PRO BASKETBALL—NBA: Last-place New York has played catch-up in the Atlantic Division since Dec. 12th, when its record stood at 8-19 and it was 12 games behind first-place Philadelphia. On Friday the Knicks recovered from a 19-point deficit to beat the now second-place 76ers 104-92 and move within 5½ games of them. The next night Walt Frazier and Spencer Haywood each scored 22, and the Knicks made it six straight wins (16 in the last 20 games) by downing the Pistons 117-100 and improved their record to 24-23. George McGinnis scored his 1,000th point in a 34-point effort, which lifted the 76ers past Atlanta 130-116. The Celtics, winners in five of their-last six games, beat Buffalo 135-107 and led the Atlantic by 2½ games. Cleveland changed its starting lineup for the first time this season in a 132-89 drubbing of Milwaukee, Campy Russell replacing Bobby Smith, who had started in 219 straight games and was visiting his ailing mother. Russell scored 22 points to give the Cavs their fourth win in a row and put them one game behind Central leader Washington. New Orleans plummeted to the cellar, losing 102-93 to Chicago and 109-86 to Washington. Bob Dandridge scored a career-high 40 points in a 113-97 Buck defeat of Kansas City, and when the Pistons lost 108-91 to Boston and then to New York, Milwaukee led by a full game over Detroit. Chicago (page 20) lost its fourth straight, 100-86, to Atlanta and remained six games out of first. Bill Walton commanded the Pacific's attention, outclassing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in points (27-26) and rebounds (22-10) in a 119-96 Portland defeat of Los Angeles. The Blazers also pinned a 125-123 overtime defeat on Golden State, with Walton scoring 28 and pulling down 26 rebounds. The Warriors still are 10½ games ahead of the Lakers and 15 in front of last-place Portland.
ABA: Bill Musselman resigned as Virginia's coach after nine weeks and a 4-22 record and G.M. Jack Ankerson took over for two games. In the second, Squire Guard Ticky Burden, benched by Mussel-man, scored 21 points in a 128-117 defeat of St. Louis, ending a 13-game Squire losing streak. Zelmo Beaty, 34, who played for seven years in the NBA and four in the ABA, signed on as the Squires' third coach this season. He "won" his first "game," a replay of the last 19:05 of a game with New York on Jan. 7 protested by the Nets, 107-100. In the regularly scheduled meeting, New York beat Virginia 94-85. Bo Lamar was the high scorer for Indiana, getting 40 in a 132-128 overtime defeat of St. Louis and 23 in the second half of a 116-113 rematch victory. Kentucky moved into third place by winning three games while San Antonio was dropping two, 131-123 to Denver and 106-103 to Kentucky. Moses Malone joined St. Louis but failed to uplift the Spirits, who lost to Indiana, their sixth straight defeat. Ex-Spirit Gus Gerard started for Denver in place of flu-stricken Bobby Jones and scored 16 points and pulled down 21 rebounds as the Nugget regulars, David Thompson and Dan Issel, combined for 57 points in the victory over San Antonio that kept Denver atop the league, three games in front of New York.
BOXING—GEORGE FOREMAN knocked out Ron Lyle in the fifth round of their heavyweight fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (page 18).
GOLF—BEN CRENSHAW won the Crosby by firing a fourth-round three-under-par 69 to top Mike Morley by two strokes at Pebble Beach, Calif. (page 12).
PRO HOCKEY—NHL: The last time the Washington Capitals had won was on Nov. 26, when they beat Los Angeles. They had a chance to set the record for consecutive winless games, but after blowing a 3-0 lead Washington eked out a 7-5 victory over the defenseless New Yorkers and were happy to share the record at 25 successive no-wins with a Ranger team that accomplished the feat in two seasons (1943-44 and 1944-45). With that win, Washington moved to within 61 points of Norris leader Montreal, whose scoring aces Guy Lafleur (second in the league) and Pete Mahovlich (fourth) each got three more points in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh. The Islanders got out of a second-place tie with Atlanta in the Patrick Division by beating Washington 5-2 and then stomped the Red Wings 8-1 as the Potvin brothers combined for five goals, Jean scoring three. Denis moved into the scoring lead among defensemen (21 goals and 38 assists) with his second straight four-point game. Philadelphia still leads the division by 10 points despite a 5-3 loss to Montreal. Kansas City Coach Bep Guidolin resigned and G.M. Sid Abel stepped in to lead the Scouts to their 10th straight loss, 4-2 to St. Louis. Chicago played to its 16th tie, 3-3 with the Rangers, retaining a 12 point edge in the Smythe over Vancouver. Boston widened its Adams Division lead over Buffalo to four points with a 5-3 win over the Sabres.
WHA: New England acquired Ralph Backstrom from Ottawa, and the center's 22nd goal of the season sent the Whalers into overtime against Phoenix. The eventual 4-4 tie was enough to boost New England's lead over Cincinnati in the East Division to seven points, a margin that was reduced to four later in the week when the two teams met and the Stingers won 6-3. In between, Cincinnati had been beaten 4-3 by last-place Indianapolis when Racer Hugh Harris scored with 36 seconds left to end a four-game losing streak, and New England had lost 9-3 to Houston and had to settle for another overtime tie, 2-2, with third-place Cleveland. In the West, San Diego held on to second place by beating Minnesota 7-1. Houston's domination of the division continued, Ron Grahame getting his third shutout by turning away 33 shots in a 2-0 victory over Calgary, a penaltyless game. In the Canadian Division, Winnipeg's Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson scored third-period goals in a 4-2 defeat of Edmonton, which lost for the 11th time in 14 games. The defeat was the first for interim Coach Bill Hunter, the Oilers' G.M., who took over when Clare Drake was dismissed. Winnipeg remains atop the division, leading Quebec by eight points.
MOTOR SPORTS—Defending Formula I champion NIKI LAUDA of Austria, driving a Ferrari 312.T, won the Brazilian Grand Prix, first stop in the 1976 series, beating Patrick Depailler of France in a Tyrrell-Ford 007 at Interlagos Race Track in S√£o Paulo by 21.47 seconds.
SKIING—World Cup point leader ROSI MITTERMAIER won her first cup race this season, the special slalom at Badgastein, Austria. In men's competition at Kitzb√ºhel, leader INGEMAR STENMARK won his third slalom of the season.
TENNIS—ARTHUR ASHE beat Vitas Gerulaitis 6-2, 6-7, 6-4 for his second straight WCT win and extended his victory streak to eight matches.
Ilie Nastase defeated Jeff Borowiak 6-2, 6-4 to win the WCT Phoenix Cup in Atlanta.
Chris Evert downed Virginia Wade 6-2, 6-1 to win the $75,000 Washington Women's professional tournament in Landover, Md.
Jimmy Connors defeated Roscoe Tanner 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 to win the $50,000 Birmingham International Tournament.
Tom Gorman upset top-seeded Ilie Nastase 7-5, 6-3 to win the $12,000 first prize in the Baltimore International in Catonsville, Md.
TRACK & FIELD—TADEUSZ SLUSARSKI of Poland broke Kjell Isaksson's European indoor pole-vault record by one-half inch, clearing 17'11" at the Bicentennial Track Classic in Philadelphia.
MILEPOSTS—ELECTED: ROBIN ROBERTS, 49, and BOB LEMON, 55, to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Roberts was a six-time 20-game winner with the Phillies from 1950-55, and had a 286-245 lifetime record and a 3.41 ERA. Lemon pitched for Cleveland from 1946-58, winning 20 games in seven seasons; he had a 207-128 lifetime record and a 3.23 ERA.
FIRED: HARLAND SVARE, 45, general manager of the San Diego Chargers since 1971. Svare also coached the club from mid-1971 to 1973.
HIRED: HOMER RICE, 48, as head football coach at Rice University. Rice had been the athletic director at the University of North Carolina.
HIRED: To coach the New Orleans Saints, HANK STRAM, 52, former coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Stram reportedly signed a five-year $1 million contract.
HIRED: RON MEYER, 34, as head football coach at Southern Methodist University, after three years at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he guided the Rebels to a 27-8 record.
PLACED ON PROBATION: By the NCAA, the MICHIGAN STATE football team for three seasons, because of recruiting violations. The Spartans will not be permitted to go to bowl games or to appear on television.
DIED: GERTRUD GABL, 27, of Austria, the 1969 World Cup ski champion, in an avalanche, near St. Anton.
DIED: PAUL ROBESON, 77, singer, actor, political and racial activist and a two-time All-America in football at Rutgers (1917-18); of a severe cerebral vascular disorder; in Philadelphia.