Dr. J recalls Nets’ title 50 years ago

They were young, perhaps too young to know they were too young to win a championship.

But there they were at Nassau Coliseum, on May 10, 1974, doing just that, the center of a party attended by 15,934 of their closest friends.

“On top of the world,” Julius Erving told Newsday recently, recalling the moment 50 years later.

The Nets’ 111-100 victory over the Utah Stars ended the ABA Finals in five games and gave the franchise its first title.

Their repeat two years later is more widely remembered, perhaps because the video evidence more abundant, perhaps because of its import as the ABA’s final game.

But that ’73-74 season had the benefit of being something new, and surprising. For example: The Nets lost nine games in a row that autumn and fell to 4-10. Come spring, they won 22 of their last 25 games, including 12-2 in the playoffs.

“We were a young, confident team,” Brian Taylor said.

Taylor was 22 when the Nets won it all. Erving had recently turned 24. The other starters in Game 5 against Utah were Billy Paultz, 25, John Williamson, 22, and Larry Kenon, 21.

Of the 11 players who appeared for the Nets in the Finals, Bill Melchionni, 29, was the only one over 25.

Coach Kevin Loughery was 34.

Newsday wrote after the final game, “The victory was the culmination of an extraordinary season for the youngest basketball team ever to win a professional title.”

Dr. J comes home

There were many critical junctures along the way, but the most important was the first, in mid-summer of 1973.

It was then that the Virginia Squires traded Erving, who grew up in Hempstead and Roosevelt, for George Carter and, as Squires owner Earl Foreman put it, “a lot of cash.”

Nets’ Julius Erving puts one in during their game at Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 19, 1973. Credit: Newsday / Argeroplos/Newsday / Argeroplos

The deal ended a complicated, drawn-out legal tangle that resulted from Erving wanting to leave the ABA for the NBA’s Hawks, with the Nets emerging as a viable alternative to keep him in the ABA.

A young Newsday sportswriter named Tony Kornheiser asked Erving the day he was introduced as a Net whether he was disappointed not to be going to the NBA.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just want to play ball.”

More than 50 years later, Erving recalled of his homecoming, “It had a little fantasy aspect to it, coming back, being around my mom and my stepfather and teachers from school and friends . . . It was surreal.”

‘Super John’ takes charge

The Nets looked good on paper. Erving was an established star already known as “Dr. J,” now playing alongside Kenon, a promising rookie who became “Dr. K.”

But it was another rookie, the undrafted Williamson, who would alter the arc of the season.

The Nets were slumping early, which led to a tense team meeting with coaches at which Williamson asked to speak.

The Nets’ John Williamson gathers a rebound as Jo Jo White of the Boston Celtics also tries for the ball during an NBA game in Boston on Jan. 16, 1977. Credit: AP/J. Walter Green

Erving recalled Williamson saying, “We ain’t winning because I ain’t playing.”

Said Taylor, “’Super John’ was the one who stepped forward and said the reason we were losing games is because he wasn’t starting and that when he does play, we’ve got to get the ball to him.”

Loughery laughed when reminded of that meeting.

“John said that every day, every practice,” the coach said. “But one thing about John Williamson: He wasn’t afraid of the moment. He wasn’t afraid to take a big shot.”

Williamson entered the starting lineup for a game in San Antonio on Nov. 11, the day after he turned 22. The Nets won, 106-94.

“Something magical happened after that,” Erving said. “We just felt unbeatable.”

The Nets won 19 of their next 22 games.

“The best decision they made was starting Williamson over me, and me coming off the bench,” said Melchionni, who by then was in his fifth season with the Nets.

“I was bit older and had had some injuries and I just wasn’t the same player I was when I came there. When you start losing, you try and make a change. That was the right change.”

Said Taylor, “I think once John did come into the lineup and started helping us out, Kenon started playing better, I started playing better, ‘Whopper’ (Paultz) started playing better. We started coming together.”

Loughery said he might have over-coached the young players early on. He parried back what he was asking of them, and they responded.

Taylor said adding Wendell Ladner and Mike Gale in a January trade with the Kentucky Colonels also was key, Gale for his defense, Ladner “as Doc’s protector.”

“We needed that,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t until we put our pieces together in January where we knew we were a force.”

Buzz at Coliseum

The Nets still played in the defending NBA champion Knicks’ shadow, but at least they had a then-modern arena and a competitive roster, including the most exciting player in basketball.

“(Erving) had a certain way about him,” Melchionni said. “It wasn’t like, ‘I’m the best guy here, so whatever I want to do I can do.’ He went out of his way to help, to talk to guys. And it made it a lot easier for Kevin.

“Doc basically put his ego on the shelf and did what he thought was best for the team.”

Loughery, who later was Michael Jordan’s first NBA coach, said, “Doc was by far of all the players I’ve been around, the superstar players, the easiest to coach . . . He just loved to play basketball, and loved to compete.”

(Loughery still sees Erving regularly; they are members of the same golf club in Atlanta.)

There still were many empty seats at the Coliseum, though.

“It was sometimes a little depressing when you realized we had one of the better teams in the world and we had a hard time getting people come out to watch us play,” Melchionni said.

Said Loughery, “We didn’t have cable TV, and we didn’t have social media that we have today. If we had that, people could have seen how good we were.”

But there also was buzz, thanks largely to Erving and his panache on and off the court.

Al Skinner, who attended Malverne High School, followed Erving to the University of Massachusetts and played with him on the Nets’ 1975-76 championship team, still was in college at the time, appreciating his home team from afar.

“They were an athletic group, and they played a wide-open style,” said Skinner, who went on to coach at Rhode Island and Boston College. “It allowed them to be not only a good team, but also very entertaining.”

Skinner also watched that team to learn what it took to play as a pro. Seeing how Erving got physically stronger since his rookie season was his first lesson.

“I realized how much more work I had to do,” Skinner said.

Former MSG Network announcer Al Trautwig was a teenage ballboy for the Nets of that era.

“Julius was the coolest dude,” he said. “He had me over his house to babysit. It was unbelievable. He was such a legend at that time.”

Trautwig said he did not initially appreciate how good the team would be, but it soon became apparent to him.

“Larry Kenon was awesome,” Trautwig said. “Wendell Ladner was a real personality. He taught me how to blow dry my hair. It was just a fantastic team.”

Final statement

The Nets finished with the best record in the league, 55-29, but no one saw their stroll through the playoffs coming.

They beat Virginia in five games, Kentucky in four and Utah in five after taking a 3-0 series lead. In Game 5, all five starters scored between 15 and 23 points.

“I don’t care if they’re babies,” the Stars’ Gerald Govan said after the clincher. “They came to play.”

Julius Erving and Roy Boe celebrate after the Nets take the ABA title at Nassau Coliseum on May 13, 1976. Credit: Newsday/David Pokress

Said Erving, “Kevin and Rod (Thorn, his assistant) pulled it together and made us believe. It was really an organizational success all around, top to bottom. . . We just adopted this one-for-all-and-all-for-one mentality, and it paid off.”

When it was over, there was immediate talk of whether the Nets could beat either NBA finalist, the Celtics or Bucks.

Every NBA coach Newsday asked at the time said no, including Houston’s Johnny Egan, who said, “I don’t think they would stand a chance.”

Every ABA coach Newsday asked gave the Nets a shot. “I don’t see why not,” the Squires’ Al Bianchi said.

Fifty years later, Loughery said, “It would have been very interesting. I’m not saying we beat them or not, but it would have been very competitive.”

We never will know, and even at the time, key players were fine with that. Both Erving and the Celtics’ John Havlicek said the season already was too long.

The ’76 team still had Erving, Williamson and Taylor in the starting lineup, again won 55 games and again won it all, beating Denver in six games in the Finals.

Which team was better? Melchionni and Loughery said the ’74 team was. Taylor said ’74 was more talented but ’76 was more cohesive.

Erving wouldn’t choose but said the ’74 team had more “grit,” fueled in part by losing Ladner, who died at 26 in a June, 1975, plane crash near Kennedy Airport. His body was identified by the ABA championship ring he was wearing.

The aftermath

The Nets’ brief glory days fizzled quickly. They joined the NBA in 1976-77, but did so without Erving, who was sold to the 76ers.

Melchionni was the general manager then, but that decision was made by owner Roy Boe for financial reasons.

“I might not have done (the GM job) if I knew the way it was going to turn out,” Melchionni said.

Erving was a star in Philadelphia and won an NBA championship in 1983, but most who saw him in his Nets days regard that as peak Dr. J.

Loughery believes the Nets’ 22-60 finish in their first NBA season “tarnished” their ABA legacy for some, even though losing Erving had changed everything.

The Nets moved to New Jersey in 1977 and stayed there until relocating to Brooklyn in 2012.

Taylor said he thinks about those mid-’70s days often, especially teammates that are gone, such as Ladner, Gale, Williamson and Willie Sojourner. Williamson died in 1996 at age 45.

“It’s a blessing to still be alive to be able to talk about it,” Taylor said. “Great guys. We had so much fun.”