Nets City Edition Seasons: 1971-72
The Nets debuted their legendary Stars & Stripes uniforms while moving into the new Nassau Coliseum and reaching the ABA championship series for the first time
When the ABA shut out the lights on nine wild seasons in 1976, sending four teams on to a new adventure in the NBA, the Nets were established as the signature franchise in the rebel league — a championship squad representing the league’s major market, with the biggest star in basketball in Julius Erving, and even star-spangled uniforms that aligned with the league’s red, white and blue basketball.
The pieces for all of that had begun to come together during the 1971-72 season, the fifth in the team’s and the ABA’s history, and a breakthrough one for the franchise.
Over their first four seasons, the Nets had been through three arenas and two names in two states and had yet to win more games in a season than they lost. But they took the first steps to respectability in 1970, bringing in successful St. John’s University head coach Lou Carnesecca and acquiring forward Rick Barry, who had led the NBA in scoring during his second pro season in 1966-67 before jumping to the ABA. Both Carnesecca and Barry have since been inducted to the Hall of Fame.
They opened the 1971-72 season still playing at tiny Island Garden in West Hempstead, but a major makeover was on the way that would bring a big-time feel to a rising team in the upstart league.
The brand-new Nassau Coliseum was still being completed at the start of the season, and on Feb. 11, 1972 the Nets beat the Pittsburgh Condors 129-121 behind Barry’s 45 points in the first event ever held at the arena, which today is the home of the Long Island Nets of the G League after its renovation and reopening in 2017.
With the move to a new home, the Net unveiled new uniforms — the famed Stars & Stripes jerseys that would be the franchise’s primary look for all but two seasons through 1990. With the win over Pittsburgh in early February though, the Nets were still just 28-31 after starting the season with an 11-18 record.
But they soon got rolling. Beginning with a 104-95 win at Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 21 over the Dallas Chaparrals — who would later become the San Antonio Spurs — the Nets won 14 of 16 games in the space of a month to vault over the .500 mark on the way to a 44-40 finish.
“The Nets have really grown up since I came here,” Barry told The New York Times during the playoffs in April. “You could see the improvement coming steadily and finally hitting its peak when we moved into the Coliseum.”
Barry averaged 31.5 points per game, still the highest single-season scoring average in franchise history, while playing 45.2 minutes per game. His 30.6 points per game over two seasons with the Nets is also the highest scoring average in franchise history.
“He was a great artist,” Carnesecca told Sports Illustrated in 1983. “A Mozart. A Picasso. A Caruso. I’d diagram a play, and Rick would instinctively see four or five options that I’d never even imagined. In 35 years of coaching, I’ve never had another guy like that.”
Bill Melchionni averaged 21.0 points and led the ABA with 8.4 assists per game. Melchionni and Barry were both named to the All-ABA First Team. Billy Paultz averaged a double-double with 14.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
They drew the Kentucky Colonels in the first round of the playoffs, winners of 68 games to lead the league, and the Nets shocked the favorites by winning the first two games in Louisville, with Barry scoring 50 points in the opener. The Nets ended up winning the series in six games, moving on to face a Virginia Squires team led by a rookie named Julius Erving.
After dropping the first two games on the road, the Nets got a chance to regroup as previous bookings at the Coliseum led to Game 3 being played nine days after Game 2 on April 24. They won that one, 119-117, and went on to win four of the last five games and clinch a berth in the championship series with a 94-88 Game 7 win on May 4.
The Nets would drop their first shot at the ABA title, losing to the Indiana Pacers in six games. Barry returned to the NBA after the season and Carnesecca went back to St. John’s a year later. But a new era had been set in motion. The Nets acquired Erving before the 1973-74 season and went on to win two ABA championships featuring the classic uniforms that debuted in 1972 while playing at the Coliseum through their first NBA season in 1976-77.
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