Playing within limits
Phil Hubbard seemed destined to be an NBA star. He made a splash right from the start of his college career, producing 15.1 ppg and 11.0 rpg and shooting .546 from the field while leading Michigan to the 1976 NCAA Championship Game versus Big Ten rival Indiana. The Hoosiers were one of the great teams in college basketball history. They went 29-0 in the 1975 regular season, only to lose in the NCAA Tournament after star Scott May broke his arm, and followed that up with a 27-0 record in the 1976 regular season. Indiana lost starting guard Bobby Wilkerson to a head injury in the opening moments of the 1976 Championship Game and Hubbard’s Wolverines led 35-29 at halftime. Hubbard fouled out in the second half, finishing with 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, and Indiana pulled away, winning 86-68.
In the summer of 1976, Hubbard won an Olympic gold medal as Team USA streaked to a 7-0 record. The youngest player on the team, Hubbard ranked fourth on the squad in rebounding.
“The players have gotten a lot better,” Hubbard says. “When we played, we were college players and we came together for two months. Other than the Russians, they (the players from other countries) were still just grasping the game. Overall, it’s changed because so many of the players that they have now play in our league. That’s made the difference.”
Hubbard averaged 19.6 ppg and 13.0 rpg while shooting a sizzling .556 from the field in his sophomore season, good enough to earn selection to the AP All-American Team. Michigan won the Big Ten with a 16-2 record and finished the regular season 24-3 overall. The Wolverines lost in the Elite Eight to a UNC-Charlotte team led by future Boston Celtic Cedric Maxwell. Hubbard led the NCAA Tournament in rebounding average (15.0 rpg).
A serious knee injury forced Hubbard to sit out his entire junior year. While he was able to return for his senior season, he clearly had lost a lot of his explosiveness and his numbers declined across the board: 14.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg, .495 field goal shooting. He still showed enough skill and savvy for the Detroit Pistons to select him in the first round with the 15th pick overall in the 1979 draft.
Hubbard had a solid rookie season (9.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg) for the dreadful Pistons, whose 16-66 record was the worst in the league by eight games. Not surprisingly, that was the last season for the team’s coach – none other than Dick Vitale. Hubbard became a starter in his second season, averaging 14.5 ppg and leading the team in rebounding (7.3 rpg). He was particularly strong on the offensive glass, quite an accomplishment considering the severity of his knee injury.
“I had to adjust my game and just work harder – be able to play below the rim instead of above it,” Hubbard explains. “Rebounding is just effort,” he adds. “To get rebounds you have to work at it. It’s not an easy task but if you work at it you can get rebounds.”
On February 16, 1982, the Pistons sent Hubbard to Cleveland in a multi-player deal that included Bill Laimbeer, who became the starting center for the “Bad Boys” teams that later won two titles. For Hubbard, it meant going from a bad team to an even worse one – the Cavaliers were the laughingstock of the league and won only 15 games that season. That December, help arrived in the form of World B. Free, acquired from Golden State in exchange for Ron Brewer. The flamboyant Free had legally changed his name from Lloyd to World because he was – at least in his own estimation – not just All-Star caliber but in fact “All-World.”
Free came to Cleveland with great fanfare, arriving in a helicopter and receiving much media coverage.
“They made a big production out of it but it worked out,” Hubbard recalls. “World was good to play with because he was a guy who could get a basket on his own. He could help us get open, too.”
Hubbard’s first impression of Free can be expressed in one word: “Arrogant.” Hubbard hastens to add, “But he turned out to be a good guy.”
Free’s confidence and scoring ability did improve the Cavaliers but not enough to get into the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Hubbard had found his niche in the NBA, playing about 23 mpg and averaging roughly 10 ppg and 5 rpg. The Cavaliers improved to 23 wins in 1983 and 28 wins in 1984. Then, Cleveland hired George Karl to be the team’s head coach. The Cavaliers started the season horribly, chafing under Karl’s micromanaging ways. But then he loosened the reins and a funny thing happened – the team caught fire and made the playoffs. That turnaround is Hubbard’s fondest memory of his 10 year NBA career.
“We were able to make the playoffs after starting out the season 2-19,” Hubbard says. “That’s probably the most memorable. Being able to come back and do that was big.”
“It was his first coaching job,” Hubbard says of Karl. “He’s a good motivator. He’s always getting on you and riding you. We listened to him. We all just came together for him and it was a good thing.”
The Cavaliers went 34-27 down the stretch.
“It was a good experience because World was our leader,” Hubbard says. “He scored the points for us and we worked off of him. He was probably one of the most prolific scorers of that era. He was a good player to play with. He turned out to be a good teammate. A lot of people didn’t get to know him as well as we did but he was a real good teammate.”
Cleveland battled the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics extremely hard in a 3-1 first round loss; the teams actually scored exactly the same amount of points and each of Boston’s victories were by three points or less. Hubbard enjoyed the finest season of his career, averaging 15.8 ppg and 6.3 rpg in the regular season and 15.5 ppg and 5.0 rpg in the playoffs versus the Celtics’ Hall of Fame frontline of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
Hubbard says that Bird and Bernard King, who had his best years with the New York Knicks, were the two toughest players for him to guard.
What made them so hard to handle?
“They got to shoot a lot,” Hubbard says with a chuckle. “That makes it hard. (When you guard) guys who get to shoot a lot and get a lot of opportunities you have to make sure that you make them work to get their points and that they are not getting any easy points. Guys who get a lot of shot opportunities always have a chance to score.”
The Cavaliers were unable to sustain their good play in 1985-86. Injuries forced Hubbard to miss 59 games, Karl was fired near the end of the season and Cleveland finished 29-53. New Cavaliers’ General Manager Wayne Embry put together a promising nucleus of young players in the offseason, trading for the rights to draft center Brad Daugherty and also drafting Ron Harper and Mark Price. He hired Lenny Wilkens to be the team’s coach. The Cavaliers only won 31 games as their young players learned the ropes, but Daugherty, Harper and John “Hot Rod” Williams (drafted in 1985 but forced to sit out a year by the NBA before being cleared of point -shaving charges) each made the All-Rookie Team in 1986-87. Hubbard, now 30, was the oldest player on the team, and he averaged 11.8 ppg and 5.7 rpg while providing a steadying influence.
The emergence of Price as a top tier point guard enabled the Cavaliers to ship the talented Kevin Johnson to Phoenix for Larry Nance and the Cavaliers improved to 44-40. Williams was now the versatile sixth man, filling in at forward or center, and Hubbard started alongside Nance and Daugherty, the team’s two leading scorers.
“Mark was a phenomenal player – great shooter,” Hubbard recalls. “He really surprised people with his quickness with the basketball – they didn’t realize how quick he was with the basketball. He was just a constant competitor and he would knock down the big shot.”
The Cavaliers were a promising team but another team was also rising in the East: the Chicago Bulls, who paired rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant with the incomparable Michael Jordan. The Bulls eliminated the Cavaliers in a hard fought first round series.
The Cavaliers soared to 57-25 in 1988-89 but Hubbard only played sparingly as Nance, Daugherty and Williams received the bulk of the frontcourt minutes. Price earned his first All-Star selection and also made the All-NBA 3rd Team.
“He was really a big key to us making that run to winning 57 games – he was a big part of that,” Hubbard says. “With his quickness he was able to read the defense and cut through a little space. He was just such a good player in terms of knowing how to use the pick-and-roll and knowing how to split the pick-and-roll. He was a good passer and when he got in the lane, by the time they came over to help, he would make good passes that enabled us to get layups.”
This was by far the best NBA team that Hubbard played for, but their title hopes were ended by Michael Jordan’s famous shot over Craig Ehlo. Hubbard retired after that season with career averages of 10.9 ppg and 5.3 rpg.
Hubbard worked as the New York Knicks’ scouting coordinator for five years before Wilkens – then coaching the Atlanta Hawks – hired him as an assistant coach. Later he spent some time on Dave Cowens’ staff at Golden State. In 2003, Eddie Jordan of the Washington Wizards hired Hubbard as one of his assistant coaches, a position that Hubbard has held ever since. In 2005, he helped Jordan guide the franchise to its first playoff series win in 25 years and the team returned to the playoffs in 2006, Washington’s first back-to-back playoff appearances since 1987-88.
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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