No Rest for the Weary
By Peter Vecsey
I don’t know about you—it’s not a concern of mine, actually—but I never tire of presenting accounts and descriptions of Larry Legend without the express written consent of the NBA.
In Game 1 of the 1981 Finals, the Rockets lost by three points in Boston, largely on a blood shot off a rebound that caromed to the right side of the backboard and was retrieved in the air by Bird. He caught it and drained a fall-away with his left hand in the last minute before alighting out of bounds.
There was no way Bird could have shot it, much less converted it, with his right hand! OK, so he is a natural lefty, but really only goes that way with a pen, a fork or spoon, or if guarded by a Trail Blazer.
Red Auerbach called it the best shot he had ever seen. I was there and categorically second that stance.
Moses Malone is another luminary whose exploits and escapades deserve to get routinely revisited. Specifically when they harmonize with Bird in the same series.
In Game 2, two days later (May 5th for the record; in the last 20 years, this date falls in the second round), the Rockets already were jammed up in a must-win situation…and in the early going, were getting maltreated.
Realizing the gravity of the rapidly unraveling situation, coach Del Harris resorted to unwarranted measures. He called a time out and scolded Malone, the centrifugal force behind Houston reaching the Larry O’Brien Round.
The league’s perennial MVP contender had scored a scrawny 13 points in the opener on 4-for-17 shooting, though to be even-handed, he had tracked down his usual 15-rebound allotment, a fair number were flagging his own misdeeds.
Moses was the Rockets’ whole kit and caboodle (I never used that banality before, but couldn’t control an urge to do so). Harris almost never had to get on him. Malone’s work ethic and competitive edge were above admonishment, and that was on the pre-game layup line.
Still, after telling the team what had to be done, Harris closed with, “And Mo, you have to get on the boards, man!"
“F - you, coach!”
“Mo,” Harris reacted, “We can talk about our sex life after the game, but right now I need you to get some rebounds!”
The players cracked up. Their tension croaked. Mo surged for 31 points and 15 rebounds, leading Houston to a 94-92 win.
Next, just some odd information relative to the way playing time is doled out by today’s coaches.
Games 3 & 4 of that series were played in Houston, back-to-back, Saturday/Sunday, May 9th & 10th. For the kiddies under 50 in this audience, this happened every post-season in prehistoric times.
The Rockets got trampled in Game 3. The next afternoon, Harris only used a six-pack of players...spontaneously, I later learned, not the plan, as the game flow seemed to dictate that.
Mike Dunleavy was on a roll with 28 points and six assists, while Tom Henderson had to be on the court to guard Tiny Archibald, Clinton (Bronx, NY) high school alumni going at one another.
Calvin Murphy, a superb sixth man, and Houston’s second-leading scorer, had tweaked a leg in Game 3, therefore, there was no run for him.
Allen Leavell, a solid player, also saw no daylight. Bill Willoughby was the sole sub. Poodles contributed eight points.
Malone played all 48! He amassed 24 points and 22 rebounds, as the Rockets won, 91-86, before the largest NBA TV (not to be confused with NBATV) audience of the season.
Unfortunately for the sixth-seed Rockets, that was the end of that. The Celtics won Games 5 & 6 by a combined 40 points, raising another banner to the Rastafarians.
The point I wanted to make with regards to the minutes of the meeting is that this was at a time of commercial flights.
There were no charters (except the Knicks, who often hired a plane on the rear end of back-to-back nights on the east coast), extra staff for training and nutrition, psychologists, masseuses, skills guys, 29 assistant coaches and 15-man rosters, as is the case today.
Moreover, the 82-game schedule was somewhat condensed (early October to late March) as compared with nowadays.
Of course, there were only 23 teams then, and seven-game series were just for three rounds. Additionally, the division champs earned a bye in the first-round, three-game miniseries.
Regardless, the Rockets played a half-dozen back-to-back-to-back sets that season, which is outlawed today. Malone averaged 41 minutes and played 81 games. Houston’s top eight Minutemen missed a total of 32 games.
But here’s the soccer-style kicker for those who think you have to have minutes and games controlled by a ‘coach’ who hall monitors such things... the Celtics’ top eight missed a total of one game all season.
Cornbread Maxwell was the sloth that missed that game; it gave a youngster named Kevin McHale his lone start. Bird averaged right at 40 minutes, and averaged 39 even in his 11th season. Archibald, who’d suffered two torn Achilles before becoming a Celtic, averaged 35 at age 32; he had averaged as many as 46 one season. Malone averaged 35 in his 15th year.
Load management, anyone?
The solo qualification re: the Celtics missing a single game is that they only had one set of back-to-back-to-back, which was in February at Philly and Milwaukee and back home (Indiana).
Eastern Conference teams had easier travel in any case, but still had to go the full 82 games. Houston had a geographical disadvantage in travel as did all teams on the western front. The Rockets had a game at Phoenix on a Friday, were home vs. the Knicks Saturday and another the next afternoon in Denver. Delays forced the players to dress on the bus.
The Nuggets had not scored fewer than 100 points since Nov. 26, and this was in February. In fact, Doug Moe would coach the last 51 games of that season and this was the lone game they failed to score 100. The Rockets braked and won, 98-97.
Earlier that month, Houston had beaten Utah at home Thursday, 117-103, then won at Dallas Friday in OT, 124-120, before going to Denver Saturday, where they lost, 134-132.
In fact, the Nuggets scored over 130 frequently in Moe’s first season with them and often thereafter. They had a high of 162 that season against Portland, and went over 140 on four other occasions. Alex English and David Thompson logged the most minutes per game on that team, and missed but five games total. English averaged 38 in 81 games, Dan Issel 33 minutes at age 30.
The players back then rarely rested, thus I rest my case.
Some even got angry when coaches took them out.
Many, if not all, NBA connoisseurs are convinced, I’m convinced, that George Gervin dreamt up the finger roll. Overtime to get a firm grip on reality.
Larry Bird’s Hall of Fame induction occurred in 1998. An hour or so before the ceremony was to begin, there I was, a nobody from Hollis, Queens, hanging out in an enchanted forest teeming with premium players right off the pages of basketball history. The reverential mingling instantaneously deviated into locker room humor the moment Wilt Chamberlain lowered his head through the door of a private room.
“George Gervin!” he bellowed at the first target trapped in his sights. “If it isn’t the world famous Iceman!”
Wilt’s affectionate mocking fissured Gervin, sending him into hysterics. It was an honor (and a hoot) to be saluted by the NBA’s most daunting constellation even if the tone was irreverent.
“What’s happenin’, Dipper. What do you know?” hailed Gervin as Wilt sidled up for some conversation to a small group that included Bob Lanier.
“I’m not at liberty to tell you that,” Wilt huffed. “But I’ll tell you what I’d like to know:
“How come you’re doing all the commercials, making all the money, and getting all the credit for the finger roll, and I’m not making a dime? And I’m the one who originated it! Can you explain that to me, please!”
It seemed like a good time to get sufficiently nervous, but that would’ve conflicted with the Iceman’s style. Anyway, he was laughing too hard to get tense.
“You right … you right ... you the man,” Gervin squawked in between gulps for air. “No question, Dippy, you originated the finger roll. But I perfected it!”
Undoubtedly, those same fervent followers of the NBA swear Tim Hardaway originated the crossover, and that World B. Free originated the step-back.
In fact, Archie Clark created both designer displays, which is how he earned his nickname.
Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of Archie Clark—a collaborative effort with Bob Kuska-- is the story of one of ‘70s most respected versatile guards. He’d routinely stagger defenders with a customized crossover dribble, and is credited by peers as the stylist of today’s illustrious step-back.
A third-round (U. of Minnesota) 1966 draft pick by the Lakers, Clark’s growth spurt was swift and adroit. Midway through rookie year, he was starting alongside Jerry West.
As competent as Clark was on the court, he was correspondingly combative off it. A deep-thinking pioneer for players’ rights, he often challenged coaches and owners on principle, much to the detriment of his career valuation.
However, as one of the torchbearers of the Player’s Union, his legacy is lasting. A litigant (along with John Havlicek, Wes Unseld, Bill Bradley and others) in the 1970 seminal Robertson vs. NBA antitrust case—settled in 1976--it ended the player reserve system and laid the foundation for the modern NBA.
Do yourself an educational favor and assimilate ‘Hard Labor’ by Sam Smith.
Clark was the major part of the package offered by the Lakers to the 76ers for Chamberlain. First, however, he was the stumbling block because his contract had concluded. In order to finalize the seismic transaction, LA owner Jack Kent Cooke had to re-sign him. Despite lacking representation, Clark exploited the circumstances to squeeze a contract that broke the $100,000 barrier, an immense deal for anyone not named Chamberlain, Bill Russell and West.
What’s more, Clark got the insufferable Cooke to pay most of his salary for two seasons in Philly.
FYI: his rookie one-year contract was a standard $11,000 unguaranteed for anyone not drafted in the first round, making him awfully vulnerable. In fact, the Lakers almost cut Clark to keep John Wetzel. Why? To maintain “racial balance,” according to the book’s authors, another term for the NBA’s unwritten quota system. Luckily for Clark, the Lakers, “and my book writing,” Kuska underlines, Wetzel broke a wrist he’d fractured months before at the end of training camp, after a hard whack from Darrall Imhoff, a.k.a., The Ax.)
How did Clark develop the step-back move? That’s what I wanted to know. In the summer of ‘67, Archie became friendly with Woody Sauldsberry, whose playing rights had been sold to the 76ers in 1957 by Globetrotter owner Abe Saperstein.
Ten years later, his NBA career was in jeopardy because Russell was allegedly jealous that the woman of his desire preferred his once-trusted teammate. Russell waived him out of Boston.
Clark and the long-armed, 6-foot-7 Sauldsberry worked out all that summer and Archie developed the step-back maneuver to get off his shot. According to Archie, nobody was using this evasive maneuver back then, a claim supported by others.
During Black History Month, Sauldsberry is also an interesting figure. An informal NBA tradition had emerged in the 1950s that black veterans should look out for their team’s black rookies, teaching them the ropes.
Among the most-outspoken were black veterans with a Philadelphia connection, including Sauldsberry, Guy Rodgers, Walt Hazzard, Ray Scott, and others.
In an age when “locker-room lawyers” got waived out of the league, these Philly guys would talk amongst themselves about the business of basketball. It was Sauldsberry who taught Clark how to negotiate a contract and, as mentioned above, eventually outsmart Cooke.
Clark became a part of this tradition, befriending Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor). He also taught his 76ers teammates how to buck the system and get bigger contacts. It was Clark who told Spencer Haywood that his deferred-drenched ABA contract with the Denver Rockets was inequitable, leading to his groundbreaking suit against the NBA that ended the four-year college rule, confirmed in the book by Haywood.
Check out the tome here.
The minister who spoke at last Sunday's service for Harthorne Wingo at the cemetery in Tryon, N.C., told a story about how the 6-8 forward nearly wound up driving to California in 1968. He and two high-school teammates checked out the possibility of staying for a while and eventually moving there permanently.
It was going to be a three-day road trip. Everything was arranged, starting with departure date and time. The three met at a prescribed place and each threw a small bag into the trunk. Wingo got in and got out almost immediately. “This not going to work, I’m going to New York,” he declared.
The rest is Knicks’ History.
Bill Metcalf, one of Wingo’s high school teammates, corroborated the story. He said the vehicle was a Volkswagen!