Nets in the 80s: New Wave in 1981-82
The Nets christened a new arena with a 20-win improvement, welcoming one of their all-time greats
It was the dawn of a decade, and everything was new for the Nets.
Their first five NBA seasons had been a struggle after they sold Julius Erving to Philadelphia on the eve of their debut in the league in 1976. They’d left their Long Island home after the 1976-77 season to play four seasons on a college campus at Rutgers and finished below .500 all five seasons, sneaking into the playoffs once.
But hope was on the horizon. With their new arena in the Meadowlands ready to open for the 1981-82 season, the Nets were ready to tip off a new era with a major makeover
“It was pretty exciting times,” said guard Otis Birdsong. “We were moving into a new arena, Brendan Byrne, was the first year of the new arena. Larry Brown came in and signed on to be the head coach. We had drafted Buck Williams.”
Birdsong was a big part of the new wave, one that seemed to wash over everything about the team. An All-NBA Second Team pick for the Kansas City Kings the previous season, Birdsong had played in the last three All-Star Games after being drafted second overall in 1977. He and Ray Williams were added to fortify the backcourt after the Nets had stocked up on forwards in the previous two drafts with four top 10 picks.
In 1980 they grabbed Duke’s Mike Gminski and North Carolina’s Mike O’Koren, and in 1981 they took the Maryland pair of Buck Williams and Albert King, with Williams the third overall pick.
They even changed the uniforms, just as they had the last time they opened a new arena back in 1972. Opting out of those Dr. J Stars and Stripes, the Nets moved to solid jerseys with script lettering inspired by their first jerseys after the franchise changed its name for the 1968-69 season.
So there was a new arena, new uniforms, a new backcourt with Birdsong and Ray Williams, plus the rookies King and Buck Williams. And there was a new coach.
Like the Nets, Larry Brown was an ABA survivor, first a player and then a head coach with the Carolina Cougars and Denver Nuggets. After leaping to the NBA with Denver, Brown coached UCLA for two years before leaping back to take over the Nets.
“Larry really enjoyed coaching young players,” said Buck Williams. “He was a teacher. He liked to teach and he liked the younger players. He figured the veteran players were a little set in their ways and showed some resistance in their learning. Larry took a liking to me and Albert. He was a father figure to a certain extent. I was 21 and Albert was 22. One of the best coaches to ever coach me, if not the best, was Larry Brown. He had a really strong feel and his thing was to play defense and share the ball. I owed him a lot because when I got to the first year in the pros I was an unfinished product. Larry did a lot to teach me the finer points of the game.”
Brown had the Nets doing two-a-days during training camp for over two weeks and individual development sessions after practice were mandatory.
“We had a very good team,” said King. “If you look at all the players, Buck, myself, Mike O’Koren, Mike Gminski. That was a great foundation. You could go on and on. It was more of a college-type situation because Larry Brown was very knowledgeable. He was always stressing fundamentals. Not only practice days. We were practicing before the games. Before warmups he always had you out there doing drills. It might have been something you frowned upon, but you could see how much he had you developing. We started out slow as I remember, but we picked it up as the season went along.”
The new-look Nets started off losing 16 of their first 22 games, and were still just 12-20 a week into January. But they took off from there, finishing 32-18 (.640) over their final 50 games, including winning nine of the final 11. That was good enough to reach the playoffs, but they dropped the best-of-three first-round series to Washington in two games.
With a 44-38 record, the 1981-82 Nets made a 20-win leap over the year before. Ray Williams, in his only season with the team, led the Nets in scoring with 20.5 points per game. Buck Williams averaged 15.5 points and 12.3 rebounds, started all 82 games, and was named Rookie of the Year.
Along the way, the Nets also hosted the NBA All-Star Game in their new building, with Buck Williams earning a selection. Boston’s Larry Bird was named the game’s MVP after a 120-118 win for the East.
It was the first of five straight playoff appearances for the Nets, but the road ahead wouldn’t always be smooth. The following season the Nets finished 49-33, the best NBA record the franchise would post until the 2001-02 team won 52 games on the way to the NBA Finals. But they had to deal with Brown’s shocking departure with six games left in the season, and were again swept out of the playoffs in the first round.
“We were sitting at the airport getting ready to go to Detroit,” said O’Koren. “I can remember like yesterday. We flew commercial then. Whatever gate, you sat there and waited to get on and you go. We were hanging out there and Joe Taub, the late owner, class act, would give the shirt off his back to anyone, Joe was on the bus and he came to the airport and wanted to know if Larry was going to take the job at Kansas. Larry must have said yeah, and Joe let him go. We had an 11-game winning streak that year, we had 49 wins, and two weeks later we got knocked out of the playoffs.
“I guess whatever happened with Larry, he got a job and took it, but we had two very good years. Won a lot of games, put a lot of excitement into the Meadowlands.”
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