Fighting, drugs, racial tensions: the 70s were synonymous with turmoil for the NBA

Former professional basketball player and Olympic gold medalist Spencer Haywood shows off an American Basketball Association glass ball with himself and his teammates pictured at his home in Las Vegas on Monday, November 29, 2021 (AP Photo / Ellen Schmidt )

Former professional basketball player and Olympic gold medalist Spencer Haywood shows off an American Basketball Association glass ball with himself and his teammates pictured at his home in Las Vegas on Monday, November 29, 2021 (AP Photo / Ellen Schmidt )


Even the biggest games were delayed. Anyone who witnessed what the NBA had to offer in the 1970s could see that this was a league struggling to get noticed.

If there was a decade when the NBA, which turned 75 this season, nearly disintegrated under the weight of its own problems, the 1970s was that decade. It was a fight and drug filled operation that had made black gamers an integral part of the series, to wonder if those gamers were chasing fans.

It featured a heavy basketball brand that looked even worse compared to the game played by upstart ABA – a smooth 3-point shooting festival that wasn’t above using forged contract deals to poach some of the sport’s most promising talents.

The 17 NBA teams at the start of the decade were primarily located in the largest US markets and were mostly well funded, which gave the league the funds and leverage to continue despite dwindling crowds and a proceeds. that, more or less, no one wanted to watch. .

In an era when the NFL was taking off and Major League Baseball still held firmly the imaginations of American sports fans, pieces of the NBA playoffs and finals were relegated to late and delayed broadcasts – a sure-fire signal. of problem, and a reminder to us now that the league’s bright future in the 1980s and beyond was anything but predestined.

In the early 1970s, average attendance hovered around 8,000 fans per game. The NBA Finals were rated 7.2 in 1979, at a time when there were three networks and a 20.0 rating was only good for 30th place in the Nielsen rankings.

“The fan base was like, ‘Ehhh, I don’t know if I like that,” said Spencer Haywood, who won a landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for players to enter. the league before graduating from college.

“There has been so much talk about becoming a Black League,” said Haywood. “And we black players didn’t help it. We weren’t refined. It was like big fur coats, big fur hats. It was like Superfly in the NBA.”

The league also had its share of fighters and drug addicts.

Haywood himself used cocaine while with the Lakers in the late 1970s – a stint that ended unceremoniously when he was kicked from the squad after falling asleep during the training for a final game against the 76ers.

Jean Lucas. David Thompson. Bernard Roi. Michael Ray Richardson. Walter Davis. These are some of the players who have struggled with drugs in a league where, according to the Los Angeles Times, up to 75% have used cocaine and one in 10 smoked, or free-based, drugs.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Haywood said he got hooked at a party in Hollywood when someone took him to a kitchen where they were heating cocaine for a free base.

“I touched that ball that night around 10:30 pm,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I left there at 4.30am to come home and go to workout. It grabbed me just like that.”

In some ways, the proliferation of drugs, as well as the integration of the league, reflected the changes taking place in American society. All of this cannot be called progress.

In 1979, the New York Knicks became the first team to have an all-black squad – a feat celebrated in some corners but one which also led to racists perverting the team’s full name.

“It wasn’t so much New York’s attitude, but the league fans let you know what they think of you as an opponent and as a black man as well,” the star said. from Knicks Earl Monroe to Newsday in a recent interview.

In the meantime, the league had taken a violent turn. Haywood said fighting broke out essentially “every other night, and for no real reason.”

If there was a single moment that defined the problem, it was during a game between the Rockets and the Lakers in 1977, when Rudy Tomjanovich ran onto the field to intervene in a fight. Kermit Washington turned and disarmed Rudy T, crumpling him to the ground and fracturing his skull, cheekbones and nose.

But that wasn’t the first outburst of violence to ruin an NBA game, and some of the ugliest incidents happened when the lights were on the brightest, in the Finals.

– In 1975, Warriors coach Al Attles, who wasn’t a man to be taken lightly even after his playing days, burst onto the pitch and mingled with Wes Unseld as Attles was trying to protect Rick Barry after Barry was punched by Mike Riordan of the Washington Bullets.

– In 1976, a fight punctuated Game 3 of the Suns-Celtics series, and then a fan assaulted referee Richie Powers, who had previously made a potentially decisive appeal, as part of a wild ending to the triple-thriller extension of the fifth game.

– In 1977, Maurice Lucas and Darrell Dawkins faced off in a fight that changed the momentum between the Sixers and the Blazers that also brought the people from the stands to the field.

“To say I wasn’t getting a good reaction from potential sponsors would be the nicest way to put it,” former NBA executive Rick Welts said in the ESPN documentary “Basketball: A Love. Story “. “If I could get a date, it was about 15 minutes of ‘Why would anyone in their right mind want to be associated with your league?’ “

Among those who asked this question was CBS, which in the late ’70s began to broadcast many postseason games, including some finals, on a delayed basis in order to keep Affiliates happy and not. not get in the way of sweep week, when the finals started in May. . (People much preferred to watch “Dallas” rather than LA or Philly).

The NBA TV deal was so insignificant in the ’70s that the league barely wavered when owner Ozzie Silna asked to forgo a lump sum payment in exchange for a portion of future NBA TV rights as a buyout. to make his Spirits of St Louis disappear when the NBA absorbed the top four ABA teams in 1976.

“We saw some room for growth there,” Silna said in an interview with The AP in 2006, when he had become a millionaire hundreds of times. “We had no idea it would increase that much.”

Almost no one was doing it at the time, but for anyone who wanted to take a closer look, there were glimmers of hope.

In the NBA offices, a relatively unknown lawyer by the name of David Stern, who had helped the league in its futile Supreme Court fight against Haywood, was climbing the corporate ladder and starting to inject the idea that the league needed a cleaning. work and rebranding.

“We needed someone to come and put things in order,” said Haywood of Stern, who became commissioner in 1984. “We were at a point where there were a number of things that had to be done to get the drugs out. and get the fight.

As for that decisive 1979-80 NBA Finals game between LA and Philly that most countries watched late, or completely missed: it featured a rookie named Magic Johnson. Playing center in place of injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson had 42 points and 15 rebounds to fend off the 76ers.

Across the country, rookie forward Larry Bird was a spectator. Despite Bird’s 22 points per game, the Celtics had lost in the conference final to Philly and Doctor J. A year earlier, Bird and Magic met in the NCAA title game between Indiana State and Michigan State. It was just that kind of all-star game that the struggling NBA desperately needed to be able to present as well, if they were ever to regain a foothold.


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This story was originally published December 16, 2021 12:07 am.

Naomi C. Amerson