year and leading scorer, Dan Issel from Kentucky, who averaged 29.9 ppg. Barry scored 29.4 ppg for the Nets but again missed 25 games due to knee problems and his team finished third at 40-44.

Indiana found themselves in the West rather than the East. They had not stood pat, adding Warren Armstrong, a muscular 6-2 guard coming off a 22.8/10.4.4.3 season with Washington, Purdue shooting star Rick Mount and veteran forwards Don Sidle and Wayne Chapman, (Rex’s father). They rolled to the league’s best record at 58-26. But they needed to because the Utah Stars went 57-27. The Star’s line-up continued to be kaleidoscopic. They added star center Zelmo Beatty from the Hawks and ABA original Red Robbins. They obtained a remuda of former Dallas Chaparral guards in Glen Combs and Ron Boone.

The 1-2 teams in each division survived the first round and met in the semi-finals but the second place teams successfully revolted against the first place team. The Colonels won a tremendously high-scoring series with the Squires, 136-132, 122-142, 137-150, 128-110, 115-107 and 129-117. That’s an average of 128-126. The Colonels won it by deciding to play some defense in those last three games, a sound decision. Scott averaged 28 ppg while Moe and Scott aged 19 apiece. Issel scored 33.8 while the famed backcourt of the Colonels, Louie Dampier, (anther former Wildcat) and Darel Carrier, (a Western Kentucky Hilltoppers) scored 16 and 18, respectively. Perhaps the difference was 6-7 forward Cincinnatus “Cincy” Powell who averaged 19. He was from Portland U. How did that happen? It must have been fun for those who could see it.

Out west, it was a about balance both between and within the teams. The Stars didn’t have anybody who reached 20 points a game in scoring, although Beatty and Willie Wise almost did at 19.7, each. Unheralded Mervin Jackson added 19.0. Boone, Combs, Robbins and George Stone also reached double figures. It’s hard to guard seven guys! The Pacers, as sound as they were, only had 5 double figure scorers, led by 5-10 Bill Keller, another former Purdue star at 24.3, (ten points more than he’d averaged during the regular season). Roger Brown scored 21.3 and Mel Daniels 19.3. The opener was close all the way, tied going into the 4th quarter and won by the Stars 120-118 in Indianapolis, giving the visitors the inside track. After Indiana retaliated with a 120-107 win, the Stars took command in Utah, winning 121-107 and 126-99. The Pacers regained their mojo at home, 127-108 and evened the series with a tough 106-102 win in Utah. But they couldn’t hold serve at home and the Stars pulled off the upset, 108-101. A 41-23 third quarter gave the visitors control of the game – and the series. There were five individual 30 point games in this series with a high of 33. In the eastern series there had been ten such games with a high of 46.

The Stars got off to a roaring start in the final, crushing the Colonels 136-117 and 138-125. Six double figure scorers overcame Carrier’s 36 points and Issel’s 27 in the opener. Beatty matched Issel’s 40 points in game two. Carrier had 25 but Boone and Combs totaled 41 and Willie Wise added 26 for the winners. The Colonels rallied to win game three with Issel, Carrier and Dampier all scoring 23-25 points. The Colonels bolted to a 35-24 lead after the first quarter of game four and made it hold up through three quarters at 97-85, only to have the Stars rally to tie it at 119 and force overtime. The home team held on to win 129-125 and tie the series with 60 points from the Dampier/Carrier backcourt. The Issel-Beatty battle continued in game 5 with Dan getting 33 points and 16 rebounds to Zeke’s 32/22. But Dampier and Carrier were 8 for 29 and scored only 21 points. Four different Stars had 20+ points in a 137-127 win in Utah. The Colonels again responded with a 105-102 win at home. This one featured Powell (31/17) vs. Wise (34/15). Five double figure scorers, 3 in the 20’s beat four with 2 in the twenties. A 33-22 second quarter decided the final game and the championship, which Utah won 131-121. Issel had 41 and Carrier 31 but Beatty scored 36 and Combs, Wise and Jackson all had between 19-22. The ABA had its fourth different champion in four years.

Here Come the Stars: The story of the 1971 ABA Champion Utah Stars
 
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