For some months a lot of people in the ABA had been waiting, hopefully, for inexperience to cut down the young and cocky (and rich) New York Nets, and suddenly last week in Salt Lake City, in the third game of their championship series with the Utah Stars, it appeared that was exactly what was about to happen. There were the Nets, up by 2-0 in games but trailing now by three points in the third game with only 10 seconds to play. Coach Kevin Loughery's swaggering kids had just squandered a 15-point lead in less than eight minutes, always an unnerving development. The Nets called a timeout and, young and sure of their destiny, discussed, among other things, what they were going to do after they sent the game into overtime.
To get to this juncture, the Nets had ripped Virginia 4-1 in their opening series and sacked Kentucky 4-0 to take the Eastern Division title, but then had sat idle for 10 days, accumulating rust while waiting for Utah to emerge from the West.
Loughery feared the worst and almost got it. The Nets won Game One in New York 89-85, needing all they could get from Julius Erving, the masterly doctor of magical moves, who helped cure their ills with a 47-point injection. Then the Nets won the second game, also in New York, 118-94, and the way seemingly was back to rosy normal.
The Stars, meanwhile, had nothing but problems. In Willie Wise, Jimmy Jones and Ron Boone, they have the best one-on-one attack in the ABA, but against the Nets' sagging Lend-A-Hand defense they might as well have been trying to score against Leonidas and his 300 Spartans. Everywhere the ball went, there to cover were two Nets. "We've got to move the ball," said Utah Coach Joe Mullaney. "We've got to move it four, five, six times before shooting. Then, as soon as we make them honest, we can go back to our one-on-one."
Utah Center Zelmo Beaty was coming back for the third game after missing the first two with a groin infection, but no one knew what to expect. He had been idle since April 18 and was showing more valor than judgment. His replacement, 6'10", nearsighted Gerald Govan, had been trying to play on one bad leg. And Boone, who had backhanded Brian Taylor in the teeth in the second game, was operating with an infected and swollen hand. "You can use your elbows, but not your hands; you can injure them," offered Taylor, who lost two upper front teeth from the swat. He had them capped and likes them better now.
And so, with the Stars moving the ball, the third game became a foot race which the Nets were winning by 15 with 7:56 to play. At that point Mullaney decided New York was playing enough man-to-man to allow the Stars to do what they do best, and he loosed Jimmy Jones, his brilliant guard, on a dazzling one-on-one attack down the right side. Seven minutes and 46 seconds later Utah led by three and the Nets called time.
What was necessary, of course, was a three-point shot; two would practically ensure a loss. The Doctor would try it from behind a pick and a double pick, and if he was covered, 6'5" Wendell Ladner, a devastating outside shooter, was the alternate. "We knew something would work," said Erving. "Nobody had their heads down praying for a hope-to-Jesus shot." Dr. J moved, the picks were set beautifully—but Jones smartly deserted his man to move into the passing lane and block the play to the Doctor. Brian Taylor, Jones' man, inbounded to Ladner, who caught the ball off-balance, half fell across the 3-point line and fired. Nothing.
"I knew I had missed, so I rushed in trying to get the rebound," Ladner said. He laughed and rolled his massive shoulders. "They say I ran over some people."
As the ball came off the rim the Stars went for it. Wise got his hands on the ball—and for a split second on victory—but the Nets' Mike Gale swatted it away toward the charging Ladner.
On the bench Net Assistant Coach Rod Thorn was screaming. "God, no—Wendell is going to shoot!"