The quiet assassin
Billy Knight takes a low-key approach when asked about his playing days but don’t let that fool you: he twice finished second in a scoring title race, trailing only Julius Erving in 1976 in the ABA and beating everyone but Pete Maravich the next year, the first season after the NBA-ABA merger.
Knight played his college ball at Pittsburgh, where he averaged 22.2 ppg and 12.0 rpg during his three varsity career. In 1973-74, his senior year, Knight averaged 21.8 ppg and 13.4 rpg, leading the Panthers to a 24-4 record and a berth in the Elite Eight, where they lost 100-72 to North Carolina State. The Lakers drafted Knight in the second round of the 1974 draft, but he chose to sign with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers were known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA, winners of three championships in a four-year span (1970, 1972, 1973) but by 1974-75 the team was in a bit of a rebuilding mode. Center Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP and the inside presence on those championship teams, was traded to the Memphis Sounds along with point guard Freddie Lewis. Roger Brown, a clutch scorer during Indiana’s dynasty years, was hobbled by injuries and played in just 10 games during Knight’s rookie year. Despite Brown’s limited on-court impact that season, Knight credits Brown for being a great mentor to him, both in basketball and in life in general.
With the Pacers’ veteran championship core all but gone, fourth-year forward George McGinnis completed his emergence into superstar status. McGinnis was an important contributor to the Pacers’ last two championship teams but in 1974-75 he took his game to another level, ranking first in the ABA in scoring (29.8 ppg), second in steals (2.6 spg), third in assists (6.3 apg) and fifth in rebounding (14.3 rpg). He and Julius Erving shared MVP honors. Knight had an excellent rookie season, ranking second on the Pacers in scoring (17.1 ppg) and third in rebounding (7.9 rpg). He was selected to the All-Rookie Team.
Knight performed even better in the playoffs, averaging 24.1 ppg and 8.9 rpg as the new-look Pacers made it to the ABA Finals, where they faced the powerful Kentucky Colonels. Kentucky was coached by Hall of Famer Hubie Brown and had a talented roster that included Hall of Famer Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore (who ranked second in the ABA in rebounding and shot blocking that season) and Louie Dampier, the ABA’s all-time leader in three pointers made.
Gilmore led the Colonels to a five-game victory, averaging 25 ppg and 21 rpg to win the Finals MVP. Knight cannot explain why Gilmore has not been inducted in the Hall of Fame.
“He is certainly deserving,” says Knight. “Artis was an outstanding player for a long time. I can’t answer why his name has faded. I don’t know why. He was just a dominating force. He could block shots, he could rebound, he could score. He was a dominating player in the ABA and certainly in the NBA. Coming into the NBA he was (still) a dominating guy; he did all of those same things (in the NBA that he did in the ABA).”
Knight averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.0 rpg in defeat, while McGinnis led the Pacers in scoring (27.2 ppg), rebounding (14.0 rpg) and assists (6.4 apg) during the Finals.
McGinnis jumped to the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers for the 1975-76 season, so Knight took center stage in Indiana, producing career-high numbers across the board: 28.1 ppg (second in the league to Erving’s 29.3 ppg), 10.1 rpg and 3.7 apg. He earned selection to the All-ABA 1st Team alongside Erving. The undermanned Pacers lost to Kentucky 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs despite Knight’s 33.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 4.0 apg.
“I don’t have one memory that stands out more than others,” Knight says of his two years in the ABA. “I have a lot of good memories… Going to the Finals in my rookie year was certainly special.”
The NBA-ABA merger took place in that offseason. The Pacers, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs were the only ABA teams that survived. The Pacers posted a 36-46 record during their first NBA campaign and did not qualify for the playoffs. Knight could hardly be blamed, though; he averaged 26.6 ppg (second in the NBA to Maravich’s 31.1 ppg), 7.5 rpg and 3.3 apg in 1976-77. He ranked fourth in the league in minutes played (3,117, 40.0 mpg) and made the All-Star team.
Knight denies that he felt any added pressure to prove himself in the NBA because he started his career in the ABA.
“You certainly want to show what you can do, but it had nothing to do with the different leagues and all of that,” Knight says. “You wanted to play, that’s all. You were just out there playing.”
In September 1977, the Pacers traded Knight to the Buffalo Braves for 1977 Rookie of the Year Adrian Dantley and reserve forward Mike Bantom. Knight averaged 22.9 ppg for the Braves, which would have ranked among the league leaders but he only played in 53 games due to a knee injury and failed to meet the minimum requirements of 1,400 points or 70 games played.
The Braves moved to San Diego after the 1977-78 season and became the Clippers after the owners of the Boston and Buffalo teams swapped franchises. The two teams traded several players as well and Knight became a Boston Celtic – for half a season. He averaged 13.9 ppg in 40 games before the Pacers reacquired him.
Knight finished the 1978-79 season with the Pacers, scoring 14.7 ppg in 39 games. The Pacers acquired and traded several talented forwards around that time: Dantley, Alex English, McGinnis, Mickey Johnson. In 1979-80, Knight averaged 13.1 ppg despite the musical chairs routine and he had the Pacers’ single-game scoring high that season with 44 points versus San Diego.
The Pacers finally achieved some roster stability in 1980-81 and Knight reestablished himself as the top player on the team, leading the squad in scoring (17.5 ppg), field goal percentage (.533) and free throw percentage (.832). On November 11, 1980, Knight scored 52 points in a 119-113 win at San Antonio, his NBA career-high and the most points by a Pacers player in the NBA until Reggie Miller’s 57 point outing against Charlotte 12 years later.
Indiana finished the season with a 44-38 record, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in the team’s NBA history. They were quickly eliminated 2-0 by the Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers in a first-round mini-series. Knight averaged 18.5 ppg. Jack McKinney won the Coach of the Year award in his first year with the Pacers.
Knight’s minutes and scoring dipped in 1981-82 but he bounced back in 1982-83 with another solid season (17.1 ppg). He was no longer the team’s top scorer, though. Rookie Clark Kellogg, better known today as a CBS college basketball commentator, averaged 20.1 ppg and 10.6 rpg. The Pacers missed the playoffs for the second year in a row despite Kellogg and Knight’s productive seasons and in the offseason they traded Knight to the New York Knicks. Before he could play a game for them, though, he was moved again, this time to Kansas City, where he played for a little more than one year. One of his teammates there was Mike Woodson, who Knight later hired to be the Atlanta Hawks’ coach. Knight finished his career with a brief stint in San Antonio, where he played alongside his former ABA rivals Gilmore and George Gervin.
During his playing days, Knight never thought about eventually pursuing a career as an NBA executive.
“I didn’t plan on doing what I’m doing,” he explains. “Players play and when you get too old to play the way that you want to play you’d like to stay around the game. I played the game and had been involved in it at so many levels for so many years that after I finished playing I still wanted to be around the game. This is a way that I could stay around. Donnie Walsh gave me my first job (in the Pacers front office). I worked under him for 13 years. He is someone I look up to and talk to all the time.”
Knight moved on to become the general manager of the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies and he held that position when the team drafted Pau Gasol, who became the 2001-02 Rookie of the Year. Knight spent a couple seasons with the Grizzlies before joining the Hawks’ front office. He is currently the team’s executive vice president and general manager.
Knight focuses on the future and does not dwell on the details of his playing career.
“Half the people here weren’t born when I played,” Knight says, gesturing to the seats in Conseco Fieldhouse about an hour before his Hawks played the Indiana Pacers.
He enjoyed his playing days but declares that it makes no sense to “lament that I’m not playing. I’m 54 years old.”
Some retired players will swear up and down that if they had played with today’s restrictions on defensive contact against perimeter players they would have scored a lot more points than they did during their careers, but Knight refuses to play the “What if?” game.
“No. I never look at that. I never look at things that way,” Knight says. “That was a different era and a different time. This is the way it’s played now, so this is the way it is. Players adjust to it. No matter what the rules are, players will adjust to it. It’s not a big help or a big hindrance either way. Those are the rules and you play by the rules.”
True to his ABA roots, Knight is a fan of the three-point shot – even though he did not shoot many of them during his career.
“I think that it’s a good rule. It made a difference in the game by keeping it exciting all the way to the end,” Knight says. “I thought that it was a good rule to have (in the ABA) and, obviously, so did everybody else (in the NBA) because they eventually included it.”
What about coaches who complain that the three-pointer takes the emphasis away from the inside game?
“That’s their opinion and other people are entitled to different opinions but I think that it is good for the game,” Knight replies.
While some executives try to acquire personnel to fit a certain style of play, Knight thinks less in terms of a particular system and more about a player’s skill level.
“You just want to get good players – the best players you can find,” Knight says. “Get the best players you can find, wherever you can get them, whatever positions they play. I think that’s the best way to go about it.”
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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