Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pro Basketball Legal Cases 1946-69

This is the first part of a series to cover the major legal cases in pro basketball history.

In 1946, George Mikan was the biggest name in basketball.   Upon turning professional after the conclusion of his college career at DePaul Mikan signed a contract with the National Basketball League’s Chicago American Gears on March 16, 1946.  While the NBL had a salary limit of $7,000, the Gears agreed to pay Mikan an addition $5,000 for working once a week in the company’s legal department.  In December Gears owner Maurice White was experience financial trouble and asked Mikan to renegotiate his contract down to $6,500 a year.  Mikan refused and then walked out on the team on December 11, filing a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming his contract was one-sided and that the team's dismissal privileges left him unprotected since NBL contracts were not guaranteed.  On January 20 the Gears counter-sued Mikan for $102,250 ($100,000 for violation of his contract and $2,250 in fines for failing to play).  After six weeks of holding out, Mikan returned to Chicago and eventually both lawsuits were withdrawn.

Jack Molinas was banned after signing a confession to having bet on NBA games, including those of his own club, Fort Wayne. Molinas brought suit in New York State Supreme Court alleging that NBA President Maurice Podoloff violated the leagues by-laws in that Molinas did not receive notice of the charges against him or grant him a hearing.  The court ruled that Molinas’ written confession as well as his admittance to the court that his confession was truthful was sufficient for taking action against Molinas.

After Washington lost its NBA franchise in 1951 a group headed by Morris Fox looked for an opportunity to bring the league back to the nation’s capital.  After failing to lure the Hawks to Washington when they moved to St. Louis in May, 1955, the group threatened litigation, claiming they had a letter from the league promising a franchise to Washington.  Days later the group failed in an effort to purchase the defunct Baltimore franchise and explored the possibility of forming a rival league (with Brooklyn, Chicago and Cleveland under consideration for franchises).  The group then went forward and filed a $1 million antitrust suit against the NBA claiming the league conspired to prevent it from buying the bankrupt Baltimore club.  Eventually, despite ruling that the NBA was subject to the Sherman Act because it operated on an interstate basis, the suit was denied because there was not proof that a contract existed.

After being banned in 1954 for admitting to betting on NBA games while playing for the Fort Wayne Pistons, Jack Molinas filed a $3 million antitrust suit against the NBA contending that they were depriving him of the opportunity to earn a living as a professional basketball player. After a four-day trial, Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman dismissed the suit, ruling that Molinas "has not established any violation of the antitrust laws" citing the NBA "was justified in determining that it was absolutely necessary to avoid even the slightest connection with gambling." Molinas would go on to become a central figure in the college basketball fixing scandal of 1960-61.

Banned by the NBA in 1953 after being connected with a point-shaving scandal at the University of Kentucky, Bill Spivey (who was acquitted of all charges and had been playing mostly in the Eastern League) signed a contract with the Cincinnati Royals in 1959. After pressure from the league office due to concerns over Spivey’s possible involvement, Cincinnati withdrew their contract offer. Spivey then filed a lawsuit against the league, league President Maurice Podoloff and the Royals asking for $820,000 in damages. Spivey’s suit was settled out of court for $10,000 and he went on to play in the rival American Basketball League in 1961.

With the arrival of the American Basketball League in 1961 the players of the NBA had an alternative to resigning with their own club, and the New York Knicks’ two-time All-Star Kenny Sears jumped at the chance to join the ABL team in his native California and joined the San Francisco Comets (soon renamed the Saints), signing with them on April 25, 1961.  The Knicks quickly countered with lawsuits against both Sears and the Comets (for $175,000 in damages) claiming that the option clause in his contract gives him exclusive rights to him in 1961-62, making this the first court test for the option clause.  Sears countered with an antitrust suit against the Knicks claiming he was not free to negotiate with prospective employers each of the past four years, costing him an estimated $30,000.  In June a federal judge in San Francisco denied New York’s request to issue an injunction to prevent Sears from playing in the ABL, clearing the way for him to play for the Saints.  In October a Superior Court in San Francisco denied a petition by New York to prevent Sears from playing for San Francisco, as Judge Byron Arnold stated that the Knicks hurt their own case by withdrawing a suit filed against Sears in Federal Court in New York.  In December New York and San Francisco came to an agreement which allowed Sears to play in the ABL in exchange for a cash payment.  Sears would go on to finish the 1961-62 season with the Saints, but returned to the Knicks in 1962-63.

When the American Basketball League began play in 1961 the two leagues were set on a legal collision course as soon as NBA players began to sign with the new league.  Dick Barnett of Syracuse was one of those players, signing with George Steinbrenner’s Cleveland Pipers in August, 1961.  Syracuse, citing the option clause in his contract, responded by filing a lawsuit in Common Pleas Court in Cleveland seeking a restraining order to prevent Barnett from joining the Pipers.  The Nationals got their temporary restraining order in October, and a permanent injunction in December, but the two clubs then reached an agreement to allow Barnet to play with Cleveland in 1961-62.

After being waived by St. Louis in 1963 after disciplinary problems with Hawks’ coach Harry Gallatin, Woody Sauldsberry signed with Boston in November, 1965 after spending two years out of the league, but NBA President Walter Kennedy announced that he was refusing to approve Sauldsberry’s contract due to “his record while he was formerly a player in the association.”  Days later Sauldsberry filed a lawsuit against Walter Kennedy and each of the NBA’s clubs excluding Boston in U.S. District Court in Boston.  The next day U.S. District Court Judge George C. Sweeney issued a temporary injunction ordering the NBA and Boston Celtics to honor Sauldsberry‘s contract and allowing him to play pending the resolution of his lawsuit.  In December Kennedy approved Sauldsberry’s contract after he agrees to “certain provisions.”

Larry Jones was a fringe NBA player in 1964-65 who found himself out of the league midway through his rookie season with Philadelphia.  Jones landed in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he became one of the top players in the Eastern League with the Wilkes-Barre Barons.  When the ABA arrived on the scene Jones signed with the Denver Rockets franchise in August, 1967.  Wilkes-Barre then filed suit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court against Jones claiming they had an exclusive option to renew his contract through October 31 and received a preliminary injunction against Jones (similar injunctions were issued against other players such as Willie Somerset of Houston and Levern Tart of Oakland).  Jones continued to play with Denver however as the Rockets felt the decision was “of no force or effect outside of Pennsylvania.”  In April, 1968 the decision to grant the preliminary injunction was overturned on appeal.

With his named mentioned in connection with the 1960-61 NCAA point-shaving scandals Connie Hawkins found himself booted from the University of Iowa team and blacklisted by the NBA. After playing for Pittsburgh of the ABL and with the Harlem Globetrotters (and going undrafted by the NBA in 1964), and expressing a desire to play in the league, Hawkins was officially placed on the NBA’s ineligible list until an investigation by NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy had concluded. Hawkins then filed a lawsuit against the NBA in November, 1966 in hopes resuming his playing career. In 1967 he joined the upstart ABA, signing a contract without an option clause with Pittsburgh which would allow him to leave to join the NBA immediately. When the details of the allegations were investigated for the trial and his innocence came to light, the NBA finally settled with Hawkins. Phoenix won his rights in a coin flip with Seattle and signed him to a five-year, $1 million contract in June, 1969.

With the arrival of the American Basketball Association NBA players like San Francisco’s Rick Barry were presented with another employment option.  After months of a ‘hands off’ policy Pat Boone, the owner of the ABA’s Oakland franchise agreed with Barry to a “signing option” beginning June 19, 1967, and expiring October 2, 1967, and come to terms on a three-year, $225,000 contract to begin in 1967-68 unless Barry was forced to honor the option year of his San Francisco contract, in which case it would begin in 1968-69.  The next day San Francisco notified Barry that they are exercising their option for the 1967-68 season, but he refused to sign and maintained that he would not play for San Francisco in the upcoming season.  On August 8 San Francisco filed suit against Barry seeking an injunction to prevent his from playing any team other than San Francisco until September 30, 1968.  A week later a California court ruled in favor of San Francisco and the NBA, and Barry elects to sit out season as an announcer for Oakland rather than playing his option year with San Francisco.  Oakland then signed Barry to a three-year contract on September 29, 1967.

Lou Hudson preceded Rick Barry by becoming the first NBA stars to sign with the ABA in May, 1967.  Hudson jumped from the St. Louis Hawks to the Minnesota Muskies to sign a three-year contract, but he was still obligated to fulfill the option year of his St. Louis contract.  St. Louis Answered by filing a $3 million suit against the Muskies, Hudson and the ABA.  When the Hawks offered him a five-year contract in June, Hudson had a change of heart and returned to the Hawks.  Minnesota then filed suit against Hudson hoping the court would enforce their contract with Hudson.  St. Louis however, claimed that Minnesota had not entered into negotiations with “unclean hands.”  The court agreed with St. Louis and refused Minnesota’s request, in part because of Minnesota’s “unclean hands” when signing Hudson, and in part because Hudson had not yet received any benefits from signing with Minnesota.

When the ABA began play in 1967 the Oakland franchise signed Rick Barry of the San Francisco Warriors, making him the first star to jump to the new league.  Barry’s contract was for three years to begin when his contractual obligation to the Warriors ended (in either 1967-68 or 1968-69).  In August San Francisco filed a suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Oakland Owners Pat Boone and Ken Davidson and Oakland Coach Bruce Hale and one against the ABA (who was also Barry’s father-in-law) seeking $1.5 million in damages for "willful, deliberate and malicious" acts and "tortuous intent to injure the [Warriors] and appropriate the good will” generated by Barry's association with the club.  A court-ordering injunction prevented Barry from joining Oakland until 1968-69, and the courts sorted out the various suits.  Ultimately the court decided that Boone and Davidson had no knowledge if Barry’s option was valid or not, but even they had the contract would be valid due to the specific wording that it would take effect only when the Warriors no longer held his rights. The court ruled that the Warriors held his rights for 1967-68, and Barry chose to sit out the season, joining the Oakland broadcasting team instead and joining them as a player n 1968-69.

One of the intents of the organizers of the American Basketball Lleague was to ultimately force a merger with the NBA, following the example set by the American Football League, who parlayed a successful rival league into a merger with the established National Football League.  After two seasons of squabbling over talent rights and countless lawsuits, the ABA filed a March, 1969 antitrust suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco claiming that the NBA used its economic resources to stifle competition by pooling its resources to sign college players and accusing the NBA of inducing players to break the contracts they had signed with ABA clubs and of “blacklisting” coaches and players who tried to jump leagues.  The ABA asked the court to void the “option contract” used by the NBA and that the NBA be prohibited from entering into contracts into players except on an individual team basis.  In August a group from the NBA consisting of NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy and team owners Ned Irish, Sam Schulman and Richard Bloch met with representatives of the ABA including ABA President James Gardner and owners Ray Boe and Joe Geary met and agreed to the “possibility of exploring cooperative arrangements.”  These talks broke off soon after when the ABA induced Billy Cunningham to jump from Philadelphia to Carolina and Denver signed college underclassman Spencer Haywood.  In January, 1970 the talks resumed and intensified throughout the spring, despite the protests of the NBPA, and the problems of deciding what to do with players who had jumped to the ABA (Rick Barry, Zelmo Beaty, Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham and Luke Jackson among them), what indemnities should be paid to existing teams, what the price for admission would be and how to settle the ABA’s antitrust suit.  In April the merger appeared to be imminent with the ABA agreeing unanimously to pay $11.25 million to join, but the NPBA filed the “Oscar Robertson Suit” to block the merger on antitrust grounds, and receiving the injunction necessary to block it.  The leagues continued to work toward a merger throughout the summer and fall, but the efforts were abandoned in the fall after little progress at getting Congressional approval.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Spencer Haywood 1970-71

When Spencer Haywood sought to break his contract that he signed with the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1969 to join the NBA before his college class graduated it led to general chaos -

●16Nov70 U.S. District Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson issues a temporary restraining against Spencer Haywood preventing him from negotiating with any NBA teams.
●25Nov70 U.S. District Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson declares a “state of status quo” and appoints Special Master Marvin Sears to hear the dispute between Spencer Haywood and the Denver Rockers over his 1969 contract.
●28Dec71 Spencer Haywood signs a six-year, $1.9 million contract with Seattle of the NBA
●30Dec70 U.S. District Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson in Los Angeles issues a temporary restraining order in Los Angeles against the NBA to keep them from imposing sanctions against Seattle and their four-year college eligibility rule. 

Date       Score            Notes
30Dec70    CHI 109 @SEA 128 Protested by CHI, Haywood DNP
1Jan71     POR 118 @SEA 121 Protested by POR, Haywood DNP
4Jan71     SEA 110 @MIL 124 Protested by MIL, Haywood 14 pts
5Jan71     SEA 101 @BAL 109 Protested by BAL, Haywood 14 pts

6Jan71 U.S. District Court Judges Warren J. Ferguson grants a temporary restraining order against the NBA, allowing Spencer Haywood to play for Seattle.

6Jan71      SEA 112 @BOS 137    Protested by BOS, Haywood DNP

8Jan71 U.S. District Court Judge Warren J. Ferguson rules that the temporary restraining order against the NBA preventing them from imposing sanctions against Seattle for signing Haywood remain in effect for at least another 10 days.  Ferguson also refuses to issue a  temporary restraining order sought by Denver to prevent Haywood from playing in the NBA.

Date       Score            Notes
8Jan71     SEA 110 @BUF 102 Protested by BUF, Haywood DNP
9Jan71     SEA 114 @CIN 110 Protested by CIN, Haywood 0 pts
14Jan71    SEA 110 @BAL 114 Protested by BAL, Haywood 7 pts
17Jan71    BAL 111 @SEA 96  Protested by BAL, Haywood 19 pts

18Jan71 The temporary restraining order against the NBA which allowed Haywood to play is extended.

Date       Score            Notes
19Jan71    SEA 102 @DET 106 Protested by DET, Haywood 24 pts
20Jan71    SEA 112 @ATL 108 Protested by ATL, Haywood 23 pts
22Jan71    CIN 131 @SEA 132 Protested by CIN, Haywood 30 pts
24Jan71    PHI 145 @SEA 119 Protested by PHI, Haywood 30 pts
28Jan71    BUF 110 @SEA 120 Protested by BUF, Haywood 18 pts
29Jan71    SEA 115 @LAL 122 Protested by LAL, Haywood 17 pts
30Jan71    SEA 116 @PHO 134 Protested by PHO, Haywood 29 pts
2Feb71     SEA 101 @CHI 108 Protested by CHI, Haywood 21 pts
3Feb71     SEA 98 @CLE 95   Protested by CLE, Haywood 6 pts
5Feb71     SEA 120 @ATL 121 Protested by ATL, Haywood 22 pts
7Feb71     SDR 124 @SEA 107 Protested by SDR, Haywood 25 pts
9Feb71     SEA 115 @SDR 132 Protested by SDR, Haywood 22 pts
10Feb71    SEA 122 @SFW 133 Protested by SFW, Haywood 26 pts
11Feb71    CIN 101 @SEA 119 Protested by CIN, Haywood 31 pts
12Feb71    SEA 125 @POR 137 Protested by POR, Haywood 10 pts
14Feb71    SFW 101 @SEA 146 Protested by SFW, Haywood 25 pts

16Feb71 The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco rules that the NBA may penalize Seattle for using Spencer Haywood, blocking an earlier injunction against the league.
●17Feb71 NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy rejects Spencer Haywood's contract with Seattle.

Date       Score            Notes
17Feb71    POR 126 @SEA 130 Haywood DNP
19Feb71    MIL 128 @SEA 112 Haywood DNP
21Feb71    PHI 135 @SEA 128 Haywood DNP
24Feb71    CLE 101 @SEA 123 Haywood DNP
26Feb71    SEA 121 @LAL 145 Haywood DNP
27Feb71    CHI 129 @SEA 114 Haywood DNP

1Mar71 U.S. Supreme Court Justice William P. Douglas reinstates an earlier ruling which barred the NBA from taking any action against Seattle to keep Spencer Haywood from playing.

Date       Score            Notes
2Mar71     ATL 128 @SEA 116 Haywood 13 pts
5Mar71     SEA 111 @SDR 110 Haywood 25 pts
6Mar71     LAL 109 @SEA 121 Haywood 16 pts

8Mar71 The U.S. Supreme Court rules 7-2 in Spencer Haywood’s favor to stand by a ruling by Justice William O. Douglas which rejected a motion by the NBA to restrict him from joining Seattle.

Date       Score            Notes
8Mar71     SEA 99 @MIL 104  Haywood 30 pts
9Mar71     SEA 114 @NYK 99  Haywood 26 pts
11Mar71    DET 97 @SEA 130  Haywood 28 pts

12Mar71 U.S. District Court Judge Warren Ferguson in Los Angeles rules that the NBA's four-year eligibility rule is in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act because it does not provide procedural safeguards for an individual to contest it and seek inclusion in the draft.

Date       Score            Notes
12Mar71    SEA 98 @SFW 111  Haywood 23 pts
14Mar71    BAL 121 @SEA 124 Haywood 35 pts
18Mar71    MIL 121 @SEA 122 Haywood 27 pts
19Mar71    SEA 128 @POR 135 Haywood 32 pts
20Mar71    SEA 107 @PHO 114 Haywood 7 pts
21Mar71    SFW 106 @SEA 119 Haywood 8 pts

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.