"I remember the afro," George Gervin says. "Doc's hair was flying back."
Julius "Doctor J" Erving was three big strides into his approach on a foul-line dunk in the 1976 ABA All-Star Slam-Dunk Contest and his mane was roaring.
"Even before he took off he was really rolling, his afro blowing," Artis Gilmore remembers. "We all became entangled in what he was going to do."
What he did, of course, was rise up -- like a jet fighter lifting off the deck of a carrier -- and throw down, like no one the Jan. 27 sell-out crowd at McNichols Arena in Denver had ever seen before. In that moment -- his takeoff point, an incredible 15 feet from the rim, his 'fro a free-flowing metaphor for creativity and power -- he was the essence of the ABA, and the highest height the upstart league ever reached. And in his bold beautiful flight inevitably subject to the laws of gravity, he was a swan song.
The ABA was dying. Three teams (the Baltimore Claws, the San Diego Sails, and the Utah Stars) had folded within the first month of its ninth season, and its two marquee clubs, Erving's New York Nets and David Thompson's Denver Nuggets, were looking to bolt to the NBA. Because the league had an odd number of teams (7) at the time, the ninth American Basketball Association All-Star Game featured a "special" format in which the home-team Nuggets took on an all-star squad made up of players from each of the other six organizations.
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"The game was always going to be in Denver," said Arthur Hundhausen, lifelong Nuggets fan, and architect of the definitive RememberTheABA.com. "But the Nuggets had to play their way in to being the host team. The arrangement was that the team with the best record on December 31 would get to take on the all-stars. The Nuggets edged out the Nets, and I remember we were all excited because we'd clinched the All-Star Game. It was like we'd won the pennant or something!"
On the off-chance that local fervor over "clinching" wasn't enough to pack the house, and with now-or-never hopes of securing a merger between their league and Big Daddy NBA, ABA officials looked to goose-up the festivities. They signed Glenn Campbell and Charlie Rich to play a pre-game concert.
"Glenn Campbell and the Silver Fox," said Gervin laughing. "Can you believe that? I still can't believe it happened." And then Denver general manager Carl Scheer and ABA marketing director Jim Bukata hit on the idea of holding a slam-dunk contest at halftime of the game. "I wanted more than just singers," Scheer said in "Loose Balls," Terry Pluto's must-read history of the ABA.
They invited five players, each of whom already would be at the game, to participate. "There was no extra money at that point," said Hundhausen. "They couldn't afford to fly in Darnell Hillman from Indiana, or any of the other good dunkers in the league who weren't already there."
The lineup was Gilmore, Larry Kenon, Gervin, Thompson and Erving. Each man was to do five dunks in two minutes, one under the rim, one from the bottom free-throw circle and three freelance approaches from the left, right, and baseline. Points were awarded for artistic ability, imagination, body flow and fan response.
"They were sort of making up the rules as they went," said former Basketball Digest managing editor and ABA aficionado Brett Ballantini. "Nothing like it had ever happened before."
Iceman was nervous about it. He practiced dunks leading into the contest, thought about what he could bring. "I'd dunked on the playground and in games, but this was different," Gervin said. "I was practicing and trying to come up with some kind of creativity, but you know all that goes out the window once you get in front of 15,000 fans and dunk against Julius and David Thompson! It wasn't like they were asking me to shoot jumpers or to finger roll!"
Gilmore, a bit of an odd choice for the contest at 7 feet, 2 inches, remembers feeling uncertain, as well.
"I went first and I was happy to be there," he said. "But I was a little conservative. Maybe I thought too much about not missing dunks." Gilmore added some flavor with a two-ball slam on his first effort and a reverse on his third, and he still takes pride in his clean, emphatic finishes that night.
"I elevated as high as I possibly could and threw the ball down without touching the rim at all," he said. "I felt very comfortable with my dunks, but a seven-foot guy wasn't going to win that competition -- that competition was about David and Doc."
True enough. Campbell and Rich opened the festivities, the actual game was a high-octane 144-138 affair, and Gilmore, Kenon and Gervin (who got off a sweet "coiled snake" on his second attempt) did their best -- as Gervin said, "to be as articulate as we could with our ideas and moves."
But the night belonged to Skywalker and Doc and their dueling dunks. They were so much the show, in fact, that other players in the game didn't go into the locker room at halftime, preferring instead to stay courtside and watch what they'd come up with. "The guys were all there," Hundhausen said. "Some of them on the bench, some of them laying on the floor, and some of them sitting cross-legged near center court. It was crazy."
These days the slam-dunk contest has its own night, but the original was the tasty meat in a single all-star sandwich. The concert began at 7:30 p.m. and the game came after.
"They had to clear the floor, take the seats out and everything before they could start the game," Hundhausen remembers. "It was a long night before it even began."
The game was no stroll-in-the-park exhibition either. The ABA style was fast-paced.
"We pushed it," Gervin said. "We played open-floor. We ran. All the time."
And with the unique Denver-versus-the-world format, this game was particularly competitive.
"The Nuggets were like the Yankees or the Bulls or the Lakers in their heyday," Hundhausen said. "They were not well-liked. And besides, the team of all-stars did not want to get beat by a regular team." Both sides wanted to win from the jump.
"You can see it on the tape," Ballantini said. "Gus Gerard is muscling Erving all night. And Doc is yelling at the refs, arguing for calls. It was intense."
By the time the dunkers took the floor they were feeling a little gassed. "Really, none of us did much preparing," Erving said in "Loose Balls." "We all sort of winged it."
They were jumping on game legs, still sweating from the action.
"It was a long night," Thompson said. "Fun, but seriously long."
That might explain why he missed his fourth dunk, a reverse slam on which he touches the ball to the box on the glass before bringing it home. It was a dunk he had done many times before. In fact, he chose it over a cradled hammer dunk (ball tucked in the left arm and then pounded home with the right fist) he did in warm-ups because he was sure he wouldn't miss it. "I was shocked," he said. "I just missed my timing on it. They didn't have the forgiving rim in those days, so if you weren't super clean you could miss pretty easily."
If not for the miss, he probably would have won the contest, even with Dr. J's foul-line theatrics.
"I was the hometown guy," he said. "The crowd was giving me a lot of support." Each of his other dunks was mighty impressive. He opened with a reverse from under the bucket, did a running two-handed jam next, and then broke out a jackknife reverse, from shoe tops to rim, on his third attempt.
His last dunk was a baseline 360, coming from the left; Erving said it was the best dunk of the night. Thompson was just 6-4 and 195 pounds, but he routinely jumped over centers, in traffic, with all of Cartman's authority and then some.
"When you throw one down, especially over a bigger man, you get a psychological advantage," he said. "When you can dunk on somebody, on somebody's head, those are the ones you like."
There was a kind of fierceness about his dunks, a certain angry pop that fueled the 360 that night. But there was grace in his slams, too. You could see it in his feet, in the way he'd cross them at the ankles, as if he were casually putting them up on a coffee table, or sometimes flutter kick them like a synchronized swimmer rising up out of the blue. Doc had flair, and hair, but David had a unique combination of strength and flow all his own. He surprised you, but always with something that seemed somehow organic, somehow perfectly suited to his frame and the moment. The 360 was a virtuoso performance. It blew the crowd away. You actually can hear the gasp on the tape.
"It was exciting to do something like that for the first time in front of a crowd," Thompson said. "They really got into it and we got into it too, and I think we all felt like we were part of something new that night, you know?"
Spectacular as Thompson's last dunk was, folks were still waiting on the Doctor.
"We all could dunk and frankly we weren't like the guys today who expect some kind of instant gratification about it; we didn't think it was that big a deal," Gilmore said. "But Julius was different. He was the ooh and aah guy. His dunks were adventures. His dunks made a difference."
ABA coaches game-planned for Erving's dunks. Hubie Brown talks about giving his guys fines if they failed to foul Doc on a breakaway because the dunks could be such crowd-pleasing momentum changers. His first dunk in the contest was a reverse two-ball slam from a standing position. (Sorry, Artis.) His third was a reverse in which he held the rim with his right hand and dunked with his left, his fourth a big hook slam, and his fifth a fly-by deposit he called the "iron cross," with his right arm stretched way out from his torso and the rest of his body in a straight line toward the floor. Every one of them was tremendous.
But the second dunk, the foul-line dunk, was THE dunk.
And it wasn't just the dunk, it was the way he sold it.
"He had such big hands and he had them dangling," Thompson said. "He was toying with the ball, toying with us, and he took those big steps, and he set it up good." He stepped-off the approach with half a dozen bounding strides, like Armstrong walking on the moon. As he made his way back to the spot the crowd's anticipation was a low, steady thrum, and by the time he was wheeling toward the bucket it was a collective gasp.
"You have to have that audience sometimes to make you want something," Erving told me last year. "To make it possible for you to come up with something totally new."
Let the record show he stepped on the line (thereby losing a $1,500 bet with Denver coach Doug Moe about whether he could in fact dunk from behind the stripe) when he took off. Further let the record show it didn't matter one bit. He rose up, he brought it down and the dunk positively killed. The crowd roared like a wave at the Eddie Aikau Memorial. Players on the sidelines jumped, danced, and fell all over each other like saved sisters at a tent revival. The whole room was goofy, high on the Doc. "Here was my philosophy -- dare to be great," Erving told the Houston Chronicle in 1996.
"I just wanted to make a nice, soaring play that would get the fans out of their seats." Mission accomplished. Years later, people still come up to Thompson and say they were in Denver that night. "I must have had 50,000 people tell me they were at that game, and the arena only held about 17,000! Everybody wants to be part of the legend."
It's hard now to imagine the impact that dunk (and the whole contest) had on the fans in the room, or on the whole of basketball culture back in '76. Maybe if you saw Elvis first swivel his hips for a roller rink full of bobby soxers you'd understand. If you were hanging with Pollock in the early action painting days you might get it. But we're so jaded now, so far gone from the moment, that we can't appreciate the way it struck people then, the way it literally knocked them out.
"We've seen better dunks since then," Gervin said. "We've seen Michael be Michael and we've since seen Vince be Vince, and it will keep going, too, but David and Doc got something started that night with the 360 and the Free Throw; they showed us some amazing sights people had never seen before and they laid a foundation for everything we see now." A foundation, yes, and a paradigm shift, too.
The contest had a small-time charm, from the casual gathering of players at courtside to the $1,200 in prizes handed out in paper envelopes immediately after it was over, but its acrobatic imagery went big-time. The game was broadcast in only four cities (Denver, New York, Indianapolis, and San Antonio) and it finished some time after 2 a.m. ET, but dunk contest highlights were featured on "The Today Show" and "Good Morning America" the next day, and in Sports Illustrated the following week. "There was an almost immediate buzz," Hundhausen said. "The ABA looked exciting and fresh and the NBA seemed boring by comparison."
Merger plans had long been in the works between the ABA and the NBA, but the contest no doubt hastened them, and very likely expanded them (so that four teams instead of only two were adopted). The NBA had long looked down on the ABA. Despite the fact that the ABA had fared well in head-to-head exhibitions, Red Auerbach and others said the league lacked talent and its teams played no defense. David's spin and Doc's flight, because they became such public moments, and because the basketball-loving population was so energized by them, put a muzzle on the naysayers and legitimized the league, proving that its talent was every bit as good as, if not better than, the talent in the NBA. The dunks were a harbinger of things to come.
"You only have to look at the roster of the ABA All-Star Game in 1976 and then the NBA All-Star Game in 1977," Hundhausen said. "Virtually all the ABA stars were NBA all-stars the next year, and three of the Nuggets made the NBA All-Star Game, too." (The 1977 NBA All-Star Game featured Thompson, Maurice Lucas, Don Buse, Bobby Jones, Dan Issel, Erving, George McGinnis, and Gervin.) But more than legitimizing ABA talent, the contest helped pave the way for ABA style to make its way onto NBA floors.
"Even as it was falling apart the ABA came up with something so appealing and exciting that the NBA could not ignore it," Ballantini said. "Whether it had anything directly to do with the merger or not, you have to say it had a significant impact in what its players brought over in terms of flair and talent."
"We played an exciting brand of basketball. Whether you're talking about the dunk, the 3-pointer, the way we passed and ran, or the fun we had," Gilmore puts it simply.
Even as the league was crumbling, and just as the efficient, earthbound Celtics of Dave Cowens and John Havlicek were making their way toward an NBA title, the dunk contest heralded a new day; more expression and creativity, more excitement and flow, more of a fundamental willingness to go for it.
"The ABA was a younger, hipper league, and the dunk contest highlighted our difference from the NBA brought some light to what we had and what we were doing in the ABA," Thompson said.
It shook up the world, no doubt, but when you ask them about the contest now, some 30 years on, impact and legacy aren't the first things the guys recall. They tell you about Doc's afro, about David's height, and they tell you about the joy the sensation. They look back through their mind's eye to a moment when what they could do and what the audience wanted to see were in perfect harmony.
"We had a great feeling that night," Thompson said. "We were showing fans some things they'd never seen before. It was the start of something."
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.