A Look Back at the 1981 NBA Draft
by Chris Creed
MacKinnon served as the Nets GM from 1981-85.
The fortunes of the franchise changed in 1981. That year the Nets christened their new home court at the Brendan Byrne Arena (now Continental Airlines Arena) and had a draft most teams only dream out.
The season before in 1980-81, the Nets had yet another forgettable season. The team was only able to win 24 games and head coach Kevin Loughery resigned midway through the season.
But the winds of change swept through New Jersey in the summer of 1981. The team handed the reins of the franchise over to Bob MacKinnon, a longtime basketball man, who made a name for himself in both the collegiate and professional ranks.
Despite the turmoil the Nets had endured the season before, MacKinnon did not have any reservations about taking the general manager post with the Nets.
“I thought the organization was strongly backed by Joe Taub (former team president) and the other owners,” said MacKinnon during a recent interview from his home in Buffalo, NY. “It was an up-and-coming organization and I was happy to be there.”
Even happier was MacKinnon that the Nets, through shrewd offseason moves, had three first-round picks in the 1981 NBA Draft.
MacKinnon, now 77, relied on his staff to make the most of the opportunity. He leaned on Director of Player Personnel Al Menendez as well as assistant coaches Bill Blair and Mike Schuler for input. But mostly MacKinnon listened to the team’s new head coach Larry Brown, who the Nets hired away from UCLA where he coached the two previous seasons.
“As a GM you have to get the players your coach wants and that you feel he can coach,” said MacKinnon. “That’s what we tried to do with Larry Brown.”
And the strong-minded Brown knew who he wanted.
“Larry Brown definitely wanted Buck Williams, that was his No. 1 man,” he said.
The Nets got their guy with the third overall pick. Williams, a former Maryland standout, was drafted behind top pick Mark Aguirre from DePaul and current Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who was coming off a National Championship season at Indiana.
King, twice voted to the All-American team, left Maryland as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Many around the game felt King was ready for the NBA following an outstanding high school career at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, NY.
Despite King’s illustrious high school and college careers, many Nets fans were hoping the team would draft a local product with the 10th pick. Kelly Tripucka, who serves as the color analyst on Nets broadcasts for the YES Network, was considered to be New Jersey’s “Mr. Basketball.” He recorded 2,278 career points at Bloomfield High School before becoming a three-time All-American at Notre Dame.
“There wasn’t any pressure but there was a lot of discussion about it,” said MacKinnon about not drafting Tripucka. “I personally liked Kelly Tripucka. He was a fine player and he always played hard.”
With Williams, King and Ray Tolbert – who the Nets drafted with the 18th pick – along with returning players Otis Birdsong, Mike O’Koren and Mike Gminski, MacKinnon knew he had the nucleus of highly competitive team.
“We thought we would, we were primed for it,” said the Nets former general manager. “We had good rookies and a couple of good veteran players. We were looking forward to the season.”
The Nets won 44 games in 1981-82 and qualified for the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. New Jersey, with Buck Williams and Albert King as the focal points, would go on to make five consecutive postseason appearances.
Retired and splitting time between homes in Buffalo and Florida, MacKinnon sees major difference in both the draft and scouting from his time as an executive in the league.
“There is quite a bit more emphasis on the workouts before the draft,” he said. “Kids work out more than they did in those days. I don’t think Buck Williams, Albert King or Ray Tolbert even worked out for us.”
MacKinnon points to the advancements in technology for changes in the way scouting is conducted in the NBA today.
“They do more scouting off tape then we did. It was more personalized (back then).”
With current Nets general manager Ed Stefanski and team president Rod Thorn meticulously preparing for the 2005 NBA Draft, it will take some time to determine whether this year’s draft will have a similar impact on the franchise as the one Bob MacKinnon stewarded back in 1981.
But MacKinnon, who continues to follow the game closely, knows all problems can’t be solved through the draft alone. Teams must look to add players through free agency as well.
“The best way is to mix the two together,” he said. “It is very difficult to build with just one player, you must have good players coming back and you must also make a trade or two.”
Team management said following the Nets first round exit from the 2005 Playoffs they will explore any and all avenues to find the final pieces to New Jersey's championship puzzle. But there is always the possibility the Nets will be able to find another Buck Williams or Albert King in the 2005 NBA Draft.