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.
Net Success, Knick Failure
The Knicks by 1976 were an exemplary case of crumbling American infrastructure. The venerable franchise had been around since 1946 but its fall from grace in the mid-1970s was precipitous. After winning two titles in 1970 and 1973 – while also appearing in another Finals in ’72 and the Eastern Conference Finals in ’69, ’71, and ’74 – the 1975 Knicks won just 40 games, barely sneaking into the playoffs.
By that point Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, and Jerry Lucas were all retired. Dave DeBusschere added insult to injury by greasing the skids of his Knicks exit by serving as the GM of the rival Nets in 1973-74 and then becoming ABA Commissioner.
In a series of moves that surely would never be repeated again, the Knicks decided to acquire big name stars in hopes of a quick fix. The dynamite Spencer Haywood was added prior to the 1975-76 season. The All-Star forward teamed with title holdovers Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier to mediocre results. The Knicks stumbled to 38 wins and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1967.
The New York Nets, on the other hand, couldn’t have been in better spirits. Their nationalistic red, white, and blue jerseys were somehow less flashy than their exciting play. They possessed a roster full of young go-getters like John Williamson, Brian Taylor, and best of all the magnificent Julius Erving. As the Knicks were gone fishing, the Nets were tangling with the Denver Nuggets for the ABA title in May of 1976.
In Game 1 of the series, the spectacular Erving had scored 45 points on 17-25 shooting, including the game-winning jumper as time ran out. In Game 2, the Doctor operated to the tune of 48 points. The Nuggets despite the skywalking David Thompson and defensive ace Bobby Jones couldn’t stop Erving. Dr. J would finish the series averaging 38 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks.
But in the decisive Game 6, Dr. J was “held” to just 31 points and the Nuggets had raced out to a 80 to 58 lead in the third quarter. The New York home crowd at the sold out Nassau Coliseum didn’t waver in their thunderous support. The Nets from that point on outscored Denver 54 to 26 to close out the game. “Super” John Williamson led the Nets comeback charge with 16 points in the fourth quarter.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Nets were the champions of the ABA for the second time in three seasons. Erving had earned his second Playoff MVP to go along with three regular season MVPs and three scoring titles.
The future was uncertain for the Nets, as it is with everything and everyone, but it seemed to hold more promise than peril. The same couldn’t be said for the American Basketball Association, which was on the edge of collapse.
By 1976, the once precocious, upstart ABA was nine years old but seemed to have aged in dog years. Its finances were miserable, its attendance sagging… simply put the league was stomped, whooped, and beat up. The Baltimore Claws (née Hustlers) and the San Diego Sails (née Conquistadors) both folded before the 1975-76 season began. Mid-season, the Utah Stars dissolved. During the playoffs, the Virginia Squires folded. Left with only six teams the ABA desperately looked to merge with the NBA.
The NBA meanwhile was looking to snuff out the ABA’s harmful existence. Since the leagues began competing in 1967, player salaries had escalated and the NBA had, perhaps, overextended itself in a bid to wall-in and contain the ABA. Now in 1976 the NBA was willing to absorb the ABA, not for the charity, but to finally destroy the nuisance.
So in that spirit of patriotic, brotherly love, the NBA and ABA began serious negotiations to finally merge in the summer of ’76. The ABA players’ association tried desperately to have all six remaining ABA teams included, but the NBA owners agreed to accept only four. The Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis were history. The Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets, the San Antonio Spurs, and the New York Nets were all set to join the NBA, but with onerous terms.
A Mighty Heavy Load
The deal that was eventually worked out all hedged on the whims of the New York Knicks. The NBA’s bylaws required that a territorial invasion by one team of another would have to meet the established team’s approval. The New York Nets of the ABA by joining the NBA would indeed be invading the territory of the New York Knicks. The Knicks therefore held a de facto veto over the entire merger and the fate of the Nets.
Sensing the sword of Damocles hanging over his head, Nets owner Roy Boe sent overtures to the other ABA teams to help him cover the cost of invading the Knicks’ territory. The other owners rebuffed his efforts. Boe was left on his own to absorb the impending financial blow.
After weeks of intense negotiations between the NBA – who had a sharp young attorney named David Stern doing much of the leg work – and the ABA, the merger details were officially announced in July. The four ABA teams were to each pay $3.2 million to the NBA by September 15th. In addition to that, the Nets were required to pay $4.8 million to the Knicks for invading their territory. The combined $8 million load saddled onto the Nets put the franchise in mortal danger. Should any other unforeseen monetary crisis arise they’d have no way to reasonably survive the catastrophe.
For now, though, they figured to survive. After all, they had won two titles in three years in the ABA. They also had a great roster to be competitive for years to come. Most important of all, they had the Doctor – the man that more than any other person kept the entire ABA alive in its final season of despair. “There are athletes who are known as the franchise, but Julius isn’t the franchise, he’s the league,” quipped ABA Commissioner DeBusschere to that very point.
As Erving spent the summer talking up the importance of the ABA, the quality of its players, and amusingly playing tennis doubles matches with DeBusschere, star NFL running back O.J. Simpson, and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the Nets unwittingly sealed their demise in New York City with a trade too good to be true.
In far off Kansas City, Missouri, trouble was brewing with Nate “Tiny” Archibald. The pinball point guard was tired of playing in the plains and for a losing team. The native New Yorker dreamed of going back home and playing for the New York Knicks. In came his trade demand during the summer of ’76. and the Kings obliged by sending Tiny to the Big Apple.
The Nets however proved to be the NYC squad that won Archibald’s services. On September 10, in exchange for Brian Taylor, Jim Eakins, a 1977 first round pick, and a 1978 first round pick, they got Archibald.
Teaming Archibald together with Julius Erving would surely create a perennial contender in the NBA. Archibald to that point in his career had averaged 25 points and 8 assists per game. Erving to that point had put up 29 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 2.5 steals, and 2 blocks per game. Even if they weren’t going to win the NBA title, they were going to sell out crowds in every stadium with Dr. J’s dunks and Tiny’s fantastic dribbling exhibitions.
There was one tiny problem, though: Archibald’s salary averaged $400,000 a year, while the Doctor made a mere $270,000 a year.
Denying that he was influenced by Archibald’s enormous salary, Erving demanded a new, renegotiated contract. His agent accused the Nets of initially agreeing to a renegotiation for a new seven-year deal, but then reneged. On September 21, the New York Times reported Erving accused Boe of “broken promises” and commenced his hold out. Julius elaborated on his disgruntled stance:
“I want to be in an atmosphere of trust and good faith. Until now, I have heard promises that were not kept. Now, I’ll wait until these promises are kept, but I don’t want them verbally anymore. They have to be in writing.”
The Julius Erving Sweepstakes
Sensing blood in the water, several NBA teams lobbied for Erving’s services including the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, and, of course, the New York Knicks: “The Knicks have been the most serious contenders,” Bucks President William Alverson admitted in an October 15th interview that year. As those buzzards circled, as Erving held out, as the Nets fretted, as the world turned… ticket sales involving the Nets completely stalled out as word of Erving’s hold out spread.
“We had 12,000 tickets sold two weeks ago [for a preseason game] when the announcement was made that Erving would not be coming. The ticket sales stopped right there,” said Barry Mendelson who was in charge of the New Orleans Jazz ticket operations. An exhibition game with the Knicks was also hit hard as fans demanded refunds after learning the Doctor would not be in the house. As the 1976-77 regular season neared, the Nets had to make one of two terrible decisions.
1)They could either cave-in to the demands of their star player – who they didn’t have the money to pay thanks to Archibald’s salary and the enormous bill still due to the Knicks.
2) Trade away that star player and kill any chance they had of surviving as a viable franchise in New York City.
Finally, on October 21, on the eve of the season, the Nets traded away Julius Erving.
Despite their supposed front-runner status, the Knicks weren’t the team that snagged Erving. The Philadelphia 76ers won the Dr. J sweepstakes on October 21 by paying $3 million directly to Nets owner Boe. The money was sorely needed to keep the Nets afloat and pay their enormous bills. Erving himself received a hefty new contract from Philadelphia worth $600,000 a year. Fans, players, and coaches on the Nets were left stunned as the season opened:
“There’s been a tremendous shock treatment around here, no question about,” said Nets Coach Kevin Loughery. “We really couldn’t expect a great crowd after an emotional thing like that.”
“People were looking for the Doctor and me to play together,” noted Tiny Archibald, “so it’s not surprising that they stayed away.”
But it was “Super” John Williamson, hero of the Nets’ Game 6 comeback in the 1976 ABA Finals that voiced the most scathing opinions:
“The season’s over for us already.”
“It’s gonna be a long, long winter.”
“What a way to come into the NBA.”
“Anyone with common sense wouldn’t sell Doc.”
Unsurprisingly, Williamson was traded mid-season by the Nets to the Indiana Pacers.
Erving was left a bit shell-shocked as well after the trade went down in this interview with People magazine:
“Basketball is a very competitive, capitalistic business where people get bought and sold,” says Erving, “but I feel tarnished. Used.”
Some news media sounded the sirens of pampered players pouting and unfortunate fans suffering:
“Listen closely fans, not to what I say, but to what the men involved are telling you. Julius Erving: ‘John Q. Cash did it again. I feel sorry for the guys on the [Nets] team. They’ll have to start from scratch.’ No mention of feeling sorry for the fans. Nobody feels sorry for the fans…
The only one emotionally involved in professional sports today is the ticket-buying fan. He is such a sucker.”
As the Nets reeled from the fallout and writers scathed, the Sixers were selling out to ticket-buying fans in every road arena with Dr. J, George McGinnis, and a stunningly exciting team. On October 27, the Sixers rolled into Houston and promptly attracted 15,676 fans, the most who had ever seen an NBA contest in that city. The previous game in New Orleans, the Sixers had drawn over 27,000 fans to the Superdome, yet another record for NBA basketball. The Nets meanwhile struggled to get 5,500 fans to their opening games and wound up finishing second-to-last in attendance that season.
The Nets’ on-court play in the 1976-77 season didn’t do much to draw out those fans as they finished with just 22 wins. Tiny Archibald broke his foot 34 games into the season and thus ended his tenure with the franchise. But after such a miserable season, at least they had their draft picks… except they didn’t. Remember, the trade for Archibald had sent away their top picks for 1977 and 1978. The Kansas City Kings wound up with back-to-back #2 overall picks in the draft that should have belonged to the Nets.
For the 1977-78 season the New York Nets became the New Jersey Nets as they sought out cheaper accommodations. It wouldn’t be until the 1981-82 season that they’d once again sport a winning record. Even more remarkable is that from the merger until 2002, the Nets won just a single playoff series. They had managed to survive but they certainly weren’t thriving.
The New York Knicks, despite successfully, gutting and stamping out their competitor didn’t exactly take advantage of the situation. They made their own big splash in the fall of 1976 by trading for former MVP Bob McAdoo. Still, over the next six seasons the Knicks would win just one playoff series. Bernard King gave them a brief revival in the 1983 and 1984 seasons, but it wouldn’t be until 1989 with Patrick Ewing that Knicks truly returned to perennial contender status.
So from that wreckage emerged, Julius Erving’s Sixers. Over the next decade they would make the NBA Finals four times (’77, ’80, ’82, and ’83) winning the title in 1983. As late as 1985, they still made the Eastern Conference Finals. Fitting that in America’s bicentennial year, the Knicks-Nets feud wound up benefiting the Philadelphia 76ers most of all.