By Jon Newberry
Historically, the National Basketball Association has been dominated by dynasties led by legends of the game. Starting with the Lakers of the 50's (four titles), the Celtics in the 60's (nine titles), the Lakers in the 80's (five titles), the Bulls of the 90's (six titles), and the recent run of the Lakers (five titles in the 2000's), each decade has had one or two teams rise a step above the rest of the league. The 1970's are the lone exception, as eight different teams won championships. For one fleeting month, and three defiant exhibition games, the Hawks had Atlanta fans dreaming of filling that void.
All of the aforementioned dynasties have one thing in common: star power. They were George Mikan's Lakers, Cousy and Russell's Celtics, Jordan and Pippen's Bulls, and the list goes on. On September 12, 1972, a Georgia Superior Court ruling allowed Julius Erving to join the Hawks training camp, and the dream that "Dr. J and Pistol Pete's Hawks" might join that list of dynasties appeared to be coming true.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
What follows is a condensed version of a complicated story that could only have taken place in the 70's, when the existence of the rival American Basketball Association (ABA), had caused players to jump from one league to the other for more lucrative offers.
The Hawks had been burned badly in recent years by players jumping to the ABA. Zelmo Beaty, who jumped to the Utah Stars in 1969, and Joe Caldwell, who jumped to the Carolina Cougars in 1970, had both been all-stars with the Hawks. The result was a line-up that had stumbled to a 36-46 record in 1971-72, prompting the hiring of Cotton Fitzsimmons as the new head coach and a search for talented free-agents.
Adding to the Hawks urgency to improve was their impending move from Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum to the brand new, 16,500 seat, downtown arena called The Omni. Bill Putnam, the president of the Omni Group that owned the Hawks, the arena and the new Atlanta hockey franchise, the Flames, remained the biggest advocate of pursuing throughout the proceedings.
Julius Erving had left the University of Massachusetts in 1971 after his junior year, and since the NBA did not allow underclassmen to enter the draft, he signed a four-year contract with the ABA's Squires. While the Hawks were struggling through the 1971-72 season, Julius Erving was enjoying his rookie season with the Virginia Squires, averaging 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds per contest.
ERVING INITIATES TALKS
While Erving was having great success on the court, he began to question the initial contract he had signed with the Virginia team. He soon learned that Steve Arnold, his agent during negotiations, was also being compensated by the ABA and the Squires.
"A lot of information was uncovered," Erving told the Atlanta Constitution's George Cunningham in a later interview. "I'm referring not only to the double agent thing but also the financial status of the Virginia team."
Later, while testifying in a lawsuit brought against the Squires, Erving stated "I am informed and believe that Arnold received compensation from the Virginia Squires and the ABA or both for services rendered in its behalf. Arnold never disclosed any of these facts to me."
"I talked to five or six NBA teams," Erving said. "Then the NBA came out with an announcement saying all valid ABA contracts would be honored by the NBA. When that happened, all but one NBA team backed out. Atlanta was the team that showed good faith."
Knowing that a lawsuit would follow any signing with a team from the rival league, Erving required that the Hawks agree to cover all of his legal fees throughout the process.
On April 9, 1972, one day before the NBA draft, Erving and Weiner met with the Virginia Squires' owner Earl Foreman in a last ditch effort to restructure his contract. When negotiations broke down the duo reportedly flew to Atlanta to sign a four-year contract with the Hawks that would begin once he was no longer under contract with the Squires.
Erving requested that Bill Putnam and Hawks' general manager Richie Guerin not announce the signing, since his Squires were still playing in the ABA's playoffs. Without knowledge of the signing, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted Julius with the 12 th pick on April 10.
The news of Erving's contract with the Hawks quickly leaked after the Bucks drafted him in the first round.
"Julius Erving has signed an agreement with the Atlanta Hawks that will become valid at the expiration of his contract with the Virginia Squires," Putnam announced in the Associate Press report. "Even if we do have to wait three years to get him, he's still worth it. He's just turned 22 and is one of the most exciting players I have ever seen."
Meanwhile, the Bucks stated some obvious objections.
"As far as the by-laws of the National Basketball Association go, the rights to Julius Erving belong to the Milwaukee Bucks," commented Wayne Embry, the Bucks' general manager. "It's as clear cut as that."
Little did he know at the time that nothing about this ordeal would be clear cut.
When the Hawks signed Erving there were obvious objections, but they were tempered by the assumption that there would be three to four years to sort things out while "Doc" played out the remainder of his existing contract with Virginia. That all changed a couple months later when Erving filed a lawsuit, claiming that his contract with the Squires should be terminated since it was negotiated while his agent was also acting on behalf of the ABA.
All of a sudden the prospect of Erving joining the NBA for the 1972-73 season became a lot more plausible. The dispute was left to simmer as training camps approached in September.
WHY THE HAWKS COULD WIN
Using 21 st century protocol as a guide, the Hawks had made multiple violations of league rules and stood no chance of landing Erving on the roster. In 1972, however, there were plenty of examples that would provide optimism in their claim for Julius over the Squires, as well as their claim over the Bucks.
Concerning the belief that Erving would successfully be able to jump leagues, Mike McKenzie, the Hawks' beat writer for the Atlanta Journal, summed it up nicely:
"In the Hawks' favor is the fact that no player who has attempted to jump leagues has failed: Rick Barry, Connie Hawkins, Jim McDaniels, Zelmo Beaty and Joe Caldwell (from the Hawks), Bill Cunningham, Charlie Scott, Fred Brisker, and even Howard Porter and rookie Bob McAdoo who signed ABA contracts but did not honor them."
As for the dispute between the Atlanta and Milwaukee, the Hawks contend Erving was a free agent and not eligible for the draft because he was already a pro for one year with the Virginia Squires. Both Putnam and Guerin were quick to point out a similar case from the 1971 draft involving Spencer Haywood. Haywood had jumped from the ABA's Denver franchise to the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics, and then later drafted by the Buffalo Braves. The NBA initially ruled against Seattle, but then was forced to reverse course after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the SuperSonics.
"If we didn't think we were acting morally and legally right, we wouldn't have entered into this thing," commented Guerin to the Atlanta Journal. "We contend it is just like the Spencer Haywood case which the courts ruled on favorably."
In fact, the Atlanta Journal learned that the Hawks consulted three different law firms early on and were encouraged enough by their evaluation to proceed with the signing of Erving.
THE HAWKS WIN THE FIRST ROUND
The Hawks training camp opened on September 11, 1972, with no sign of Dr. J at the team's facility in Savannah, Ga. With multiple lawsuits pending, Erving had established residence in Atlanta and had taken part in informal workouts with Atlanta players prior to camp. Ultimately, members of the Omni Group felt the legal risk of inviting him to camp was too high.
Then, on September 12, Ernest G. Tidwell, a Georgia Superior Court judge, ruled that Erving's contract with the Virginia Squires of the ABA is "voidable, terminated, and of no further force for effect," before issuing an order temporarily restraining the Atlanta Hawks from not allowing Erving to play.
"The most valuable player for the Atlanta Hawks this season may be a portly man of middle age who wears conventional business suits and fits well in a swivel chair, whose best shot is delivered by glass, and who answers to the name of Ernest.
"Tuesday, the Hawks were the defendants in the kind of a lawsuit that delighted them. Julius Erving - and we'll get around to that name later - commisioned his lawyers to sue the Hawks for the right to perform for them. In other words, to make good on the contract they had signed him to."
Immediately after the ruling, "Doc" flew from Atlanta to Savannah and joined the team for their evening workout.
"I got a chance to talk to the coach," Erving commented to the Atlanta Constitution's George Cunningham following the workout. "His philosophy of having a fast-breaking team that is very unselfish with the basketball is good."
As for the dispute with the Bucks, Julius quipped, "I have two contracts right now, I don't want a third one."
Another future Hall of Famer in camp, Pete Maravich, had high praise for his newest teammate. "Erving's going to be fantastic. He's got the potential to be the greatest."
Walter Kennedy, Commissioner of the NBA, had hoped all along that the Hawks and Bucks could work things out amongst themselves, without requiring league intervention, but after one final negotiating session broke down on September 14, the matter was added to the docket for the Board of Governors meeting scheduled for the following week.
Hawks' general manager Richie Guerin wasn't giving any definitive answers to Mike McKenzie of the Atlanta Journal.
"That's private business between us and them," Guerin said. "We have been on the phone with Milwaukee several times trying to work this out since a meeting in August in Chicago," said Guerin, "I truthfully have no idea what kind of statement will be issued by the board."
Most people around the league believed that the Board would force the Hawks to compensate the Bucks with a higher price than they were offering, whether it be in the form of players, draft picks, or money. Instead, the Board issued a surprising ruling that Milwaukee owned the rights to Erving, and that his contract with Atlanta was not valid.
The Omni Group president, Bill Putnam, was at the Board of Governors meeting, and while he was disappointed with the ruling, he remained resolute.
"Our position was that the by-laws did not apply to Erving since he was not a college student and is a professional," Putnam told the Associated Press. "That still is our position... If necessary, we will defy the league."
By contrast, Julius Erving was simply shocked.
"Surprise, total surprise," said Erving when told about the ruling following a Hawks' practice session in Savannah. "We knew there was going to be a fight. They asked for Lou Hudson, Pete Maravich, and money to prove they meant business. But it was still the one situation we were most optimistic about, thinking it would be resolved easily."
As the first exhibition games approached, Erving continued to suit up with the Hawks in practice. In a slight twist of irony, the NBA was playing a portion of the 1972 pre-season schedule against teams from the ABA. The Hawks' first two exhibitions would be against the Kentucky Colonels, who featured Artis Gilmore and had recorded the most wins in the ABA the previous season.
The first game was played on Saturday, September 23, in Frankfort, Ky. The Hawks would debut a new red and white color scheme when the 1972 regular season began, but in the pre-season they were still wearing the green and blue color scheme from the previous year. Erving was suited up wearing the number 54, although planned to wear his number 32 in the new uniforms.
Erving did not disappoint anyone in the Hawks' constituency in his first appearance in an Atlanta uniform. He finished with 28 points and 18 rebounds in 42 minutes of action, helping the Hawks to a 112-109 victory.
Atlanta Journal beat writer, Mike McKenzie, wrote the following description after seeing Dr. J live:
"When Erving, who is six feet, six inches tall, jumps it is awesome and a favorite trick is to stuff backhanded and hang for a moment on the rim to heighten the effect. Now the Hawks must figure out a way to keep him."
The next night the two teams faced off again, this time in Atlanta. It would be the last time the team played at Alexander Memorial Coliseum before the final move to the Omni, and a large crowd filed in to get their first glimpse of the team's new star.
The Hawks were defeated 104-103 after blowing a big first-half lead. Erving finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds, an average night by his standards, but that did not take away from the impression that "Doc" left on the fans and media that were seeing him play for the first time.
"You'll notice the unusually a-goggled size of my eyes today," wrote Furman Bisher, the Atlanta Journal sports editor. "I've just come from watching Julius Erving play."
The excitement surrounding the Atlanta Hawks was at an all-time high, but Putnam and the Omni Group turned their attention to a different court the day after the second exhibition.
Following the precedent set in Seattle's case against the NBA concerning Spencer Haywood a year earlier, the Hawks asked the federal court in Atlanta for an injunction against the NBA that would bar the league from prohibiting Erving from playing for Atlanta.
Soon after, Putnam received a telegram from the commissioner's office:
Putnam remained defiant when he told the Associated Press, "You can believe we will refuse to pay. We'll just let the courts decide the matter. At this point we have filed our suit and we'll do our talking in court. We feel strongly that the NBA action last week was illegal, which is the reason we have gone to court."
ONE LAST GLIMMER OF HOPE
On September 26, one day after the fine was handed down and the lawsuit was filed, the Hawks held Erving out of an exhibition in Houston. Comments made to the media led Hawks fans to believe that a positive resolution was forthcoming.
"We decided to make a good will gesture," Putnam told the Atlanta Journal's Mike McKenzie, "because the league might be taking a different point of view."
"This was not cop-out," Richie Guerin added. "We're not conceding anything. We're still going to protect our rights and investment. But we've been acting from this position all along, in good faith with the league. Not under the threat of fines and such."
Unfortunately, court rulings were postponed and there was no positive news through the week.
With no news, Putnam re-inserted Erving into the Hawks line-up that Saturday, September 30, for an exhibition against the Carolina Cougars in Raleigh, N.C. Erving was nearly perfect on offense, scoring 32 points on 14-of-15 shooting from the field as Atlanta posted a 120-106 victory. The game was a convincing display of how potent the Atlanta offense could be with Doc in the lineup. Along with his 32 points, Lou Hudson scored 33, and Maravich facilitated all of the scoring with 19 assists.
It was an impressive performance, but an expensive one as well, when Commissioner Kennedy handed down a second $25,000 fine to the Hawks.
BAD NEWS FROM THE COURTS
While the Hawks had been preoccupied with their battle with the NBA and the Milwaukee Bucks, the other matter of the Virginia Squires' claim had largely been overlooked. As stated earlier, no player had been blocked before when trying to jump from one league to another.
On Monday, October 2, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Neaher issued an injunction that effectively prevented Erving from playing pro basketball for any team except the Virginia Squires. It caught everyone off guard, especially Bill Putnam.
"In all our talks with lawyers on all angles in this case, this possibility was never mentioned," Putnam told the Atlanta Journal.
Neaher cited a sub-paragraph in Erving's contract with the Squires which called for arbitration in any dispute on the contract. Basically, he accepted that Steve Arnold, Erving's agent that negotiated his deal with Virginia, had allegiances to both sides, but rather than throw out the entire contract, he would let an impartial third party serve as an arbitrator.
A LOT OF DEAD ENDS
The Hawks did not give up their fight for Erving after the initial ruling, but he would never again sport a Hawks' uniform. There are still many twists to the story that could be told, but it all leaves Hawks fans in the same place, wondering what could have been.
The Hawks did have a successful first season in The Omni, posting a 46-36 record under Fitzsimmons, but they would flounder through the rest of the 1970's.
Meanwhile, Erving would go down in history as one of the all-time greats. He won three MVP awards and two championships with the ABA's New Jersey Nets, before moving over to the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers where he won the 1981 MVP and the 1983 championship. He finished his career in 1987 with 30,026 career points, ranking him fifth all-time.
Special thanks to the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution's beat writer's and Sports Editors from 1970-1973.