Archive for November, 2011

(Originally posted on thestartingfive.net on Nov. 11, 2011)

The initial reports that Julius Erving’s auctioning off memorabilia was linked to his alleged financial woes.  Erving responded that he’s not a “hoarder or collector” and that the auction is for charity denying any connection to his personal financial circumstances.

Many seem to think that the sale of MVP trophies or championship rings will wipe away the memories.  But proving that memories are more complex than carbohydrates, the autographed photograph of the 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers actually reminded me that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the team many consider the best team to not win a championship.

The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers were contenders like Brando on the waterfront in just four short seasons after the franchise finished 9-73; the nadir of NBA futility.  But after that infamous season the team began to bounce back by hiring Gene Shue to coach and drafting Doug Collins, a 6-6 shooting guard from Illinois State, with the number one overall selection.

George McGinnis vastly improved the team by joining prior to the start of the 1975-76 season.  He was actually drafted by the 76ers in the same year as Collins.  That would have been after McGinnis’ senior year at Indiana University but by then he was already under contract and playing with the  Indiana Pacers in the ABA.  The burly 6-8 McGinnis, a native of Indianapolis, left Indiana after his sophomore year as the Big Ten Player of the Year (his first and only season as then NCAA rules banned freshmen from playing varsity) to join the hometown Pacers.

The NBA led by then legal counsel David Stern a few years earlier defended its rule that only players whose college class had graduated were eligible to be drafted.  Although the NBA’s settlement of the law suit brought by Spencer Haywood allowed him and others to enter as underclassmen, a player had to demonstrate financial need under their “hardship” exception.
McGinnis and others didn’t feel obligated to turn over tax returns to make a living and jumped to play in the less restrictive ABA.  Listening to the advice to take the money and run he also avoided the wrath of the incoming coach named Bobby Knight.  So, with the 76ers retaining McGinnis’ rights while he played in the ABA, he was in Philly after four seasons with the Pacers.

But the home team for the City of Brotherly Love became the envy of the NBA with the acquisition of ABA legend Julius “Dr.J” Erving before the start of the 1976-77 season.  Up to that point, his hair flying acrobatics were performed in the ABA and with no national television coverage he was as visible as underground hip hop.  But now, Doc, winner of multiple ABA titles and MVP honors was ready to operate in the NBA.

The ABA had fought a good fight with the older more established NBA battling for players like high stakes pick-up basketball but its run had ended.  The two leagues completed a merger with the NBA taking in four of the former ABA teams including Erving’s New York Nets.

However, the New York Knicks demanded the Nets pay a $3 million fee for interfering with their territorial rights.  The cash strapped Nets had already paid league entrance fees and faced with meeting Erving’s contract demands offered him to the Knicks in lieu of the territorial rights payment. But inexplicably the Knicks rejected that deal.

The 76ers, however, paid that $3 million to the Nets to settle the Knicks’ demand and signed Erving to a $3 million dollar contract.  In essence, Doc was the real six million dollar man.  But the deal was not consummated until days before the season as evidenced by the Sports Illustrated cover of its pro basketball edition with Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics with Erving still in his Nets’ uniform.  And Erving is nowhere to be seen on the 76ers’ 1976-77 media guide.

Erving in just in his fifth year of pro ball was joining a youthful team.   The season before his arrival was also the last for aging vets Billy “Kangaroo Kid”Cunningham and Wali Jones who to the younger players may have seemed like a dying breed of saber-tooth tigers from the Jurassic period when the team won its last title in 1967.  Also, Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, the lone holdover from the nine win team would not finish ‘76-77 the season with the 76ers.  (Cunningham and Jones missed that nine win season playing in the ABA and Milwaukee respectively before returning to the 76ers to finish their careers).

So, the oldest player on the team was six-year vet Steve Mix who was acquired from the Detroit Pistons prior to the 1973-74 season.  Mix could do a lot despite limited mobility with his smooth left-hand jumper making his game as efficient as a small apartment.

Also drafted in 1973, the same year as Collins and McGinnis, were Harvey Catchings and Caldwell Jones.  Catchings, a defensive-minded player, was a back-up center who did not play due to an injury until a year later in the 1974-75 season.  And starting center Jones from Albany State did not arrive until the 1976-77 season after playing in the ABA where he averaged a double-double.  He was 6-11 whose long legs and arms when stretched atop his head gave him the appearance of a big #11 matching his uniform number.

Then in the 1975 NBA Draft, the 76ers selected three players with big egos and sometimes the game to match.

Right out of a Florida everglades high school via the Planet Lovetron, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins was a colorful giant-child who had a quip for any occasion and name for every dunk.
Here are a few of his offerings:

The get out the wayin’, back-door swayin’, game delayin’, if you ain’t groovin’ you best get movin’ dunk’.

The Chocolate Thunder flyin’, glass flyin’, Robizine cryin’, parents cryin’, babies cryin’, glass still flyin’, rump roasting, bun toasting, thank you wham ma’am I am’ jam.

The left-handed spine-chiller supreme.

The turbo sexophonic delight.

Almost as free of a spirit was Brooklyn-bred  Lloyd Free.  The bow-legged Free was the back-up point guard with a rainbow jump shot.  Then there was native son  Joe “Jellybean” Bryant from LaSalle.

And new to the team along with Erving was four-year vet and starting guard  Henry Bibby who won a title with the New York Knicks as a rookie in 1973 and rookie draftees Brooklyn boy Mike Dunleavy from the University of South Carolina and Terry Furlow out of Michigan State.


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(Originally posted on thestartingfive.net on Nov. 17, 2011)

Math is the study of quantity, space, structure and change to find some eternal truth. Often, the research to solve a mathematical problem takes years, decades or centuries.  The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers were just one classical experiment along with others including the 1996-97 Houston Rockets, 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers, 2007-08 Boston Celtics and 2010-11 Miami Heat.

The experiment is more like a hoop hypothesis that stipulates that a “dream team” of talent can transform into a champion. The answer lies in the ability of five men to mesh on a court 94 feet long by sharing one ball. But execution is the key. At its best, the rock flows like milk and honey but at its worst becomes a stagnant struggle among crack heads over that last hit.

Despite or maybe because of all the fanfare with the acquisition of Julius Erving, the question emerged as to how this new variable would interact with the team. George McGinnis was coming off the previous season as the top scoring threat at 23.0 ppg. Not only would Erving’s arrival potentially have a negative psychic impact tread on McGinnis’ role as the unfettered leader but his presence would challenge basketball fundamentals and the laws of physics that no two objects can share the same space at the same time.

You see, Doc, unlike most small forwards, played inside out. His jump shot was effective but not his strength and he would blow by any defender from the wing. But a lot of his offense was generated in the paint and around the rim infringing upon McGinnis’ area reserved for power forwards.

The proposition had a problematic certainty. Marvin Gaye once sang about it when he crooned there’s only three things that’s for sho’;  taxes, death and trouble.

However, with the 76ers there was little time to ponder as Doc signed just a mere two days before the first game.  He may have met his teammates for the first time at the shoot-around of the season opener.  But perhaps entering that game, the thought was that it was Erving’s good fortune that the opponent was an old familiar ABA foe in the San Antonio Spurs  The Spurs were led by George “Ice Man” Gervin, a former teammate of Erving’s from their first pro team, the Virginia Squires.  (Interestingly, Ice Man began his career with Erving and finished in Chicago with Michael Jordan).

But the 76ers lost to the Spurs and their next game as well.  And after eight games, the 76ers were a mediocre 4-4.  The quiet whispers that Doc was a product of a weaker ABA became increasingly noisy chit chatter.  His season scoring average would dip from 29.3 to 21.6 ppg.  The bigger issue was that he seemed unsure of his surroundings and his teammate whereabouts on the floor.  He often would get caught leaping into midair with the ball with no shot opportunity or teammate to pass to.

Doug Collins, a great perimeter shooter evidenced by his .518 field goal percentage, however, was losing shot attempts.  The two point guards, Henry Bibby and Lloyd Free were shoot first point guards.  Caldwell Jones’ dynamic offensive skills shown in the ABA were stifled.  While Darryl Dawkins in his second year out of high school seemed to check-in with two personals as he was constantly in foul trouble.

Yet, with McGinnis scoring at a 21.4 per game clip right behind scoring leader Erving, the 76ers managed to win 50 games to lead the Eastern Conference.  After a bye, the 76ers faced the defending champs Boston Celtics.  The 76ers dropped the opening game and had to eke out an 83-77 win in Game 7.  In the conference finals, they handled the Houston Rockets in six games to advance to the Finals.

Awaiting was the just seven-year old expansion team Portland Trail Blazers coached by former 76ers coach Jack Ramsay (1968-72). In the Western Conference Finals, the upstart Blazers swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers who had finished the season with league best 53 wins.  The Blazers were led by UCLA legend Bill Walton, a brilliant but brittle player.

Facing such an unheralded team, Philadelphians assumed the championship was its destiny.   The opening seconds of Game 1 on the 76ers home court at the Spectrum only reassured the Philly fandom.  The 76ers executed the perfect opening jump ball that looked like a quick turn of a 6-4-3 double play that resulted in a Doc slam.  The 76ers went on to wrap up that game 107-101. And the 76ers came back three nights later to smash the Blazers 107-89.

However, the series turned for the worst for the 76ers despite that win.  Late in the game with the outcome determined Dawkins and Blazers forward Bobby Gross got entangled over a rebound.  Heated words were exchanged that prompted a Dawkins’ left hook in Gross’ direction.  However, he hit teammate Collins.  Nonetheless, Maurice Lucas, the Blazers tough enforcer stepped in and popped Dawkins in the back of the head sending him sprawling but not deterred.

Then, well, why don’t you just  see for yourself.

After the brawl, the two teams seem to go in different direction.  The Blazers seemed ultra- motivated while the 76ers lack aggressiveness.  In Portland, Games 3 and 4 Dawkins was invisible and Lucas shut down McGinnis with both games being Blazers’ routs. Back in Philadelphia for Game 5, the 76ers came up short again 110-104.

The 76ers courageously fought the almost inevitable in  Game 6.  McGinnis had one of his best games and Doc poured in 40 points but the bitter end was McGinnis’ one-hand short jumper bouncing off the front of the rim that would have forced overtime.

There is no science to the aftermath.  It’s mostly picking up the pieces and moving on.  But the team came back for the 1977-78 season steadfast almost intact with a marketing campaign of “We owe you one.”  However, the first fallout of the aftermath was felt six games into that season.

With a record of 2-4, the Shue was dropped.  Head Coach Gene Shue was replaced on the bench by former 76ers all-time great player Billy Cunningham.  The 76ers won more games with a 53-23 record but lost to eventual champions Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The team would proceed over the next several years to deliver on that promissory note of a title with personnel moves big and small.  The team made a major move in trading McGinnis to the Denver Nuggets for defensive specialist Bobby Jones.  And that same year saw the arrival of point guard Maurice Cheeks, the Chicago native drafted out of tiny West Texas State.

That was also the end of Lloyd Free in Philly who would be reborn as World B. Free.  A year later, Joe Bryant would be gone as well and who sometime later was rumored to have reflected with braggadocios announcing that it seemed that the 76ers didn’t want a Magic Johnson type around there.

Injuries (Collins), free agency (Dawkins), and trades (Jones) transformed the team over the next few years.  And after losing two more times in the Finals to the Lakers (‘80, ‘82) all but Doc would be gone from the 1976-77 team.  History reveals that Moses Malone was the missing piece along with Andrew Toney, “The Boston Strangler,” that pushed the fo’-fo’-fo’ 76ers pass the Lakers to win the 1983 NBA Finals but that 1976-77 will never be forgotten.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on November 1, 2011)

“I was sick.”

The haunting words of Chris Herren haltingly come out as he reflects on photos from 2000 during his drug-filled days and nights with the Boston Celtics. The sentiments still sound harrowing even as we speak over the phone. They echo the desperation of a hometown hero from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts wearing his Celtics warm-ups minutes before tipoff feinding for a fix in the rain outside the Fleet Center waiting for his pusher man.

It would get worse.

Several years later after playing and getting high all across the globe in Europe, China and Tehran, Iran his career ended. He came back to Fall River and was still heavily using.

Then, in 2007, he died.

He was dead like Freddy for thirty seconds according to the police who found him slumped over the driving wheel of his car at a the gates of a cemetery overdosed on heroin with the needle still sticking in his arm.

The irony does not end with the location of his short-lived death. Herren recalls that as the best day of his life as it started the turnaround from living a lie that began with swigging vodka as a 6-2 McDonald’s High School All-American at Durfee High in Fall River.

The long road to recovery is often lonely and never ends.  But the 36 year-old whom former college coach Jerry Tarkanian labeled as the next Jerry West finally feels free after just completing his third year of sobriety.

“I am amazingly blessed,” said Herren.

This past May, his story with the help of co-author Providence Journal-Bulletin sports columnist Bill Reynolds was shared in the publication of his memoir Basketball Junkie. Now, on November 1, ESPN will broadcast Unguarded, a documentary film that will let us peer into his rise, fall and recovery.

The film was directed by Jonathan Hock who also directed Through the Fire that followed Sebastian Telfair through his senior year at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. Last year, Hock also delivered for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, The Best That Never Was, a film on former University of Oklahoma and NFL running back Marcus Dupree.

“I see a lot of similarities between Marcus and Chris in that both have no regrets about what happened in their lives,” said Hock. “But they have accepted it with grace and embraced their destiny. Most people tend to portray sports films with the game itself as the source of the redemption. But with Chris it was the opposite. It wasn’t until he was able to give up the game that redemption came.”

Just as there are similarities between the subjects Dupree and Herren, the two documentaries share a similar aesthetic.  Although Herren’s book gives up more grimy and gritty details of his dope sickness, Hock’s camera with the help of another documentarian group’s footage from the late 90s that was never released reveals the beautiful story of loyalty, love and hope.

Many basketball fans may not remember Herren who was drafted with the 33rd  pick by the Denver Nuggets in the 1999 NBA Draft and only played two seasons in the NBA. However, before he hit high school he was in the media spotlight. And Hock appreciates how the heat of the spotlight has not scorched Herren.

“Chris was born into a basketball cauldron where his destiny was assumed to be a basketball star,” says Hock. “But the truth, that wasn’t his destiny.”

His grandfather, father and older brother Michael all starred at Durfee High in Fall River. Michael was always bigger and stronger who never lost a fight or a game in the town’s Milliken league for youth basketball and captured two state championships. Although the film allows Michael’s devotion for his brother to shine through as it does his tough-guy humor, the Herren household led by their father was a pressure cooker where winning was demanded.

There was also the burden placed upon his shoulders by the entire town to be a legend.  During Herren’s junior year at Durfee he was the focus of the book Fall River Dreams by the same Bill Reynolds who two decades later would co-author Herren’s memoir.  The earlier book examined an old mill town with deep high school hoops roots during its economic demise that procured hope by obsessively following a few teenage boys bounce a basketball.

And on the other side was the caustic barrage of opposing fans spewing hate toward the so called superstar.  This was from kids and adults alike.

It was all so confusing and overwhelming that he numbed the chaos with drinking.

In Unguarded, Herren is seen as loyal to his town and its people.  The loyalty that supersedes the pressure heaped on him to perform and bring multiple championships to Durfee.  The loyalty that trumps the town’s expectation that no more was projected of him beyond his talented schoolboy exploits.  The loyalty that speaks to the fatalism of the town’s unofficial motto, “Born in Fall River, Die in Fall River.”

This same sense of loyalty sent him to the local Big East school Boston College.  He had turned down Rick Pitino and Kentucky along with Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, two schools that fit his open court playing style. But he chose BC because it was close by and then head coach Jim O’Brien had recruited his older brother Michael to the Chestnut Hill campus until an injury ended his career.

However, at BC, he found cocaine or cocaine found him and he was dismissed from the team for failing several drug tests and left school.  Herren landed on his feet like a cat on his third life at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He was among a cast of many receiving last chances such as future NBA players Rafer Alston and Courtney Alexander.

The team was also full of Bloods and Crips from Southern California who Herren had no problems meshing with due in part likely to his on court swagger usually associated with inner-city black players. But soon enough, he began using a new drug in ecstasy and arriving at games high on coke without sleeping for days.

However, he somehow was able to still excel and was eventually drafted into the NBA. But the summer after his rookie season where he was relatively clean under the guidance of some caring veterans, he was traded to Boston.

The return trip home was Wolfeian and the worst thing that could have happened to him.  His downward spiral accelerated on Oxycotin that he was introduced to as part of his recovery from an injury. Also, back in familiar territory he knew where all the drug dealers were like they were Dunkin’ Donuts.

This is where love kicks in.

Through it all, Herren’s wife Heather was his anchor.  The two have been together since they met the summer before they both entered the 7th grade.  In the film, she admits to enabling the situation where Herren could only function when he was high but she never gave up on her husband and father of their children and finally demanded he kick the habit or get out of their lives.

Herren got sober at Daytop Village in upstate New York where he completed a successful rehab stint.  Since then, he has resettled in Portsmouth, Rhode Island near Fall River and started Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren providing basketball training as well as educational talks.

His case manager at Daytop Village, William Spooner, a recovering alcoholic who began his counseling career after treatment at the facility is mindful that recovery is a vigilant process.

“The work doesn’t stop once you leave here,” says Spooner. “I always think positive about a person when they leave but you have to be able to live life on life’s terms.  Chris got through it because of the love for his wife and children.”

Then there’s hope.

The cameras in the film capture Herren’s talks with students, military personnel and prison inmates that provide the film’s narration for his nightmarish journey.  Hock reveals that Herren is so emotionally present and unguarded about his life (hence the title of the film that doubles as an unintended basketball pun).

“He doesn’t walk in there and speak about achieving your goals,” says Hock. “Chris tells them about his past but there is a message of hope. It’s a dark and difficult place to go but he does it.”

The paradox is inescapable that telling his story only brings notoriety and the notion that such attention could be a trigger like with his prior drug use.  And he realizes that to be there for his family he must – as selfish as this sounds – take care of himself first.

“I can’t lie about the attention, it does add pressure but it’s more important that I get out and tell my story,” said Herren. “I believe in it and there are millions of people out there struggling who could use this.  I just got an email from an overweight teenage girl who was bullied and teased in school and so she would cut herself to relieve the pain. But after hearing me talk about my life, she got the courage to confront them and begin healing.”

The film itself has been a gift to the Herren family allowing them to reconcile the pain of the past and poignantly reveals how Herren can now literally look into the mirror.

Herren never bought into Tarks’ comparison to Jerry West but he had the opportunity to meet and talk to him while he was at Fresno State. He recollects that he would be giddy with joy whenever West would say a few words to him. Pausing now to reflect on West’s revelations about depression through interviews concerning his impending book release, Herren is still in awe.

He’s a legend-the NBA symbol,” said Herren. “But he will be better remembered for his courage educating people about his illness.”

It seems that Herren is the next Jerry West.

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