New York, New York: Julius Erving, the Nets-Knicks Feud, and America’s Bicentennial

via the Daily Mail
A pleasant ride on the NY Subway in 1976 (via the Daily Mail)

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.

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Rick Barry

Rick barry

Few of basketball’s all-time legends come as under-appreciated as Rick Barry. The small forward’s demeanor certainly never helped folks fondly remember him on all occasions. Mike Dunleavy, Sr., declared, “You could send [Barry] to the U.N., and he’d start World War III.” So, needless to say he was never that diplomatic. He spoke his mind without a hint of tact.

That abrasive countenance was of great help on the basketball court. Barry brutally saw a situation for what it was and keenly saw how to fix it. And he had nearly all the tools for the job.

He was 6’7″ tall and had impressively long arms and a sleek physique. He could slide in between opponents on both ends of the court. On offense this meant he could prowl to the rim, make sneaky passes, and move off the ball with deft ease. On defense this meant he could attack passing lanes or strip an unsuspecting offensive player of the ball.

A great jump shooter with endless range, Barry was an even better free throw shooter. Perhaps the best in the history of basketball. Famously, he achieved his 90% free throw accuracy with the archaic underhand shot. To sum up all of this abilities I think it’s just good to throw out Barry’s stat line from 1966 to 1978: 27 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG, 2.5 SPG, 46% FG, 89% FT. Just because Barry had a surly attitude doesn’t automatically mean that that kind of production would be easily forgotten.

The following photo, though, helps to fully explain the riddle of the forgotten Barry…

Nets Barry

Yep, look at that funny colored ball. Rick Barry spent four seasons in the ABA.

Add in a fifth season where had to sit out from pro basketball entirely because the justice system ruled he couldn’t play for the ABA thanks to the NBA’s reserve clause, and one-third of Barry’s career was spent with a league that has historically been disrespected. Furthermore, Barry was injured for significant portions of his ABA tenure, playing 35, 52, and 59 games in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

So, we had a player who in 1966 took the NBA by storm winning the Rookie of the Year and All-Star MVP awards. In 1967 he led the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals and led the league in scoring with 35 PPG.

And then from 1968 to 1971, he faded into semi-obscurity during the midst of his prime. In the 1971-72 ABA season, however, Barry finally got healthy and carried the New York Nets to the Finals against the Indiana Pacers. To get out of the Eastern Division, though, Barry’s Nets had to slay the 68-win Kentucky Colonels. And they did so in six games with Barry setting the tone with 50 points in Game 1. In the next round the faced the Virginia Squires whose own Julius Erving was in the midst of a 30-point, 20-rebound average in the postseason. Again, the Nets prevailed, thanks to a Barry three-pointer in the final minute of Game 7.

In the ABA Finals, the Nets went into a see-saw battle with the Pacers, but the Indiana squad finished the Nets off in six games. It was a close and stinging loss as the Nets were defeated by just four combined points in the last two losses.

Barry’s contract was up after that 1972 season and the justice system again intervened and decreed that if Rick wanted to continue playing in the ABA he’d have to sit out yet another season. Instead of sitting on the sidelines again for a year, he returned to the Warriors.

Upon his return to the NBA in the 1972-73 season, Barry galvanized the Golden State squad to 47 wins and an upset of the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semi-finals. After taking a step back in 1974 with 44-wins and missing the playoffs, Barry in 1975 led the Warriors with one of the great individual seasons in NBA history.

The small forward led Golden State with 30 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals a game. In the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors outlasted the Chicago Bulls in a feisty 7-game series. In the seventh game, the Warriors faced a 14-point deficit, but Jamaal Wilkes gave 21 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarter to narrow the gap, and Barry closed out proceedings with 14 in the 4th quarter to win the game 83-79.

In the Finals against the 60-win and heavily favored Washington Bullets, the Warriors wound up sweeping the opponent. There have been other upsets in Finals history, but this one may just be the biggest. No one else on the Warriors besides Rick averaged over 12 points or played over 30 minutes a game. It was truly Barry at his magnificent peak orchestrating a whirling dervish of victory.

In 1975-76, the Warriors were even better. At least during the regular season. They poured out 59 wins and a greater ensemble arose with Phil Smith, Jamaal Wilkes, and Gus Williams taking on bigger offensive roles to alleviate Barry. In the playoffs, though the Warriors held a 3-2 lead in the conference finals, but lost Game 6 by one point and then lost the seventh game on their home court. In 1977 another devastating seventh game loss ended the Warriors’ postseason.

Barry would end up playing one more season with the Warriors and spent the last two years of his career with the Houston Rockets.

So, when it’s all said and done Rick Barry was a man who was a 12-time All-Star, a nine-time 1st Teamer, played in three championship series, was a Finals MVP, and couldn’t miss a free throw if his life depended on it. And even if World War III is raging because of his foul mouth, don’t forget Rick Barry when conjuring your list of basketball titans.

Years Played: 1965 – 1980

San Francisco Warriors

Accolades

ABA -
4x All-ABA 1st Team (1969-’72)
4x All-Star (1969-’72)
NBA -
Champion (1975)
Finals MVP (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1966)

5x All-NBA 1st Team (1966-’67, 1974-’76)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1973)
8x All-Star (1966-’67, 1973-’78)
All-Star Game MVP (1967)
All-Rookie Team (1966)

Statistics

League Games PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT%
NBA 794 23.2 6.5 5.1 1.99 0.49 0.449 0.9
ABA 226 30.5 7.5 4.1 N/A N/A 0.477 0.88
Total 1020 24.8 6.7 4.9 1.99 0.49 0.456 0.893

 

ProHoopsHistory HOF: Julius Erving

Julius ErvingFabled and legendary for his dunks, Doctor J was deserving of all the mythical praise. Sure other players before him had dunked with power (Wilt Chamberlain), dunked with boom shakalaka oomph (Gus Johnson), and dunked with splendid grace (Connie Hawkins), but Dr. J combined all of these traits. Furthermore he injected it all with a measure of artistry never quite seen.

He’d fly to the basket with his afro blowing in the wind. The red, white, and blue ABA ball would fetch your wandering eye. His stylistic finishes would ensnare your wondering mind. And if the Doctor found himself in a predicament where dunks wouldn’t be possible, he conveniently doubled as one of the game’s best layup artists. Like Hawkins, he had gargantuan hands that allowed him to swing the ball however he pleased to create an angle for scoring. Famously, those angles sometimes included going behind the backboard and emerging on the other side.

All of this is just a part of the story, though. Dr. J was more than a dunker. Julius Erving was an all-around great basketball player.

As a rookie with the ABA’s Virginia Squires, Erving grabbed a ridiculous 17 rebounds per game thanks to his off the chart athleticism. In that 1972 postseason, Erving averaged 33 points, 20 rebounds, and 6.5 assists in 11 games. After being traded to the New York Nets, Erving continued his all-encompassing assault on ABA opponents.

In 1974, 1975, and 1976, Erving was named the ABA’s MVP. He led the Nets to the title twice in this period, and was named Playoff MVP both times. He led the league in scoring three times. He was good for two blocks and 2.5 steals every night. He found teammates for assists six times nightly.

The man was everywhere and the standard bearer for the ABA. But as that league finally succumbed to the NBA, Erving would be sold by the Nets, who were in dire financial straits, to the 76ers in the summer of 1976.

Philly Dr

Over the next seven seasons, Erving would lead Philadelphia to four NBA Finals appearances and with the supreme aid of Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Andrew Toney, and Maurice Cheeks, captured the 1983 title. Erving was still a marvel through these years. He continued to make the All-Star Game annually, was the NBA’s MVP in 1981, and his suave, cool demeanor off the court was a needed dose of positivity for an NBA struggling with an image of being overrun with drugs and pouting millionaires.

As Erving took his farewell tour in the 1986-87 season, he was feted across the league with celebrations.

Fans gushed over the mark he had left on professional basketball: scoring over 30,000 points, grabbing over 10,000 rebounds, dishing out over 5000 assists, capturing over 2000 steals, and blocking almost 2000 shots. In every year of his career he was a member of the All-Star team, whether NBA or ABA. The sheer weight of Julius Erving’s numbers demonstrate just how impressive a player he was.

Most important of all, though, is that as Dr. J he inspired the imaginations of millions to push the boundaries of what basketball could be.

Seasons Played: 1971 – 1987

Accolades

ABA -
2x Champion (1974, 1976)
3x MVP (1974-’76)
2x Playoff MVP (1974, 1976)
4x All-ABA 1st Team (1973-’76)
All-ABA 2nd Team (1972)
5x All-Star (1972-’76)
All-Rookie Team (1972)

NBA -

Champion (1983)
MVP (1981)
5x All-NBA 1st Team (1978, 1980-’83)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1977, 1984)
11x All-Star (1977-’87)
2x All-Star Game MVP (1977, 1983)

Statistics

ABA - 407 Games
28.7 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 4.8 APG, 2.4 SPG, 2.0 BPG, 50.4% FG, 77.8% FT
3x PPG Leader (1973-’74, 1976)
NBA -
 836 Games
22.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.5 BPG, 50.7% FG, 77.7% FT

Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1971-72 season through 1986-87 season)
2nd Points, 6th PPG
2nd FGs Made, 29th FG%
2nd FTs Made
5th Rebounds, 28th RPG
5th Assists, 25th APG
1st Steals, 8th SPG
5th Blocks, 9th BPG
2nd Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played

Pro Hoops History HOF: Larry Kenon

Larry Kenon

“I’m the best all-round forward in the game,” he says. “If anyone takes the trouble to look, they’ll see that I’m the one who makes our team go. I’m the most important guy out there. I love to rebound and run the ball right up the court. I was the first forward to do that. Now others are imitating me. I make cross-court passes that no one else dares, and then I follow the ball like I got it tied to a string. I play good defense, though I don’t get a lot of credit for that. Look, I’m not out for an argument. I say that I’m the best. Anybody else has the right to say that about himself.”

Don’t ever say that Larry Kenon was bashful. But also don’t discount his exuberant words.

From 1974 to 1980, the 6’9″ Kenon was indeed one of basketball’s best forwards. During this period he was 5th among all forwards in the NBA and ABA in points scored and steals nabbed, while also placing 3rd in rebounds grabbed. His averages during this period were pretty noteworthy: 20 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 49% FG, and 80% FT.

He burst into the ABA in the 1973-74 season with the New York Nets and his brash offensive skills made “Special K” an instrumental piece in the Nets’ title run that season. He was never shy about carving out  a piece of the offensive pie with mainstay Julius Erving leading the club. In both the regular season and postseason, he led the club in rebounding as well.

After the 1975 season, Kenon was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. Overshadowed by the more gossamer George Gervin, Kenon was nonetheless every bit of the Ice Man’s equal during this period. Indeed, he’d clear the glass and spark San Antonio’s powerful offensive assault with Gervin and James Silas. The Spurs were always in the playoffs with this core and reached the Eastern, yes Eastern, Conference Finals in 1979 where they lost in 7 games to the Washington Bullets.

That was the highwater mark for Kenon’s run with the Spurs. He continuously ran into contract troubles with the Spurs and by 1980 Kenon bolted for the Chicago Bulls in free agency. The move was a career death sentence. He averaged a career-low 14.1 points in 1981. Then a new career low in 1982 with 7 points. And then another new career low in 1983 with 6 points. His career petered out after that as he was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The surprisingly quick end of his career is unfortunate. In his final game with the Spurs, Kenon nailed 51 points on the Detroit Pistons. He still holds the record for most steals in an NBA game with 11 back in 1976. He was everything he bragged about himself being: a good defender, a transcendent dunker and scorer, a key indispensable cog on the Spurs and Nets of the 1970s.

However, the aura of Julius Erving and George Gervin still outshine the career and accomplishments of Larry Kenon. Special K is just one of those splendid players who gets lost in the shuffle of the long and winding history of professional basketball.

Years Played: 1973 – 1983

Accolades

ABA -
Champion (1974)
3x All-Star (1974-’76)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1974)

NBA -
2x All-Star (1978-’79)

Statistics

ABA - 249 Games
17.7 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 48.5% FG, 75.5% FT

NBA - 503 Games
17.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 48.9% FG, 79.8% FT

Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1973-74 through 1982-83 season)
15th Points, 38th PPG
12th FGs Made, 31st FTs Made
14th Rebounds, 21st RPG
16th Steals, 32nd SPG
13th Games Played, 10th Minutes Played

The Lowdown: Billy Paultz

Years Active: 1971 – 1985
Career Stats: 11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.5 bpg, 0.5 spg, 49.7% FG, 69.0% FT
Accolades: 3x ABA All-Star (1973, ’75-’76), ABA Champion (1974)

In a 1972 game against the Squires, [Paultz] hit his first eight shots, and finished with 13 field goals in 15 attempts. Rick Barry scored 43 points and John Roche 37 points that same evening. “I get 33 and I’m the third high scorer on the team,” complained Paultz. “Are you kidding me?”

Via Complete Handbook of ProBasketball by Jim O’Brien

Now there’s an insightful quote into both, Billy Paultz and the ABA. The league was about flash and pizzazz, glitz and glamor. On a night where Paultz goes a-wreckin’ for 33 points on 13-15 shooting, he’s still not the brightest light shining on the court. Nonetheless, Paultz revealed his affable, self-effacing and humble personality in discussing his misfortune. Barry and Roche may have overshadowed him that night, but for someone with no organized basketball experience until his senior year in high school (1966), Paultz was doing quite well for himself.

Drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the ABA’s Virginia Squires in 1971, Paultz opted for the ABA and was soon traded by Virginia to his hometown New York Nets. What the Nets got was an uncoordinated heap of man that would be nicknamed “The Whopper” for his well apportioned waistline and the hamburger that kept it so. Nets teammate Rick Barry quipped “I didn’t believe he could possibly make it…” and Jim O’Brien added his two cents: “An ardent surfer, but the way he moved at the outset of his rookie season it was hard to envision him keeping his balance on shore let alone sea.” The off-balance Whopper nonetheless averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds during his rookie year.

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