Thursday, January 24, 2013

Falling Stars

It’s a common refrain for anyone talking about NBA history: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved the league when they entered in 1979-’80.

In this light, the 1980 NBA All-Star Game, played at the Capitol Centre in Landover, Md., can be seen as a historical crossroads.

There were still plenty of stars that carried the basketball in the 1970s like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Elvin Hayes. There were fascinating characters from that decade like World B. Free and Kermit Washington.

Bird and Johnson were the hyped rookies playing in their first All-Star Game, heralds of a new era.

Then there were the players that eventually were lost in the darkness. Cocaine was ravaging professional sports in the late ’70s and early ’80s, hoovering up promising careers.

Look at some of the names on the Eastern Conference’s all-star team in 1980: John Drew, “Fast” Eddie Johnson and Micheal Ray Richardson.

Drew and Eddie Johnson were teammates on an Atlanta Hawks team that was brimming with talent and coached by the hard-driving Hubie Brown. Rugged big man Dan Roundfield, who scored 18 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the 1980 All-Star Game, also starred on those teams.

Drew was drafted in 1974 out of Gardner-Webb, which surprisingly has sent four players to the NBA. He scored 32 points in his first NBA game. One of the game’s greatest gunners in a freewheeling era, he never averaged less than 19 points per game in his first seven seasons with the Hawks.

Clashes with Brown led to Drew being traded to the Utah Jazz in 1982. A stint in rehab followed, then after several drug tests he was banned from the NBA in 1986. Charles Barkley, another small-town Alabama legend, said in 2002 that Drew lives in Houston and drives a cab.

Eddie Johnson came to the Hawks in 1977 and, despite competing for shots with Drew, averaged 18.5 points per game in 1979-’80 and a career-high 19.1 in ’80-’81. His fall from grace nearly mirrors Drew’s: rehab in 1986 and then a suspension by the NBA in 1986-’87.

What followed is one of the darkest post-NBA lives. Johnson compiled a lengthy rap sheet and was convicted in 2008 of some gruesome molestation charges. He is in prison facing life without parole.

Richardson’s story is better known, spending his early years with the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets and being the subject of a good-but-uneven 2000 TNT documentary narrated by Chris Rock.

Frequently compared to Magic Johnson, Richardson drew a cult following but then followed the same downward spiral of Eddie Johnson and Drew. Richardson was banned by the NBA in 1986 and has since played and coached in U.S. and European minor leagues.

But at the 1980 All-Star Game, those three players still seemed to be in full possession of their talents.

In the third quarter of a close game, East coach Billy Cunningham — and his whip-smart assistants Chuck Daly and Jack McMahon — put out a lineup of Drew, Eddie Johnson, Richardson, Bird and rookie Bill Cartwright.

Cartwright’s rebounding plus the versatile talents of the other four players sparked the East.

Richardson, with his smooth game, stroked back-to-back 18-footers. He went backdoor on Paul Westphal, got a pass from Drew and then dumped a great pass to Cartwright underneath the basket.

Bird tipped a pass to Richardson, who threw a long pass to a streaking Johnson. Bird also had a beautiful, leaping baseball pass to Richardson. Johnson, who finished with 22 points on 11-for-16 shooting, was abusing the West’s Otis Birdsong.

Broadcasters Brent Musburger and Bill Russell gushed over the caliber of play. That East lineup played the majority of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, building a 17-point lead.

Eventually, West coach Lenny Wilkens went big with Jack Sikma and Abdul-Jabbar and the East stars were dimmed.

The West forced overtime and, while Eddie Johnson got a bucket in the extra five minutes, the star that put the finishing touches on the East’s 144-136 victory was Bird.

The Celtics rookie hit two jumpers, including the first three-pointer in an NBA All-Star Game, and had one of the highlights of the game by tapping an offensive rebound to Gervin for a reverse layup.

Bird was definitely part of the league’s future. Drew, Johnson and Richardson were soon to burn out. 

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