1976 was an awkward time for the United States of America.
The previous few years had seen the military massacre college students at home and abandon an unpopular, costly war abroad. A president had resigned, narrowly escaping impeachment. And as James Brown eloquently stated in his song, “Funky President (People It’s Bad),” times were bad, people:
Stock market going up, Jobs going down And ain’t no funky jobs to be found
Taxes keep going up, I changed from a glass Now I drink from a paper cup, It’s getting bad
Amidst all the social tumult, the United States also prepared for the bicentennial of its revolutionary birth. It was a much needed shot of enthusiasm to reinvigorate the triumphant American spirit which was on a prolonged vacation after such harrowing gut checks.
Once the capital of the United States, New York City reflected this strange dichotomy of enthusiasm and desperation. Crime and poverty were rising for the five boroughs, but so were the magnificent Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The social grime that created miserable hardship also was giving birth to the vibrant expressions of disco and hip-hop.
The dichotomy even extended to basketball. The New York Knickerbockers were falling off the turnip truck, while the New York Nets were riding high.
This past weekend I had the pleasure of traveling to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. Saturday afternoon, I was able to have a wonderful 10-minute interview with Knicks and Hawks legend Richie Guerin. He set Knicks records for points (57) and assists (21) in a game and remains the winningest coach in St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks history.
Guerin is a favorite here at Pro Hoops History and has had two features on his playing career. So definitely checks those out after listening to the man speak about his playing career, family, time as a Marine, and his years coaching the Hawks.
In the long annals of pro basketball’s history, I’m not quite sure any player has ended a career in the fashion that Richie Guerin did.
His final game was on April 19, 1970. It was the fourth game of Atlanta’s playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Lakers up 3-games-to-0, the Hawks were in dire straits. It was with this urgency that Guerin suited up for the last time for the Atlanta Hawks.
The game turned out to be a turn-back-the-clock performance for Guerin. The 37-year old guard scored an admirable 31 points, but the Lakers throttled the Hawks in the fourth quarter to pull out a 133-114 victory. What’s more amazing about Guerin’s performance is that it was just his second game of that postseason and just his tenth all season.
Richie Guerin’s official duties for the Hawks was as their coach, but the semi-retired guard wasn’t about to watch his time go down without a fight. Such an attitude was typical of Guerin during his lengthy playing career.
Drafted by the New York Knicks back in 1954, Guerin didn’t arrive in the NBA until 1956 thanks to a two-year stint with the Marines. The USMC suited Guerin well since the 6’4″ point guard was a fiery ball of hell on the court.
If only the same could be said of the Knicks, at least in positive terms, during this period. The team was once an NBA powerhouse, but by the time Guerin arrived, they were certifiably the NBA’s worst team aside from the comically bad Chicago Packers. From the 1957-58 season through the 1962-63 season, Guerin averaged 21.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, but the Knicks averaged 32 wins.
Guerin during this period was basically a diamond in the rough. He was an All-Star for six straight seasons. He was selected to the All-NBA 2nd Team three times. He set Knicks records for points (57) and assists (21) in a game. But there’s only so much one man can do. Besides, Kenny Sears and Willie Naulls, the Knicks were stacked with mediocre players. Especially since the every single Knicks draft pick in this period was practically thrown down the drain.
Finally conceding defeat, the Knicks were ready to throw in the towel and start anew. The 31-year old Guerin was traded to the St. Louis Hawks two games into the 1962-63 season.
Richie brought his helter skelter style of play to a Hawks team that was the opposite of the Knicks. Perennially a great squad, Guerin became just another great player in their midst. No longer would he need to constantly drive, drive, drive to the basket for buckets and fouls to give his team the least bit of hope for success.
In fact, Guerin was near his end as a player. He was anointed coaching duties for the Hawks in the 1964-65 season. He would be a full-time player-coach that year and in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Leaving the majority of the point guard duties to Lenny Wilkens, Guerin averaged 14 points and 4.5 assists during this time as player-coach. He finally set aside his playing role in 1967.
Yet, he had a hard time staying away from the court. After winning Coach of the Year in 1968, Guerin returned for 27 games in the 1969 campaign and for his brief cameo appearances of 1970 after guard Walt Hazzard fractured his wrist.
As I’ve written about before, Guerin’s career was a case-study in how playing for horrifically bad teams can produce some astronomically astounding seasons for gifted players. Guerin’s 29 points per game in 1962 for the 29-win Knicks exemplifies that. He also shows that a gifted player can coolly assess a situation and dial back his approach for team benefit, which is such an odd trait for a man so hot-headed.
Years Played: 1956 – 1970
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1959-’60, 1962)
6x All-Star (1958-’63)
NBA – 848 Games
17.3 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 41.6% FG, 78.0% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1956-57 through 1966-67 season)
6th Points, 21st PPG
12th FGs Made
5th FTs Made, 30th FT%
3rd Assists, 6th APG
1st Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played
Whenever Patrick Ewing unfurled his long arms… stretched them out, waaaay out… then began to flap his hands up and down, you knew something magnetic and electric (electromagnetic?) was happening in the Garden. For 15 seasons, Ewing genuinely gave New York Knicks fans something to cheer about, even if the experience resembled a rollercoaster ride, which may I remind you, is a thrilling experience.
The lithe shot-blocking and rim-shaking center was the #1 overall pick in the 1985 draft and would help the Knicks recover from the loss of Bernard King. Ewing himself didn’t disappoint during his first few seasons averaging 20.5 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 2.5 BPG. The team, though, was a long way from contention, making the playoffs once in the period with an underwhelming 38-44 record.
Things took off for the Knicks in 1989, though, as they blew up their Twin Tower experiment of Ewing and Bill Cartwright. In a fateful trade with the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks acquired Charles Oakley for Cartwright. With Oakley, Mark Jackson, Gerald Wilkins, and Johnny Newman, Ewing finally had a worthwhile cast and the Knicks won 52 games in the 1988-89 season dethroning the Boston Celtics as the Atlantic Division champs.
The playoffs, however, revealed a recurring theme for Ewing’s career: New York was bounced by the Chicago Bulls.
The Knicks slipped a little in the 1989-90 season winning 45 games and were matched up against a resurgent Celtics team in the first round of the playoffs. New York was whipped by a combined 40 points in the first two games falling into an 0-2 hole. Since this was a best-of-five series, the Knicks had no more margin for error.
As it turned out, Patrick Ewing became flawless. Ewing steamrolled the Celtics with an average of 36 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks over the final three games. His gargantuan effort gave the Knicks the shocking series victory.
That series against the Celitcs proved to the highwater mark of Ewing’s early career. The next time New York advanced to the 2nd Round, they’d be a totally reconstructed team under the tutelage of Pat Riley.
These gritty and grimy Knicks engaged in legendary defensive battles with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Miami Heat during the 1990s. As mythic and thrilling as these battle royales were, under Ewing’s leadership the Knicks made the Finals “just” once. That’s a statistic often bandied about to somewhat dismiss his success. Another statistic may prove illustrative of Ewing’s impact on the Knicks.
For 13 straight years they made the postseason. 11 of those years they advanced to the 2nd Round. That streak of success is easily the longest in the history of the Knicks’ franchise.
And although this may not be a theory, it is a fact that in the 13 years since Ewing was embarrassingly traded from the Knicks to the Seattle SuperSonics, the Knicks have made the postseason five times. They’ve made the 2nd Round just once.
Pat’s excellent jump shot, his intimidating shot-blocking, and his infectious dunks, may have eroded due to knee and other injuries by 2000, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how excellent, intimidating, and infectious he was. Knicks fans and basketball enthusiasts everywhere should take note and properly credit Ewing for his towering impact.
Years Played: 1985-2002
Rookie of the Year (1986)
All-NBA 1st Team (1990)
6x All-NBA 2nd Team (1988-’89, 1991-’93, 1997)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1988-’89, 1992)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1986)
11x All-Star (1986, 1988-’97)
NBA - 1183 Games
21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 50.4% FG, 74.0% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1985-86 through 2001-02 season)
4th Points, 13th PPG
4th FGs Made, 6th FTs
6th Rebounds, 11th RPG
2nd Blocks, 7th BPG
8th Games Played, 5th Minutes Played
Anticipation was both, the best and the worst thing, about Micheal Ray Richardson’s career.
It represented the worst in that his greatness, at least the true apogee of it, was always waiting to appear. When it did arrive, the moments seemed fleeting. Then you were right back where you began anticipating whether Micheal Ray would make it back to the top.
His infamous battles with cocaine were the main culprit in Sugar’s fight to not just tease and anticipate greatness but to fully achieve it. After his third failed drug test in 1986, he was banned for life from the NBA by David Stern. The lifetime ban was ultimately rescinded, but subsequent failed tests for cocaine prevented him from making an NBA comeback.
Anticipation, however, also represented the best in Richardson. Others may have equaled, but none have surpassed Micheal Ray’s ability to sense a pass coming, to predict its path, and anticipate its arrival. He’d jump a passing lane and be off to the races for a layup on the other end. His pillaging defense wreaked havoc on teams across the league.
In the history of the NBA and ABA, Richardson ranks second amongst all players in steals per game in a career. He’s fourth in steal percentage. Three times he led the NBA in steals in a single season. This wasn’t a man making dangerous bets. When he went for the steal it wasn’t a gamble, it was basically a sure thing it’d be a success.
At 6’5″, Richardson was also a monster of a point guard. He didn’t make too many flashy assists, but he made zipping laser-guided passes that found their way to the intended target. When Magic Johnson debuted in the NBA in the 1979-80 season, it was Richardson who led the NBA in assists per game.
Richardson’s towering triumph as a player came with the New Jersey Nets in the 1983-84 playoffs when he and Buck Williams spearheaded an epic upset of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers. It was all the more sweet for Sugar Ray since he had spent that regular season recovering from one of his worst cocaine binges in the fall of 1983.
The playoff high of 1984 continued into the next regular season (1984-85). He averaged a career-high 20 points along with 5.5 rebounds, eight assists, and three steals a game. He was selected to his fourth and final All-Star Game.
Then in February 1986, Sugar failed his third drug test and was banished from the NBA. He wasn’t finished just yet, though. Richardson played in the CBA for a couple of years. Following that brief period, he played professionally in Europe from 1988 to 2002. By the end of his 24-year playing career, Richardson was clean, largely redeemed, and began a coaching career that continues to this day.
Whether you called him “Magic”, “Black Jesus”, or “the Pearl”, Vernon Earl Monroe was always going to take care of business on the basketball court.
The shooting guard had a mesmerizing way of dribbling and moving up the court. It rarely seemed he dribbled in a straight line. He was always moving back and forth, forth and back, zig-zag and zag-zig. The constant, unpredictable motion created confusion in defenders who’d likely never seen a man dribble the way Earl did.
After he’d get done putting you in the spin cycle, Monroe found it incredibly easy to raise up for his mighty fine jump shot. As a rookie with the Baltimore Bullets, the Pearl averaged a whopping 24 points. Winning Rookie of the Year, Monroe bolstered Baltimore’s win total from 20 victories in 1967 to 36 in 1968.
Adding Wes Unseld to their core of Monroe and Gus Johnson, the Bullets improved to 57 wins in the 1969 season. That postseason Baltimore was upset by the New York Knicks in a 4-0 sweep. And thus began one of the great, if brief rivalries, in NBA history.
In 1970, the two teams met again with the series going seven games. The Bullets ultimately lost, but the difference between a sweep one year, and a heart-breaking seven game grinder was Monroe. He had averaged 28 points in the 1969 series, but shot only 38% in the process. In 1970 he again hit 28 points but did it on 48% shooting.
For a third straight time the Knicks and Bullets met in the postseason in 1971. With only 42 regular season wins, the Bullets were the underdogs, but shocked the Knicks with a 4-3 series win. The seventh game was decided by a score of 93 to 91 and Monroe led all players with 26 points. The win sent Baltimore to the Finals where they were overwhelmed by the mighty Milwaukee Bucks who had blazed through the regular season with 66 wins.
Given the heated history of Baltimore and New York, it was a shock early in the 1971-72 season when the Bullets traded Monroe to the Knicks. After averaging 24 points in his years with the Bullets, Monroe slid into a bench role with the Knicks and averaged just 11 points that first season with them.
And despite the fears, Monroe and his erstwhile on-court rival Walt Frazier got along just fine.
Monroe in fact would go on to become the most dependable Knick of the mid-and-late 1970s after the club captured the title in 1973. Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Dave DeBusschere, and even Frazier, all eventually retired or were traded away. Young stars like Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo were brought in to resurrect the club, but through it all Black Jesus remained.
After his first career act as Baltimore hot shot and his second career act as Knicks role player, Monroe emerged in 1975 as New York’s hot shot. From 1975 to 1978, the Pearl averaged 20 points while shooting 48.5% from the field and 82% from the line. He was better than ever it seemed.
By 1978, though, it was clear that Monroe was relic of a bygone era. As brilliant as his individual play remained, there was nothing he could do in his mid-30s to save those Knicks whose other talent always seemed mismatched or coked out.
It’s been over 30 years since Earl Monroe retired, but the mere mention of his name… or of Magic, Black Jesus, the Pearl, or any of his other aliases… still conjures up images of a basketball wizard at work. A man whose game caused so much ruckus, and yet, somehow, walked softly in the night.
Years Played: 1967 – 1980
Rookie of the Year (1968)
All-NBA 1st Team (1969)
4x All-Star (1969, 1971, 1975, 1977)
NBA - 926 Games
18.8 PPG, 3.9 APG, 3.0 RPG, 46.4% FG, 80.7% FT
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1967-68 season through 1979-80 season)
5th Points, 31st PPG
4th FGs Made
7th FTs Made, 29th FT%
14th Assists, 30th APG
3rd Games Played, 10th Minutes Played
Of the great scoring forwards in the 1980s, none began with as much promise as Bernard King. That promising beginning quickly gave way to hardship then a road back to redemption. A wash-rinse-repeat cycle occurred in the middle of King’s career where glory again gave way to pain, but he once again resurrected himself.
Bernard started his NBA career with the New Jersey Nets and did so in incredible, spectacular fashion. His 24.2 points per game as a rookie is tied for 3rd-most by a 1st-year player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. He also cleaned the glass every night with an average of 9.5 rebounds per game. The Nets were a pretty awful team, though, and his efforts were mostly for naught. A follow up campaign of 22 points and 8 rebounds a game lifted the Nets to a 37-45 record, which proved just good enough for the playoffs. King was the hub of the Nets attack but they were handily discarded by the Philadelphia 76ers. It would be another four years before Bernard again appeared in the postseason.
King was traded by the Nets to the Utah Jazz following the 1979 season. His stay in Utah was brief and brutal. Alcohol problems, which had occurred in college, resurfaced for King and off the court legal troubles stemming from accusations of sexual assault derailed his season. From the 10 charges, King copped a plea deal for one count of misdemeanor sexual assault, King was rightfully suspended by the Jazz and appeared in only 19 games in the 1979-80 season. Over the years King would intermittently face yet more accusations of abusing women.
The more famous and chronicled fall of Bernard King came in 1985 when he blew out his ACL. It would take King nearly two years of rehabilitation to return to the NBA. And from that return to the court in 1987 it would take several more seasons for him to return fully to his peak form.
King’s first resurrection came in a trade to the Golden State Warriors following the 1979-80 season. For the 1980-81 Warriors, King shot a career-high 59% from the field on his way to averaging 21 points a night, a great improvement on his 9 PPG for the Jazz. In 1982, King was named an All-Star for the first time in his career and would also be named to the All-NBA 2nd Team.
For the 1982-83 season, King found himself traded to his hometown New York Knicks. That season was a good one for King, but his greatest basketball triumphs lay just around the corner.
The 1983-84 Knicks were an average team that possessed a whirlwind force in King. He averaged a new career-high of 27 points per game and finished second in MVP voting behind Larry Bird. In the postseason, King engaged in a legendary evisceration of opposing defenses. Against the Detroit Pistons in the 1st Round, King averaged 42.6 points per game while shooting 60% from the field. Against the Boston Celtics in round 2, Bernard “simmered down” to just 29 points a game on 54.5% shooting. The caged King still pushed Boston to the brink as the Celtics needed seven games to dismiss the upstart Knicks.
Unbelievably, King’s 1984 postseason form continued unabated during the 1984-85 regular season. BK averaged 33 points a night and was named to his second-straight All-NBA 1st Team. In back-to-back-to-back games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana, King scored 40 then 45 and then 52 points. He dropped 60 points on 30 shots against the Nets on Christmas Day. In March against Kansas City, King was again decimating the opposition with 37 points on 16-26 shooting, but that was the game he blew out his ACL…
Second Chance at a Second Chance
After the Knicks amazingly showed no interest in King following his return to good health, he signed with the Washington Bullets in October 1987. His scoring average slowly ticked up over the seasons from 17 to 21 to 22 PPG by 1990. King gave his final hurrah in the 1990-91 season. His startling scoring efficiency from the field had dissipated. Instead of routine mid-.500 FG%, King had to settle for just 47% shooting. His free throw shooting, though, had by now reached 80% and his assists per game was at a career-high 4.6. The 34-year old’s points average reached a ridiculous 28.4 by the end of the season.
With his second resurrection complete, King again crumpled with a knee injury and missed all of the 1991-92 season. In 1993 he returned to where his NBA journey began, New Jersey. He gave the Nets 32 games as reserve forward after the All-Star break and then left the NBA for good. His rollercoaster ride of rising and falling was at last over.
Seasons Played: 1978 – 1993
2x All-NBA 1st Team (1984-’85)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1982), All-NBA 3rd Team (1991)
4x All-Star (1982, 1984-’85, 1991)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1978)
NBA - 874 Games
22.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 51.8% FG, 73.0% FT
PPG Leader (1985)