How the NBA Climbed Mountains Through an Era of Outlandish Proportions

Nick Gelso@CLNS_NickCorrespondent IDecember 6, 2009

LOS ANGELES - 1987:  Julius Erving #6 of the Philadelphia 76ers rests during the 1987 game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

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Today's NBA is littered with some interesting nicknames. "The King," "Agent Zero," "The Answer ," "Superman," "Black Mamba," and "The Truth" .

In the 1970's, an era that concluded with the NBA in a media mess, the names given to NBA players sounded like lyrics from a Barry White songbook, "except for one". Back then, the league was headlined by, "Silk," "Clyde ," "Pistol-Pete," "The Pearl," "Iceman," "The Doctor," and then their was "CHOCOLATE THUNDER".

The Boston Celtics dominated the late 50's and 60's with 11 championships in 13 years. Frustrating as this decade of dominance may have been for the league's also-ran's (every non-Celtic), it was a period that mentored the development of the NBA through hard work, team chemistry, and pure refusal to lose.

It encouraged those players that could not compete on the basketball world's biggest stage; to go into the city schoolyard jungles of Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. A different form of mentoring began, one that is not often publicized in NBA books or documentaries but is displayed in the players that were born on those concrete deserts of the ghetto.

Players that combined the fundamentals of Red Auerbach's Celtics philosophy with the showmanship that would tease the NBA with a brief period of pop-mainstream success.

With the retirement of Bill Russell in 1969, NBA and ABA scouts would turn to the streets as much as college gyms to find the next NBA franchise player. As these players were woven into the rosters of the two leagues, a new breed of player was born.

The natural direction of players was simple—the scholars of the game, blue collar players such as Dave Cowens and Kareem Abdul-Jabar seemed to flock to the the more serious NBA while the showmen of the era were more likely to gravitate towards the NBA's little brother, the American Basketball Association.

The pursuit of the best paying contract encouraged many players to shift back and forth between league's. Eventually both Association's finally merged but not before the years of money-motivated league shifting created a player that was more attracted to the big payout then the ultimate prize.

The NBA did have a brief honeymoon period in 1976. The league merger saw the infusion of school yard play, dominated by silky smooth acrobatics in dribbling, ball handling, dunking and defense—the modern era basketball player was born.

The new NBA of the mid 70's was a league that was already brimming with the intelligence of Abdul-Jabar, John Havlichek and perpetual league flip-flopper, Rick Barry. The NBA had the hardworking blue collar grit of Dave Cowens, Wes Unseld and Willis Reed. Now the League had to adopt and adjust to their new stepbrother's that would join their families through the league mergers.

The ABA had always been considered the fragile globetrotting league of basketball. Never taken too seriously, many of their stars were predicted to fail before even joining their new ball clubs. The new league was jolted by the high flying exploits of the Doctor, the sultry spin of Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, and the animated post play of Artis Gilmore.

The NBA was finally abound with the cultural, now iconic, afro blazin' outburst that the collision of these players resulted in.

The league became a style center for the old school yard legends. The threading in of the showy stars of the now defunct ABA allowed formerly hampered NBA stars to show off their glitter and shine above of the gritty images displayed by Russell, Cowens, West, Robertson and Petit that previously took the front page of NBA books.

The league was now abound with guys that looked more like storybook characters the basketball players. The late Pete Maravich resembled a hippy in hot shorts. Walt Frazier looked more like a wizard caped and adorning a wildly outrageous brimmed hat. Wilt Chamberlain, by now retired, even re-emerged on the scene in leisure suits, gold chains and crazy shades.

The cultural influence was never more evident then when the Doctor would show up to play against the likes of the former NBA poster child's. The epic evolution of play was in full affect when the highlight reel play of Doctor J collided with the hard-work of Portland center Bill Walton.

Walton had faced several years of injuries before emerging in the post-merger NBA of 1977. When Walton was re-commissioned to play, he found a league that had a new poster-boy, one with athleticism that had never before been seen in an NBA uniform. Everything seemed to come easy to the Doctor as he would take the new NBA by storm.

The league-wide clash was typified by the 1977 NBA Finals when Julius' 76ers faced Walton's new look Trailblazers.

Walton was a Southern California hippy and was proud of it. Long hair, beard and headband made him resemble a lumberjack in gym shorts. The big red head (or red mop) would face off against the sleek and stylish Erving who's style of play resembled his soul-train appearance.

Early on, the style of Doctor J, the scholarly basketball intelligence of Doug Collins, the defensive grit of Bobby Jones and the powerful dominance of the paint by Daryl Dawkins, led the Sixers to a 2-0 series lead.

Walton's Blazers would come back from an early series deficit through hard work and a refusal to be defeated that echoed the philosophy of the, Auerbach led, Celtics of the 60's. Walton would take the title and Finals MVP back to Portland.

The last iconic image of the decade would be Walton in full hippy regalia holding the trophy up, surrounded by Blazers fans, in the parade that marched through the city streets of Portland.

The Lost Years of the 1970s

In 1978, when the honeymoon period of the merging year's wore off, the bottom had seemingly fallen out. The money grubbing mentality that had set in during the players' contract pursuits of the early 1970's had left a lasting impression.

The league had fallen into an era of cocaine abuse, poor imaging and non-televised games. Even the NBA Finals of 1978 and 1979 were on tape delay.

Looking back from the perspective of a fan that was only two years old when the decade came to a close, I can say that the negatives that emerged from the "lost years" of the late 70's were only a blip on the radar. Maybe they had to occur. If those horrid years are the direct result of the league's merging of personalities, I can live with that.

After-all, without the school yard pioneers of that era, today's game would not have evolved into the global tornado that the Bird and Magic era of the 80's ushered in.

I can tolerate two years of poor publicity and "me first" mentality if that is the price that needs to be payed for today's television coverage of every game and the exciting play that would not have been possible if it wasn't for the Barry White type nicknamed superstars of the 70's.