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Original Issue

Off on the Wrong Foot

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens eliminated themselves from the early going while elsewhere plenty of teams were ready, willing and healthy

So there they are, as pro basketball turns once again to the serious business of making money and deciding championships—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Bucks and Dave Cowens of the Celtics, the game's two premier centers, out of uniform, sporting plaster casts and crutches. Suddenly the seasons of Milwaukee and Boston, who met for the NBA title last May, depend on what physicians say. Within a span of three days midway in the exhibition season, the prize pair were set down by broken bones; for Abdul-Jabbar, his right hand; for Cowens, his right foot.

Cowens probably broke his foot chasing Denver's Fatty Taylor, but at the time he didn't realize it. He found out later in a game in New York when he went up for a rebound and came down on crutches. A few nights before that, Abdul-Jabbar went up for a rebound and instead caught Don Nelson's finger in his eye. Angered, he drove his right fist into the post supporting the backboard. His scratched eye has healed, but his broken hand has not. Both men will miss some early weeks of the season—Abdul-Jabbar perhaps four, Cowens perhaps eight—and without them, their clubs will be hard-pressed not to fall too far behind in division races. So what was supposed to be The Year of the Arrival of Bill Walton has opened instead as The Season of the Sidelined Superstars.

In Portland, Walton is operating hale and hearty and the franchise has been dramatically enhanced, thanks to the magic of the draft. In 1973-74 the Trail Blazers finished last in their division and sold but 2,971 season tickets. This year that figure already has risen to 6,283. In pre-Walton days, the Trail Blazers were often relegated to the "preliminary" opening games of exhibition double-headers and drew crowds of 2,000 fans in places like Longview, Wash. and Albany, Ore. With Walton, Portland played its exhibition games in Los Angeles, Oakland, New York and Dayton, drew an average of 11,582 and appeared in the featured second game of doubleheaders. The last rookie to turn a franchise around like that was Abdul-Jabbar himself who, as Lew Alcindor, arrived just in time to save Milwaukee in 1969.

Aside from Portland, nobody won much in the off-season except Atlanta. It was supposed to be the year of the merger, but the only people who joined together were some old folks named Jerry West, Dave DeBusschere, Oscar Robertson, Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas, and they all retired. And so too, officially, did Wilt Chamberlain. Superstars, and a lot of excitement went with them.

Without the merger the ABA was supposed to be dead, but the league found fresh money in St. Louis, Virginia, Utah and Memphis, traded its commissioner for a carpet salesman and is stronger than ever. The NBA, on the other hand, tried to elect a new commissioner, the balloting ended as usual in a hung jury, and the league is now being run by a lame duck. The NBA did agree on a new playoff system, and now the 18 teams will play 82 games each to eliminate just eight of them. Then, in each conference, team 5 plays team 4, and 3 plays 2, and the winner of 4-5 plays 1 and, on well, it will go on forever and everybody will get rich. Nothing much else happened, except some guys in a car with Georgia plates ripped-off the New Orleans Jazz, which is the new kid in the league, and also, unexpectedly, wound up in possession of Golden State's Clyde Lee.

Most of the retirements were expected. DeBusschere left the Knicks to take over as general manager of the Nets. Reed decided he didn't want to be playing wheelchair basketball at the age of 40 and so went to the sidelines instead of to the scalpel again. West said he would play, but after three exhibition games the 14-year veteran changed his mind; if he couldn't give the Laker fans Jerry West, he wouldn't give them anyone else. Robertson will do color for televised NBA games, and Milwaukee will now run the fast break. If the price is right and, more important, if the mood moves him, Chamberlain might still play.

In June, merger was a hot topic. But first the NBA powers in New York had to decide whether Alan Rothenberg or Henry Steinman, both young and qualified, should be Walter Kennedy's successor as commissioner. Either would have been an excellent choice, and 13 of the teams opted for Steinman. No way, said the alliance of Jack Kent Cooke of the Lakers and Chicago's Arthur Wirtz. Milwaukee, Golden State and Washington agreed with them. Since it takes 14 votes to win, Kennedy still has no successor.

Then the owners had to decide what to do about a merger proposal that could have eliminated the option clause. What they decided to do was to go home. The merger never came up for a vote.

The ABA owners got the word at their meeting in Louisville. Instead of giving up, they went to work. The Carolina team was sold and moved to St. Louis. The Virginia franchise was bought by a large group in the Tidewater area. Another group headed by Mike Storen, who was the ABA commissioner at the time, bought Memphis. Tedd Munchak, a retired carpet executive from Atlanta who had owned the Carolina team, became the league's commissioner. Munchak runs the office from Atlanta and is only a temporary replacement.

In Utah, where the franchise was in financial trouble, Jim Collier said he'd buy the Stars and keep them in Salt Lake City if 7,000 season tickets were sold by Aug. 15. They were and he did. And Dr. Leonard Bloom solved one of his problems in San Diego by moving into the 14,000-seat Sports Arena. He had been trying to operate in a 3,200-seat broom closet.

What the ABA needs now is a decent TV network contract. And what the league must have to get that is a few more Dr. Js. For example: When Julius Erving and his Nets played an exhibition in the Landover, Md. home of the Washington Bullets, 19,035 fans came; when the Detroit Pistons sold tickets for an exhibition against the Nets, people stood in line for an hour and a half to buy them. TV networks like that kind of drawing power. They just want more of it.

Or at least that's what the Atlanta people told New Orleans when they traded away Pete Maravich, who will draw a lot of fans, for a bundle of future draft picks, who will win lots and lots of games for the Hawks. A while after they'd pulled that job off, one of the Atlanta brass read in the papers where Zelmo Beaty had left Utah, signed with Golden State and been promptly traded to Los Angeles.

"Hey," said the Atlantan, "didn't we have some sort of deal with Golden State about what would happen if Beaty ever came back from the ABA?" "Right on," said Atlanta President John Wilcox, reading the fine print in a 1970 contract. "I think I will telephone San Francisco and give them the news."

What had happened was that back in 1970 Beaty was with Atlanta but unhappy and ready to jump to the ABA. Against the possibility that he might decide not to jump, the (then) San Francisco Warriors gave Atlanta a draft pick for the NBA rights to Beaty—and also agreed to send Forward-Center Clyde Lee to the Hawks should Beaty ever sign with them. Beaty jumped, played four years in the ABA and decided he had had enough of Utah. Besides, the Lakers wanted him. First, though, he had to sign a Warrior contract. Just a technicality before being sent on to Los Angeles. And by this time everybody had forgotten about Clyde Lee.

Everybody but the supercool folks from Atlanta. Which is why, in addition to the rest of their off-season winnings, they also won Clyde Lee. As for Lee, his first thought on the matter was that he would now like to renegotiate his contract. It might just turn out to be one of those seasons.


They'll be back but the question is, how soon? Abdul-Jabbar of the Bucks broke his hand; Cowens of the Celtics, his foot.