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The 1980s: Off to the Meadowlands and on to the Playoffs

The Nets got their new arena and made five straight playoff appearances

The 1980s dawned for the New Jersey Nets with promise, as the franchise nabbed four top 10 picks over the first two NBA Drafts of the decade as they prepared to move into a new home: Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey’s Meadowlands complex, adjacent to Giants Stadium.

Buck Williams, Albert King, Mike O’Koren and Mike Gminski would combine to play 29 seasons with the Nets, forming the core of the club for much of the decade along with Otis Birdsong, who played seven seasons for the Nets after being acquired in a 1981 trade.

The Nets would also add entertaining stars Micheal Ray Richardson and Darryl Dawkins as they made five straight playoff appearances from 1982 to 1986.

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“It was an exciting decade,” said long-time Nets official scorer Herb Turetzky. “To me, it was stability. The Atlantic Coast Conference. Gminski, O’Koren, Buck Williams. Albert King. All stable programs. Solid, national programs. Good, solid players. Darryl came in and gave us a little more in the middle.”

As they moved into their new arena for the 1981-82 season, leaving behind the Rutgers Athletic Center after four years, the Nets featured a foundation of second-year forwards O’Koren and Gminski, rookies Williams and King, and Birdsong, an All-Star each of the three previous seasons with the Kansas City Kings.

They also had a new coach in place. Like the Nets, Larry Brown had his roots in the ABA with five years as a player before becoming a coach. Brown had coached the Denver Nuggets against the Nets in the final ABA championship series before spending two seasons at UCLA.

In their first season under Brown at the Meadowlands, the Nets made a 20-win improvement over the season before, jumped to fourth in the NBA in attendance, and made their second NBA playoff appearance, losing to Washington in the best-of-three first round.

“It was very exciting,” said Turetzky. “We were out in no place at Rutgers. Here we were eight miles from Manhattan, which alone almost sounds like you could walk it. A brand-new building, an 18,000-seat arena built for us.”

Going into the 1982-83 season, the Nets added the backboard-breaking Dawkins, then picked up Richardson in a mid-season trade with Golden State. The dynamic point guard was a three-time All-Star who had led the NBA in assists once and steals three times.

With an 11-game winning streak in December and January, the Nets won 49 games, a franchise NBA record until 2002 and still the second-most in an NBA season in team history. Seven players averaged double figures in scoring, with Williams leading the way with 17.0 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.

Brown, however, didn’t make it to the end of the season after interviewing for the University of Kansas job late in the year. Bill Blair took over as coach for the final six games, and the Nets fell in the first round of the playoffs.

Returning the same core the following year under new coach Stan Albeck, the Nets won 45 games and stunned the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of playoffs for their first NBA playoff series win. Dawkins averaged 18.4 points in the series, Richardson had 16.8 points and 7.2 assists per game and Williams added 15.5 points and 14.1 rebounds.

The Nets returned to the playoffs each of the next two seasons, with Dave Wohl replacing Albeck as coach before the 1985-86 season. Midway through the season, the Nets lost Richardson, banned from the NBA for substance abuse. They didn’t return to the playoffs until 1992.

The rugged and reliable Williams was the defining Net of the decade, and one of the most accomplished in franchise history. He remained with the Nets through the 1988-89 season, and left as the franchise leader in games played, points and rebounds.

The Rookie of the Year in 1982 and a three-time All-Star, Williams averaged 16.4 points and 11.9 rebounds over his eight seasons with the Nets. Traded to Portland, he was named to the NBA All-Defensive team twice and helped lead the Trail Blazers to NBA Finals appearances in 1990 and 1992.

“He was loved by fans,” said Turetzky. “He would stay and sign, do appearances, whatever he could do. Charles Linwood ‘Buck’ Williams. He was a special one.”

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