Pro Basketball History 1974-76: The Celtics Rise Again



Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
(Again, due to length, i'll do this in separate posts.)

The Elephant’s Graveyard

The pages kept turning and some prominent names were at the end of their book. The most prolific player in pro basketball history, Wilt Chamberlain, jumped form the Lakers to the ABA, signing on as coach of the San Diego Conquistadors. Unfortunately, his contract with the Lakers still had a year to go and a lawsuit prevented him from playing for the Conquistadors so his playing career ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Hardly anybody showed up to watch him sit on the bench and he retired after a one-year coaching record of 37-47.

His Laker teammate Jerry West was limited to 31 games due to a nagging groin injury. He performed credibly in those games, averaging 20.3 ppg, 3.7rpg and 6.6 apg at age 36. There were two new stats one of which was right up his alley: steals and blocks. In the final year of his career, he averaged 2.6 steals, which would have been second in the league had he played enough to qualify. Jerry was always famous for playing the passing lanes.

West was willing to come back for more but a dispute with Jack Kent Cooke ended his career: “West wanted to re-negotiate his contract and keep playing, however he said Cooke "basically told my agent to go to hell. I felt I was deceived. When you feel that you're deceived you don't want any part of the organization that deceived you. I could've played another very good year. Every athlete says that. But I could've, and I knew I could've. But I could never have played for the Lakers again, and I wasn't going to play for anybody else." (Wikipedia). However the dispute didn’t prevent Jerry from coming back later as first the Laker’s coach and then their long-time general manger where the championships that eluded him as a player became almost routine.

Another giant of the game had a last season. Oscar Robertson averaged 12.7p/4.0p/6.4a/1.1s in his final season with the Bucks. He helped the team to an NBA-best 59-23 record and to the 7th game of the finals. He then retired as a player and the team went 38-44 the next year with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still at center. he left an even greater mark as a founder and head of the NBA players union: In the “landmark Robertson v. National Basketball Ass'n, an antitrust suit filed by the NBA's Players Association against the league. As Robertson was the president of the Players Association, the case bore his name. In this suit, the proposed merger between the NBA and American Basketball Association was delayed until 1976, and the college draft as well as the free agency clauses were reformed.[3] Robertson himself stated that the main reason was that clubs basically owned their players: players were forbidden to talk to other clubs once their contract was up, because free agency did not exist back then.[16] Six years after the suit was filed, the NBA finally reached a settlement, the ABA–NBA merger took place, and the Oscar Robertson suit encouraged signing of more free agents and eventually led to higher salaries for all players.”

For the Knicks, Willis Reed’s knees final game out. He played only 19 games in the regular season and tried to come back for the playoffs but played only 12 minutes a game, averaging 3.4p and 2.0r and decided to retire. Earl Monroe hurt his leg and played only 41 games, although he did return full time for the playoffs and was able to continue his career. But the Knick’s glory days were over.

The Return of the Celtics

Meanwhile, the Celtic’s glory days were back- sort of. They didn’t re-establish themselves as the dominant team they were in the Russell Era but they were again perennial contenders and perennial contenders are going to win the championship at some point – maybe two as the Celtics did in this period. I remember being disgusted that nobody else had really picked up the dynasty torch after Bill Russell retired and now it was the Celtics that seemed to be grabbing it. I still had hopes that Kareem’s Bucks could establish themselves as the team of the 70’s and win at least a couple more titles before they were done. But when the Celtics beat them in the ’74 final, that slipped away and we were left with the same old champs. I was an undergrad at SU at the time and surrounded by disgusted Knicks fans who were also rooting for Kareem, who was from their city.

But from the Celtic perspective, which I have through a book I bought years ago just to add to my sports library, “The Picture History of the Boston Celtics”, this was the triumphant conclusion of a long climb back to the top that began with the 34-48 record they’d had in 1969-70, the year after Russell’s retirement. They were 44-38 the next year with John Havlicek emerging as a star and Dave Cowens proving he could play center at 6-9 in this league. Then they won the East with a 56-26 record in 1971-72 but were upset by the Knicks in just 5 games. They had the Celtics greatest regular season record ever in 1972-73 with 68-14, just one game off the Laker’s record season the year before but were again knocked off by the Knicks, this time in 7 games, thanks, in part, (a big part), to an injury to Havlicek. Cowens for years later lauded this team as the best he’d ever played on, better than the two later title teams.

The waves parted in 1973-74. The Knicks were crippled by the injuries to Reed and Monroe. They still managed to finish 49-33. The only other winning teams in the East were the Bullets, now in Washington as the “Capitol Bullets”, who finished 47-35, despite the acquisition of Elvin Hayes from the Rockets, (Wes Unseld, Archie Clark and Nick Witherspoon all had injuries), and the Buffalo Braves, who were kept afloat at 42-40 by the league’s leading scorer Bob McAdoo, (30.6p 15.1r). In the West the Bucks went their usual 59-23, beating out Dick Motta’s Bulls, who went 54-28 playing fanatic defense. The Pistons had a rare strong year behind the inside-outside combination of Bob Lanier and Dave Bing, finishing 52-30. The Wilt-less Lakers went 47-35, (13 games worse without the big guy, even at the end of his career). The Warriors were 44-38. The Celtics would face the survivor of the battles between the Bucks, the Bulls and the Pistons – but only one of those teams. No other potential playoff opponent won 50 games.

The Celts were led by Havlicek and Cowens, two perpetual motion machines. Cowens out-hustled the bigger centers he always faced inside and Havlicek ran defenders ragged on the outside. John averaged 22.6p/6.4r/5.9a and Dave 19.0p/15.7r/4.4a. Jo-Jo White manned the point and scored 18.1p/4.3r/5.5a. Paul Silas averaged 11.5p/11.2r and the two Dons- Chaney and Nelson, also averaged in double figures. It was not a very big team: 6-9 at center, 6-7 and 6-5 at forward, 6-3 and 6-5 in the backcourt. But they hustled for 48 minutes. Their games fit together. Like the Knicks in their championship years, you could kick the doors and nothing rattled - or so it seemed.

They blew out to a 29-6 start but then limped to a 27-20 finish. They still won their division by 7 games and had the second best overall record to the Bucks. Coach Tommy Heinsohn: “The league is better this year. Last year, they didn’t believe we were that good. Now they know: they are getting out the siege guns.” Okay… there were grumblings about Heinsohn’s direction of the team. Silas: “It’s like falling in and out of love with someone. We have fallen out of love with Heinsohn.” Heinsohn: “I know the players are grumbling. But you have to understand the situation. This is rubber room time. The players are griping at each other. They can’t stand each other’s smelly feet and they’re looking for something to complain about. It’s a tough time of the season. But we’re doing it the way the old Celtics did it. Get a big lead and let them catch us.” When the Celtics clinched the division title Don Nelson said “What I’d like to do would be to get together a few of the thinking players at somebody’s house and go over the films with a six-pack. But it’s not going to happen. We won 56 games but it was a disappointing season. There’s just not the same attitude as last year.”

It was the Celtics vs. McAdoo in the opening series. Buffalo promptly took a 31-20 lead in the first quarter of the first game and still led 81-69 going into the third quarter. The Celtics blew them away in the fourth quarter, 38-16 for a 107-97 Boston win. McAdoo scored 29 points and a fella named Garfield Heard had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Havlicek was 5 for 18 and scored only 14 points but had 12 assists. Cowens was 30/18 while White scored 24 and Nelson 21. Still in the Boston Garden, the Braves won the second game, 115-105. Again they dominated the first quarter 31-19 but the Celtics closed to 51-49 at the half. It was the closest they would get. McAdoo had 23/20, Heard 22/10 among six Braves with at least 14 points. The Celtics restored order in Buffalo with a 39-22 first quarter leading to a 120-107 win. Now things got really sticky.

The next three games were won by a total of seven points. The Braves won game four, 104-102. The first quarter was 22-22 and the rest of the game wasn’t much different. The Celtics led 74-72 going into the fourth quarter but couldn’t hold that margin. McAdoo scored 44 points and the Braves needed every one of them. The Braves out-rebounded the Celtics 62-38 and they needed every one of those, too. Back in Boston the Braves took a 31-25 first quarter lead but the Celtics won each of the next three quarters by exactly 3 points to win 100-97. This time they out-rebounded the Braves 54-47. McAdoo had 25 points but so did Havlicek. The Braves had 6 double figure scorers to 5 but got only 3 points from other players to 11 for the Celtics. The Celtics then closed out the difficult series with a 106-104 win in Buffalo. The Braves won the first quarter again 26-20 but the Celtics forged an 87-82 lead after three quarters and 97-88 and held on to win, despite two turnovers in the last 20 seconds, both of which led to thunderous McAdoo dunks. Two Jo Jo White free throws clinched it after McAdoo fouled him at the buzzer. McAdoo had 40 points and 15 rebounds. Havlicek had 30/10 Cowens 15/17 and Silas 16/13. Both teams had 51 rebounds. The Celtics had won but how much better than the 42-40 Braves were they?

Next came their old friends, the Knicks, who had eliminated them despite superior Celtic regular season records the previous two years. But this was a very different Knick team with Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas reduced to playing 90 minutes between them in the five games and Earl Monroe and Dave DeBusschere hobbled with injuries. The Celtics won games one and two 113-88 and 111-99 and games four and five 98-91 and 105-94. The one loss was by three points, 100-103. Walt Frazier tried his best, averaging 24.6p/7.4r/3.6a but it wasn’t nearly enough. The Celtics had four players average 15+ points, including Havlicek at 29.6p/3.6r/5.8a. The trend in each game was the Celtics taking control in the second half with superior balance and depth.

That set up a fascinating final between the NBA’s best half-court team, (the Bucks, with Kareem’s sky-hook) and the Celtics, who with their 6-7, 6-9, 6-5 front line had to use defensive pressure and the fast break to offset their height disadvantage. Milwaukee got a bad break when, in a late-season game, Lucius Allen slipped on a warm-up jacket and hurt himself. He was out for the playoffs. That left 36 year old Oscar Robertson, playing the last games of his storied career, to take on the Celtics press. The Celtics shocked the Bucks in the opener in Milwaukee with a 35-19 first quarter. The Bucks worked it back to 69-61 with considerable difficulty by the end of the third quarter but the Celtics pulled away again to a 98-83 finish. Jabbar scored 35 on Cowens, who had to guard him one on one but Kareem’s teammates were 23 for 62 from the field with 18 turnovers.

In the second game, Larry Costello brought everyone but Robertson down-court to set up their offense and let Robertson deal with Don Chaney’s harassment alone. The result was 22 turnovers but a better half-court offense when Robertson did get the ball across. Jabbar scored 36 but Bobby Dandridge scored 24 and three other Bucks were in double figures and the home team won in over-time 105-96. Kareem blocked Cowens running hook shot at the end of regulation.

Cowens went outside, hoping to draw Kareem out in game 3 and it worked. Dave was 13 for 18 from the field and scored 30 points, holding the big guy to 26. The Celtics press was as good as it’s ever been, forcing 11 first quarter turnovers and jumping to a 32-13 lead they never lost before the screaming Boston fans in a 95-83 win. Back came the Bucks as Costello replaced the demoralized Ron Williams, Allen’s replacement, with 6-7 Mickey Davis who scored 15 points, forcing the 6-5 Chaney to cover him and taking the pressure off Robertson. A 21-12 second quarter keyed a 97-89 Milwaukee win to again even the series. Kareem had 34 and Dandridge 21 vs. Havlicek’s 33 and Cowen’s 24 so Davis’ unexpected 15 point performance, (he averaged 5.9 for the season), was the difference.

Now the series alternated and back in Milwaukee the Celtics disappointed the hometown fans with a 96-87 win. Havlicek and Cowens both scored 28 but Jabbar had 37 and Robertson channeled his former self with 23. But White had 18 and Chaney 16 while the only other double figure scorer for the Bucks was Dandridge, who was 4 for 17 and scored just 10 points. Davis scored only 7.

Then came the best game of the playoffs. Milwaukee took a 27-19 first quarter lead and extended it to 12 in the third quarter. But the Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter and “With a little over a minute left in regulation, Havlicek hit a long jumper to tie it at 86, then Robertson was caught in a 24 second violation as time expired. In the first extra period, Milwaukee led 90-88 when Chaney got a steal and zipped the ball to Havlicek. Kareem was back on defense and forced him to take a pull-up jumper. Havlicek missed but got the long rebound and scored to send the game into a second overtime. There Havlicek scored 9 of Boston’s 11 points. With 7 seconds left, he had the ball on the right baseline, and the Boston bench screamed for a timeout. Instead, Havlicek lifted a rainbow over Kareem’s outstretched hand, good for a 101-100 lead. It looked like champagne time.” (“The NBA Finals”)

“But the Bucks called for a time-out and for some strange reason they decided that Kareem shouldn’t take the shot. Instead, he was to set a pick for McGlocklin, who had been hampered by a sprained ankle.
When McGlocklin couldn’t get free, Abdul-Jabbar, with the ball moved to the right of the lane. He looked for the open man but Boston had all options covered. So he dribbled to the baseline, turned and put up the skyhook from 17 feet. Swish, 102-101, Milwaukee.” (Same)

Now the Bucks could return home and wrap up the series before their home fans, winning their second championship of the decade and, with Kareem, get a couple more to establish themselves as the team of the decade. Or not. Heinsohn came up with the last of the strategic adjustments that were the key to the series. He decided to sag back on Abdul-Jabbar and dare the other Bucks to beat his team with outside shots. Cowens front the big guy and Silas played behind him. Kareem missed 11 of 21 shots but still scored 26 and Dandridge and Davis shot 12 for 21 and scored 29 points between them. But Oscar Robertson in his last game went 2 for 13. Cowens had 28 points and 14 rebounds. Havlicek was 6 for 20 and only scored 16 points. But White scored 16, Silas 14 and future star Paul Westphal 12. The Celtics pulled away with a 31-20 second quarter. Abdul-Jabbar led a 26-19 third quarter comeback but the Celtics put it away with a 31-21 finals quarter and a 102-87 win, giving Boston its first ever championship without Bill Russell. Auerbach, the GM puffed away on another victory cigar.

From the “Picture History of the Boston Celtics”: Bob Cousy: “I think defensively, this is the best team ever to come along. We used to play the same way but I’m not sure these kids don’t play it better.” And how did the Celtics feel about Heinsohn’s coaching now? Paul Silas: “I must admit I was wrong about him. The longer the season went on, the better he got. Like a player, he rose to the occasion.”

There’s nothing like winning.

The Nets' Power Play

The ABA continued to reshuffle. Mike Storen, who had built the Indiana Pacers and then the Kentucky colonels into powers, became the new Commissioner, (the 5th in seven years). “The city of San An Antonio enthusiastically welcomed the Dallas Chaparrals and took the rechristened Spurs to heart, turning out in respectable numbers to see the club.” (The Sports Encyclopedia: Basketball). Meanwhile the Virginia Squires could no longer afford Julius Erving and traded him to the New York Nets, giving the league a superstar in the nation’s media capital. However they still didn’t have a TV contract to televise their games regularly.

Erving led the league in scoring for the second straight year with 27.4ppg. He (10.7), Larry Kenon (11.6) and Billy Paultz (10.2) gave the Nets an all double-figure rebounding front line. Brian Taylor and John Williamson were a solid backcourt but it was Dr. J who led the team in assists with 5.5 The Nets got off to a slow start but wound up with a 55-29 record for first place in the East. Storen’s former employer, the Colonels, were second at 53-31. Dan Issel averaged 25.5p/10.2r while Artis Gilmore was 18.7/18/3. Louie Dampier added 17.8p. Billy Cunningham developed a kidney problem that limited him to 52 games but the Carolina Cougars still managed to go 47-37. In the west, it was again a battle of the Utah Stars (51-33) and Indiana Pacers (46-38) but they were joined at the top by the new San Antonio team, (45-39), who had gotten George Gervin in the Virginia Squires sell-off.

The Nets put on a real power play in the playoffs. People wondered if inexperience - they were the youngest team in pro basketball – would be a problem. In the playoffs, they had very little experience losing, beating the remnants of the Squires in 5 games, sweeping the Colonels and beating the Stars in 5 games. They won their games by 12, 19, 28, 12, 13, 19, 2, 13, 4, 24, 3(OT) and 11 points. Overall they out-scored their opponents by 10.6 ppg. Doctor J was the leading scorer in the playoffs for the third straight year with 27.9 ppg with a high of 47 in the opener against the stars. He added 9.6 rpg and 4.8 apg. The ABA had a true superstar and he was in the right place – New York.

Julius Erving (35pts) vs. Colonels (1974 ABA Playoffs)


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
The Golden Warrior

Two teams and perhaps one game mattered in the NBA in 1974-75, or so it seemed. The defending champion Boston Celtics, coached by Celtic legend Tom Heinsohn and the Washington Bullets, coached by Celtic legend K. C. Jones, both won 60 games and lost 22 and nobody else won even 50 games. The Celtics and Bullets played a 95-94 classic in Boston on April 4th that determined home field advantage for the playoffs and the Celtics were unlikely to lose a 7th game in Boston. The box score for that game is interesting. The Celtics had three 20+ scorers: John Havlicek scored 22 and Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White scored 20. Nobody else was in double figures for the Celtics. The Bullets had no 20 point scorers but six guys in double figures. The Celtics had a 10 point first quarter lead melt to 2 points at the half and at the end of three and barely held on to win. Fans looked forward to a dramatic eastern final that would surely determine the championship.

The rest of the league was climbing uphill or falling downhill. Oscar Robertson retired from the Bucks after a contract dispute. Kareem Abdul-Jabber broke his hand against a backboard and missed 17 games, then started demanding to be traded to New York or Los Angeles because they had superior “cultural opportunities”. After averaging 60 wins a year in Kareem’s first five years there, the Bucks slumped to 38-44 and a spot in last place in the Midwest Division. After the season the Bucks gave in and traded him to the Lakers, ending the dream of a Bucks dynasty. The Knicks lost all of their top front court players when Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Jerry Lucas all retired and they had their first losing record in 8 years at 40-42. Jerry West retired from the Lakers, also after a salary dispute and the Lakers finished 30-52. You have to wonder what would have happened if the Bucks had traded Kareem to the Knicks, who obviously had a better team at that point, rather than the Lakers. Bob McAdoo had one of the best individual seasons ever, scoring 34.5 per game and rebounding 14.1 while leading the Braves to a 49-33 record, the best in the league other than the Celtics and the Bullets.

The Portland Trail Blazers had dynasty dreams when they drafted Bill Walton, who had continued the UCLA dynasty when he had arrived on campus. Some even suggested he was better than Kareem, although his game was more like Bill Russell’s- focused on defense, rebounding and the fast break rather than the half-court game. But this bill developed bone spurs in his foot and played only 35 games as the Blazers went 38-44. The Chicago Bulls thought they had scored big when they got Nate Thurmond from the Warriors to play in the middle of Dick Motta’s tough defense. But star forward Bob Love and point guard Norm Van Lier both held out and a slow start led to a 47-35 record that was still enough to win the Midwest. The Detroit Pistons with two stars in Bob Lanier and Dave Bing hoped to improve on their 52-30 record of the previous year but hold-outs and dissension hurt the team and they fell to 40-42. Bing was traded to his hometown of Washington after the season. The former Cincinnati Royals, now known as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings surprised a lot of people by finishing second in the Midwest, 44-38 behind their terrific little guard, Nate Archibald, (26.5p/6.8 A). Nobody expected much from Warriors, now based in Oakland known as “Golden State”. Rick Barry was back but the Warriors needed cash so traded Thurmond, 6-10 Clyde Lee to Atlanta and Cazzie Russell to the Lakers and had one of the lowest payrolls and shortest teams in the league with 6-9 235 Clifford Ray with the 6-7 Barry and 6-6 Keith Wilkes at his side. Their starting backcourt of Butch Beard and Charley Johnson, (no, not the 60’s cardinals quarterback), didn’t scare anybody.

Somehow they scraped their way to 48 wins and won the Pacific division. But, per Coach Al Attles, “I guess no one took us very seriously.” Rick Barry: “I don’t think there’s ever been a team so looked-down upon that wound up winning the championship.” I always thought Nate Thurmond was a great defender, sort of a bigger Bill Russell but Barry said: “Our key change was getting Clifford Ray for Nate Thurmond. Ray was one of the best defensive centers in the game.” Attles: “Clifford gave us that presence. He could close off the middle on defense and set screens on offense.” They also had 6-11 string bean George Johnson. Barry: We got two different looks from our two centers. Ray gave us the physical presence and Johnson brought us shot-blocking.“ This tandem averaged 14 points, 18 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. Per “The NBA Finals: “The 6-9 Ray offered many qualities important to a team – a physical style, an unselfish nature, a solid leadership quotient and a friendly, unassuming manner.” Jamaal Wilkes: “Clifford was sort of like everybody’s big brother. He was very critical in my career in terms of breaking the game down into very simple fundamentals, in keeping loose and helping me to keep it all in perspective.” I wonder how many basketball fans remember Clifford Ray, an example of a player who didn’t put up big numbers but was a big reason why a championship team won.

Wilkes was another reason. He was the NBA Rookie of the year averaging 14.2p/8.2r per game. Called “Silk”, he was quick, smooth and could shoot. But the big reason was the most golden Warrior, Rick Barry himself, who had his best all-around season. He scored 30.6 ppg, 5.7apg and 6.2 apg. “The NBA Finals: “Without question, it was Barry’s team. His confidence had a quality that didn’t endear to opponents around the league. His every step seemed a swagger. His game was steeped in an air of hauteur. Even on a bad night, he knew he would hit for 20 and on a good night, 35 to 40. Yet beneath all these superficial irritants, Barry was a real gamer.” Barry: “I was never the most popular player because I never went out to make friends. I went out to win games.” Attles: “I didn’t have any problems with him. He was like most players. They have their own ideas about things. But he came to play. Rick was the most gifted player on the team so we needed him to play a lot of minutes.” Wilkes: “Playing with Rick isn’t all that bad. I get a lot of open shots because of him, leaving me open. And you learn a lot from just watching him.”

Attles had been a fine defensive guard and he was a defensive coach and he knew how to get his players to buy into defense as being the key to their success. Attles did have one great night as a player for the Warriors- he went 8 for 8 from the field and made his only free throw for 17 points. Unfortunately a teammate scored 100 points that night so nobody noticed. “Attles liked to tell dinner crowds about the night he and Wilt scored 117 between them.”

“With their press, the Warriors found they could come back on opponents. In fact, it became such a pattern that they began joking about it in the locker room at halftime. “We’re down a Dozen. We got ‘em where we want ‘em.” The back court of beard, Johnson and reserves Charles Dudley and rookie Phil Smith were under-rated and close enough in ability that Attles could alternate them and always have fresh legs in the game. Attles: “the four just got after you. They played like a pack of wild dogs.” Attles called Dudley “Grasshopper” because of his “Kung Fu” style. Everyone hit the boards and the Warriors actually led the league in rebounding, despite having no one in the top ten. They made not having strength into one because it meant everyone had to contribute.

They got off to a 27-12 start, then went through an 11-18 slump before winning 10 of their last 14. They were becoming a team that would have a more championship-like record of 59-23 the next year. But this would be the year in which the won the title. It hardly seemed so to the basketball world, which was anticipating a confrontation between the Celtics and Bullets, with the winner then beating the western champs in a walk-over.

The Bullets had the harder time in the first round against McAdoo’s Buffalo Braves, who beat them right off the bat, 113-102, breaking it open with a 30-18 third quarter. McAdoo led the way with a 35p/14r rebound game but Garfield Heard and Randy Smith both had 24 points. Phil Chenier led the stunned Bullets with 23 points. The Bullets responded with a 120-106 win in game 2, breaking it open with a 60-48 second half. McAdoo had 36p/6r but Elvin Hayes, with skills of his own, topped that with 34p/16r while Wes Unseld, who had had seven rebounds in the first game, had 25 in this one. Chenier had another 23 points.

Game 3 in Buffalo, had the same script. The Bullets led by 1 at the half but pulled away to a 111-96 win. McAdoo had 34/19 but Hayes had 30/16 and Unseld pulled down 18 rebounds. Chenier had 28 points. But the Braves won game 4 108-102. McAdoo out-did himself with 50 points and 21 rebounds. Nobody on the Bullets had more than 21 points. The Bullets responded with a 97-93 win at home as Hayes did his McAdoo imitation with 46p/12r. The real thing had 34/13. The Braves tied it up back in Buffalo 102-96. McAdoo was 37/10, Hayes 29/11. Back home in the nation’s capital the Bullets finally subdued the braves with a 28-13 first period on the way to a 115-96 win. McAdoo out-dueled the Big E 36/11 to 24/9 but Chenier had the game of his life with 39 points on 13 for 18 from the field, 13 for 15 from the line and 9 rebounds. McAdoo had averaged 37.4p/13.4r, Hayes 28.4p/11.6r.

The Celtics had rolled over the Rockets in 5 games, despite the efforts of Calvin Murphy (26.6p) and Rudy Tomjanovich (25.8) and were favored to beat the Bullets and repeat as NBA champs. Their win in Houston had not been popular with the local fans. The Celtics had to “shrug off a hail of debris that included ice, shoes, ballpoint pens, a golf ball and a transistor radio” after winning game five 128-115. John Havlicek described Houston as “a combination Syracuse, Philadelphia and St. Louis”.

The Bullets proved to be too much like the Celtics, a reflection of their coach, K. C. Jones. The Celtics took a 55-43 halftime lead in game 1 but the Bullets were even better in the second half, 57-40. Hayes had 34p/12r and Chenier 24p/8r, (despite being only 6-3 180). Jo Jo White scored 27 for the Celtics. Cowens had 18/19 but Havlicek was only 6 for 17 from the field for 16 points. Then the Bullets beat them even worse, 117-92, in the Capital Centre, (they were alternating venues). This time “Hondo” was 4 for 14 for 14 points. “We’ve got to stop worrying about so much about what they’re going to do. Let’s do our own thing.” The Bullets were already doing their thing. Hayes had 29/12, Chenier 25 points and Unseld 16 rebounds.

The Celtics responded with a 101-90 win keyed by a 21-10 third quarter. They did it on the boards, with Cowens getting 24p/21r and Silas 10p/25r. Havlicek broke out with 26 points. Hayes had 23/10 and Unseld 15 boards but Chenier was 7 for 24 from the field for 17 points. But the Bullets took a 3-1 lead with a 119-108 home win, a 65-54 lead holding up through the third (34-34) and fourth (20-20) quarters.
Five Bullets scored at least 16 points, led by Chenier with 27. White led Boston with 32. The Celtics kept their hopes alive with a 103-99 win in Boston. The Celtics led by 1 after one quarter, 5 at halftime and 2 after three quarters. It was that type of game. Chenier had 32 points and Hayes 29 but the Celtics had six double figure scorers to four led by Cowens with 27.

The Bullets closed it out with a 98-92 at home. They led 26-18 after one quarter and 55-40 at the half. The Celtics got back in it with a 26-18 third quarter but came up short in the end. This time the Bullets had six double figure scorers to four. Chenier led with 24. Cowens had 23/21 in defeat. The Celtics had ahd the home field advantage but couldn’t win in Landover, where the Bullets had the league’s best home record at 36-5. From “The Pictorial History of the Boston Celtics”: “In the finale, the Bullets piled up a 53-35 advantage late in the first half and let Boston scramble and fall short again. This was a page form the Auerbach textbook. You dictated, let the opponent react and exploited his reaction. It was a humbling lesson.”

The Warriors had beaten Bill Russell’s Seattle team in six game and Dick Motta’s Bulls in seven. They had to fight their way out of the Seattle arena after they clinched that series. A woman hit Barry with either a beer or her pocketbook, depending on the story. Barry confronted her and her boyfriend tried to intervene. Barry “clocked him” and the fight was on. Six Warriors made it to their locker room. Assistant GM Hal Childs went out to look for the other six and when he didn’t come back, the six who had made it waded back into the crowd looking for their teammates. Somehow, they all got out of the arena intact.

The Bulls series was closer than it needed to be. Rick Barry lost track of the 24 second clock in the final possession of an 89-90 game 2 loss. The Bulls had a 3-2 lead at home and their outstanding forwards Bob love and Chet Walker were having their own way in a 25-16 first quarter when Attles sent ancient Bill bridges, who had been picked up from the Lakers, into the game. His physical defense held Love and Walker to 13 for 34 shooting and 32 points as the Warriors came from behind to win 86-72. In the final game, Rick Barry couldn’t hit the ocean and was actually benched. “The NBA Finals”: “Barry sat on the bench praying for his teammates to bail him out, which they did down the stretch. The Golden State defense forced the Bulls into a cold streak with about seven minutes to go and the warriors pulled even. Then Barry returned to the game and hit several key shots near the end to send his team to the championship round.“ The last three games of this series were 79-89, 86-72 and 83-79. That’s how you had to beat a Dick Motta team.

The final series was the first championship match-up between African American coaches, an occasion that was hardly noted. Attles: “It wasn’t something we thought about. I know it wasn’t on K. C.’s mind because we never mentioned it and we talked a good bit. The only thing we were concerned about was trying to beat each other.“ Barry on the Bullets: “I think they were a bit over-confident. People were talking about they’d sweep us in four, how Mike Riordan was going to shut me down.” Riordan was a scrappy, defense-orient swing-man whom the writers had praised as a “coach’s dream” whose hustled made him more valuable than the superstars who compiled the big numbers.

Due to scheduling conflicts with the ice follies and karate championship, (pro basketball was quite big-time yet), the first game was in Landover and the next two in Oakland. The opener started as expected with the Bullets taking a 54-40 halftime lead. Then the Warriors put on the defensive pressure and roared back to win 101-95. Barry: Our guards just came out and literally beat on and did a job on Kevin Porter. Jamaal Wilkes was playing tough on Elvin Hayes. We were sending people at him, and he didn’t do a good job of passing out of the double team.“ the Warriors out-rebounded the Bullets 52-47 despite Hayes and Unseld. It was the bench that did it. Barry had 24 points and Phil Smith 20 but Hayes and Chenier matched that with 29 and 20. The Bullets had 5 double figure scorers to 4. But the rest of the team scored just 8 points to 34 for the Warriors, who used 11 different players to 8 for the Bullets, who now had to go to the west coast for two games.

Those two games were not in Oakland. The Warriors had their choice of playing there or in the Cow Palace in San Francisco. “Barry talked his teammates into choosing the Palace because its rims favored shooters. Even better, none of the Bullets had played there”. The Bullets again jumped out to a sizeable lead- 13 points at one juncture. Again it didn’t matter. The Warriors closed it to 6 by halftime and tied it going into the fourth quarter before winning 92-91. Again, the Warriors won the boards 58-49, even though Unseld had 20 of them and no warrior was in double figures. Attles used 11 guys to 9. Barry scored 36 points and had 9 rebounds. Chenier had 30/9. Both teams had three double figure scorers. The Warriors single digit guys scored 29 to 25 for the Bullets in a one point game.

Barry scorched Riordan for 38 in game three and the Warriors won 109-101 to take a shocking 3-0 lead. No comeback was needed as the home team led throughout. “Toward the end, the Bullets appeared disorganized and dazed.”

It was in this game that SU’s Dennis DuVal got to play for 5 minutes and scored 2 points. He’s one of three former SU players who have ever played in the NBA finals, the others being Bill Gabor who played in the 1950 and 1954 finals (but not 1955: he’d had to retire early that season due to injuries), and Marty Byrnes who played for 1 minute as a Laker in the 1980 finals and didn’t score. No player who ever suited up for SU in the Carrier Dome had ever played in an NBA Final.

“Abruptly, the once confident Bullets stopped talking of winning and began speaking of saving face.” Unseld: “It’s very important that we get a couple of victories. Even if we lose the series, we need it for the future. For next year, for your state of mind.” The Bullets once again established an early lead- 14 points this time. once again the warriors went to their press and came back, cutting it to 4 by halftime and finally catching up in the 4th quarter. Butch Beard hit a pair of free throws to give the warriors a 96-96 lead and the clock ran out with that score. Shockingly, the underdog had swept the favorite. Attles: “I think they might have been a little shocked. They were such a great team in their thinking.”

There have been 19 NBA finals in which the team with the inferior regular season record won. I decided to rank them by adding the difference in games between their regular season records to the difference in games won in the finals. The 1975 Warriors were 48-34, the Bullets 60-22 and the Warriors swept them 4-0. That’s +16 games. Here are the top ten finals upsets:

2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) beat the Golden State Warriors (73-9) 4 games to 3 = +17
1975 Golden State Warriors (48-34) beat the Washington Bullets (60-22) 4 games to 0 = +16
1995 Houston Rockets (47-35) beat the Orlando Magic (57-25) 4 games to 0 = +14
1958 St. Louis Hawks (41-31) beat the Boston Celtics (49-23) 4 games to 2 = +10
2006 Miami Heat (52-30) beat the Dallas Mavericks (60-22) 4 games to 2 = +10
1969 Boston Celtics (48-34) beat the Los Angeles Lakers (55-27) 4 games to 3 = +8
1993 Chicago Bulls (57-25) beat the Phoenix Suns (62-20) 4 games to 2 = +7
1947 Philadelphia Warriors (35-25) beat the Chicago Stags (39-22) 4 games to 1 = +6 ½
1979 Seattle Supersonics (52-30) beat the Washington Bullets (54-28) 4 games to 1 = +5
2004 Detroit Pistons (54-28) beat the Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) 4 games to 1 = +5

The Colonels Come Through

The ABA by this time was being held together with duct tape and chewing gum. Several franchises were on the verge of folding and the Carolina Cougars, who had been a success on the court, actually did. The league propped up enough franchises to field a ten team league, many of them with new ownership. The Cougar’s franchise was replaced by something called the Spirits of St. Louis, (with a young broadcaster named Bob Costas doing their play-by-play. Commissioner Mike Storen resigned to become GM of the Memphis team, which was no longer owned by Charlie Finlay and no longer called the Tams: now they were the Sounds. Tedd Munchak, the former Carolina owner, became the new commissioner, (one of three the league had that year). The Denver Rockets became the Denver Nuggets. The Utah Stars and Virginia Squires kept their names but got new owners. Even the two-time defending champion Indian Pacers were feeling the financial pinch and traded three of their core players: center Mel Daniels, forward Roger Brown and guard Freddie Lewis, a move they would come to regret.

The league was beginning to shed talent as Zelmo Beatty went back to the NBA and too Jimmy Jones along with him. With star forward Willie Wise holding out, that crippled the Utah Stars. But new talent was coming into the league. Moses Malone came directly from a high school in Virginia to join the Stars. Marvin Barnes of providence became a “Spirit”. Billy Knight of Pittsburgh joined the Pacers. ”Two tough rookie forwards”, (The Sports encyclopedia) named Bobby Jones and Jan Van Breda Kolff, (Bill’s son), joined the Nuggets, now coached by Larry Brown who also had a “smart veteran guard” in Fatty Taylor and two high scoring guards in Mack Calvin and Ralph Simpson, (not Sampson). Larry was able to mold that team into a 65-19 powerhouse.

The San Antonio Spurs had George Gervin averaging 23.4 ppg. Swen Nater leading the league with 16.4 rpg and James Silas was the most exciting point guard in the league. They finished second in the west with a 51-33 record, 14 games behind the nuggets. The Pacers, with two outstanding forwards in Knight and George McGinnis,(who topped Doctor J for the scoring title with 29.6), came in a distant third at 45-39 while the Stars limped to a 38-46 record. , despite 18.8p/14.6r from 19 year old phenom Malone and 25.2ppg from Ron Boone. In the East the New York Nets, (whose new general manager was Dave DeBusschere), led almost wire to wire until the Kentucky Colonels won their last nine games to tie them at 58-26. Both were 26 games better than the third place Spirits. The Nets had the same line up as the year before with similar numbers: Dr. J was 27.9p/10.9r/5.5a. Kennon averaged 19.7p/10.7r and Paultz 15.8p/9.7r. Dan Issel had an off year (17.7p/8.6r) but Artis Gilmore was 23.6/16.2and Dampier scored 16.8.

The playoffs opened with a tie-breaker game between the Colonels and Nets won by Kentucky, 108-99, despite 34 points from Erving and 29 by John Williamson. Gilmore had a monster game with 28 points and 33 rebounds. Then, shockingly, the Nets beat the Spirits for a 12th straight time, 111-105 and then lost four straight games to them, 97-115, 108-113, 89-100 and 107-108. The defending champs and the league’s best player were gone form the playoffs in the first wasn’t Doctor J’s fault, (27.4/9.8/5.6) and Kenon had a strong series (21.4p12.8r) but the Nets backcourt of Taylor and Williamson averaged only 9.1p/2.4a and Marvin Barnes was magical for the Spirits (30.8p/14.1r)while Freddie Lewis, whom they’d picked up from Memphis, scored 26.2. As often happens, the coach turned into a pumpkin, (no-not the head coach), after that for St. Louis, as the red hot Colonels took care of them in five games.

In the west, the Nuggets knocked off Utah in six games while Indiana did the same to San Antonio. The Nuggets won two at home 122-107 and 126-120 where they had been 40-2 during the season. But the Stars came back two easy wins in their place, 122-108 and 132-110. The Nuggets had been only 25-17 away from home. The Nuggets loved balance, (they had 8 double figure scorers in the first game), but lacked star power, (nobody scored more than 17 points in the two losses and were having trouble with Malone, (22.7p/17.5r). But they scored at least 30 points in every quarter of game 5 back in Denver, winning 130-119 and then sewed up the series in Utah 115-113 in a game where four Nuggets scored between 20-28 points.

The Pacers beat the Spurs twice in San Antonio, 122-119 in overtime and 98-93, giving them a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. McGinnis had 32 and 33 points in the two games, offsetting Gervin’s 24 and 38. The pacers then won game 3 at home 113-103, also in OT with McGinnis and Gervin really putting on a show with 42 and 37 points, respectively. People often evaluate a series based upon the score in games. But if those games were close, the series wasn’t actually a rout. The Spurs just couldn’t quite make the plays needed to win the first three games. But they won the next two, 110-109 and 123-117. McGinnis threw down 51 points in game 4, trying to close out a sweep and Knight scored 28 but their teammates provided little help. Gervin had only 29 but Silas scored 25, Nater 20 and two other guys were in double figures and two more with 9 points. In game 5, the stars really shown brightly with Gervin (42 points) and Silas (39) out-dueling McGinnis (40) and Knight (35). But the pacers pulled it out with a 115-110 game six win keyed by a 36-21 second quarter. Again McGinnis and Knight carried the team with 33 and 32 points, respectively. Gervin had 34 but Silas was held to 17. It was the only game of the series that wasn’t close. For the series, McGinnis averaged a phenomenal 38.3p, Knight 24.7, Gervin 34.0 and Silas 18.8.

Then the Pacers put their star power up against Denver’s balance. Denver held on through a wild 38-38 final quarter to win the opener 131-128, despite 39 from the en fuego McGinnis. But it was Knight that exploded for 44 points in a 131-124 Pacer victory in game 2 while the Nuggets held George to 18. The pacers took the lead in the series with a 118-112 home win keyed by a 34-19 fourth quarter rush. McGinnis had 33, Knight 26 and Len Elmore 22. The Nuggets then returned the favor by winning the second game in Indiana 126-109. The star this time were Mike green, the Nuggets center, with 30 points and Darnell Hillman, who had replaced Daniels at center with 34 points. The Pacers, in fact, led at halftime 64-61 but the Nuggets dominated the second half, 65-45. Two of the remaining three games were in Denver, where the Nuggets were now 43-3. Amazingly, those were the two games the pacers won to win the series. They broke open a close game 5 with a 30-13 final quarter in a 109-90 win. McGinnis was the game’s leading scorer with 33 and Knight second with 22. Green led the Nuggets with only 20. The Nuggets stayed alive with a 104-99 win in Indianapolis. This time Green had 31 and Mac Calvin 21 while McGinnis was held to 26 and Knight to 19. But then the Pacers won the series with a 104-96 win in Denver. McGinnis threw down 40 points, twice as many as any of the Nuggets. Billy Keller added 23 and Knight 19. They had gone 3-1 in Denver, where the Nuggets had been 42-2 going in.

That left it to another confrontation between the natural rivals the Indiana Pacers and the Kentucky Colonels. But the Colonels, after years of contending, finally broke through, winning in 5 games, matching the Pacers’ star power but with the Nugget’s balance. The first game was a blow-out 120-94. McGinnis had 35 but Gilmore had 26/13, Issel 18/19 and Dampier 22 points. The second game was close 95-93. McGinnis led with 30 but the Colonels had 5 guys in double figures and another had 9. The colonels took a 3-0 lead with a 109-101 win in Indianapolis, a 36-20 final quarter being the key. Gilmore was huge with 41p/28r. Issel, making a comeback in the playoffs was 26/12. Knight had 28 but McGinnis was held to 19. The Pacers finally broke through with a 94-86 win in game 4. McGinnis had 22/21 and the pacers finally achieved balance with 6 double figure scorers. The Colonels won their only ABA title with a 110-105 win back in Louisville. Knight had 40 and McGinnis 31 but the Colonels had seven double figure scorers led by Gilmore with 28p/31r. McGinnis had averaged 32.3 ppg and 15.9 rpg during the playoffs but it wasn’t enough. If only the Pacers still had Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Freddie Lewis, who they had traded away.

At season’s end Tedd Munchak regained as commissioner and Dave DeBusschere was given the job, just a year after he’d been playing forward for the Knicks. He was now captain of a sinking ship. He challenged the Golden State Warrior to play the Kentucky Colonels in a basketball Super Bowl. Crickets.

1975 ABA Champion Kentucky Colonels 30th Anniversary interview - Part 1
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