Classic NBA, ABA seasons on the horizon

By Glenn Guzzo
            Rookies who are league MVPs are rare, but Strat-O-Matic will showcase two of them with the pair of classic seasons that will become available for the company’s computer pro basketball game this summer.
            In the 1968-69 National Basketball Association, Wes Unseld led the Washington Bullets from last place to the league’s best record (but not the championship). In the 1969-70 American Basketball Association, Spencer Haywood led the league in scoring and rebounding while his Denver Nuggets won the Western Division (but not the championship).
1968-69 NBA: One last title for Bill Russell’s Celtics
            Because the aging Boston Celtics finished fourth in their conference before winning the NBA title yet again, this season is not often mentioned as one of the league’s great campaigns. But it so much to recommend it:
  • Bill Russell, Sam Jones and John Havlicek gave Boston’s its 10th championship in 11 seasons, the most dominant period in NBA history.
  • One rookie (Unseld) won the league MVP. Another (San Diego’s Elvin Hayes) won the scoring title (28.4 ppg).
  • Two huge trades created glamour teams that each won more games than Boston. Before the season, Los Angeles added Wilt Chamberlain to its lineup with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The Lakers won 55 and the Western Division before losing the NBA finals in seven games to the Celtics. New York made a mid-season trade for young star forward Dave DeBusschere, and went 36-11 after that to finish 54-28, third in the East.
  • Havlicek and New York’s Walt Frazier became regulars for the first time.
  • Philadelphia (55-27) did not appear to miss Chamberlain. New head coach Jack Ramsay and a new fast-break offense led by Billy Cunningham (24.8 ppg, 12.8 rpg), Hal Greer (23 ppg), Chet Walker (18 ppg) and point guards Wally Jones and Archie Clark (combined 27 ppg, 7 apg).
  • The battle between the Bullets (57 wins), 76ers (55), Knicks (55) and Celtics (48) made the Eastern Division race something to behold.
  • The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns made their NBA debuts. The Hawks (Lou Hudson, Zelmo Beatty, Joe Caldwell) made their debut in Atlanta after moving from St. Louis.
            After a 48-win season, in which Havlicek led the team in scoring (21.6 ppg) and Russell in rebounding (19.3 rpg), the Celtics had a playoff gauntlet. They eliminated Philly in five and knocked out New York in six. After dropping the first two in the finals at LA, Boston made it a home-court series through six games, then won at LA in Game Seven, 108-106.
1969-70 ABA: 59-win Pacers race to first of three titles
            Leaving the University of Detroit after one season in an early hardship case, former Olympics star Haywood averaged 30 points and 19.5 rebounds per game. He combined with guard Larry Jones (fifth in ABA scoring at 24.9 ppg and tied for second with 5.7 assists per game) to give the Rockets a shining 51-33 record atop the Western Division.
            But the much-deeper Indiana Pacers dominated the East with 59 wins and dominated the playoffs with a 12-3 record, capturing the first of the three ABA titles it would win in a four-year span. The Pacers had team scoring leader Roger Brown (23 ppg) and the previous season’s MVP, center Mel Daniels (18.7 ppg, 17.6 rpg).
            The defending champion Oakland Oaks moved to Washington and became the Capitols. After winning in court to keep star scorer Rick Barry from jumping back to the NBA, Washington slumped on the court to 44-40. Though Barry averaged 27.7 ppg, he missed 30 games. Last year’s rookie of the year, Warren Armstrong (later renamed Warren Jabali), averaged 22.8 ppg but missed 42 games.
            The woeful Houston Mavericks moved east, too, and the Carolina Cougars were born. Led by Duke alum Bob Verga’s 27.5 ppg, and future head coach Doug Moe (17.3 ppg, 5.3 apg), the Cougars were a much more respectable 42-42, third in the east behind Indiana and the Kentucky Colonels, whose Louie Dampier averaged 26 ppg.
            Indiana’s toughest playoff test, a six-game finals, came against the Los Angeles Stars, led by ABA legends Mack Calvin, Willie Wise and George Stone.