Even in a victory celebration the Spirits of St. Louis perform like a team not quite old enough to be spanked. After the brash young Spirits had beaten the strut out of the New York Nets last week no one poured an alcoholic beverage over anyone's head or dribbled an interloper around before dunking him in a shower.
Instead the Spirits held hands, cheered, danced with each other and generally acted like a bunch of collegians who had been called into the dean's office expecting to be expelled and walked out on the honor roll instead. It was a moment for well-behaved giddiness. "We didn't quit this time," shouted Marvin Barnes. "We don't quit no more! No more! We hang in there! We're scared to lose. We came into these playoffs starving. We were hungry. We had that desire."
So now the Spirits are in up to their tender necks against the Kentucky Colonels, and nobody in the American Basketball Association expected that to be the Eastern Division finals matchup. After all, the Spirits who unseated the defending league champion Nets are so young that the starting front line is hardly old enough to remember black and white television. Their radio announcer is only 23. The team has a rookie coach, rookie owners and rookie players. Moreover, its top substitute has a body that could qualify for federal aid, and its captain is a veteran of the league's inception. In those days Guard Freddie Lewis thought Insufficient Funds was the name of a man who signed paychecks.
It was Lewis who demoted the Nets from champs to chumps in last Tuesday night's deciding game at the Nets' Nassau Coliseum. His jump shot with three seconds left touched nothing but history as it dropped through for a 108-107 victory. That gave St. Louis its fourth straight win over bewildered New York and ended the best-of-seven series at 4-1. And, oh yes, it also set a club record for consecutive victories.
Lewis' verve consistently bedeviled New York. In one of the games the Nets' Wendell Ladner threw a basketball sneaker (his own) at him. But if Lewis is the handle of the team, Barnes is the pump, the league's Rookie of the Year. Against New York he averaged 30.6 points and 13.6 rebounds and together with rookie Center Maurice Lucas controlled the Nets' big men underneath. In the fourth game, which the Spirits won 100-89, New York did not get a rebound in the final five minutes. Lucas even had the temerity to slug Nets star Julius Erving in one game. Talking about his upcoming assignment against Kentucky Center Artis Gilmore, Lucas said, "I'm 6'7" but I always say I'm 6'9" to inject a little fear in people. But that doesn't put much fear into a guy who's 7'2"."
St. Louis' sixth man is Don Adams, a burly, bald forward with a waistline only a bartender could love. Adams joined the Spirits in March, and the club won eight of its last 13 games to finish third in the East. Adams was dropped by Detroit of the NBA in midseason after he had a tiff with Coach Ray Scott. St. Louis was not deterred by his $70,000 salary or impious attitude. "I must be doing something right," says Adams. "Everywhere I go we win. Maybe it's 'cause I'm not strung out on statistics. I'm strung out on wins."
For the Nets it was a curious ending. They beat St. Louis 11 straight times during the regular season and bopped them in the opening game of the playoffs. Then their concentration seemed to waver. New York played the final half against St. Louis on Tuesday night as if it were leading the series 3-1 instead of trailing by that margin. Earlier the Nets had talked vaguely of losing their desire, and Coach Kevin Loughery said that it appeared the fun had gone out of basketball. General Manager Dave DeBusschere, the epitome of desire in his playing days, practiced with the squad and offered suggestions to Loughery. But nobody got the message.
Erving remained perplexed by it all, particularly by a glaring error he made in the final game. Harassed by Adams, he inexplicably lost control of the ball with 17 seconds left, setting up Lewis' last shot. "We've been confused all year," the Doctor said. "So this is how it ends: a basket in the last few seconds to put an end to our confusion."