Magic’s Lakers, Walton’s Blazers and Kareem’s Bucks pleased – and won
So I whittled my list down to these three:
They would meet in the Finals and the script played out according to plan through the first two games, the 76ers winning by six and 18 at home. But the Trail Blazers held serve in two games in Portland, then won 110-104 in Game 5 back in Philadelphia to seize momentum. They would wrap up the series by winning four straight, edging Philly 109-107 in Game 6 to avoid a Game 7 back in Philadelphia.
Nagging foot and back injuries would soon begin to take their toll on the heart and soul of Portland’s team, Bill Walton. Merely 24 and in his third NBA season at the time, Walton averaged 18.2 points and led the league in both rebounding (14.4) and blocked shots (3.25). Walton, of course, was also one of the best passing big men in history and he really was the pivotal piece on both ends of the court for Jack Ramsay’s teams.
Other than Maurice Lucas at power forward (20.2 points, 11.4 rebounds that season), the Trail Blazers didn’t have an above-average player at any other position. Lionel Hollins was an efficient but undersized shooting guard, Bobby Gross a sound and good-shooting small forward but also undersized and underwhelming athletically at small forward, and Dave Twardzik a throwback point guard who was physically overmatched most nights and didn’t really have a strong suit.
That’s really what made them so easy to like. Walton was amazing and unique – if those injuries hadn’t caught up to him, he would be in the discussion for greatest ever – and the Blazers functioned beautifully around him.
Native Detroiter Johnny Davis, a rookie out of Dayton by way of Murray-Wright High, was playing a big role as the first guard off the bench by the time the playoffs rolled around. And Ramsay made great use of that bench, led by Davis, Larry Steele and veteran Herm Gilliam in his final NBA season.
They were easy to root for, especially in that series, against a Sixers team that had combined Erving with another scoring great from the old ABA, George McGinnis. The hype for that team was phenomenal at the time. Ultimately, Philly had to deal McGinnis away and make Erving the focal point of the offense.
You could have plugged Magic in on any team in the league and chances are they would have made this list for me – he was that mesmerizing a talent from the first time I saw him play at Lansing Everett High to his dazzling two years at Michigan State and into the NBA.
But, wow, the Lakers became electrifying when they added James Worthy and traded Norm Nixon – a really good player, too – so they could draft Byron Scott, who grew up in the shadow of the Forum in Inglewood. Worthy and Scott filling the wings with Magic pulling the trigger made the Lakers the most lethal fast-break team in my lifetime – I can’t credibly speak to how they compared to the Cousy-Russell Celtics, but I’d have a hard time conceding that those Celtics could match the speed and athleticism of Worthy and Scott on the wings, or that Cousy, for all his artistry, offered the total package of size and vision that Magic did.
(The poor Suns. Their consolation prize with the No. 2 pick was Neal Walk, a lunch-bucket center from Florida who lasted eight seasons, averaging about 12 points and eight boards a game.)
Kareem averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds as a rookie and 34.8 and 16.6 the following season – blocked shots weren’t charted at the time, but I’d peg four a game as a conservative estimate – when the Bucks went all the way. He was Lew Alcindor when they won the title, by the way; he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on May 1, 1971 – the day after the Bucks clinched the title. (Yeah, the Finals wrapped up in April as recently as 40 years ago.)
A personal favorite on that team was a fourth-rounder who came into the NBA the same year as Kareem, Bobby Dandridge. In that championship season, Dandridge’s second, he averaged 18.4 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. The Bucks’ TV announcer, Eddie Doucette, nicknamed him “The Greyhound,” and that’s what he was; Dandridge ran all day and had a deadly mid-range jumper. He would go on to win another NBA title with the 1978 Washington Bullets under Dick Motta, who considered Dandridge among the greatest and most underrated players of the era.
After Kareem’s first year, the Bucks swung a trade for all-time great Oscar Robertson, who at 32 was nearing the end but was still a force. The Big O averaged 17.4 points, 7.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds that season.
But it was Kareem that set the Bucks apart – 7-foot-4 and so graceful, with that poetic sky hook (another Doucette-ism). He was so dominant, the Bucks really played four perimeter players around him most of the time, with the slight Dandridge, at 6-foot-6, playing power forward in name only and Robertson, Lucius Allen and shooter Jon McGlocklin, still doing TV color work for the Bucks, surrounding him.