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Basketball in America
by David Friedman / April 18, 2005

Excerpted from Chapter 12 ("Chocolate Thunder and Short Shorts: The NBA in the 1970s") of the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (a Haworth Press book edited by Bob Batchelor), available at Amazon.com and in bookstores now (ISBN # 0789016125).

The economics of pro basketball exploded in the 1970s. The average player salary rose from $35,000 in 1970 to $180,000 a decade later and franchise values went up more than 600% in the same period. The major cause of the skyrocketing salaries was the competition between the NBA and the ABA for star players. The ABA opened a new front in this war with the signing of Spencer Haywood, the 19-year-old star of the 1968 U.S. Olympic gold medalists. Haywood had only played one year of junior college ball and one year at the University of Detroit before he joined the ABA's Denver Rockets for the 1969-1970 season. At this time, NBA teams abided by the "four-year rule," which stipulated that a player could not be drafted or signed to an NBA contract until his college class graduated; that is why Wilt Chamberlain played a year with the Harlem Globetrotters after he left Kansas before his senior year. The ABA subsequently signed numerous underclassmen, most notably Ralph Simpson (1970), Julius Erving (1971) and George McGinnis (1971), each of whom became All-Stars.

Haywood enjoyed a spectacular rookie season, leading the ABA in scoring (30.0 points per game) and rebounding (19.5 rebounds per game). He won the Rookie of the Year, the regular season MVP, and the All-Star MVP and averaged 36.7 points per game and 19.8 rebounds per game in the playoffs.

Not surprisingly, Haywood's success caused him to take a second look at his contract. Little did he know that his case would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court and forever change American sports. When Haywood signed with the Rockets, his contract was announced as a six-year, $1.9 million deal. In fact, the vast majority of the value of his contract ($1.5 million) would be paid to Haywood at the rate of $75,000 a year for 20 years after Haywood turned 40. The ABA devised this type of deferred compensation arrangement (known as the Dolgoff Plan) in order to be able to offer huge contracts to players. It involved paying a portion of a player's salary into a mutual fund or other growth fund for a ten-year period.

Payments to the player commenced after waiting for an additional ten years and typically lasted for 20 years. It was not clear if Haywood would receive the $1.5 million if, for any reason, he did not play the full six years for the Rockets or if the ABA folded at some point in the future. Haywood was unable to reach an agreement with the Rockets to restructure his contract, so he jumped leagues and signed a six-year, $1.5 million deal with the Seattle SuperSonics. This contract paid Haywood $100,000 a year for 15 years – all cash, no deferred compensation and no Dolgoff Plan. Agent Ron Grinker later observed, "The ABA paid in paper money, but the NBA responded to that by paying in real dollars, and it nearly bankrupted both leagues."

Haywood's case involved a tangled web of legal issues. The Denver Rockets accused attorney Al Ross of convincing Haywood to breach his contract with them, while Haywood and Ross responded that the Rockets had signed Haywood when he was still a minor and did not have proper legal representation; the NBA objected to Seattle signing Haywood before his college class had graduated; the ABA wanted Haywood to be forbidden from playing for Seattle and compelled to fulfill the terms of his Rockets' contract; the NBA Buffalo Braves felt that they should have the rights to draft Haywood and attempt to sign him before any other NBA club dealt with him.

The NBA's four-year rule was declared illegal by the courts and Haywood was permitted to play with the SuperSonics until the remaining legal issues were resolved. The legal wrangling wiped out most of Haywood's 1970-71 season and he played in only 33 games for the SuperSonics, posting very respectable averages of 20.6 points and 12.0 rebounds. Haywood's case was eventually settled out of court, with the end result that he was allowed to remain with the SuperSonics permanently.

The overturning of the four-year rule had a lasting impact on collegiate and professional sports. In 1971, the NBA instituted a "hardship" rule that allowed underclassmen to be drafted as long as they proved that they suffered from financial hardship.

Needless to say, such declarations were a mere formality, as noted by Sport writer Jackie Lapin: "Almost anyone who has been any good at the game in the past decade would qualify – with the probable exception of Bill Bradley, the banker's son."

The competition between the leagues for players also extended into a battle for markets. In 1970-71, the NBA expanded into Buffalo, Cleveland and Portland, in no small part to keep the ABA out of those cities. After the addition of those teams, the NBA reorganized the Eastern and Western Divisions into conferences with two divisions each; also, Atlanta switched to the Eastern Conference and Milwaukee moved to the Western Conference. The defending champion New York Knicks won the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 record, while the 42-40 Baltimore Bullets took the Eastern Conference's Central Division. The Los Angeles Lakers acquired high-scoring guard Gail Goodrich in the offseason but lost Elgin Baylor to a season-ending knee injury after only two games. They still finished first in the Western Conference's Pacific Division with a 48-34 record.

The Milwaukee Bucks pulled off the biggest offseason trade in the league, shoring up their backcourt with Oscar Robertson, nine-time member of the All-NBA First Team. Robertson teamed with second year players Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bob Dandridge to turn the Bucks into a dominant team. Milwaukee went a league best 66-16, broke the Knicks' one-year-old record by winning 20 straight games, and easily captured the Midwest Division by 15 games over Chicago. Alcindor won the scoring title (31.7 points per game), ranked fourth in rebounding (16.0 rebounds per game) and was selected regular season MVP.

The only blemish on the Bucks' season was a 1-4 record versus the defending champion Knicks. A championship showdown between the teams seemed to be inevitable but Knick center Willis Reed was hampered by a knee injury and the Bullets defeated the Knicks 93-91 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Milwaukee overwhelmed the Lakers four to one in the Western Conference Finals, winning Game 5 116-98; Baylor and Jerry West both missed the 1970-71 playoffs due to injuries. In the Finals, Wes Unseld, the Bullets' valiant but undersized (6-7) center, proved to be no match for Alcindor and the Bucks notched the first Finals sweep since 1959.

ENTER THE HIGH SCHOOLER: MOSES FROM VIRGINIA AND CHOCOLATE THUNDER FROM LOVETRON

Once the Haywood case made the four-year rule passe, it was only a matter of time until players would be signed straight out of high school. In 1974, the ABA Utah Stars selected Moses Malone of Petersburg, Virginia in the third round of the draft. His high school team had won 50 straight games and two consecutive state championships, attracting the attention of more than 200 colleges – despite the fact that Malone's grade point average was not high enough to be eligible for an NCAA scholarship until he suddenly became an "A" student during his last semester. The miraculous grade increases and the tons of money being offered under the table led ACC Commissioner Bob James to call Malone's situation "the worst recruiting mess I've ever seen."

Even though Malone's body had not yet filled out and matured, he averaged 17.7 points per game and 12.9 rebounds per game in two ABA seasons, making the All-Star team as a rookie. After the NBA-ABA merger, Portland selected him in the ABA dispersal draft but traded him to the Braves for a first-round pick. He played briefly for the Braves before Houston acquired him for two first-round picks. Two years later, he won the first of his three regular season MVPs and the first of his six rebounding crowns en route to a Hall of Fame career.

Malone's success did not go unnoticed. The 76ers looked far and wide for a dominant big man as part of their rebuilding process after the disastrous 1972-73 season. Darryl Dawkins, a 6-10 senior center at Maynard Evans High School in Orlando, Florida, impressed Sixers' coach Gene Shue with his play in the 1975 state finals. Once the Sixers' brass decided to select Dawkins it became imperative to keep word of their young prospect from other teams. They convinced Dawkins to not play in postseason tournaments so scouts from other NBA organizations would not find out about him. The Sixers accomplished this by hiring Dawkins' high school coach to be Philadelphia's Florida scout, his first job being to "baby-sit" Dawkins and keep him hidden until the NBA draft. The plan worked and the 76ers made Dawkins the first high school player ever chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. He signed a $1.5 million, seven-year deal with the Sixers.

Dawkins enjoyed a long NBA career and played in the NBA Finals three times as a Sixer but he never made the All-Star team and, unlike Malone, did not become a dominant NBA center. He is best known for shattering two backboards and the creative nicknames he invented to describe himself (Chocolate Thunder, Master of Disaster, Sir Slam) and his spectacular dunks (Gorilla, Yo Mama, In Your Face Disgrace, Left Handed Spine Chiller Supreme, Hammer of Thor, etc.)

Borrowing lingo from Parliament Funkadelic, he spoke of his "interplanetary funkmanship" and claimed to be from the planet "Lovetron." His backboard-shattering dunk over the Kings' Bill Robinzine inspired this momentous sobriquet from Dawkins: "Chocolate Thunder Flying, Robinzine Crying, Teeth Shaking, Glass Breaking, Rump Roasting, Bun Toasting, Wham, Bam, Glass Breaker I Am Jam."

Ironically, the careers of the two trendsetting big men intersected when Malone replaced Dawkins as the Sixers' starting center in 1982-83 and led the team to the championship, winning the regular season and Finals' MVPs in the process.

Another player made the jump straight from high school to the NBA in 1975. Bill Willoughby, a second-round pick of the Hawks that year, played eight NBA seasons but never averaged even 10 points per game. It took 20 years until Kevin Garnett became the next player to make the leap directly to the NBA from high school, but the signings of Malone, Dawkins and Willoughby paved the way for this to happen and also made it seem less shocking when increasing numbers of players invoked the hardship rule to leave college for the pros after only one or two seasons.

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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