THE NBA IN THE DECADE OF THE EIGHTIES
By STEVEN A. ROSEBORO
COPYRIGHT 2013 STEVEN A ROSEBORO
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.
In the fall of 1979, I was spending my last semester on campus preparing for Mid-Terms at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the final semester of classes before my Physical Therapy internships began in January 1980. The University had just signed a contract to participate in a new Athletic Conference , which would be known as the Big East. UCONN Basketball a respectable program with a history of mixed success in the regional Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournaments and the occasional NIT invite, would now clash with high profile teams from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.. The general consensus around campus at the time was, really?... hey, good luck with that.
In September, about 40 miles south in Bristol, a grand experiment was launched that would change the way we enjoyed Sports on television. Connecticut residents were the first recipients of the new Entertainment and Sports Network, or ESPN, that would offer 24 hour, 7 day coverage of happenings in the world of sports, featuring a daily Studio Program, updated regularly, rerun all day long, called SportsCenter. Why anyone needed 24 hour Sports updates (or News for that matter, as the soon to be launched Cable News Network would determine) was anyone’s guess, as the local and National networks provided Sports segments at 7am, 6pm and 11 pm. Amazingly, those two seminal startups would define the “vision” in Television.
The ESPN network would also provide coverage of the lesser known sporting events (I swear Tractor Pull was one), in-state Sports (Connecticut had no major sports franchise, but had some of the most Fan-atic fans anywhere) as well as made for television sports events, in the vein of the seventies hit The Superstars competition. ESPN had long term hopes of broadcasting major Sports in the next few years if it caught on. A favorite memory was watching live coverage of two-man and two- woman Beach Volleyball from Redondo Beach, California in January 1980, at my home in Derby, Connecticut during a raging snowstorm at three in the morning, thinking Redondo Beach wasn’t a bad place to be right then.
Earlier that spring in March 1979, Basketball fans were treated to the much-hyped of Earvin “Magic” Johnson of Michigan State University and Larry Bird of the undefeated 33-0 Indiana State Sycamores in the NCAA tournament Final. Both layers would play their first NBA games that October, Magic with the Los Angeles Lakers and Bird with the Boston Celtics, each getting sparkling reviews against both ragged summer league competition and in Pre-Season NBA tune-ups. The League had been suffering from a well documented plunge in attendance and television ratings by the end of the Seventies, a major disappointment as the first half of the Decade began with tremendous promise, from the rise of the New York Knicks, the professional debut of Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul Jabbar; the Los Angeles Lakers steamrolling the NBA in 1972 behind the Hall of Fame trio of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, setting records for regular season wins with 69 and consecutive wins with 33 (a record that will never be broken). The rebooting of the Celtics, led by John Havlicek and 1973 League MVP Dave Cowens produced NBA titles in 1974 and 1976, keeping the torch of Celtic Pride burning for a new generation.
The NBA’s future seemed even brighter as two significant events transpired toward the middle of the decade; first the ABA- NBA merger in 1976 finally ushered in the Doctor J era, the magnificent Julius Erving bringing his unparalleled aerial showmanship to the NBA’s frequently plodding, unimaginative ground game. The other major boost came from UCLA Legend Bill Walton, now bringing his own unique talents to the Center position as the leader of the Portland Trailblazers.
These events still were not enough to whet the appetites of casual sports fans, who remained devoted to the NFL and Major League Baseball, where the World Series and the Super Bowl remained staples of sports Americana. The League’s image continued to take a beating by the end of the decade, and seemingly overnight both the Knicks and Celtics were aging. The Celtics hit rock bottom with a 29-53 record in 1979, while the precision offense and smothering defense of the Knicks Championship teams gave way to the “Rent a Knick” teams of the late 70’s, the “I” in team finding its way into the depressed atmosphere at Madison Square Garden in the forms of Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo (New York, never fond of its Neighbors to the North, happily shipped McAdoo to the Celtics in 1978, for three first round draft picks nonetheless). Skilled soloists with no fondness for the passing game or defense, McAdoo and Haywood were the Anti-Knicks, symbols of the Franchise’s desperation to buy a title sans championship blueprint, in the name of keeping their savvy fans interested and attendance at the level of the Willis Reed-Walt Frazier years.
The poster child of New York’s spendthrift ways was free agent acquisition Marvin “the Human Eraser” Webster, he of the gigantic (for that era) 650 Thousand dollar Contract and 6 dollar Knees. Webster parlayed a 1978 Finals performance with the Sonics to fortune and failure with New York, Marvin effectively erasing all Knick hopes of title contention. Seattle plucked promising young Power Forward Lonnie Shelton off the Knick roster in compensation for Webster, with Shelton immediately establishing himself as a major cog in Seattle’s Championship wheel in 1979.
The fall from grace of those 2 key franchises, combined with Walton’s fractured foot follies in Portland and Kareem’s lack of a decent supporting cast in Los Angeles left us with the Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics, revered in their respective hometowns but unable to generate much interest outside the pacific northwest or our nation’s capitol. They played back to back Championship sets, a 7 game battle in 1978 won on the road by Washington followed by a 5 game rematch taken by the Sonics. Played without marquee Superstars (the biggest star may have been the NBA on CBS Play by Play man, the controversial Brent Musberger) or in major media markets, the 70’s ended with a whimper not a bang. Add the sobering reality of the NCAA’s gigantic TV ratings numbers generated by the Magic-Bird encounter, and the NBA kept sinking deeper into sports oblivion, as fans focused on the resurgent Yankees in Baseball and the invincible Pittsburgh Steelers in Pro Football, leaving Professional Basketball to the relative few hopeless hoops junkies like myself.
And yes, matters could get worse for the NBA, who found they had more than their share of hopeless hoops junkies actually in their League. Cocaine was finding a welcome home in the NBA subculture, replacing a player’s former hunger for the game with a new hunger for an endless supply of the paralyzing powder. A League with a majority of Black men with lots of time and lots of money became the willing participants in the central nervous system- wrecking endeavor. Cocaine addiction was rapidly replacing Osteoarthritis or ligament tears as the career-ending epitaph of a Basketball Professional in the seventies, feeding into the stereotype of the spoiled, overpaid, underachieving Black Basketball Player, an ugly image certainly not worthy of prime time by any stretch of the imagination.
In the midst of all this doom and gloom, there stood Magic Johnson on my television set that October evening in 1979, resplendent in his Laker purple and gold, a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon, hamming it up with Musburger on CBS before his Laker debut vs. the San Diego Clippers. Ignorance being bliss, the Magic One seemed blissfully oblivious to the weight of the NBA’s future resting on his precocious shoulders; he was having too much fun already.
Less than 3 hours later, Magic was seen strangling the dumbfounded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had just sent the Clippers on their way to another miserable season with a humdrum, game-winning last second Sky Hook , a moment to Kareem as uneventful as taking out the trash, but here was this 19 year old rookie suddenly cutting off his windpipe, an indelible image shown on tape delay in Los Angeles, as the NBA was not yet where prime time happens, but live across the rest of America. That image projected the feeling of, win or lose, the Lakers were going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than last year.
Abdul-Jabbar, the 7 foot 2 marvel who now wore his age on the back of his uniform, would be named the NBA’s MVP for a record 6th time, remarkably beginning his second decade of excellence with his best supporting cast in 5 years, led by mercurial guard Norm Nixon, slender UCLA alumnus Jamal “Silk” Wilkes, the silk describing his hands and jumper, rookie Michael Cooper from New Mexico (he played only 3 games in his draft year of 1979) , a hyperkinetic running, jumping jack with the heart of a lion, and frontcourt force provided by Jim Chones, Mark Landsburger and the aforementioned Spencer Haywood, (eventually banished from the team after he fell asleep one day in practice under suspicious circumstances) . Magic became the floor general Kareem had missed since Oscar Robertson retired in 1975, who could pace the game and get Kareem the ball in the right place at the right time.
Paul Westhead, the Laker assistant who took the reins when Coach Jack Mckinney suffered a head injury early in the season, kept the delicate blend of Egos in check, at least for awhile as they tore through the 79-80 schedule.
Bird’s road to the best record in the east took a markedly different route. He became the focal point of the Celtic offense, deftly orchestrating the flow of the game from the forward position with his fearless shooting and pinpoint passing , a seamless transition from his days at Indiana State, only with better teammates; Center Dave Cowens, the last holdover from the glory years, Guards Tiny Archibald, reborn playing with Bird, Chris Ford, who would make the NBA’s first 3 point basket that season, and Forward Cedric “Cornbread”Maxwell crashing the boards. Center Rick Robey, M.L. Carr and the legendary Pistol Pete Maravich, in one last hope of ending his amazing career with a ring, came off the bench.
Bird’s Celtics also won his debut, defeating the Houston Rockets 114-106. The Celtics, who won 29 games all of last season recorded their 29th win this season before New Years on their way to a 61-21 record, a phenomenal 32 game reversal of fortune, earning Bird Rookie of the year honors as he averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds per contest. Two of those losses, however came at the hands of Magic’s Lakers, 123-105 (Magic 23 and 6 assists vs. Bird’s 16) at the Forum and 100-98 in Boston Garden, Kareem with 33 and 12 covering for the injured Magic, scoring a forgettable 1 point in a brief Cameo. Bird, on the other hand was introduced to his second skin of the decade, guard Michael Cooper, who kept him in check.
Both wins mere moral victories for Magic after losing to Bird in ROY voting by a large margin, with the bigger prize to come later...