Nets vs. Knicks: In the Beginning

Before their first NBA meeting in 1976, the teams split six games in NBA vs. ABA exhibition series

Everybody knows that Julius Erving was sold away on the eve of the 1976-77 season, the first in the NBA for the Nets as one of four survivors of the ABA’s wobbly nine-year existence. The great Dr. J never got the chance to lead the final ABA champions in a quest to prove themselves in the NBA – or against the New York Knicks.

That’s not entirely true. Before the first NBA matchup between the two teams – a 104-103 Nets win at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 30, 1976 – the Nets and Knicks played six times as part of a series of exhibition games between the NBA and ABA that began in 1971, prior to the upstart league’s fifth season, and ran through 1975, the last year before the merger.

That includes the first game between the two teams on October 5, 1972, an exhibition game held at the newly-opened – and since demolished – New Haven Coliseum in Connecticut. Nearly 10,000 fans showed up, just a little shy of the arena’s full capacity of 11,171, to see the Knicks beat the Nets, 117-88.

Both teams were coming off losses in their leagues’ championship series. The Knicks had dropped the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, while the Nets had been beaten by the Indiana Pacers in the ABA championship series.

But while the Knicks were returning their fabled Hall of Fame roster – Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe, plus a backup forward named Phil Jackson – the Nets had lost Rick Barry, forced back to the NBA at the conclusion of a long-running legal battle.

“I’m just sorry we couldn’t make a better showing,” coach Lou Carnesecca told the New Haven Register. “It was a great crowd. But at least we’ve started the rivalry.”

Carnesecca, who returned to St. John’s the next year after a 30-54 season, was the only Hall of Famer on the Nets bench that night. The Nets’ John Roche led all scorers with 26 points, and Lucas led the Knicks with 25. The Knicks followed up with a 100-91 win behind 19 points each from DeBusschere and Frazier the following night, and the two franchises went their separate ways for another year.

By the time they reunited the next fall, Julius Erving was back home in Long Island with the Nets, who would win three of the final four matchups to leave their ABA-NBA exhibition series eternally knotted at three games apiece.

Erving closed the series out with an exclamation point on Oct. 18, 1975 at Madison Square Garden, raining down a 35-footer launched with four seconds remaining to give the Nets a 103-101 win behind his 33 points.

“I didn’t know I was that far out,” said Erving in The New York Times. “The way it went in, it might as well have been a layup.”

By the time the two teams met for the first time as NBA opponents a year later, only Bradley and Frazier were left from the Knicks’ first championship team. They would both be gone a year later, Bradley retired and Frazier traded to Cleveland. Erving was gone as well, sold to Philadelphia on the eve of the Nets’ NBA debut for the cash to help cover the franchise’s entry into the NBA.

But in that first NBA matchup, Tiny Archibald scored 34 points and John Williamson had 24 to lead the Nets to their 104-103 win, while Spencer Haywood had 25 for the Knicks. The two teams split their four meetings that first year, and just like the exhibition matchups, their head-to-head rivalry remains almost dead-even 41 years later, with the Knicks holding a 95-93 edge after winning the first contest of the 2017-18 season, 107-86 on Oct. 27.

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