A journey from Elizabeth City State to the ABA Finals
In 1968-69, soft-spoken 6-4 guard Mike Gale led Elizabeth City State to an 18-game winning streak and an NAIA Final Four appearance. Gale was drafted in the third round of the 1971 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls but he decided to sign with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels.
Kentucky went just 44-40 in the previous season but Rookie of the Year Dan Issel led the Colonels on a great playoff run that culminated in a 4-3 loss to the Utah Stars in the ABA Finals. The addition of rookie Artis Gilmore turned an already good team into a powerhouse: Kentucky raced to a 68-16 regular season record in 1971-72, the best winning percentage in ABA history. Gilmore (23.8 ppg, 17.8 rpg) won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP and joined Issel on the All-ABA 1st Team.
Gale’s impact did not reach that magnitude but it speaks volumes that as a first year player he finished fifth in minutes played on such a strong team, particularly since he was not a big-time scorer; his 6.4 ppg ranked eighth on the squad. Gale made his mark on defense and he was particularly adept at stealing the ball.
“I guess I was quick at that time,” Gale says with a chuckle. “Looking back, it helped a lot having Artis back there behind me. Besides being a great friend he was an awesome force playing the game. These are things that you might not really see just looking at the game but his presence made it a lot easier on everybody else and changed what might have been. Artis and I became really good friends over the years – my kids, his kids, the whole nine yards. Artis was always labeled ‘The Gentle Giant.’ Artis is strong. He has a great heart and is a great person.”
Kentucky’s great season came to an unexpectedly early conclusion when Rick Barry’s 44-40 New York Nets defeated the Colonels 4-2 in the Eastern Division semifinals. When he has public speaking engagements, Gale sometimes refers to that loss as an example of “how you can be up and then in an instant you can be down,” something that is painful at the time but is ultimately a lesson in persistence.
In 1972-73, Gale again finished fifth on the Colonels in minutes played despite being the team’s eighth leading scorer (6.6 ppg). Steals were officially tracked by the ABA for the first time that year and Gale ranked seventh in the league (1.6 spg), which helped him to earn a spot on the ABA’s inaugural All-Defensive Team. Kentucky posted the second best record in the Eastern Division (56-28) and lost to the Indiana Pacers in seven games in the ABA Finals.
Gale increased his averages to 33.1 mpg and 10.0 ppg in the first 48 games of the 1973-74 season but Kentucky traded him and forward Wendell Ladner to the New York Nets for guard John Roche. Gale averaged 28.3 mpg and 8.0 ppg down the stretch for the Nets as New York (55-29) edged Kentucky (53-31) for the Eastern Division title. While Kentucky had Gilmore, the league’s dominant center, New York had wondrous forward Julius Erving, who won the first of his three ABA MVPs. Gale earned his second consecutive All-Defensive Team selection, ranking fifth in the ABA in steals (2.1 spg) and blocking 81 shots, a very high total for a point guard.
The Nets had an extremely young roster – no player was older than 29 when the season began and all of the key players were 25 or younger – but despite their inexperience they cruised through the playoffs, defeating the Virginia Squires 4-1, sweeping Kentucky 4-0 and then wiping out the Utah Stars 4-1 in the ABA Finals. Gale averaged 8.3 ppg during the playoffs, ranked third on the team in assists (4.1 apg) and played strong defense.
Gale cites that championship as the most memorable moment of his career and he will never forget the free flowing way that the young Erving played in the ABA.
“Doc came out and he was an awesome player,” Gale recalls. “Because of the way the ABA was at that time (not having a national TV contract) most of America did not get to see him in what we would call his prime. Some of the moves that he made you will never see again. If you talk to him about it he’ll tell you that it was not something that he consciously knew he was doing but it was just what the situation called for. It was a sight to see. We sat back (as teammates) and would say, ‘How’d he do that?’”
New York and Kentucky each finished with 58-26 records in 1974-75 but the Colonels claimed the Eastern Division title by beating the Nets 108-99 in a special one game playoff. As a result, the Nets faced the 32-52 Spirits of St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. New York went 11-0 versus St. Louis during the regular season and took the first game of the series, 111-105 – but St. Louis swept the next four games, eliminating the defending champions in one of the biggest upsets in pro basketball history.
The sudden end to the Nets’ season led owner Roy Boe to make some very rash and ill-considered personnel moves. Boe decided that he had to acquire Swen Nater, the San Antonio center who led the ABA in rebounding in 1974-75 (16.4 rpg). What Boe did not realize is that Spurs’ owner Angelo Drossos wanted to get rid of Nater and would have been willing to trade him straight up for Billy Paultz. Instead, Drossos managed to rebuild his team in one fell swoop in exchange for Nater and several players who did not fit into Drossos’ future plans. The Nets and Spurs completed three separate deals in the summer of 1975: Larry Kenon to the Spurs for Swen Nater; Billy Paultz to the Spurs for Rich Jones, Chuck Terry, Bob Warren and Kim Hughes; Mike Gale sold to San Antonio for cash considerations.
New York defeated San Antonio in the 1976 playoffs and went on to beat the Denver Nuggets to claim the 1976 ABA title as Erving had a sensational series in the Finals, leading both teams in scoring (37.7 ppg), rebounding (14.2 rpg), assists (5.3 apg), steals (3.0 spg) and blocked shots (2.2 bpg). However, over the long haul the transactions turned the Spurs into a strong team for years to come, while the Nets lost all of their depth and then bottomed out when they had to deal Erving to pay for the costs associated with the NBA-ABA merger.
Gale put up his typically solid numbers for San Antonio during the 1975-76 season. Starting point guard James Silas broke his ankle in game one of the Spurs’ playoff series versus the Nets, so Gale ended up averaging over 40 mpg in the seven games, posting playoff career-high averages across the board (14.7 ppg, 7.1 apg, 5.7 rpg).
Silas missed most of the next two seasons. The Spurs were one of four ABA teams to join the NBA when the leagues merged prior to the 1976-77 season. Gale averaged a career-high 31.7 mpg that year and scored a career-high 10.3 ppg. He ranked eighth in the NBA in assists (5.8 apg) and fifth in the league in steals (2.3 spg). The Spurs finished 44-38 but lost to Boston 2-0 in a first round playoff series. Gale put up similar numbers in 1977-78: 9.1 ppg, 5.4 apg (.1 apg away from being ranked in the top ten in the league) and 2.3 spg (fourth in the league). The Spurs went 52-30, winning the Central Division with the third best record in the NBA. They lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Washington Bullets, who went on to win the championship.
In 1977-78, San Antonio guard George “Iceman” Gervin won the closest race ever for the NBA scoring title, edging out David Thompson of the Denver Nuggets (27.21 ppg to 27.15 ppg).
“Denver played earlier that day and David Thompson had 73 points,” Gale says. “Doug Moe (then the Spurs coach) was intent on us doing the best we could to get ‘Ice’ the scoring championship. We played a game in New Orleans. At the beginning of the game he told us that we know what ‘Ice’ needs to get and that nobody should shoot the ball but ‘Ice.’ He’ll probably hate for me to mention this, but Larry Kenon was on the team at the time. Larry was a very competitive person and he had the skills to go along with that.”
Kenon once proclaimed that he was the best forward in pro basketball; Kenon made the All-Star team five times in his 10 season ABA/NBA career but never made an All-ABA or All-NBA Team.
“He had a lot of confidence in his abilities,” Gale says of Kenon. “He was very, very athletic and very agile. It was just funny, because Doug Moe was saying to give ‘Ice’ the ball. ‘K’ gets a rebound and he takes off, goes up and shoots the ball. Doug is screaming, ‘Timeout! Timeout!’ He says, ‘We’re trying to get him the scoring championship. Give him the ball!’ So, we go back and we’re playing and someone passes the ball to ‘K,’ as we called him, and he shoots the ball. Doug is screaming, ‘Timeout! Timeout!’ It was really funny. ‘Ice’ needed 58 points and eventually during that game ‘Ice’ got 63 points and he won the scoring championship. He set the record for most points in a quarter with 33.”
Silas returned to health in 1978-79 and averaged 16.0 ppg. Gale’s minutes dropped to 25.9 ppg, but he still ranked fifth on the team in that category and he led the Spurs in assists (4.6 apg). San Antonio claimed a second consecutive Central Division title and tied for the fourth best record in the NBA (48-34). The Spurs beat Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers 4-3 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning game seven 111-108. That set up a rematch with the Bullets, with the winner advancing to the NBA Finals. San Antonio took a 3-1 lead.
“Few teams ever come back from being down 3-1,” Gale says. “As it turns out, they tied it up and we went up to Washington to play the seventh game. To this day, they still call it ‘the night the lights went out.’ We were playing well and rolling and all of a sudden the lights go out. That break stops our momentum. It ends up being a tight game. We had the ball and ran a play and the referees called a moving pick on Billy Paultz as Silas came off of him. Doug Moe went back and watched the film; it was not a moving pick and he made a big deal out of it and got fined. The fans in San Antonio sent in donations to pay the fine and he ended up going to the bank and having them send the money to the league in pennies. Everybody thought that it (the call) was wrong, but that is just part of the game.”
A foot injury limited Gale to 67 games in 1979-80 and his numbers went down across the board. Midway through the 1980-81 season, the Spurs traded him to Portland, where he played sparingly. Gale was the first guard off of the bench for Golden State in 1981-82, averaging 23.9 mpg in his final NBA season. One of the activities that he is passionate about as a retired player is raising money for the St. Peter-St. Joseph Children's Home in San Antonio.
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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