Dr. Lenny Bloom, the part-time orthodontist and full-time operator who owns the San Diego Conquistadors, spent most of the summer trying to wrest a star center from two of basketball's firmest grasps. First, to Bill Walton he offered Mission Bay, Sea World and the ancillary rights to downtown Tijuana to leave John Wooden and UCLA a year ahead of schedule. Walton refused. Then Bloom took on Laker Owner Jack Kent Cooke and his pivotman-memorialist Wilt Chamberlain. Bloom reportedly offered Chamberlain $600,000 a year and all the abalone he could eat to coach and play for the Qs. Wilt showed mild interest, but it was widely assumed that he was strumming Bloom like a banjo in the hopes that the dulcet tones would provoke Cooke into offering Chamberlain a new contract. Cooke turned a deaf ear and traded for another center.
Thus Bloom got a player-coach who may or may not be able to coach, and may or may not be able to play. If Chamberlain plays—and that will depend on whether the courts insist that Wilt sit out the option year remaining on his L.A. contract—it will make little difference if he knows how to coach. Chamberlain is the game's best rebounder and his defense can cover a multitude of transgressions by his teammates. He may even be able to become a high scorer once more against the generally weak centers in the ABA, though that will not be a prerequisite in San Diego; the Qs have outstanding shooters in Forward Stew Johnson, Guard Chuck Williams and rookie Bo Lamar.
If Chamberlain is unable to play, the Qs end up last; even if he does play, they should not finish first. Indiana, which has won three of the last four ABA championships, should but most likely won't. The Pacers are deep in the backcourt with Don Freeman, Bill Keller, Larry Cannon, who returns from a near-fatal illness, and Don Buse, the best new defensive guard in the pros. Up front there is experience in Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and Gus Johnson, bounding ability in Darnell Hillman and unbounded talent in George McGinnis.
Strong and fast, McGinnis was very nearly the best ABA forward last season. He ranked among the leaders in everything from scoring (27.6 points per game) to steals (160 for the season), but he also set a league record for turnovers (401). McGinnis' game became more disciplined over the summer, but his diet did not. He reported 20 pounds over his best playing weight of 235 and figures to get off to a typical Pacer start—bad. The last two years, Indiana has performed erratically in the regular season before rallying in the playoffs to take the title. This fall it looks like more of the same. "We're still suffering from post-playoff letdown," said one Pacer official, even before his team began getting clobbered in exhibition games. "I estimate we'll break out of it around March 1."
By that date Indiana may be out of what promises to be a tight race. Like the Pacers, Utah has unusual depth, including three nifty guards led by James Jones. And even in the forward-dominated ABA, 6'6" Willie Wise remains the best at that position when it comes to playing both ends of the floor. The Stars' one weakness used to be their strength: center. Zelmo Beaty spent the preseason as a holdout while the Stars questioned whether his 33-year-old knees would hold up. Beaty, who rarely practiced last season in order to rest his legs, survived on guts and guile in leading Utah to its second consecutive Western title. This year, if he cannot play well or does not play at all, new Coach Joe Mullaney will fall back—way back—on offenseless Gerald Govan or rookie Roy Ebron.
That could be enough to allow Denver to move to the top. In two years under Alex Hannum the Rockets have improved from a .357 team to one that played 10 games over .500. The forecourt is a typical Hannum collection, brawny types that look as if they were found at an all-night truck stop. The Rocket back-court is rugged, too, and more expert. Just 24, Ralph Simpson already has two consecutive 20-points-a-game seasons, and Warren Jabali is even better. No ABA guard outperformed him last season, even though he played the last few months with his back so painfully injured that a man of lesser courage would have been on the sidelines. Jabali is healthy now and as ornery as ever.
Two years ago the Dallas Chaparrals, using a crunching game much like Denver's, became the surprise of the league with a .500 record and earned Tom Nissalke the Coach of the Year award. In 1972-73 the team traded its two best guards, slumped from second to last in defense and staggered through its worst (28-56) season ever, while Nissalke underwent a sobering experience in the NBA where he survived only three months as the Seattle coach. Now the two are together again in happier surroundings near the Alamo. The new San Antonio Spurs have promising young back-court men in James Silas and lefthanded rookie Bird Averitt, last year's top college scorer (33.9) from Pepperdine. They also have a quality forward in Rich Jones, but for the Spurs to improve significantly Center Bob Netolicky must stop playing defense like Santa Anna.