The numbers don't lie
The NBA’s 50 Greatest Players List selected in 1996 included some marvelous players, but it is hard to understand the omission of Bob McAdoo, the only regular season MVP who did not make the cut. Paraphrasing Wallace’s lament, the numbers don’t lie: they show that McAdoo combined individual productivity with team success throughout his career.
McAdoo starred at Vincennes (Indiana) Junior College for two years, leading the Trailblazers to a national title as a freshman in 1970 by averaging 19.3 ppg and 10.0 rpg. Vincennes did not win a repeat championship in 1971 despite McAdoo’s increased production as a sophomore (25.0 ppg and 11.0 rpg). McAdoo’s next stop was North Carolina, where he made the All-America 1st Team as a junior in 1972 (19.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg).
Playing in Chapel Hill was particularly special for McAdoo because he was born and raised in North Carolina.
“My parents really didn’t get a chance to see me play a lot during the first two successful years that I had at junior college," McAdoo says. "It was a pleasure to be back home and play for Dean Smith. Carolina came into the picture at the last minute. I actually thought that I was going to end up at UCLA but it didn’t happen that way.”
McAdoo and the Tar Heels lost 79-75 to Florida State in the Final Four. He led both teams with 24 points and 15 rebounds despite playing only 28 minutes before fouling out. McAdoo had 30 points and 19 rebounds in a 105-91 win over Louisville in the game for the third place.
McAdoo turned pro after that season, but his one year playing for Coach Smith had a significant impact on him.
“It was the hardest work that I had ever done – prepping for the season," McAdoo recalls. "I was already a hard worker, but that really taught me how to work hard and concentrate. We had a lot more schemes – defensive schemes, offensive things to do – at North Carolina. Dean had a philosophy that if you didn’t shoot 50 percent, he wasn’t going to run any plays for you. You see guys now who have a lot of throwaway shots. I never threw away a shot. I concentrated and I didn’t try to do something that was out of my realm or something that I couldn’t do. I went to my strengths as much as I could to make sure that I was efficient on the offensive end and that really helped me – that’s why I was able to score so many points and be a scoring champion in the NBA.”
The Buffalo Braves selected McAdoo with the second overall pick in the 1972 draft and he won the 1972-73 NBA Rookie of the Year award with averages of 18.0 ppg and 9.1 rpg. That was just a prelude to a spectacular 1973-74 campaign in which McAdoo led the NBA in scoring (30.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.547). The only other players who have led the league in both categories in the same season are Wilt Chamberlain (four times) and Shaquille O’Neal (once).
McAdoo remains the youngest scoring champion in NBA history (22; Spencer Haywood won the 1970 ABA scoring title as a 20-year old rookie). He also showcased his versatility by ranking third in rebounding (15.1 rpg) and blocked shots (3.32 bpg). McAdoo finished second in the MVP voting to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar despite placing ahead of him in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage and just behind him in blocked shots. The 6-foot-9 forward led the four-year-old Braves franchise to its first ever postseason appearance and averaged 31.7 ppg in a six-game playoff loss to the eventual champion Boston Celtics.
In 1974-75, McAdoo won his second scoring title, increasing his average to 34.5 ppg, while again ranking among the leaders in rebounding, field goal percentage and blocked shots. This time his efforts were rewarded with the MVP award. McAdoo claimed a third scoring title in 1975-76 (31.1 ppg) while remaining in the top ten in rebounding and blocked shots. After that season, the cash-strapped Braves dealt McAdoo to the New York Knicks to avoid the possibility of losing him for nothing when he became a free agent. McAdoo averaged a franchise-record 26.7 ppg as a Knick and became the youngest player in NBA history to score 10,000 points (a record broken by Kobe Bryant in 2002-03).
After his first six seasons, McAdoo ranked third in career regular season scoring average (27.8 ppg) behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and fourth in field goal percentage (.507) behind Jabbar, Chamberlain and Walt Bellamy. His career playoff scoring average at that time (30.3 ppg) trailed Jabbar by less than .1 ppg for the number one spot. Injuries slowed McAdoo during the next few seasons and his reputation took a hit as Boston, Detroit and New Jersey brought him in to be an immediate savior only to trade him when he was not able to single-handedly reverse their sagging fortunes.
In December 1981, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired McAdoo after high-priced free agent pickup Mitch Kupchak suffered a season-ending knee injury. The Lakers appeared in the next four NBA Finals, winning titles in 1982 and 1985.
McAdoo will always remember blocking Julius Erving’s shot in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 1982 Finals versus the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I’ve even heard Pat (Riley) say in interviews that that play turned the game around," McAdoo says. "It was a very important play. Philadelphia was coming back. They came down on a fast break and Julius was going up. You had to be careful with Julius, because when he plants his foot and goes up he might throw a thunderous dunk down on you. I saw that we had one person in front of him and he tried to do a dipsy-doodle shot, so I came up from behind him and made the block. That stopped their run and got us back into it, which turned the game around, and that was the game that clinched the championship.”
Pat Riley, the coach of those Showtime Lakers, has repeatedly said that the Lakers would not have won the 1982 and 1985 championships without McAdoo’s clutch scoring, rebounding and shot blocking.
McAdoo came off the bench for the Lakers, a big change for a player who was used to logging heavy minutes and being the number one option. Ask him how he adjusted to the new role and his response makes it clear that it was not easy for him.
“Who said I adjusted?" McAdoo asks. "I didn’t adjust. I mean, I never complained or anything, but I never adjusted. It was very hard for me mentally to do that for four years – really, for five years, because even when I went to Philly, they wanted to do the same thing and bring me off of the bench. It was something that I had to accept because it is a team game; it’s not like tennis or golf. I didn’t complain, I just dealt with it. That’s the only thing I can say – I dealt with it. I didn’t adjust to it.”
He still believes that he should have been a starter: “Oh, no question. No question, but that’s the way that the coaches wanted to do it and my thing was winning a championship because I had already done everything individually that a guy could do. I played my heart out to try to win a championship but there just wasn’t enough talent around. When I saw that I had an opportunity with the talent around me, I wasn’t going to make waves. I was just going to fit in and do what I could in the time that I had to try to help the team to be successful.”
“I have talked to Antoine about it," McAdoo says, "and I told him how I dealt with it – how I prepared myself. I understand what he’s going through. It’s a hard thing… I went through a lot of mental stress, but, like I said, I dealt with it without causing problems.”
McAdoo realizes that he, Mark Aguirre and other players who accepted reduced minutes and lower scoring averages to win championships have carved out a special niche in NBA history.
“Yeah, because I can now say that my career is complete. You can’t say that your career is complete if you had all the individual awards but don’t win a championship. I look at guys like John Stockton and Karl Malone and Charles Barkley – they had fantastic careers, but they know that their careers are not complete because they didn’t win a championship. I mean, Malone went to L.A. and took a salary cut to try to get a championship. I felt for him and I hoped that he was going to get it.”
McAdoo ended his NBA career with the 76ers in 1986 before enjoying several very productive seasons in the Italian League. He is a first-hand witness to basketball’s evolution overseas and McAdoo believes that the American emphasis on style over substance is why other countries have started beating America in international competition.
“American players play with their legs – the spectacular dunks. You can stop a dunk. You can zone—even on Shaq, people play a zone and keep him from getting a dunk. You can’t stop a jump shot. That’s what the Europeans know. That’s why they were so successful in the Olympics and they beat us – they learned how to shoot the ball and they’ve played against zone defenses.”
McAdoo adds: “Guys want to do a spectacular dunk or make a spectacular three. I get on some of our players and say that there is a lot of space between a point-blank dunk and the three-point line. That’s where I made my living, from five feet out to 20 feet. Guys don’t use the whole court. It’s either feast or famine for them. A lot of times, they will do a circus shot. That’s something that I never did. I never did that; if I got in trouble, I got the ball out of my hands or I was fortunate enough to have the athletic ability to pivot, jump over the guy and shoot the shot. I never tried to do any kind of circus acts to get on the highlights.”
In addition to his duties with the Miami Heat, McAdoo is a member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA).
“I get the newsletter and I talk to Mel Davis now and then to see what’s going on," McAdoo says. "I can’t go to all of the functions because a lot of them are happening in August and September when we are in training camp or during the season, but I stay in contact and am a full fledged member of the NBRPA.”
McAdoo also maintains his connection with the Tar Heel program: “I go back every year because my sons go to the North Carolina camp. I see Dean Smith and Roy Williams and some of the ex-players who are there. My mother still lives in Greensboro and my sister is a schoolteacher in Durham, so I’m there in Chapel Hill every summer.”
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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