Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Stars Align

The NBA will likely never hold its All-Star Weekend in Milwaukee again.

The league’s official line would be that there is not enough hotel space for what has become a bloated event. The reality is probably that Wisconsin in early February isn’t exactly a sexy destination for celebrities, corporate lackeys and assorted basketball hangers-on.

What many people don’t know is that Milwaukee played host to one of the best All-Star Games in NBA history — and maybe the most important. The West beat the East, 125-124, on Feb. 13, 1977, in a well-played game at the Milwaukee Arena, but the box score tells only part of the story.

It was the first All-Star Game since the NBA-ABA merger, and the future of the league hinged on how well the likes of Julius Erving and David Thompson could be assimilated.

Those two former ABA stars were matched up through much of the game. Dr. J lit up the much smaller Thompson and other luckless defenders to the tune of 30 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and four steals. The biggest import to the NBA that season became the second player to be named All-Star Game MVP from the losing team. (Bob Pettit was the first in 1958.)

Erving had 13 points in the fourth quarter as the East made the game tight. The final minutes were highlighted by what everyone agrees is missing in recent All-Star Games: Defense.

The West’s Bobby Jones blocked a shot by a driving Pete Maravich, leading to a dunk by Paul Westphal that gave the West a 125-122 lead with 38 seconds remaining. Bob McAdoo followed with two free throws that got the East within one.

McAdoo then made a steal on an entry pass that gave the East a final possession. But Westphal fought around a screen and knocked the ball away from Maravich for a steal that clinched the victory for the West.

The game was an unqualified success. Denver Nuggets coach Larry Brown earned some NBA bona fides after toiling away for years in the ABA. He had the West team humming with 42 assists, an unheard-of number for an All-Star Game. Even a largely forgotten ABA player like the Indiana Pacers’ Don Buse, an injury fill-in for Bill Walton, made a seamless transition to the NBA and helped spark the West’s 39-point third quarter.

The dunk contest also took root in the NBA that year. The ABA’s inaugural event in 1976 had burnished the legend of Dr. J with his free-throw line dunk. The NBA’s first foray did not have that kind of star power, with Larry McNeill and Darnell Hillman making it to the finals.

McNeill, a former Marquette jumping jack, wasn’t even in the NBA at the time. He had been waived by the New Jersey Nets early in the season. McNeill was playing with Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League but was allowed to dunk because the Nets had submitted his name for the contest earlier in the season.

Nonetheless, the NBA was intrigued by this new sideshow. The league looked ready to embark on a new era with this infusion of ideas and talent.

As for the atmosphere in frigid Milwaukee? Fans packed the Arena, and the sold-out crowd of 10,938 lustily booed Erving for earning the MVP in a losing effort. The hoops-savvy contingent probably saw through the forced marketing of the league’s newest star and thought Westphal (20 points, six assists, three steals, clutch plays) more deserving of the honor.

The Milwaukee fans also surprisingly cheered Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had forced his way out of town just over a year before. Abdul-Jabbar had shown up for the game in a Bucks warm-up jacket, borrowed from Milwaukee trainer Tony Spino because Kareem had left his Lakers jacket in Los Angeles.

It was just another memorable moment from a memorable game.

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