Lights Out: Dr. J, Downtown, and a Lost Era

An era was about to end when Seattle won it all in 1979. Peter Read Miller, Sports Illustrated.

An era was about to end when Seattle won it all in 1979. Peter Read Miller, Sports Illustrated.

Give it all you’ve got

Take your very best shot

And may the best team win

The time is now

The name of the game is action

I recently got up early in Italy to watch Game 7 of the NBA Finals between San Antonio and Miami on Sky TV. The great Game 6 between the Spurs and Heat reminded me of some my favorite NBA games going all the way back to the 70s. I love basketball and have been watching what was then known as the NBA Championship Series since 1975. For me, NBA basketball began via television when CBS covered the sport with its brightly lit video style of the 1970s and 80s. (NBC always seemed to be colorful but muted; CBS sporting events always had a kind of golden glow to them. I don’t know how to describe this or to what it should be attributed.)

The general narrative of NBA history goes something like: hazy beginnings, George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers, the Celtic decade-plus of domination; happy New York Knicks fans, Boston resurgence, lights out. Crickets. Then came Magic and Larry and later Michael, with appropriate nods to Julius Erving, the star system, the ratings spike, Celtics-Lakers, threepeats, globalization, and so on. In other words, the NBA world of my early youth–say, from 1975 to 1979–was a kind of dark ages when cocaine ruled the league, TV ratings were down, no big-market teams dominated, and few seemed to care. The lights may have been out, but we were paying close attention. We were too young to matter, but we cared.

None of us would ever have a natural ‘do like Dr. J or Randy Smith, because as skinny white kids tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, we didn’t have the genes and we didn’t have the street either. Where I came from in eastern Washington and southern Idaho, the mere sight of an actual black person would have been an event, and that still held to a degree when my family moved to the misty, moss-and-slug-laden suburbs of Seattle. But you can bet that we practiced our George Gervin finger rolls and Dr. J up-and-under swoop shots on each other at recess and on weekends. Although reverse jamming like David “Skywalker” Thompson was out of the question except in a friend’s short driveway hoop, it was possible to occasionally catch fire from the outside like Downtown Freddie Brown. My first backyard hoop was the scene of solitary games played by two teams fighting for the title–in my head.

We took our cues, on rainy Northwest winter days in the gym, from NBA heroes who were black when being so on national TV was still something of a novelty. In the era of Fat Albert, The Jeffersons and Good Times, we could debate the merits of Kareem and Bob Lanier when we saw them play on CBS on Sunday afternoons. And there were plenty of non-European whites playing the game in those days too, and in the absence of the three-point shot, they had some flash as well. Pistol Pete Maravich, Paul Westphal, and Rick Barry had game, though nobody seemed to really like Rick Barry. Bill Walton and John Havlicek were “fundamentally sound.” We liked them too. All of them–Dr. J., Downtown, and the rest–made the game seem like the most fun you could have. Since we were in elementary and middle school and video games hadn’t hit yet, it really was.

BrentOscarTinyLooking back recently at one of the 1975 title games between Barry’s upstart Golden State Warriors and the Washington Bullets led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, I was struck by how unusual the whole scene must have been for the casual viewer, the vast majority of whom tuned out the NBA in the mid-to-late seventies. The ever-present hype master Brent Musburger narrates an opening for Game 3. We are treated to cuts from the end of the previous game, in which the two coaches exhort their players and draw up schemes. The highlight ends with another surprise Warrior victory, setting up tonight’s contest. Then the corny-but-cool NBA on CBS theme comes on, the one with the players outlined in silhouette and the choir of singers channeling Up with People to a slightly funky beat, with veteran CBS announcer Don Robertson coming on to give it all an old school finish. Then we see Brent and, yes, Oscar Robertson himself welcoming us with Musburger holding Tiny, Washington’s mascot dog. This is the wild west of live TV—pure 70s. And then the shot of the two coaches in split screen, both leaning back in their seats in style: open collars over the jackets, polyester casual, and substantial Afros. Yes, Golden State’s Al Attles and Washington’s K.C. Jones are unmistakably coaching while black. I wonder what CBS executives thought that shot would do for ratings in a broadcast sponsored by such straight-arrow firms as J.C. Penney and STP. The whole thing is so post-1968, post-blaxploitation, and way ahead of its time.AttlesKC

The Warriors swept that series, coming from behind in every game against the favored Bullets, and they inaugurated my little pre-Magic era in the process. The following year in 1976 came the classic Phoenix-Boston final, the fifth game of which in the Boston Garden is still considered one of the greatest NBA bouts. Watching the tape of that game, in which Phoenix came back from 22 down to turn a rout into a three-overtime classic, several things stand out. First, the lack of a three-point line meant that everyone needed to know how to make a 15-foot jump shot. Boston’s Jo Jo White was the absolute master of this. His body seems built to make that shot—a 6’3” guard with broad shoulders, he hits that jumper time after time, and 33 points later, after sitting on the court during free throws at the end to catch his wind, he was on his way to series most valuable player honors.

Midrange master.

Midrange master.

A great part of the drama in the series was in the dynamic between the most traditional of champions and the young upstarts from the desert. The demographic shifts in the nation are played out on the parquet floor of the old Boston Garden. The Suns were an expansion team only a few years old, and they represented the fastest-growing part of the entire country, the southwest. The sun-tanned Suns made a strong contrast to the pale, traditional Celtics, who look like they’ve been through an especially long winter up in Boston.

Finally, the whole affair seems so freewheeling if not entirely improvised, starting with the “let’s try this” nature of the broadcast team featuring the glib-but-not-quite-hip Musburger, the abrasive current player Rick Barry (whose team had just been dethroned by Phoenix), and ex-referee Mendy Rudolph, who doesn’t often get a word in. How fun must it have been for him to work next to Barry, who never committed a foul and patented a full gallery of grimaces, pouts, and whines for every call made and not made by NBA officials? And speaking of officials, when Boston fans ran onto the court and a few actually attacked referee Richie Powers after John Havlicek’s runner had put Boston ahead at the end of the second overtime, chaos reigned. It took several minutes to restore order and play out the clock. With the teams returned to the court, the CBS cameras capture the Suns’ Paul Westphal discussing strategy with Powers. If the Suns call a timeout they don’t have, they’ll get to advance the ball to half-court down two after White’s technical foul shot with one second on the clock. Strategy confirmed, we see Westphal lobbying coach John MacLeod, who nods in assent. The rest is pure madness: Garfield Heard’s parabola sends the game to a third overtime, where even Westphal’s four points and near steal in the last 12 seconds can’t keep the Suns going as Boston wins by a bucket. It will be the Celtics in six two days later. So problematic were the ratings for the series that game times and even days were switched throughout to try to get an audience. Not even the Rickey Sobers-Kevin Stacom fistfight in Game 3 had been met with much more than a yawn.

That was the last gasp for the Celtics, who had also won in 1974, as the NBA’s balance of power shifted. Not only did four American Basketball Association teams (including Gervin’s San Antonio and Thompson’s Denver) join for fall 1976, but our territory, the Northwest, had a great three-year run to close out the decade. If you don’t know who Dave Twardzik and Bobby Gross are, just think to yourself, “backdoor layup.” Never were two journeymen such beneficiaries of an offensive system that worked so beautifully, and by the time Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers hoisted the trophy over Erving’s Philadelphia 76ers in 1977, “Blazermania” and “Rip City” were part of the common lexicon in our parts. It was entirely possible to be for Portland and Dr. J at the same time, however.

Paying a call.

Paying a call.

Julius Erving was hands down the most exciting, the coolest, the most stylish player—check that, human being—any of us had ever seen. He seemed to glide down the court, always in control, and his gigantic hands (thirteen inches from the end of his outstretched thumb to pinky) meant that the basketball for him was basically like a softball for us. His first NBA years confirmed the legend of his ABA period, though we were reminded that he had been even better with the New York Nets and the red, white, and blue ball. He also competed with Randy Smith and a few others for best hair. My pathetic attempts to play small forward Erving style were staples of my days. When Erving joined the NBA, his wild looks and soaring game slowly evolved until by the Reagan era, the ‘fro had been cut down, grey flecks showing, and he became better known for his sober quest for a championship in Philadelphia, finally achieved in 1983. Dr. J’s hair: a perfect symbol for both the 70s and the 80s. It was like he had gone from funk to smooth jazz. Well, Grover Washington Jr. did write a tune for him, “Let It Flow,” in 1980.

Well they’re on the floor

And they’re ready to score

So let the games begin

And we’ll see how the ball’s going to bounce today

Portland would eventually become the perfect city for the post-hippie Bill Walton, but by then he had moved on and shaved his beard. In any case, my team was Seattle, a proud franchise now operating in a remote area somewhere in the nation’s midsection and yes we are very bitter about that. With Walton and the rival Blazers falling apart with injuries in 1978, a path cleared for the Sonics in the West, and they went all the way to a Game 7 in the finals before losing at home to strongman Unseld and Washington. Seattle is where Bill Russell had gone to coach in the seventies. He still lives there, as does NBA legend Lenny Wilkens, a star player, player-coach, and finally just coach of the Sonics on a second tour in the late seventies early eighties. Wilkens had initiated a long series of black coaches in Seattle, a list that includes, in addition to Russell (who had been the NBA’s first black coach, as a player with Boston), Bob Hopkins, Bernie Bickerstaff, K.C. Jones, and Nate McMillan. Seattle also broke boundaries by signing Spencer Haywood as a “hardship case” before his college eligibility had ended, angering the league but endearing owner Sam Schulman to Sonics fans as a kind of loveable rogue. Seattle loved its Sonics, the city’s first modern major pro sports team.

Sonics fans know what 5-17 means. It was Hopkins’ record in 1977 when Wilkens, stashed in the front office for insurance following Russell’s departure, took over. He changed the starting lineup, using Gus Williams (“The Wizard”) and Dennis Johnson in the backcourt with former All-Star Fred Brown moved to the bench, and the Sonics boomed. They eventually got their revenge on the Bullets in 1979 in a five-game final with DJ as series MVP years before he became a Boston favorite. Johnson’s shot-block on Kevin Grevey at the end of overtime ended Game 4 and set up the Sonics for a road winner in Game 5.

From downtown.

From downtown.

A word about Mr. Brown, “Downtown” as he had been known since high school days in Milwaukee. Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard has a tune called “Fred Brown,” and I don’t know whether he means it as an homage to Downtown, but it sounds like the man to me–hesitations, fakes, then pulling up to deliver. Fred Brown could shoot. Of that there is no doubt. He once scored 58 points in a game against Golden State with no three-point line and presumably few layups. When the NBA finally began using the three-pointer in 1979-80, Brown won the first title. The three now is the province of spot-up, catch-and-shoot players who practice it incessantly from the cradle on and stay hedged behind the line through much of the game. Brown came up without the three, so it was just a long version of the same jump shot he took off the dribble or from behind screens from any place on the floor. Today’s three-pointers (Ray Allen’s excepted—what a dynamic shot he made in Game 6 to tie San Antonio) are completely utilitarian and functional by comparison. Rick Pitino’s understanding that the three had made the mid-range jumper obsolete means more efficient outside shooting but it is now less creative and enjoyable to watch on an aesthetic level. Brown’s shot was an elegant thing of beauty. He was one of the best free throw shooters of his era. He participated in CBS’s H-O-R-S-E halftime competition from 1978, a series we studied as a kind of schoolyard master class (I used to be able to consistently make a shot from behind the backboard I stole from the show), and on Youtube you can watch Brown confidently torch a pretty fair shot maker, Milwaukee’s Brian Winters. Brown also seemed to be Sports Illustrated’s go-to guy for quotes during Seattle’s championship years. A sampling:

“I’m just doing my job. But I do own the fourth quarter.” (After scoring 37 over three fourth quarters in the Western Conference Finals against Denver, 1978.)

“I know every crack and cranny here, every niche in the hoop.” (After scoring 26 points in Game 5 against Washington at the Seattle Center Coliseum, 1978.)

“These other teams want us bad. It bothers me to see them thinking we’ve gotten so cocky they can beat us.” (Off to a slow start as champions, 1979.)

“I needed the ball, and I had to have it. We needed instant point production, and I never doubted I was the man for the job.” (After scoring 10 fourth quarter points in a seventh-game victory over Milwaukee, 1980.)

The Sonics’ three-guard attack was the precursor of Detroit’s successful trio of Isaiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson a decade later (Johnson was a Sonics rookie in 1979-80 and later played the Fred Brown role for the Pistons), but it was another trio of guards who put an end to Seattle’s reign and to this forgotten era. It wasn’t just Magic Johnson but Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper whose size, youth, quickness, and strength helped the Los Angeles Lakers match and even neutralize the Wizard-DJ-Downtown trio, allowing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to have his way with Jack Sikma and friends. The teams raced each other to the finish in 1979-80, with the Lakers passing Seattle late, winning 60 to the champs’ 56, a sign that perhaps all was not well in our cloudy corner of the world. They met in the Western Conference Finals, and when Seattle blew a large lead in Game 4 at home to go down 3-1, we understood that it was all over. The Lakers wrapped it up in Game 5 and went on to defeat the Doctor’s 76ers on their way to a decade of dominance. The unhappy DJ was shipped to Phoenix in a trade for Westphal, who lasted part of one season before breaking down. Gus Williams held out for more money for an entire season. Seattle, which had set all-time NBA attendance records at the Kingdome, went bust just as the lights went up on a new NBA. Us Northwest wanna-be ballers got ready for high school.

But there was one last gasp, one last performance to savor as eighth grade ended. Fred Brown put on a patented shooting display in Game 1 at the Forum in Inglewood in that 1980 series, pushing the Sonics to a narrow victory and causing the Lakers to shake their heads in disbelief as Downtown went for 34, 15 in the fourth quarter, and all on jump shots. It was the last victory of Seattle’s three-year run, the last moment of greatness from a troubled era quickly passing. The video–amazingly, from a pre-cable local broadcast of the Western finals—is below. The man could shoot. And when we watched him, it was hard to imagine being so poised, so perfect, so beautiful, at anything.

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