For a brief stretch, the suburbs of Long Island were one of the hottest spots in professional basketball.
The New York Nets ultimately played just five-and-a-half seasons at the building now known as NYCB LIVE, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but they were pivotal moments in the franchise's history, when a single player and his team became the face of an entire professional basketball league.
Some of the connections were natural, and visceral. In the league with the red, white & blue ball, the Nets had the iconic Stars & Stripes uniforms that they debuted in 1972. As the ABA's New York franchise and bearing that name, they carried a bit of the cache and responsibility of representing the league in the country's most significant media market.
But what brought it all together was one man, the Doctor, Julius Erving.
Today, with the return of pro basketball and the Long Island Nets, Erving's No. 32 hangs in the arena rafters alongside the championship banners for the two ABA titles he led the New York Nets to in 1974 and 1976.
The team was actually led by a different Hall of Famer when it opened the arena on Feb. 11, 1972 - eight months before the expansion New York Islanders made their Long Island debut - with a 129-121 win over the Pittsburgh Condors behind 45 points from Rick Barry.
With college coaching legend Lou Carnesecca at the helm in between stints at St. John's, the Nets beat the Kentucky Colonels and the Virginia Squires - led by the rookie Erving - to reach the ABA championship series for the first time before falling to the Indiana Pacers in six games. The Pacers became the first time to celebrate a title on the Coliseum floor in a 108-105 win.
Barry remains the franchise's career leader in scoring average (30.6), but he and Carnesecca departed after the season, and the Nets struggled to a 30-54 record in their first full season at the arena.
As they had three years earlier, the Nets keyed a turnaround with the acquisition of the league's best player, bringing the Long Island native Erving back home. Already the league's leading scorer, Erving ascended into the stratosphere with three straight ABA MVP awards. In his three seasons with the Nets, Erving averaged 28.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 2.3 steals and 2.1 blocks per game while delivering countless highlight-reel worthy moments in games that were rarely filmed for posterity.
In Erving's first season, the Nets were also boosted by rookies John Williamson and Larry Kenon, ripping off two big win stretches with 19 of 22 and then 10 of 11 to close the season and clinch the division title. In their march to the championship, the Nets won 12 of 14 playoff games, including all eight at the Coliseum. Erving opened the championship series at home with an epic 47-point performance, and after the Utah Stars avoided a sweep with a Game 4 win, the Nets returned home to clinch their first title with a 111-100 win with 20-plus point outings from Erving, Kenon and Billy Paultz.
The following season, the Nets seemed headed toward a repeat after a franchise-record 58 wins, only to be stunned by the Spirits of St. Louis in the playoffs.
As the Nets regrouped to chase another title, the ABA was crumbling around them. Despite the ABA's limitations in fan support or television exposure, Erving had grown to become one of not just basketball's, but sports, biggest stars, featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated several times. Two of the ABA's 10 teams folded before the 1975-76 season began and another ceased operating mid-season. Finally, the Virginia Squires, Erving's original team, folded literally while the Nets were in the league's final championship series. By the time the Nets clinched the ABA's last title, the league was down to six teams.
It didn't take away from Erving's brilliance. He opened the championship series against the Denver Nuggets with 45 points and a buzzer-beating game-winner, and followed up with 48 in Game 2 on the road, a Nets loss. The Nets returned home to win twice and take a 3-1 lead in the series before the Nuggets kept the series alive with a win at home. Back in Long Island, Super John Williamson scored 16 fourth-quarter points to lead the Nets back from a 22-point deficit and capture the last ABA title on the home court at the Coliseum. Erving averaged 37.7 points in the finals.
It was the end of an era in several ways, not all realized at the time. The merger between the ABA and NBA for the 1976-77 season wasn't agreed to until after the 1975-76 season ended. The Nets, along with the Pacers, Nuggets, and Spurs, were one of four teams incorporated into the NBA. They had played the final championship series not knowing if their team or league would survive.
NBA basketball was coming to Long Island, but the Nets would ultimately make the jump without Erving, traded on the eve of the new season. The Nets' inaugural NBA season would be their last on Long Island, as they finished with a 22-60 record in the only NBA season at the Coliseum.
Back on the homecourt that once belonged to their parent franchise, the Long Island Nets have adopted the red, white & blue colors that belonged to the New York Nets as they work to create their own legacy in the newly renovated arena.