clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Battle for the soul of basketball: Meet the All-1970s NBA (and ABA) team

New, comments

The glory the NBA would enjoy in the '80s and '90s wouldn't be possible without players like Dr. J and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar laying the groundwork for the league in the '70s.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Wiki Commons

The 1970s are not the most fondly remembered decade of pro basketball. They were no strong national rivalries, no dynasties, no epic G.O.A.T. debates. There was actually a good deal of legal wrangling over the reserve clause, the ABA merger, draft eligibility and What Team Rick Barry Would Be Playing For. It's famously noted that in this era the NBA Finals were on tape delay.

I have defended the '70s before, notably in Free Darko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. My argument was that it was a time of testing new limits, of parity and of transition. The glory of the '80s was only possible because of the work done by Dr. J, Skywalker, The Ice Man, Kareem and the Rolls-Royce backcourt in the '70s. Here's another argument: the '70s represented a battle for the soul of basketball.

You had dominating centers, of course, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a perennial MVP candidate and a fully dependable superstar in the middle for both Milwaukee and Los Angeles. There were also great centers like Bob McAdoo, Artis Gilmore and Bill Walton. You also had the burgeoning troupe of high-flyers with style: guys like Julius Erving, David Thompson and George Gervin. You had Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier in the Big Apple, drawing attention and respect to the Mecca of basketball. You had D.C.'s best era with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. You had championships in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, signaling the weakening of the East's stranglehold on basketball dominance, as well as providing evidence that L.A. could be rivaled on the Pacific Coast.

The '70s were a time of chaos in pro basketball, but the chaos was caused by the fate of pro basketball being completely up in the air. As Paul Flannery wrote this week, the ABA's mere presence helped push the NBA in a fateful direction toward style, panache and run-and-gun tactics by introducing the three and elevating the dunk to a respectable art form. It was this transition, from earth-bound giants to brilliant athleticism, that paved the way for the glorious rebirth that was to come.

Kareem was the best pro basketball player of the '70s -- that's more or less beyond debate -- but hoops came out the other side fully enthralled with shooters and high-flyers. The three-pointer debuted in the NBA in late 1979, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dominated the early years of the 1980s, Michael Jordan arrived a few years later and the rest is history. Sure, we still saw centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Shaq, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming rise and dominate down the road. But let's face it: the old-school center has been going out of style for a long, long time, all thanks to the chaos and rebirth in the '70s.

With no further adieu, here are your All-1970s teams. I included ABA contributions as warranted.

FIRST TEAM

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem won five of the 10 MVPs awarded in the '70s, made the All-Star team every year but '78 and only missed All-NBA first team three times in the decade. A high scorer and rebounder, the purveyor of the Sky Hook and a thoughtful off-court presence, it's really a shame KAJ isn't more beloved. He's one of the most interesting elite athletes ever, he was fully dominant for a long spell and he kept the Lakers afloat in bridging the West and Magic eras.

Julius Erving

Dr. J isn't just symbolically important as a harbinger of the style that would arrive in the '80s: he was a two-time ABA champion and won the last three MVPs of the ABA. Erving then reeled off 11 straight All-Star bids in the NBA after the merger. Like Magic, Jordan and LeBron later on, he melded exciting play and quality in a way that reeled fans in and never let them go. He also happens to be one of the top five in-game dunkers ever.

Elvin Hayes

Hayes was perhaps Kareem's only true rival, even though they didn't run into each other much in the NBA. Hayes was responsible for stopping UCLA's amazing college streak when it was Lew Alcindor manning the middle; they went on to play on different coasts most of the time in the pros. Hayes and Wes Unseld led the Bullets to three Finals berths and one title, and Hayes was an All-Star every year of the decade.

Walt Frazier

See below where Professor Flannery waxes on Clyde and the Knicks.

Pete Maravich

I put Pistol Pete on the first team over Jerry West primarily because my father raised me to believe Pistol Pete was the most exciting player ever. You can't just change your wiring on stuff like that. But Maravich was so unbelievably '70s. The hair, the nickname, the style of carefree, irresponsible play he exhibited: if Dr. J presented what basketball would become, Pistol Pete showed us what basketball could be at its most fun. His pro career essentially spanned the entire decade, and he racked up five All-Star bids, two first team All-NBA nods and a scoring title.

FLANNERY DISSENTS: No offense to your old man, but Jerry West should be here now and forever.

SECOND TEAM

Bob McAdoo

McAdoo won an MVP and five All-Star berths in the '70s as a brilliant scorer and rebounder; in that 1975 MVP season he averaged 34 and 15. Yeah. He didn't play for really excellent teams until joining the Showtime Lakers in '80s, however, which hampers his legacy. Mac remains one of the greatest athletes in Buffalo history, though, which is something.

John Havlicek

Hondo's back as the star of the post-Russell Celtics. We forget how damn good Boston was in the '70s because their success then paled to that experienced in the '60s and '80s. Hondo led the C's to titles in '74 and '76, was an All-Star every year of the decade until retiring in 1978 and made four straight All-NBA first teams from '71 through '74. He might belong ahead of Hayes on the first team All-1970s.

Rick Barry

So might Barry, who bounced between the ABA and NBA before leading the Warriors to the '75 title. In the 1970s Barry claimed six NBA All-Star bids, three ABA All-Star bids and three All-NBA first team nods. He was never the best player in either league -- Dr. J and Kareem ensured that -- but he was always in that second tier as a really great scorer. He's also the best player to ever win a championship while wearing a toupée.

Jerry West

The Logo retired in 1974, but he did enough in those first five seasons of the decade to warrant inclusion. His only title as a player came in 1972; he darn near led the Lakers to one in 1970, as well. He was a perennial All-Star, won the scoring title in 1970 and had four All-NBA first team nods in the decade. Something not often mentioned about West is his excellent defense. He wasn't just a pure shooter and scorer. He worked at both ends. (All this said, it's pretty clear that Kobe eclipsed him as the second best Laker guard ever right around 2009 or 2010. It's hard to understand why this is a debate, as great as West was. Do folks give Jerry credit for building future champions as a GM?)

Tiny Archibald

The only NBA Hall of Famer for whom a Gossip Girl character was named. The only player to lead the NBA in points and assists in the same season. (Russell Westbrook's head perks up.) He was like living, breathing quicksilver on the court, a physical specimen in ways different from his contemporaries. He really did help continue the legacy of Bob Cousy in some ways, and with Frazier helped set the table for the next generation of bombastic point guards.

THIRD TEAM

Artis Gilmore: The best stiff ever. Gilmore wasn't the most fluid looking player, but he dominated the paint on both ends in both leagues.

George Gervin: The Ice Man could have been a second-team guard here, but he'll be back on the '80s team thanks to some great work in that decade so I don't feel too bad about elevating West and Tiny. What hasn't been said about Gervin? One of the most brilliant scorers ever, David Thompson's wing rival in the late '70s and the first great Spur.

Billy Cunningham: The Kangaroo Kid didn't win a title in the '70s (he was a Wilt sidekick on that great '67 team) but he cranked out some great seasons with the Sixers and the Carolina Cougars of the ABA. He finished his NBA career in '76 having averaged 20-10.

David Thompson: Thompson was an incredible scorer whose exploits rivaled those of Gervin and Maravich, and is considered one of MJ's chief inspirations. That's worth a lot in my book.

Jo Jo White: It's a bit criminal that Jo Jo is just now being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He played in Boston for the entirety of the '70s, and was the engine that allowed Havlicek, Dave Cowens and company to thrive with two titles.

FLANNERY DISSENTS: I had Dave Cowens on my Third Team and forgot to include him on the Honorable Mention list when we pubbed this list. Artis was great and underappreciated, but Cowens was better.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Dan Issel, Calvin Murphy, Gail Goodrich, Spencer Haywood, Lou Hudson, Paul Silas, Dave Cowens, Bill Walton*

* Bill Walton should have challenged Kareem for decade supremacy but his feet betrayed him at the moment when he was ready to take over. Walton was so damn good that it's impossible to imagine a world where he stayed healthy and reached his potential. Check the Blazers in 77-78 when they were 44-9 the year after they won the title, for an example. In retrospect, it's a minor miracle that we got as much of Walton's career as we did, but what a world it could have been. -- Flannery

PROFESSOR FLANNERY CHECKS IN

The '70s were marked by an absence of dynasties. The Celtics won a pair of titles and were often very good, but they were a distinct entity from the Russell/Red teams of the '60s. The Lakers got one championship, while Kareem got two on his own including one with Milwaukee. The Warriors, Blazers, Bullets and Sonics all had their moments in the sun. The Knicks also won two championships and it's this team that stands out as the enduring essence of '70s basketball.

At their best the Knicks were a hybrid of downtown artistry mixed with old-school values. There has never been a more enthralling backcourt than Clyde and the Pearl, and their ingenious styles were balanced by bedrock pros like Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and the Captain, Willis Reed. Their mantra was simple: Find the open man. But they somehow managed to turn the simple act of making the extra pass into an exercise of communal cool. When it all clicked, the Knicks flowed like the deadline poetry that was emanating from the press box.

Because they played in New York at a time when the literary branch of sportswriting was blossoming, there have been numerous magazine pieces, books and even movies about the books dedicated to this particular team. (The latest, and for my money the best, entry in the canon is "When the Garden was Eden" by New York Times columnist Harvey Araton who writes with the benefit of history and perspective on his side.)

With the Knicks leading the way, this early to mid-70s period was the moment when the NBA was supposed to take hold as the nation's trendiest sport, just as baseball went through one of its periodic downturns. Alas, it was soon overtaken by the NFL, which lapped the field and has maintained its hold on the public ever since. What survived was the hoops cognoscenti, made up notably of writers, musicians and actors who were active followers on both coasts. You still see them at the Garden and no sport has ever had a more dedicated celebrity fan than Jack Nicholson. They appreciated the game on its merits, and embraced the athletes as individuals and fellow entertainers.

The '70s were not an easy time for basketball, defined as they were by drugs and dissension, as well as the notion that the sport was simply too urban (read: too black) for middle America. Just as the game took a step back in the national consciousness, it survived and even prospered in some quarters, such as the Pacific Northwest. But it was in New York, and specifically in the World's Most Famous Arena, where the '70s made their strongest impression. As Araton put it: "When The Captain and Clyde and the rest of the Old Knicks played, when the city and country convulsed with pain, oh what a beautiful game it was."