The smashing Ms. Brown is accustomed to confusion over her name. "Most people just call me Turk," she says. "But one of Julius' friends has trouble remembering names. He calls me Aqua."
Turk lives in North Carolina and commutes to nearly every Net home game, and with good reason. "I love to watch Julius play because he's so unpredictable I never know what he'll do next," she says. "But I love him because he's so reliable and calm. He never gets mad, and when sometimes I get angry he settles me right down. He'll say real quietly, 'Don't you get no attitude now.' "
More through his demeanor than his words, Erving has been saying the same thing to his fellow Nets, particularly the survivors from last year's squad that slumped early and finished out the schedule playing as much against one another as against their opponents. Indeed, Erving's quiet congeniality may be as important as his 27.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game and his 50% shooting average, 108 steals and 120 blocked shots. "Believe me, I know from experience, it's one heck of a lot easier when your main man is a good guy," says Net Coach Kevin Loughery. "I was in Baltimore when Wes Unseld got there. It didn't take the players long to figure out that on top of being a great player, Wes is a great man. He turned the Bullets' whole attitude around by just being there, and Doc has done at least as much for us."
Two years ago the Nets rallied late in the season and advanced to the final round of the playoffs. But last season began on a depressing note when Net star Rick Barry was ordered by the courts to return to the NBA Warriors. Things went downhill from there. A six-game losing streak in November led to a rancorous team meeting. Then one player took himself out of the lineup with an injury some of his mates felt was more imagined than real. Next a rookie center flatly said he would rather not play at all than be forced to operate at forward. By the close of the season New York had drifted to a 30-54 record and General Manager-Coach Lou Carnesecca had announced his resignation.
With that, Owner Roy Boe went for all the youth money could buy. He signed 33-year-old Dave DeBusschere to a 10-year, $750,000 general manager contract and then gave him a year off to finish his playing career with the Knicks. A five-year deal lured Loughery away from Philadelphia. At 33 he was the youngest coach in the pros (a distinction he lost in November when Kansas City-Omaha named 32-year-old Phil Johnson to succeed Bob Cousy) and had less than a half season's experience. In a role that was more custodial than creative, Loughery had guided the 76ers to five wins in their final 31 games last season.
Shortly thereafter, Boe shipped about $1 million to Virginia and Atlanta to secure the much contested rights to Erving. Then he signed the 23-year-old ABA scoring champion to a $2.5 million, eight year contract. Boe added round sums for a flock of rookies including 6'9" Forward Larry Kenon, 21, of Memphis State and 6'2" Guard John Williamson, 22, of New Mexico State, who have become starters even though they both should now be college seniors.
Hiring undergraduates is hardly a new procedure for the Nets. Not one of New York's first five—Erving, Kenon, Williamson, the 25-year-old Paultz or 22-year-old Guard Brian Taylor—completed his college eligibility and not one was drafted by the Nets. Erving and Williamson came into the ABA as free agents and the remaining three were selections of other teams that would not or could not sign them. As the league's richest club, New York could and did.
Still the assembling of prime, young talent has rarely yielded an instant winner in the pros. Even after they had brought together the then-young group of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell, the Knicks needed two seasons, a coaching change and a major trade (DeBusschere) before winning their division. Boston, after drafting Dave Cowens, and Milwaukee, after adding Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, each required a year of seasoning before becoming first-place clubs.
That the Nets are already threatening to become a division titlist is a marked achievement for Loughery, a cigar-chomping Irishman from the Bronx who was known in the NBA during his 11-year playing career as Murph. He was also distinguished by his toughness—in one playoff with the Bullets he wore a plastic plate strapped under his jersey to protect a collapsed lung and a couple of broken ribs—and by the fact that he was the highest scorer in NBA history never named to an all-star team.
As a player, Loughery was readily identifiable as a prospective coach. He was a backcourt man who invariably turned "th's" into "d's" and always included an "s" on the end of the second person plural pronoun. Clearly he was of the species East Coast guard. Twelve of the 27 pro coaching jobs are now held by men of this ilk. Four of the five coaches in the Nets' division of the ABA are former guards who learned the game within about 100 miles of one another.