Friday, April 21, 2017

NBA Update (1971)

Here were the players who participated in the 1971 NBA All-Star Game back on Jan. 12 at the San Diego International Sports Arena:

-- Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson of the Milwaukee Bucks;

-- Jerry Lucas and (Lexington Lafayette High's) Jeff Mullins of the San Francisco Warriors;

-- Bob Love and Chet Walker of the Chicago Bulls;

-- Lenny Wilkens of the Seattle Supersonics;

-- Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers;

-- Elvin Hayes of the San Diego Rockets;

-- Dave Bing of the Detroit Pistons;

-- Connie Hawkins and Dick Van Arsdale of the Phoenix Suns;

-- Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trail Blazers;

-- Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed of the New York Knicks;

-- John Havlicek and Jo Jo White of the Boston Celtics;

-- Gus Johnson, Earl Monroe and (Louisville Seneca High's) Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets;

-- Billy Cunningham of the Philadelphia 76ers;

-- Lou Hudson of the Atlanta Hawks;

-- Johnny Green and Tom Van Arsdale of the Cincinnati Royals;

-- Bob Kauffman of the Buffalo Braves, and

-- John Johnson of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The names that most surprise me here are the Van Arsdales (and the other Royal, Green). I knew that those guys were good players, but I wouldn't've guessed that the Van Arsdales had ever played in an All-Star Game together. It's really excellent that the uniform makers stitched "Dick" and "Tom" on the back of their jerseys for the game. Their parents must've been so proud!

A couple of months later, here's how the NBA round-robin qualifying round had worked itself out ...

And if you think that I'm being overly dismissive of the league's regular season, I would just point out that the episode of Action Highlights NBA covering the entire 1970-71 season wraps up its discussion of the regular season (and training camp) within the first 42 seconds of the 23-minute, 21-second program.

I can't believe I had never heard of "Alex the Bullet" (1957-1975, rest in peace):
Legally named “Von Brauhof,” a Baltimore Civic Center fixture affectionately known as “Alex the Bullet” entertained Baltimore Bullets fans not with thunderous slam dunks, but with cute canine tricks during timeouts. … ”Alex the Bullet” was a Baltimore Bullets team mascot from the 1968-69 through 1972-73 seasons. The energetic canine was joined by a dog named “Buckshot” to do intermission antics. When “Buckshot” died from allegedly eating too many acorns, “Tiny BB” was his able replacement. But all the while, “Alex the Bullet” was the headliner, outlasting human exhibitionist “Dancing Harry,” who paced the sidelines, casting an imaginary “hex” on opponents. When “Harry” followed Earl Monroe to New York during the 1971-72 season, “Alex” remained, loyal like a dog. ...
Each of the division champions and runnersup advanced to the playoffs, and--though Philadelphia and Chicago, as previously reported, gave it a real go--there were no upset series winners in the conference semifinals: Knicks over Hawks, Bullets over 76ers, Bucks over Warriors and Lakers over Bulls.

So, with Charlie Jones having taken over from Chick Hearn on the Action Highlights NBA mike, it's the Knicks and the Bullets squaring off in the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year. My word, what a series this was for Baltimore! The Bullets played pretty much all of it without two of their starters, All-Star Johnson and fellow forward Kevin Loughery. They lost the opening two games, and then, after evening the series, they lost to slip behind, three games to two. But they extended it back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7, and, with about three minutes to go, the game is tied! A backup guard, Fred "Mad Dog" Carter, who was a second-year guy out of Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, pushes the Bullets ahead, 93-91, in the late moments. With 11 seconds to play, the defending champs call time out:
(T)he Knicks … cluster around their coach, Red Holzman, who outlines the play he hopes will result in the tying basket. Holzman wants guard Dick Barnett to throw the ball in bounds to guard Walt Frazier. Center Willis Reed will set a solid pick, around which Frazier will drive to the hoop.
At center for the Bullets stands Westley Unseld. Mrs. Dickerson wouldn’t know him now. At 25, he is no longer clumsy and unsure. He stands six feet, seven inches tall and weighs 245 pounds.  
Barnett flips the ball in to Frazier as Reed comes out to set his key block. Willis is closely guarded by Unseld. So closely that the pick-off cannot be executed properly. In fact, as Frazier dribbles by, Unseld switches off to guard Walt—completing the move with a grace that belies his bulk. 
Thinking fast, Frazier knows he would not be able to shoot over Unseld, four inches taller than he is. So the Knick guard passes the ball to New York’s sharpshooting forward, Bill Bradley, in the far left-hand corner of the forecourt. Given any sort of time and room, Bradley is as deadly a shoter as there is in basketball.
But Bradley gets neither time nor room. Westley Unseld makes yet another mangificent switch. Almost as Frazier passes the ball, Unseld flows with it toward Bradley. As Bradley shoots from the baseline, Unseld leaps high, stretches higher, and deflects the ball away from the basket. Seconds later, time runs out and the Bullets have won the game. 
Jerry Sachs, executive vice president of the Baltimore team, still cannot quite believe what he saw. “We had to look at the films to make sure there wasn’t some mistake. It was that fantastic. Unseld took three men on one play—Willis, Frazier, and then Bradley.”
That’s all from a January 1972 Boys’ Life cover story by Dick Kaplan, “The Many Faces of Wes Unseld,” and the Mrs. Dickerson in Paragraph 2 is Unseld’s fifth-grade teacher in Louisville. We were a big Boy Scouts family, so my parents had a Boys’ Life subscription coming into the house for probably 25 consecutive years. I remember being thrilled to find that old Wes Unseld issue when I started collecting basketball cards and learning about the NBA later in the 1970s. But I don’t remember ever actually reading the story, which is quite good. It’s a lot about Unseld and his new wife having bought a house in Baltimore, volunteering in a local hospital and running a summer basketball league there. Also, the Unselds were sponsoring a child in Hong Kong. I love Wes Unseld, and I’m so happy he built such a fantastic, meaningful life for himself in Baltimore and Washington—but I can’t help but wish it had all been invested in Louisville instead. Kentucky could’ve benefitted from the presence of such a successful and remarkable man over the last five decades or so.

In the Western Conference finals, the Lakers, like the Bullets in the East, were injury-saddled. But the two guys that Los Angeles was missing were Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, and Milwaukee won the series in five games. The leading scorer in the Bucks' 116-98 victory in Game 5 was Greg Smith ("Captain Marvel with adrenaline in reserve") of Princeton Dotson High and Western Kentucky University!

So, with "Knicks Nixed, Bullets Ready To Buck Bucks," as the Baltimore Afro-American put it. Game 1 is today (April 21) 1971 at the Milwaukee Arena.

But, having typed that previous bit about Greg Smith, I realize that it's almost impossible that Hoptown 1971 me would've been rooting against the Bucks in these finals. Greg Smith grew up just to my west, and he went to my college just to my east--it figures that I'd totally be in the tank for him and probably the Bucks, no matter how long I've been rooting for the Tall Men of Baltimore. This is going to be an emotionally challenging series.