HPB 1969-73: Deja Vu



Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
Déjà vu

When Wilt Chamberlain finally broke through to beat the Celtics with the 68-13Seventy Sixers team of 1966-67, his fans, (and I was one) anticipated that such a powerful team would repeat. And they looked good, going 62-20 in 1967-68 and taking a 3-1 lead on the Celtics. But Boston came back to beat them and win two more titles, leaving the for the ’66-67 Sixers stand to alone in NBA history. Then came the 1971-72 Lakers, who stormed to a 69-13 record and won Wilt his second title. His career was winding down but maybe he could end it with a second straight championship. And they looked good, going 60-22 and making it back to the finals and winning the opening game- only to have it slip away once again. When the dust had cleared, this era ended the same way it had started, with the Knicks on top. They’ve never won since. The next pro basketball dynasty had yet to arrive and the game’s progress in establishing itself in the America sports market stalled.

There was a team that felt they were about to be the next dynasty and it was the team that had had the previous dynasty. The Celtics had built themselves up form a 34-48 to a 44-38 team to a 56-26 teams to a 68-14 tea with a 33-6 home record and a record 32 road victories. Their 56 win team of the year before was 2-11 against west coast teams. This year they were 9-1. And the Celtics certainly knew how to beat the Lakers.

But first they had to get revenge on the Knicks, who were also having a revival at 57-25, their best record since the 69-70 champs. They met in the eastern finals after dispensing with the Bullets, (Knicks in 5), and the Hawks (Celtics in 6) in the first round. The result was a wild, improbable series. It started with an embarrassing rout of the Knicks by the Celtics in Boston, 134-108. The Celtics won every quarter by 4-8 points and just progressively built up the lead. White scored 30, Havlicek 26, Cowens and Don Chaney 18 and Don Nelson had 21 coming off the bench. Frazier scored 24 but it wasn’t nearly enough. Dave DeBusschere: “Nobody scores 134 points on us.”

And nobody did in the second game in New York, which was an embarrassing rout of the Celtics by the Knicks, 129-96. This was a blow-out from the beginning as the Knicks led by 11, 18 and 31 after each of the first three quarters. Both teams had one 20 point scorer (Frazier with 24, Havlicek with 21) but the Knicks had 8- count ‘em, 8- double figure scorers to 5 for the Celtics. Paul Silas: OK, Ok, Each team had had its fun. We killed them and they killed us. The party is done. The joking is over.”

The fun really ended in game three back in Boston. The Celtics had fallen behind by 10 at the half but rallied to lead by 2 early in the fourth period when Havlicek tried to force his way past a DeBusschere pick and hyperextended his left shoulder. He was in such agony that he needed help to take off his jersey in the locker room and the trainer had to comb his hair. The Knicks rallied to win, 98-91. Havlicek had scored 29 points, Cowen 27 and White 24. But nobody else scored more than 4 points. Frazier was the only 20 point scorer for the Knicks at 23 but five Knicks were in double figures.

Havlicek sat on the bench for game 4 in MSG and watched his heroic teammates take a 76-70 lead before, (from “The Picture History of the Boston Celtics”), “giving up the ball without a shot on seven straight possessions on four bad passes, two offensive fouls and a three second violation. Two overtime periods later, the Knicks were 117-110 victors.” Heinsohn was convinced they were going 5 on 20,007: 5 Knicks, 2 referees, (Jack Madden and Jake O’Donnell), and the 20,000 fans: “You’ve got to be up by 20 points going into the fourth quarter this place and we were only up 16. We played a heck of a super ballgame and we were only up 16.” The home team had an edge in free throw attempts. Heinsohn: “Knicks 38 Celtics 23. Who are they kidding?” White had scored 34 and Cowens 33 but the only other player with more than 5 points was Nelson, playing in Hondo’s place, with 16. Silas had those 5 points but also had 23 rebounds. Frazier went off for 37 for the Knicks, DeBusschere had 22/10 and four other Knicks were in double figures.

Havilcek returned for game 5 in Boston with the Celtics now facing elimination and tried to play essentially with one arm. It was the Willis Reed situation but this time against the Knicks and it worked for the Celtics. Hondo amazingly scored 16 points and even added 5 rebounds as the Celtics won 98-97. This one was a nail biter all the way The Celtics won the first quarter 29-25, led by 6 the half and after three and then bared held on to win. The Knicks had 6 double figure scorers but the leader, Frazier, had only 21. The Celtics had five but their leader, Cowens, had 32 points and 16 rebounds. Havlicek had only 9 points in game 6 in MSG but his team matched the Knicks with 5 double figure scorers in a 110-100 win that evened the series. Frazier and Monroe had 29/22 but Cowens and White had 26/25. A 28-18 final quarter was decisive.

Going back to Boston, the Celtics looked to be in pretty good shape at this point but it all fell apart in the deciding game 7. “Even with the Knicks playing their worst quarter of the series, (seven turnovers and 36 percent shooting), the Celtics managed only a 22-19 lead at the quarter. Havlicek entered the game late in the first period and the Knicks soon began exploiting the damaged captain’s lack of mobility, challenging his dribbles and sagging on him. Under heavy pressure, two of his bad passes and a blocked shot gave them six points in three minutes and New York went on to a 94-78 triumph.” The Knicks led 45-40 by halftime and 72-57 after three. Frazier had 25, Cowens 24 and White 22. The Knicks had 5 guys in double figures to 4 but the biggest difference was that their bench scored 13 points and Havlicek’s 4 points were the only ones Boston got from a non-starter. The 78 points the Celtics scored were their lowest in a playoff game since 1950, long before the 24 second clock was adopted.

Frazier: “hey, I’m not proud of this 7 games thing. We’re supposed to be the smart team, right? We’re playing a team with a one-armed superstar, right? Yet we didn’t exploit them until today. The Celtics won their last two games on sheer hustle and guts. White, Cheney- they were great. Cowens- that man is unbelievable. Wherever we went, it seemed as if he was always there. Proud? I’m not proud. I think we were lucky, real lucky.” Havlicek: “I think we had the tools to go all the way. This series was our biggest hurdle and we just didn’t jump high enough. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”

Frazier was looking forward to another confrontation with the Lakers. “It will be nice to see Jerry (West). Between us, it will be a matter of pride.” But West was now 35 years old. “There’s no question that there are a lot of things I can’t do that I once could, particularly on offense. Wilt Chamberlain was 36 and like West, nearing the end of his career. It was entirely possible that neither man would get a chance at another title. Happy Hairston had been injured most of the season and the Lakers had picked up 33 year old Bill Bridges. Gail Goodrich was 29 and Keith Erickson 28. Only Jim McMillan at 24 was in the first half of his career. The Knicks were no spring chickens either. Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas were 32, Willis Reed an old 30 because of his knees, Bill Bradley 29, Earl Monroe 28, also with knee problems, Walt Frazier the youngest member of the starting line-up at 27 and his old mate, 36 year old Dick Barnett was still around. It was now or perhaps never for both teams.

My memory of the 1973 finals is mostly about Lucas hitting outside bombs, (which seemed uncharacteristic for such a great rebounder), and the Lakers being unable to do anything about it. I don’t remember much of Reed and associate him much more with the Knicks’ 1970 title, not with this one. But it was Reed who was the MVP of the 1973 finals. They also had Frazier, at the height of his ability, Monroe, the league’s most dazzling one-on-one player, DeBusschere scoring, rebounding and playing sound defense underneath, a pair of fast and agile back-up guards in Dean Meminger and Henry Bibby, and a “banger” back-up big man named Phil Jackson. Reed: “The ’73 team was a better playoff team. It was a good team to watch in terms of the style of basketball. Good shooting, good passing, good technique.

The Lakers’ route to the finals had been made easier when the Milwaukee Bucks were upset by the Golden State Warriors in the first round. The Bucks had had another stellar year, matching the Lakers with a 60-22 record. The Warriors were only 47-35. But the Warriors took the Bucks down in 6 games, including 86-100 clincher in Milwaukee. The Bucks had won both of their games by 20 points, including the opener but lost the three other games by a total of 11 points. The Lakers then crushed the Warriors in 5 games, including 126-70 in game three, which was the largest margin of victory in NBA playoff history. Rick Barry led the Warriors with 10 points, the only Warrior in double figures. Yup, 10 points.

“The NBA Finals” said that the Knicks asked the Lakers to postpone the first game for a day because they were exhausted from their series with the Celtics but the Lakers refused, which made the Knicks angry. This seems strange today: don’t the TV networks and the league, (which does what the network wants), decide these things? That there could be an agreement between the teams on such a basis illustrates how the NBA was a low-profile organization at this point.

The Lakers took a 59-49 lead over the tired Knicks at halftime of the first game, built it up to 20 and held on to win 115-112. Erickson preserved the win with a defensive rebound and a quick pass down court to Bridges as time expired. A 20-32 final quarter, in retrospect seems significant but at the time I assumed the Lakers were on their way to a second straight tile. Maybe Chamberlain and West could go out on top, which I very much hoped to see. Goodrich had 30 points and McMillan 27. DeBusschere had 25 and Bradley 24 but Walt Frazier was 5 for 13 from the field and scored only 12 points. “My worst playoff game that I can remember.”

Willis Reed: “After that, we took names on them and won the next four games in a row.” Thinking the Lakers were obviously the best team in the sport, I was totally shocked by what transpired. Obviously the Knicks weren’t. “The NBA Finals”: “In game 2, New York slowed the Lakers’ fast break with a get-back effort on defense. The Knicks took a 10 point lead into the fourth quarter but Los Angeles charged in the final minutes. Only when McMillan missed a pair of free throws with 24 seconds left was the victory assured. The Knicks evened it at 99-95. The Lakers had 19 turnovers and missed 13 free throws.” Lucas, Reed and Jackson took turns hacking Wilt and he missed 8 of 9. West found enough youth to score 32 points and McMillan had 26 but only one other Laker was in double figures. New York had five of them, including 26 from Bradley and 20 from a comebacking Frazier. Phil Jackson came off the bench for 17 points and 7 rebounds.

“Game 3 in New York appeared to be a debacle for the Knicks as both Bradley and DeBusschere struggled for a combined 8 of 27 from the floor. Chamberlain took only three shots and West suffered from two strained hamstrings. Still, the Lakers managed to come back. The Knicks survived on Reed’s jumpers and 9 fourth quarter points from Monroe who finished with 21. New York won, 87-83 to take the lead at 2-1.” Reed had 21/10 and Monroe 21. McMillan had 22 for the Lakers. West and Goodrich totaled 30 points on 11 for 29 shooting. Frazier and Bradley had 23 on 9/25. West: “I don’t’ feel either team has done badly on offense. They’ve done just about as well as the defenses will let them.”

The Laker’s defense let DeBusschere come out on fire in game 4, hitting 11 of 15 first half points. He wound up with 33 points and 14 rebounds. “Still it was tight down to the end. At 0:48 with the Knicks up by two, Bradley missed. Chamberlain and Reed went for the rebound and deflected it. DeBusschere picked it up and laid it in as Wilt fouled him. The free throw gave New York a 103-98 win and a 3-1 lead in games.” West and Goodrich each had 23 for the Lakers

“Game 5 in the Forum was another tight one but the Knicks got the lead down the stretch. Then DeBusschere went out in the fourth period with a sprained ankle and things seemed in doubt until Monroe scored eight points in the last two minutes to ice it, 102-93.” Monroe had 23, Bradley 20 and Frazier 18 but Reed had the best game with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. Goodrich led the Lakers with 28 points but West scored only 12 on 5 for 17 shooting. Chamberlain gave his all in his last shot at a championship, scoring 23 and pulling down 21 rebounds. Wilt: “The Knicks are so well-balanced and have tremendous passing and so many good shooters that you can’t concentrate on one man. The key to the series was that their defense stopped our running game.” I guess maybe defense does win championships.

In two years the Lakers had gone 129-35 during the regular season vs. the Knicks 95-59. But in the finals, the two teams had split 10 games, with the Lakers out-scoring the Knicks 1028-1017. Four the four year period from 1969-73, the Bucks had the best combined regular season record, 245-83 but had only one championship to show for it. The Lakers were second at 223-105 and won one championship with the best record to date but could not repeat. The Knicks went 217-111, (and would have done better with better health for Willis Reed) and won two titles. The only other 200 win team was the Celtics who went 202-126 with no titles. But they were about to reassert themselves.

Meanwhile the ABA continued to be a kaleidoscope. The Pittsburgh franchise and the “Floridians” went out of business, as the Dallas Chaparrals would at the end of the season. The Memphis Tams were saved by the financial intervention of none other than Charley Finlay, who thus became the owner of franchises in three sports- the Oakland A’s in baseball, the “Golden Seals” in hockey and the Tams in basketball. The league countered some of the losses by opening a new franchise, the Conquistadors, coached by K. C. Jones. But one thing didn’t change – the Indiana Pacers won their third championship in four years.

From “The Official Basketball NBA Encyclopedia”: “The caliber of play was rising significantly, as exemplified by the fact that the Kentucky Colonels, who had won 68 games the previous season, fell to 57 in 1972-73, despite having a better team.” The Colonels finished second in the east, behind the Carolina Cougars, who had secured the services of Billy Cunningham from the 76ers, (who, having lost the last vestige of their great 1966-67 team, set a record in the other direction by going 9-73). Billy averaged 24/12 and was named the league MVP over Julius Erving, who topped those numbers in his best statistical season, (31.9 ppg, 12.2 rpg), but whose Virginia Squires finished 3rd, (Billy did have more assists, 6.3 to 4.2). The league almost lost the services of Erving who signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks but a judge ordered him to return to the Squires.

The Cougars, coached by Larry Brown, who had now retired as a player, were 57-27. The second place Colonels, coached by Joe Mullaney were 56-26, (not 57-27) and the Squires, (coached by former Nat Al Bianchi) were just 42-42. The New York Nets, coached by Louie Carnesecca, who no longer had Rick Barry, who was back with the Warriors, were at 30-54 and Finley’s Tams in last at 24-60.

Out west, Utah and Indiana circled around each other all season, with the Stars, coached by former Utah State coach LaDell Anderson pulled ahead at the end, 55-29 vs. 51-33. (Bob Leonard coached the Pacers for 12 seasons, from 1968-80.) Alex Hannum was completing a lengthy coaching career that began in 1956 with the Hawks, then the Nationals, then Warriors, Sixers, Rockets and now the Rockets,
(now the Nuggets). They finished 3rd at 47-37. Jones led the Conquistadors, (what did they call them for short – the Doors?) to a 30-54 record and the dying Chaparrals brought up the rear at 28-56.

Carolina beat the Nets in 5 games and the Colonels did the same to Virginia, despite 29.6/9.0 from Doctor J, and 18.6 from 20 year old George Gervin. Dan Issel averaged 31.6 for Kentucky. Out west the Pacer beat the Rockets in 5 and the Star swept San Diego who thus failed to conquer them. That set it up: the four best teams in the league would be going head to head.

The Colonels surprised the Cougars in game one 113-103, thus ensuring them a road split. A 25-17 second quarter was key. Mount had 31 and Issel 24. Cunningham had 25 but nobody else was close. The Cougars roared in game two, 125-105, winning every quarter. Mount had 29 but this time he lacked help. NBA vets Cunningham and Joe Caldwell had 27 and 23 for Carolina.

Kentucky dominated game 3 back in Louisville, taking a 57-45 halftime lead and winning 108-94. Carolina’s leading scorer was center Tom Owens with 17. Dan Issel had twice that for the Colonels. But Carolina came back to earn a split of their own, taking a 31-21 first quarter lead, seeing it slip to 53-50 at the half but building it back up to a 102-91 final. Cunningham had 32 and Mack Calvin, whom they had obtained from the Floridians had 23. Issel and Wendell Ladner matched that for the home team, with 31 and 23. But those were the only double-figure men for Kentucky while Carolina got 14 from Steve Jones, another recent acquisition, and 10 from Owens.

The Cougars took the lead in the series with a 112-107 win in Greensboro but it would their last win of the season. This was a back and forth game with the Cougars winning the first period 31-23 but the Colonels the second 29-18. A 29-22 final quarter was decisive for the home team. Issel had 36 points and Gilmore 26 but Cunningham scored 30 for Carolina and had help from Jones (21) and three other double figure scorers.

Then the Colonels took over, winning game 6 in Louisville 119-100, winning every quarter behind 25 from Mount and 24 from Issel plus four other double figure scorers. Cunningham had 26 and Caldwell 21 but it wasn’t enough. The Colonels closed it out, not in Greensboro but in Charlotte, 107-96. A 26-18 first quarter and 29-18 third quarter did it. Joe Mullaney’s locker room speeches must have been pretty good. Both teams had 5 double figure guys but Issel had 31 and nobody on the home team got to 20.

The Pacers took care of the Stars in six games. That didn’t look like a likely result in the opener, won by the Stars 124-107. A 35-23 fourth quarter was decisive. Willie Wise had 29 and Zeke Beatty 21 to offset George McGinnis’s 31 and Donnie Freeman 23 but Utah had six double figure scorers to 5 and 18 points to 11 from the guys who didn’t get there.

Indiana got the split with a 116-110 win thanks to a 36-26 second quarter. They had only three double figures guys but Freeman scored 31, McGinnis 29 and Brown 23, which was enough to overcome 5 double figure guys on the Stars, (led by Wise with 29), because they were supported by six other guys who scored 33 points. They then took the lead back in Indy with a 118-108 win. Same recipe: McGinnis 31, Freeman 29 and Brown 21. Mel Daniels had 11 and five other guys scored 25 more. Beatty had 27 and Wise 25 for the Stars.

Utah then returned the favor, gaining a split with a 104-103 win in a great game. The Stars led by 6 after one, the Pacers by 3 at the half, the Stars by 1 after three and then came a 23-23 final quarter. Jones recalled the days of his youth with 34 points and Wise had the wisdom to score 28. McGinnis, becoming a big star in the league, had 36 but didn’t get enough help.

But that was it for the Stars. The Pacers won another great game in Salt Lake City by almost the same score, 104-102. This was actually closer. The Pacers led by 1 after one quarter. The Stars led by 2 at the half. The game was tied going into the fourth quarter but the visitors pulled it out to take a 3-2 lead. Wise scored 34 and Jones 20 but Ron Boone, with 17 was the only other double-figure guy with 17. The Pacers had five of them, led by Daniels with 23 and Freeman with 21. The Pacers closed it out back home, 107-98. The Stars threw seven double figure scorers at them but none scored more than Wise’s 17. The Pacers had only five but McGinnis had 23 and Freeman 21. A 29-21 first quarter and 27-18 third quarter did the trick. I guess Bobby Leonard could make half-time speeches, too.

That gave the ABA it’s most natural rivalry for the final: Indiana vs. Kentucky. The venues were full of fans but they didn’t seem to matter to the teams: four of the seven games would be won by the visitor. First up was a 111-107 overtime victory by the Pacers in Louisville. A shocking 38-19 opening quarter by the visitors was offset by a 34-14 third quarter by the home team. I guess Leonard had the better pre-game speech and Mullaney the better halftime speech. Freddie Lewis relieved old times with 29 points and 13 assists but Dan Issel more than answered with 33 points and 20 rebounds. Both teams had five double figure scorers.

The Colonels responded with a 114-102 win. They took a 10 point halftime lead which disappeared in a 22-33 third quarter. But they closed it out with a 35-22 fourth. The Pacers had six double figure scorers to five but only McGinnis had more than 20, (with 28), but Issel had 28 and Gilmore 29 with 26 rebounds. (BasketballReference.com shows the full box score for the finals: just points before that.)

Kentucky then took the lead with a 92-88 win in Indianapolis, making a 26-14 first quarter hold up. Gilmore continued to dominate with 28 points and 16 rebounds. Issel had 18/14. McGinnis had 20/17 for the Pacers, Daniels 21/11 and Hillman 12/11. The battles underneath must have really been something. The Pacers pulled even with a 90-86 win Gilmore was held to 18/8 but Issel had 21/15. McGinnis was 20/13, Daniels 15/12 and Hillman 17/18. Indiana then won at Louisville 89-86. Issel was 31/17 and Gilmore 17/17 with 11 assists. But Daniels had 17/20 and McGinnis 17/16 but Freddie Lewis won it with 31 points. 92-88, 90-86, 89-86. It was like the same game being played over three days.

The Colonels came back in a big way 109-93, in Indy, naturally. A 29-17 fourth quarter broke up a close game. Gilmore had 29/21, Issel 22/9 and, in another blast form the past, Louie Dampier had 25 McGinnis had 26/15 and Daniels 17/11 but they got no help. But the Pacers won the title in Louisville, 88-81. A 24-11 third quarter was decisive. The Colonels had five double-figure scorers to four but the only 20+ guy was McGinnis with 27.

In the four years from 1969-73, there were three ABA teams that averaged 50 wins a year in the regular season: the Pacers, (215-121), the Stars, (same) and the Colonels (213-123). The Pacers won three titles and the Stars one. The Colonels were still looking for one.

Hoosier History Part 3 - The Indiana Pacers of the ABA

The ABA had never looked better but the league still didn’t have a full-fledged TV contract and Commissioner Jack Dolph, a former TV executive who had been hired to get one, resigned. His problem: the league’s cities: Greensboro, (home base for the Carolina Cougars), Louisville, (Kentucky Colonels), Indianapolis (Indiana Pacers), Norfolk, (Virginia Squires, New York, (really Long Island), Memphis, Salt Lake City, (Utah Stars), Denver, San Diego and Dallas, (which was on its way out). Just not enough big markets for the major networks and cable TV was in its infancy.
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