There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed. But the novelist couldn’t have anticipated the turbulent NBA career of Bob McAdoo.
The high-scoring, 6-foot-9 forward’s 14-season tenure in the league began brilliantly. He garnered Rookie of the Year honors, three consecutive scoring championships, and an MVP Award, all in his first four years. Then his star slowly faded before unexpectedly reigniting through the first half of the 1980s. Even after that, at age 35, McAdoo wrote an unlikely ending to his career, playing another six years in Italy.
One of the best shooting big men of all time, Robert Allen McAdoo, Jr. won the first of his three scoring championships in only his second year in the NBA, 1973-74, the same year he led the league with a .547 field-goal percentage. Over 14 seasons, McAdoo scored 18,787 points and averaged 22.1 points. A five-time NBA All-Star, he shot .503 from the field and .754 from the line, scoring in double figures in all but one season.
Yet, had McAdoo not found a second wind as a reserve for the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s, history might have remembered him only fleetingly as a brilliant young scorer who could not connect with a winner. Instead, McAdoo played a crucial supporting role in four straight NBA Finals, twice emerging with a championship ring.
His second act vindicated a career that had sent him, despite his consistently high scoring, bouncing unhappily from Buffalo to New York and then to Boston, Detroit and New Jersey. Counting an abbreviated farewell year with the Philadelphia 76ers, McAdoo played for seven NBA teams in 14 years.
McAdoo was only 3 years old the first time he shot a basketball in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where his mother taught at his grade school and his father was a custodian at nearby North Carolina A&T College. In addition to basketball, the younger McAdoo learned to play saxophone; at Smith High School he made the marching band as well as the basketball squad. On the side, he played sax with a local rhythm-and-blues group.
McAdoo reached high school age just as civil rights laws and judges began to require busing to achieve school integration. He and several friends from his mostly African-American neighborhood chose to be bused to Smith High because, he later conceded, they thought their chances of making the basketball team were better at an integrated school.
In his senior year, McAdoo led Smith to North Carolina’s state basketball semifinals as well as to the state track tournament, at which he set a new record for the high jump. (One of his rivals at the track meet was future NBA forward Bobby Jones, who would later be McAdoo’s teammate at Philadelphia in 1985-86, the final year in the league for both players.).
Not an exceptional student, McAdoo lacked the academic test scores required by the Atlantic Coast Conference for admission to the University of North Carolina. He enrolled instead at Vincennes Junior College in Indiana and led the team in scoring for two years. In 1971, after an appearance in the 1971 Pan-American Games, his academic status had improved, so McAdoo returned home to attend North Carolina.
In McAdoo’s first (and only) season at Chapel Hill, the nationally ranked Tar Heels recorded a 29-5 regular-season record and advanced to the 1972 NCAA Final Four. Despite a 24-point, 15-rebound performance from McAdoo, North Carolina was upset by Florida State in the national semifinals. McAdoo earned First Team All-America honors after averaging 19.5 points and 10.1 rebounds. Citing family hardship, he then sought and won early eligibility for the 1972 NBA Draft. The fledgling Buffalo Braves, preparing to enter their third campaign, made McAdoo the second overall pick, behind the Portland Trail Blazers’ selection of LaRue Martin from Loyola of Chicago.
Braves coach Jack Ramsay initially thought McAdoo was too frail to play the center position, so he tried the rookie at small forward. McAdoo didn’t make the starting lineup until halfway through the 1972-73 campaign, and even then he struggled defensively. The New York Knicks’ Bill Bradley scored a career-best 38 points on a night he was being guarded by rookie McAdoo.
Ramsay moved McAdoo back to center for the second half of the season and McAdoo’s performance soared. He finished with overall averages of 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds and earned the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. The Braves, however, continued to sing the expansion blues, winning only 21 games after winning 22 in each of their first two seasons.
Any doubts about McAdoo vanished in 1973-74. Aided by the Braves’ acquisition of playmaker Ernie DiGregorio and forward Jim McMillian, McAdoo had a sensational sophomore year. An All-Star for the first time, he led the league in both scoring (30.6) and field-goal percentage (.547), helping Buffalo to a 42-40 record and the first playoff berth in franchise history. The Braves faced the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals and lost in six games.
Both the Braves and their new sensation got even better in 1974-75. Buffalo’s 49-33 record was third best in the entire league, and McAdoo earned the NBA Most Valuable Player Award after a spectacular individual campaign. He led the league in scoring (34.5), total points (2,831), total rebounds (1,155), and minutes played (3,539) while ranking fourth in rebounding (14.1), fifth in field-goal percentage (.512), and sixth in blocks (2.12).
Buffalo met Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals and stretched the Bullets to the limit in a thrilling seven-game series. Washington won Game 7 and the series, despite a monstrous effort from McAdoo, who averaged 37.4 points and 13.4 rebounds in the postseason.
By the middle of the 1975-76 season, Sports Illustrated was calling McAdoo “the quickest tall man, finest shooter and most astounding outside scoring machine ever to play basketball.” According to the same publication, when told that his coach, Jack Ramsay, had said McAdoo could become the greatest big man to play the game, McAdoo (never noted for his modesty) retorted, “I think I’m the greatest already.”
Indeed, McAdoo won a third straight scoring title that season, averaging 31.1 points. The performance prompted Bill Russell, then coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, to tell a Buffalo publication: “He’s the greatest shooter of all time, period. Forget that bit about the ‘greatest shooting big man.’”
McAdoo made his most lasting contribution to the game’s strategic development as the first big man to shoot regularly from the outside. In his first four seasons, nearly half of the shots he took came from outside the lane, a dazzling new strategy for a center. And in half of his 14 NBA seasons, he shot .500 or better from the floor.
Buffalo turned in another strong regular season in 1975-76, finishing second behind Boston in the Atlantic Division, with a 46-36 record. In the postseason, McAdoo led the Braves to their first playoff series victory, a first-round triumph over Philadelphia. Buffalo then lost to the championship-bound Celtics in the conference semifinals.
But the troubles that would dog McAdoo for the rest of the 1970s were already brewing. Extremely sensitive to criticism, especially about his perceived lack of defensive skills, McAdoo’s withdrawn manner won him few friends in the media or in Buffalo. He complained of getting insufficient national attention in a wintry town where, he once ruefully noted, small children played hockey, not basketball, in the streets.
Midway through the 1975-76 season, McAdoo asked to be excused from a game because of back problems. When Buffalo owner Paul Snyder demanded that his star center see a second doctor, McAdoo refused, causing Snyder to suspend him. Although the suspension only lasted one game, the incident rankled both sides and chilled the relationship.
The following season, McAdoo was in the final year of his contract. Snyder, unwilling to meet McAdoo’s money demands or lose him to free agency after the season, traded him at midyear to the New York Knicks. The Braves, who also threw in Tom McMillen, received John Gianelli and cash in return.
Although McAdoo still finished the 1976-77 season ranked fifth in the league in scoring (25.8), the move to New York was not a happy one. The Knicks were fraught with internal clashes during McAdoo’s tenure. The rivalry between McAdoo and superstar teammate Spencer Haywood was particularly intense. Although McAdoo finished third in the league in scoring in 1977-78 (26.5), the Knicks traded him midway through the following season to Boston for Tom Barker and three first-round draft picks.
McAdoo learned of the trade by reading a newspaper. So did Boston general manager Red Auerbach and player-coach Dave Cowens, who had not been consulted by Celtics owner John Brown and resented it. McAdoo felt unwelcome and found himself sitting while Cowens played center. He finished the 1978-79 campaign averaging 24.8 points in 60 games. The Celtics then dispatched McAdoo to the Detroit Pistons as compensation for Boston’s free-agent signing of M.L. Carr.
McAdoo’s two years in Detroit proved to be no happier. The Pistons were in turmoil, and McAdoo suffered a string of injuries. In 1980-81, he played in only six games for the Pistons and finally waived him after he filed a grievance with the players’ association. The New Jersey Nets signed him late in the season and he appeared in 10 games. But he and the Nets could not agree on a contract for 1981-82, and amid whispers of “malingerer” and “troublemaker,” McAdoo’s once-shining career appeared over.
Fate, however, intervened in the form of a surprise Christmas present. A season-ending injury to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Mitch Kupchak midway through 1981-82 had the club scrambling for a second big man. On Christmas Eve 1981, the Lakers surprised McAdoo and most observers by acquiring his rights from the Nets for cash and a second-round draft pick.
The move, widely questioned at the time, paid off for both the player and the team. McAdoo discovered he could flourish in the role of substitute, and the Lakers used his contributions off the bench to win the 1982 NBA championship.
“Every place I went, I was supposed to be the franchise-saver,” McAdoo recalled of his unhappy wanderings in The Dallas Morning News in 1984. “An awful lot of pressure went with that. I was supposed to do all the scoring and all the rebounding. I was tired of losing and tired of being traded.”
With the spotlight off him, McAdoo blossomed as a Laker. In 1982-83 he averaged 15.0 ppg, although he spent 32 games on the disabled list with a toe injury. The Lakers reached the NBA Finals again, but they were trounced in four straight by a powerful Philadelphia 76ers team.
In 1983-84, McAdoo’s 13.1 scoring average led all non-starters in the NBA, even though he played fewer than 21 minutes per game. The Lakers rolled through the regular season and the playoffs, meeting the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. In a classic seven-game series the Celtics prevailed, despite McAdoo’s 14.0 point average in the postseason.
Los Angeles returned to the Finals in 1985 for the fourth time in McAdoo’s four Lakers seasons. This time the club would not be denied, exacting revenge against the Celtics in six games. McAdoo averaged 10.5 points during the regular season and 11.4 in the playoffs.
More disappointment awaited him, however. Despite his role in two championships, the Lakers opted to move younger players onto the bench for the 1985-86 season and did not exercise a final option year in McAdoo’s contract. He spent the summer and fall of 1985 negotiating a deal with the 76ers, who finally signed him for the second half of the season. He averaged better than 10 points through 29 games, but again found himself without a contract in the offseason.
Unhappy with Philadelphia’s best offer and yet not ready to retire, McAdoo signed to play for Tracer Milan of the Italian League. In Italy, McAdoo added yet another act to his unconventional career. In his first year in Europe, at age 35, he led Milan to the Italian and European Championship, averaging 26.1 points and 10.2 rebounds. In all, he played seven years overseas for Milan, Forli and Fabriano, finishing with career Italian League averages of 26.6 points and 8.7 rebounds. McAdoo retired in 1992 at age 41.
McAdoo joined the coaching staff of the Miami Heat in 1995, originally reuniting with his former Lakers coach Pat Riley. In his time with the Heat, McAdoo was on the staff of three championship teams in 2006, 2012 and 2013.
McAdoo was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.