Monday, November 29, 2010

The Brilliant (but Brief) Careers of David Thompson and Bill Walton.

In the late '70s there were probably no two more exciting players entering their prime than Bill Walton and David Thompson.  Walton was the key to the success of the UCLA dynasty of the early '70s, the first overall selection by Portland in 1974 and the star of the Portland championship team of 1976-77 - his ability to score was secondary to his defensive, passing and rebounding prowess.

Thompson on the other hand was the high-scoring and high-flying guard of the Denver Nuggets.  At North Carolina State he led his team to the national championship in 1974, breaking UCLA's stranglehold on the title and being named Player of the Year.  Selected by the Atlanta Hawks first overall in 1975, Thompson signed with Denver of the ABA and played on the Nuggets team which lost to the New York Nets in the league's final championship series.

In Portland, Walton's Blazers steamrolled the rest of the league over the first 60 games the 1977-78 season, winning 50 games and losing 10 before Walton suffered a broken foot.  He returned for the playoffs against Seattle, managing to appear in only two games before re-injuring the foot.  Walton's relationship with the Blazers' quickly soured as he sat out the 1978-79 season and demanded a trade, with his free agency in 1979 looming over the Blazers franchise.

Meanwhile, Thompson continued to flourish in Denver, with his scoring average peaking at 27.2 points in 1977-78 after a 73-point game on the final day of the season.  Thompson lost the scoring title to George Gervin however when Gervin managed a 63-point game later that evening to win the crown by a fraction of a point.  In the offseason Thompson was rewarded with pro basketball's richest contract, signing a five-year, $3.75 million contract.  Thompson's incredible accent became a downward spiral soon after due to substance abuse issues, and he was traded to Seattle in 1982 for Bill Hanzlik and a first-round pick.  The decent continued as Thompson entered a treatment program and then sat out the beginning of the 1983-84 season as a holdout before finally agreeing to a contract midway through the season.  An injured knee in a much-ballyhooed incident at Studio 54 in March, 1984 effectively ended Thompson's career as a 1985 comeback failed as he was released by the Sonic.  A public intoxication arrest scared off any other teams that might have been interested in signing him and Thompson was finished at 31.

Thompson's stint as the game's highest-paid player didn't last long as Walton signed a seven-year, $5.6 million contract with his hometown San Diego Clippers in 1979.  NBA Commissioner's excessive compensation award to Portland for the free agent signing and Walton's continuing foot problems devestated the San Diego franchise as he managed to play only 14 games in 1979-80 and missed the 1980-81 and 1982-83 season in their entirety.  After three more seasons with the Clippers with limited availability, Walton was traded to Boston in 1985, where he squeezed out one more complete season as a substitute for the Celtics, winning the NBA Sixth Man Award as the team won the championship.  Then, after being limited to 10 games in 1986-87 by ankle problems, Walton attempted a to return in 1990 but ultimately retired after a scant 468 regular season games due to his injuries (which would lead to his having his ankles surgically fused).

Following his playing career, Walton was honored with induction into the Hall of Fame in 1993 and had a successful career as a color commentator.  Thompson continued to struggle with drug dependency, before turning to religion, and his playing career was recognized with his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1996.

Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman

Probably the most tragic and heartwarming story in the history of the NBA is the story of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman.

Twyman joined the Rochester Royals in 1955 out of the University of Cincinnati, and became one of the best scorers in the league in the late '50's, peaking at 31 points a game in 1959-60.  He was also popular with the fans, with the Royals moving to Cincinnati in 1960, and after the conclusion of his playing career Twyman became a color analyst on the ABC broadcasts of NBA games.

Stokes, on the other had, was the first African-American star in the newly-integrated league, joining the Royals from St. Francis University the same season as Twyman.  Already an accomplished rebounder his rookie season in the league, Skokes was also a fine passer and scorer, making the trip to the All-Star Game each of his first three years.

Then in the final game of the 1957-58 season against Minneapolis, Stokes feel awkwardly, striking his head on the floor and seemed to lose consciousness.  Three days later during the first playoff game of his career, in a first round matchup at Detroit, Stokes appeared sluggish, and on the plane back to Cincinnati he passed out.  Upon receiving medical attention when the plane landed in Cincinnati, they discovered he had contracted post-traumatic encephalitis, which left him paralyzed.

While Stokes' family lived in Pittsburgh, workman's compensation laws forced him to remain in Cinncinnati to receive his medical care.  It was that that Twyman, who had not been especially close to Stokes prior to the accident, decided he would become Stokes' guardian.  Twyman then began to work relentlessly to raise money for Stokes' care, and to help him with his rehabilitation.  One of the money-raising events that was organized was the annual Maurice Stokes Benefit Game at Kutsher's Hotel in Monticello, New York.  Many of the league's players (including Wilt Chamberlain) made the trip to Kutsher's each summer to play in the game, and the fundraising event continues to raise money for former players in need in the form of the Maurice Stokes/Wilt Chamberlain Pro-Am Golf Tournament.

Although the damage to his motor control center was considerable, years of therapy allowed Stokes some mobility in his limbs and limited ability to communicate verbally.  While his body had been stricken by his condition, his mind remained sharp until his death from a heart attack at age 36 in 1970.

In 2004 Stokes was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and his friend Jack Twyman represented him at the induction ceremony.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wilt, Goodrich and West

When I first became aware of NBA basketball the team that caught my eye was the 1971-72 Lakers.  Now it just seem unimaginable that I was a Lakers fan, even at that age.

But of course this wasn't just any team it had Wilt and Jerry West on it.  I didn't know a thing about the game itself, but I knew these guys were stars.  Throw in Jim McMillian, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston and you had the greatest team in NBA history (in my young estimation).

At this point Wilt was legendary.  His scoring accomplishments with the Warriors and 76ers earlier in his career were Herculean, but by this point he was concentrating on defense and rebounding.  West on the other hand was at the top of his game.  Driven by a history of team failures in the World Championship Series against Boston, West averaged nearly 26 points and 10 assists a night, and provided his usual stellar defense.  West's scoring was matched by his backcourt partner Goodrich, whot the Lakers had lost in the 1968 expansion draft to Phoenix before re-acquiring him in exchange for Mel Counts.  McMillian was a second year man from Columbia who provided frontcourt scoring and the veteran Hairston helped with the rebounding.  Orchestrating it all was former Boston Celtics star and ABA coach Bill Sharman.

The most remarkable thing about the '71-72 Lakers was their unprecedented 33-game winning streak of course.  Not only did it cover two months and include a perfect 20-0 December, it helped the Lakers to amass a league-record 69 wins and their first NBA titles since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960.  Elgin Baylor wasn't quite as fortunate as West however.  While Baylor suffered through even more postseason disappointments than West, the health of his knees prevented him from making it through the season and his November 5 retirement was the day the streak began.

After dispatching the Bulls (Bob Love, Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan) and Bucks (Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge) in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Lakers exacted their revenge on the New York Knicks (who had defeated them in seven games in the 1970 Championship Series), defeating them in five games.

New York would turn the tables on the Lakers in 1972-73 and then Chamberlain would leave to coach in the ABA, but for a season a young soon-to-be NBA fanatic was caught up in the phenomenon which was the 1971-72 Lakers.

Lenny Wilkens' Sonics

When I was in high school there was really only one team that I truly hated and that was the Seattle Supersonics.  This would be the Sonics of 1977-78 and 1978-79.  It stemmed mainly from their successes against the Suns of course, the most gut-wrenching of which was their defeat of the Suns in the 1979 Western Conference Finals which took them to the NBA World Championship Series and a matchup with the injury-depleted defending champion Washington Bullets.

Jack Sikma was the main target of my vitriol, and it was a case of despising the player who was the most responsible for your suffering.  Those Sonics teams were an interesting case - after a slow start to the 1977-78 season (5-17) the Sonics replaced Bob Hopkins as coach with former coach Lenny Wilkens and the team just took off.  Wilkens'  most important move was replacing starting backcourt Fred Brown and Slick Watts with Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.  Watts, who wasn't to thrilled with the new situation was eventually shipped to New Orleans and the team settled on the DJ-Williams-Brown rotation in the backcourt.  The starting frontcourt consisted of Sikma, Marvin Webster and John Johnson with veteran Paul Silas as their primary backup.

The Sonics finished well behind Portland in the Pacific Division, but with the hopes of the Blazers resting on the fragile feet of league MVP Bill Walton, the Sonics prevailed in the second round when Walton's health betrayed him.  After dispatching Denver and David Thompson in the Western Conference Finals Seattle was edged out by Washington in a seven-game Championship Series, despite holding a three-games-to-two lead.

In the 1978 offseason Webster left as a free agent to sign with the New York Knicks, but Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien awarded the Sonics Lonnie Shelton as compensation and the team continued without a hitch.  Washington and Seattle finished atop their conferences during the regular season in 1978-79, and after quickly dispatching the Lakers, the Sonics slipped by the Suns in seven games in the Western Conference Finals, by edging them 106-105 in game six in Phoenix and then finishing them off 114-110 in the seventh game in Seattle.  The general consensus at the time was that the winner of the Phoenix-Seattle series would be the favorite to win the title as Washington would be without Mitch Kupchak.  As expected, after a loss in game one when Larry Wright of the Bullets sank two free throws after the final buzzer, the Sonics won four straight to eliminate the Bullets and win Seattle's first (and only) major sports title.

Eventually things did unravel of the Sonics.  After a strong showing in 1979-80 and a loss to Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals,  Dennis Johnson's demands for a renegotiated contract led to his being shipped off to Phoenix for Paul Westphal in a blockbuster trade.  To compound their problems Westphal suffered a broken foot, Williams held out the entire 1980-81 season in contract dispute and veteran leader Silas retired.  And just as quickly as they became a contender, the Sonics were on the outside looking in at playoff time.

Still, in retrospect, the Sonics were much like the 1977 Blazers - a team that wasn't considered a favorite gelling at the right moment and succeeding through team play.  However, much like the Blazers they were torn apart by the financial aspects of the game.


I hope you find some of my historical accounts to be of some interest - much of it will be from my youth in the '70s, when basketball went through some serious public image problems, but also enjoyed parity on the court.