When the curtain goes up on Brooklyn Nets basketball this month, there will be glitz, there will be glamour, there will be bright lights, a big stage, celebrities and fanfare. No expense will be spared, not with part-owner Jay-Z and Disney joining forces in a shiny new arena, the Barclays Center. It won’t soon steal the name of the World’s Greatest Arena from its New York City brethren, but it will be great.
So were the Nets when they were with the American Basketball Association (ABA) from 1967 to 1976. The current team hopes to duplicate their forefathers’ success, which can be measured not only in championships (2) but impact on the game. Long Islanders for nearly a decade, the franchise’s return marks the first time New York State will have two professional basketball teams since the 1970s when there were three—the NBA’s Knicks and Buffalo Braves, and then the upstart New York Nets of the ABA. As a whole, the ABA was like the NBA’s little brother—always fighting for respect, out to prove it belonged. In the Big Apple, the Knicks were royalty at the time, having won two titles in four years, boasting a who’s who of all-time talent—Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Frazier. The New York Nets—not the Mets, not the Jets, the New York Nets—played in the suburbs, in smaller arenas, in front of smaller crowds.
But like all big brothers do, the Knicks had no choice but to pay attention eventually. When they grew up, the Nets were good, real good, and some would argue as good. And while the Knicks had Broadway and the Nets flat out did not, they had one of the game’s greats and a degree of entertainment that rivaled their fellow New Yorkers. They had larger-than-life afros, used a red, white and blue ball (a wildly popular souvenir), tried every imaginable promotion and, above all else, played a brand of ball that was both electric and elite. In suburbia, the Nets played a city game—above the rim, up and down the floor, full of flair—with which basketball fans weren’t yet familiar but couldn’t get enough of at its peak in the mid-70s.
“In the NBA today, all the flamboyance, the three-point shot, the running, the dunking, it all came out of the ABA,” said Herb Turetzky, a Brooklyn native and the Nets’ scorekeeper since their inception. He hasn’t missed a game since 1984, a streak of 1,177 consecutive games and he’s kept score for more than 1,700 in total. Turetzky has had a front-row seat to see every all-time player in the last half century.
He’s excited for these Nets, but he also remembers those Nets, the ABA Nets, who brought the metro area its two most recent professional basketball championships in 1974 and 1976.
Every business starts small, right? The Nets, now owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, are no different.
In 1967, Arthur Brown of ABC Freight developed his AAU franchise into an ABA team, the New Jersey Americans, with home games in Teaneck. When a postseason play-in game with the Kentucky Colonels couldn’t be scheduled at the Teaneck Armory because the circus was in town, it shifted to Commack’s Long Island Arena, home of the Long Island Ducks of the Eastern Hockey League. In addition to being frigid by basketball standards, the floor was deemed unplayable. The Nets were forced to forfeit. Nevertheless, it was the start of a near decade-long run on the Island. The New York Nets, as they were named to rhyme with the Mets and Jets, played the 1968-69 season in Commack.
“Guys would sit on the bench in overcoats, and guys wouldn’t change in the arena; they’d change at the hotel,” Turetzky said. “The floor was so filled with condensation that we had to cancel one of our preseason games. It was dangerous.”
Even if Commack was considered meager by today’s standards, the team playing in front of only 2,000 to 3,000 fans, it was still a pro opportunity either for those on the way up or on the way down. The Nets made their first-ever playoff appearance in 1970.
Two important transactions happened for the 1970-71 season, the Nets’ second at Island Garden in West Hempstead, generating buzz on the Island: Lou Carnesecca became the head coach and Rick Barry came on board. Under Carnesecca, the Nets reached the playoffs each of the next three seasons and Barry was a legitimate star. Barry led the NBA in scoring just four years earlier with the San Francisco Warriors but jumped ship for the ABA’s Oakland Oaks a year after to play for his father-in-law, Bruce Hale. Barry was one of the game’s premier talents by the time he became a Net. In 1971-72, Long Island’s pro squad reached the ABA Finals, falling to the Indiana Pacers, who were led by Hall of Famer Mel Daniels.
“Rick Barry was a bona fide star and that made a world of difference,” said Billy Paultz, a Net from 1970 to 1975. “We didn’t have great exposure but we had a great product. We always had great teams with great players.”
None was better than who arrived in 1973, and with his emergence the Nets became the most high-profile squad in the league.
The Doctor Was In
James Naismith invented the sport of basketball. Julius Winfield Erving II was an innovator, an ambassador and kept the ABA afloat almost singlehandedly. “He was incredible,” Turetzky said of Erving. “The things he did, the imprint he made on the game; it changed everything. He just lit the place up from day one; he was electric. It was a pleasure to watch.”
Nobody embodied the league’s style of play more than Erving. He starred at Roosevelt High (right down the street from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Nets’ last of four home venues in the ABA) before averaging better than 32 points and 20 rebounds during two seasons at the University of Massachusetts. Erving left school even though Carnesecca disapproved of players leaving college for the pros and he signed with the ABA’s Virginia Squires. Dr. J, as he was called, surgically picked apart opposing defenses en route to three league scoring titles, two with the Nets, with whom he signed in 1973.
“Every place we went, he was like the Pied Piper,” said Tim Bassett, Erving’s teammate in the 1975-76 campaign. “Everybody knew something special was going on.”
He was MJ before MJ, taking flight as one of the game’s true megastars. He wasn’t alone in his gravity defiance: San Antonio’s George Gervin, Denver’s David Thompson, Indiana’s Darnell “Dr. Dunk” Hillman, revolutionized the game as some of the first real high flyers.
“You could try to box out David Thompson and he would jump over you and grab the rebound,” said Paultz, a 15-year pro and three-time ABA All-Star with the Nets and Spurs. “Every team had a couple of guys like that. Roger Brown would just clear the side and take Rick Barry one-on-one like he did at Rucker Park so many times, and fans were astute enough to understand the meaning of that. He would show you his whole repertoire and it was the coolest thing in the world.”
In the same decade in which the Knicks won two NBA titles in three years, the Nets did the same in the ABA, first capturing the 1974 title, Erving’s first year back home. New York promptly finished with the best record in the league at 55-29 and steamrolled Utah, Kentucky and Virginia, losing just twice en route to the title. Rookie “Super” John Williamson, a free agent signing, anchored the backcourt as a rookie, while Paultz and Larry Kenon, another first-year player, comprised the league’s best frontcourt with Erving.
“The game was spread out, and forwards became the dominant players in the game,” Bassett said. “That’s how the game changed. Guys like Larry Bird, who were a cross between a big man and a guard, dominated the sport.”
“If the Nets had gone into the NBA with the teams that we had, we would have been able to compete with anybody in the league,” Turetzky added.
They would soon get that chance. The two leagues merged prior to the 1976-77 season, but not before another championship in New York and one singular and devastating transaction that set the Nets back for half a decade.
The Demise of the ABA
The Nets and Denver applied to join the NBA prior to the 1975-76 season but were denied and forced by court order to play another year in the ABA. It shed light on the league’s financial woes, which were significant. The Baltimore Claws, who were previously in Memphis, folded after three preseason games. Utah missed payroll and had its season canceled. And despite being under new ownership, the San Diego Sails closed up shop after 11 games due to poor attendance.
Even as the league’s most decorated team, which boasted its greatest-ever player, the Nets weren’t immune to such strife.
They clawed their way through the 1975-76 season, but the road to the top was far more treacherous. The Nets beat San Antonio in the semifinals in six games, three of which were decided by two points or less. All six Final games with Denver were decided by single digits and the Nets prevailed in Game 6, ultimately the last-ever ABA game, only after overcoming a 22-point third-quarter deficit to win 110-106. The Nuggets held Erving scoreless in the second half but forgot about Williamson, who led the comeback by pouring in 24 of his 28 points after halftime.
The merge happened prior to the 1976-77 NBA season, with the Nets still calling the Coliseum home. They had to pay the league $3 million to enter and an additional $4.8 million fee to the Knicks to establish itself mere miles from Madison Square Garden. The only way to make that kind of money that quickly and easily was to sell their best player, their biggest draw—Erving. He was offered to the Knicks in exchange for a fee waiver the Nets owed them; the Knicks declined. Instead, he was sold to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million.
Nets players didn’t learn of the Erving trade until their plane touched down in Oakland the night before the 1976-77 season opener against the Golden State Warriors. “To have one of the greatest shows on earth and then to not have it, we were devastated,” Bassett said. “We were lucky enough to go out and win that game. After that, it was a disaster. The buzz just wasn’t there, and it was tough to adjust, not only for the fans but for us as a team.”
To make matters worse, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, their big off-season acquisition, broke his foot in January, limiting him to just 34 games. The Erving deal, Archibald’s absence and the mid-season trade of Williamson wiped out the impact talent on the Nets’ roster. The former ABA champs limped to a 22-60 record in their inaugural NBA season, finishing second-to-last in league attendance. The following year they were whisked off to New Jersey.
“I did not want to leave Long Island,” Bassett said.
And neither did Erving. “Julius will tell you to this day that those years on Long Island were his three favorite years of playing basketball,” Turetzky said.
It’s where Nets basketball was at its best too. New Jersey hosted the franchise for 35 years, and the time spent there had its moments. Dražen Petrović energized the region with his marksmanship and emotionally charged play in the late 1980s and early 90s. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter carried New Jersey to back-to-back NBA Finals at the turn of the century. However, there were far more downs than ups. Michael Ray Richardson was banned for life after three drug policy violations. Petrović tragically died in a car accident in 1993; he was only 28. The Nets haven’t had a winning season since 2005-06, and three years ago they became the first team in NBA history to begin a season with 18 straight losses. Aside from the Finals runs, they’ve won only four of 18 playoff series and never so much as reached the Eastern Conference Finals. Of the four ABA teams to join the NBA, only the Spurs have experienced championship glory, having done so four times in the Tim Duncan era.
The Nets are hoping their fortune changes in Brooklyn. Deron Williams, a 2012 Olympian, is signed long-term. The Nets traded for versatile Gerald Wallace in March and then six-time All-Star Joe Johnson was brought in from Atlanta. After finishing in the Atlantic Division cellar in 2012, they could very well challenge for the top spot. “We’ve gotten to the point where we’re going to be competitive again,” Turetzky said.
Right in time for their return to New York.