NBRPA Legend Mack Calvin spotlighted at SportsNOLA.com

January 29, 2014

Where are they now? ABA legend Mack Calvin

(Please check out this article in its entirety at SportsNOLA.com)

By Rene Nadeau

Mack Calvin, a former NBA and ABA performer? Do you remember him? For most of you on the south side of 40 years old, you may not.

A star on the basketball courts at the highest levels from 1969-81, Calvin currently performs good works in the New Orleans area. But for him, it all really started on the hardwood on the West Coast.

'Mack the Knife' was a point guard with quicksilver hands and superior skills to run a team. The 6-foot, 170 pounder found his niche among the best athletes in the world, not having followed today's traditional path to the league through camps and all-star circuits.

"We grew up poor. From birth to age seven, we lived on a farm in Fort Worth, Texas. Then all 10 of us (including mom and dad) headed to California," Mack recalled.

Calvin loved all sports, playing shortstop in baseball and the point in basketball, knowing it would require hard work and commitment to reach the top. " I just wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be great in life. Jerry West was my hero. I did everything just like him. I always had speed and quickness. I practiced 8-10 hours a day."

Long Beach Poly went 87-1 during the years they had Calvin, who served as the sixth man while future Stanford and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Gene Washington was a starter. Calvin's senior campaign was his time to shine. He averaged 17 points per game, attracting 65-70 offers from college recruiters. But reading at only a seventh grade level short-circuited any college plans.

Long Beach City College head basketball coach Chuck Kane came knocking on the door. It turned out to be a perfect marriage. "He turned my life around as a person; he was my mentor," Mack stated emphatically. "We lost three games (76-3 overall) losing to Jerry Tarkanian at Riverside and Pasadena (JUCO's)." Tarkanian later coached UNLV to four Final Four appearances with one national title.

Calvin earned JUCO All-American when he averaged 21 points and five assists during his tenure. His academic status improved as well. "Coach Kane took interest in my missing classes. He was getting ready to kick me off the team. I told him that I couldn't read. He assigned me to classes that helped me read. Later, I made the Dean's List.

"Basketball was very important. I was afraid to get kicked off. (Kane) did a lot for me. He was my best man in my wedding. He flew in for my first game in pro basketball. Unfortunately, he passed away from prostate cancer five years ago."

Mack was ready for his next challenge but there was virtually no early entry in pro basketball at that time since only seniors were invited. He fielded offers from over 80 colleges, pairing his final list to Washington State, Oregon State, Washington, USC and UCLA. "I never allowed recruiters inside of my house. I was embarrassed to have anyone come in. I would meet them at the front door."

The Wizard of Westwood, UCLA coach John Wooden, He had an impeccable record. During his career, Wooden captured 10 National titles, including seven in a row, from 1966-67 season through 1972-73. During that span, the Bruins won an astonishing 205 games out of 210. Wooden compiled a 620-147 record.

It would be difficult for any prospect to reject an offer with his history of championships and super players. "(Wooden) told me that I was the only player that he personally recruited," Calvin said. "He brought assistant Denny Crum (future Louisville coach) along with him. I spent 2 1/2 hours with him one day then another hour at his home. He saw me as another point guard like Mike Warren (an All-American on two Bruins's NCAA title teams). Coach Wooden was always quoting a famous person."

USC head coach Bob Boyd, who also saw great value in Mack, was hoping for a package deal with Calvin and Long Beach center Karey Bailey.Bailey wound up at West Virginia.

Boyd thought that Mack Calvin was one of a kind. "There is no limit to what Mack can do. He is a champion. His attitude , his manner is absorbed by the entire team."

" I only had two years of eligibility," Mack responded." I knew that I could start at USC." Despite the humbling overture by Wooden and UCLA, he decided USC was a better fit. He became team captain and was voted most inspirational player.

With Calvin at the throttle and center Ron Taylor, the Trojans had a great deal of success.

During those times, it was a common occurrence for college teams to play against the same opponent in back-to-back nights.

As fate would have it, USC squared off with mighty UCLA on a home-and-home arrangement. The Bruins held a 17-game streak over the Trojans. "At our place we almost beat them," Calvin recalled. "I had 26 points. We went into double overtime. We had a two-point lead late. UCLA's Lynn Shackleford hit a 30-footer to send it to overtime and eventually win 61-55."

The following night was a different story at UCLA and an example of what could happen in the era before the shot clock. "We stalled, ran four corners. I finished with 8 points . We led 21-19 at halftime. Our guys had a lot of confidence."

The Trojans ended the 41-win UCLA home streak at Pauley Pavillion, prevailing 46-44 to rock the college basketball world.

The Bruins with Lew Alcindor (became Kareem Abdul Jabbar), John Vallely, Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks, Kenny Heitz and Shackleford went onto to capture another national title. The Bruins were 88-2 while Alcindor was there.

Upon graduation, Calvin had a decision to make for his basketball future. He was drafted in the 12th round by the Los Angeles Lakers and the 7th round by the upstart American Basketball Association's Los Angeles Stars. "There was over 400 players drafted before me in the NBA. They offered me a signed Jerry West jersey and a free bus trip. Bill Sharman was coach of the Stars. Bob Boyd recommended me to Sharman who was also a USC guy."

The offer was a modest $3,000 bonus and a $12,000 contract by the Stars. "They told me that if I made the team, they would tear up my original contract and give me $15,000. The only player in that (1969) draft to make the Hall of Fame was Jabbar."

The average salary in the ABA during the '70's was $80,000. Meanwhile, the NBA's average was nearly double in the $150,000 range. During that span, only Jerry West and Bill Russell could command annual salaries in excess of $100,000.

With the overall stats Mack Calvin accumulated during his career in pro basketball, (19 points, 5.6 assists, 88.9% free throws), he would earn in the neighborhood of $15 million per season these days.

Calvin graded extremely high in the aptitude department. Out of three million athletes tested, he received the highest psychlogical test score for a professional or college athlete given by Doctors Bruce Ogilvie and Thomas Tutko of San Jose State College. On the 'motivation, will and desire to win' scale, former Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach also ranked high.

Mack demonstrated a burning desire to excel from the time that he took the court as a professional. He was tabbed first-team ABA All-Rookie, averaging 16.8 points. "We won 23 out of our last 26 games to make the playoffs. I averaged 25 points in the postseason."

The Stars made it to the finals but lost to the Indiana Pacers in the championship series, four games to two.

Mack set an ABA record hitting 696 out of 805 free throws (86.4%) icluding 47 in a row during one stretch. "Bill Sharman told me that I would be fouled a lot. I worked on it. I was 75 percent in college."

His next stop in the ABA was the Miami Floridians . "We were more of an open team, coached by Bob Bass (later with the Spurs and Hornets). They took advantage of my speed and quickness."

But the Miami team folded in two seasons, much the life in the ABA at that time. He averaged 27.2 points with the Floridians.

Next stop for Mack was the Carolina Cougars, coached by Larry Brown and assistant Doug Moe. Notable teammates were Billy Cunningham, Joe Caldwell, Jim Chones and Ed Manning (father of Danny Manning).

Mack helped the Denver Nuggets post an impressive 61-19 record during the 1974-75 season, dishing 7.7 assists per outing. He was selected by Basketball Weekly as the ABA Player of the Year but was later traded to the Virginia Squires for the rights to David Thompson following the 1975-76 season.

The Squires stop-over presented an interesting challenge. "I missed 45 games due to injuries, but averaged 19 points. I was hired to be a player/coach. It exposed me to coaching."

The ABA, under commissioner and former NBA star Dave DeBusshere, finally folded. The league was responsible for Mack Calvin's contract. Only four teams were absorbed by the NBA from the ABA, the Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.

Free to sign where he liked, Mack joined the Lakers, who had established stars Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jerry West.

With a taste for coaching, it would eventually lead to a 39-year span in the coaching ranks from high school to the NBA, including an interim coaching gig with the San Diego Clippers and assistant jobs with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers.

As a player, Mack appeared in five All-Star games, scored over 12,000 points, snagged over 1,900 rebounds and gave out more than 3,600 assists (4.8 per game) during his 12 year professional career.

His 3,067 assists rank second in ABA history behind only Louie Dampier of the Kentucky Colonels (4,044). Mack has even been recognized as the best ABA point guard ever. Walt Frazier, JoJo White, Gail Goodrich, Calvin Murphy and Nate Archibald roamed the court for the NBA during the same era, but Mack held his own with any of them.

How would Mack Calvin have fit into the NBA as a player today?

"Today is more of a shooting game, penetrate and draw a foul. Very few players can break down players like Chris Paul can. But LeBron James is close to a triple-double.

"Tony Parker (averages 17 points and six assists, earning $12.5 million per year) is the type of player that I was. Whatever it takes to win. I was a scorer in the early days. I played with Dan Issel, Bobby Jones and David Thompson. I became more of an assist guard."

Don't get Mack wrong. He could score when his team needed it.

"In one game against the Pacers while with the Stars, I had 34 points and 18 assists. I accounted for 70 points, but we lost."

Mack shared the court with some outstanding teammates, but a few stick out in his mind. "Billy Cunningham was the best teammate, the most competitive, most unselfish, best attitude. Second best was David Thompson. Marvin "Bad News" Barnes was an exciting player. He could have been special but experienced off-the-court problems.

Speaking of off-court problems, an interesting sidenote involves one of the more troubled former NBA stars who keeps findign his way into the headlines in strange ways. Calvin bleeds red, white and blue as a loyal U.S. citizen so he is none-to-pleased with Dennis Rodman these days.

"What Dennis Rodman is involved in strikes a nerve. What he's doing is un American," Mack explained with exasperation. "It borders on treason. Going to North Korea, which is not sanctioned by the state department, that is not a goodwill tour. President Kim is a dictator with a missile pointed at South Korea. Kenneth Bae is an American hostage.

"I'm patriotic, a man who loves his country. This country has given me rights and privileges. I have visited six countries and conducted basketball clinics. They were all sanctioned and approved by the NBA. Commisioner David Stern has built bridges with countries that have welcomed us, like Vietnam, China and Africa. I was on the Board of Directors for NBA players for three years."

An man who always tried to give back the game which ave him so much Mack is in his 40th year conducting approximately three camps a year for kids. "Over 12,000 kids have come through our camps. We average 150 kids and we don't charge. Basketball is what God afforded me as a vehicle. I'm one of those guys that have overcome from early life. Maybe I'm one of the biggest overachievers of all-time."

Following retirement from basketball, Mack spent time as a sports analyst for Fox Sports in California. He also worked for the Adolph Coors Beverage Company in Denver, Colorado.

Mack arrived in the Crescent City in 2008 to roll up his sleeves to help New Orleans rebound from the tragedies of Katrina. "I've built 25 affordable housing in Algiers, spoken to high school groups, joined community leaders and weatherized another 50 homes."

Like so many once they take the time to really experience the area, he recognized the potential in this city. "New Orleans is embarking on an economic boom that this country hasn't seen in 50 years because of the richness and culture. It's the centerpiece of why people are attracted here to do business. They have solved some political dishonesty. Developers were turned away when I first got here. Businesses are now relocating here. The movie industry has established themselves and we haven't scratched the surface of housing developments.

"I feel alive in this city, the human compassion for one another. no racial boundaries. It's a rainbow community. From the wealthiest to the less fortunate, everyone has pitched in to help out. Over the next two to three decades, there will be a tremendous economic boom. I've been here for six years. It's been a great ride!"

With February discussions regarding new potential entrants into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it seems logical that the name Mack Calvin, richly deserving of consideration, comes up in talks. Considering his origins and the long, winding path he has negotiated to an superb professional career at the highest level, he has made a difference.

After all the assists he has recorded during his playing day, Mack Calvin is offering a few more now off the floor in the Big Easy.