The Last Hurrah
Even now, 30 years later, the 1976 ABA Finals proved that the all-fun league saved its best for last
It was a fun league, the American Basketball Association. It was a league that featured the Amigos, the Conquistadors and the Muskies. There were Squires, Colonels and Condors, too. There were also colorful players and an even more colorful red, white and blue basketball.
But the league may have saved its best for last with the 1976 ABA Finals between Larry Brown’s Denver Nuggets and Kevin Loughery’s New York Nets. Denver featured David Thompson, the ABA’s last Rookie of the Year. New York had Julius Erving, the ABA’s Most Valuable Player in its final three seasons (although “Dr. J” was co-MVP with George McGinnis in 1975).
During the 1976 regular season, the Nuggets were 60-24, averaging a league-best 122 points per game and shooting a league leading 51 percent. Larry Brown’s team allowed 116 points per contest. The Nets finished 55-29, led by Erving, Brian Taylor and John Williamson. Both teams would have contended for the NBA title that season, which the Boston Celtics won by defeating the Phoenix Suns in seven games. The Nuggets' frontline of Thompson, Bobby Jones and Dan Issel would have matched up quite nicely with the Celtics’ frontcourt of super swingman John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Don Nelson and Dave Cowens.
The first game of the '76 ABA Finals was a classic. A full house of more than 19,000 fans in Denver’s McNichols Arena saw Jones -- the best defensive stopper the ABA had -- try everything to slow down the Doctor. The score was tied at 118-118 when Dr. J hit a turnaround 21-foot jumper over Jones. That hoop gave the Nets the win and Erving 45 points. He hit 17-of-25 field goal attempts, in addition to grabbing 12 rebounds.
In the second game of the series, Erving scored 48 points in a Nets loss.
In the crucial third game, Nets guard Super John Williamson scored 28 points, but the outcome again came down to the final moments of play. With New York leading 113-111 in the final half-minute, Denver’s Thompson was called for traveling with 23 seconds remaining, effectively ending any hopes the Nuggets had for victory. Thompson couldn’t believe it and was seen crying as he entered the locker room following the game.
Meanwhile, while the Nets and Nuggets were sizzling on the court, the league was burning up off it. At halftime of Game 3, ABA commissioner Dave DeBusschere called a press conference to announce that league member Virginia would be unable to continue in the ABA due to financial difficulties. The Squires couldn’t pay the bills anymore, and just like that the league was down to six teams.
The ABA's future uncertainty didn’t affect the play on the court, however. In the fourth game, the Nets received a jolt from backup center Jumbo Jim Eakins. Eakins had played in the ABA for eight (of nine possible) seasons. Despite scoring only 14 points in the first three games of the series, Eakins scored 17 points (13 in the second half) to spark the Nets to a 3-1 series lead. Eakins even had a slam dunk in the game, something he managed maybe once a year.
The series looked one-sided, especially after the Nets took a 16-point lead early in Game 5. Brian Taylor ignited the Nets, who were looking to end the series early. But Denver scored 42 points in the third quarter, led by Thompson, and the Nuggets stayed alive, 118-110. But after five games, the Nets were still up 3-2.
Thompson put up 42-points in the sixth game, played in New York. The Nuggets jumped out to a 22-point lead (80-58) in the third quarter, but the Nets stormed back behind Erving, and closed out the series with a remarkable 112-106 victory. The Nets hoisted the ABA's championship trophy in front of their home fans, who relished this spectacular and, as time would soon prove, final moment in the ABA's history.
Dr. J deserved primetime attention that his league couldn't give him. In the six-game Finals, he averaged 37.7 points and 14.2 rebounds. “If this was the ABA’s last game,” Erving said afterward, “at least we went out in high style.” At the time that Game 6 was played -- May 13, 1976 -- it was unclear whether a merger was possible. The total collapse of the league was becoming more and more likely.
That series, though, was one to remember. It was the last professional basketball championship for a New York franchise. The Knicks lost in the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999. The Nets (who merged into the NBA and moved across the Hudson River) lost the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. Even the women on the New York Liberty lost the WNBA Finals in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2002.
The series also marked the last time any ABA franchise that merged would win a championship until the San Antonio Spurs took home the NBA title in 1999. Heck, there was almost a curse on the four ABA franchises when they moved into the NBA. It took 23 years for one of the four ABA teams (the Nets, Spurs, Pacers and Nuggets) to even make the NBA Finals.
Of course, the main reason for the struggles of the former ABA squads was the heavy price they had to pay to gain entrance into the NBA. Six weeks after the ABA Finals, the NBA agreed to accept four teams from the ABA. Kentucky and Utah folded, with 20 of their players going into a draft. The Chicago Bulls finished with the worst record in the NBA and got first choice of the disenfranchised ABA players. They picked Artis Gilmore.
The ABA players infused the NBA with athleticism and skill that jump-started the league’s popularity. The Nets' Erving and the Nuggets' Thompson, along with Moses Malone (who had played with the Utah franchise in the ABA), Maurice Lucas (who had played with the Kentucky franchise) and a host of others, all made the NBA stronger.
In next season, the Portland Trailblazers (who had selected Maurice Lucas in the first round of the ABA Dispersal Draft) won the NBA Championship. Lucas was their leading scorer.
The Philadelphia 76ers won the 1983 NBA Finals with an all-ABA frontcourt (Erving, Bobby Jones and Moses Malone). Malone played in the NBA until 1995. He was the last former ABA star to call it quits. Of course, Larry Brown is still an active coach in the NBA, as is former ABA player George Karl.
The ABA was the trendsetters, the first pro basketball league to accept teenagers, and the first to adopt the 3-point shot. In the mid-70s, the league featured the most exciting brand of basketball in the world. It came to a head, and an end, in May of 1976.
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