The ABA impact has been felt in other areas as well. While Detroit Piston Coach Herb Brown waits for Marvin Barnes to recover from a sprained ankle and come save his job, he has inserted in his place little-known M.L. Carr, an ABA teammate of Barnes at St. Louis. (Trivia pause: no less than eight St. Louis Spirits, a last-place ABA team, are now playing heavy roles in the NBA—not including a ninth Spirit, the infant wayfarer, Moses Malone, who of course starts in a lot of airports, most recently Houston's.)
At Buffalo the other day Bird Averitt, ex-Kentucky, fired a rainbow that hit the back side of the backboard. "I don't know about that other league," Coach Tates Locke screamed at the Bird, "but over here we got rims on only one side of the board." Averitt was so mad at that he didn't give up the ball for 12 days, but he did help the Braves to one of their four victories by scoring seven points in the final five minutes against Philadelphia. Yep, the 76ers lost another one.
It is fairly remarkable how positively unawed the new NBA personnel are by their new surroundings. Barnes says the league has "better gyms," and Williamson admits it is nice to have all those people in the stands. But to San Antonio's George (Ice) Gervin, a big drawback is not being able to have his nickname printed on the back of his game jersey. "The NBA don't allow nothing but real names," Gervin says. "I thought Ice was slick." Of the famed NBA stars, Gervin says, "Yeah, I'm surprised. Except for Pistol [ Pete Maravich] and Big Dave [ Cowens] beating on our head, all I'm seeing out there is a whole lot of mess."
And Mike Green, Seattle's outspoken backup center, late of Virginia, admits to mixed emotions about his own transfer. "What you think the NBA is, heaven?" he says. "There's too much jamming the middle here. Guys spend half their lives learning how to play the game, and then they can't use anything because it's all jammed up." C'mon, Mike, isn't anything better? "Yeah," says Green. "In this league I get paid."
The early returns from Colorado are encouraging to all those who have prayed for the ABA. At the end of last week, the Denver Nuggets were the only unbeaten team in the pros. Coach Larry Brown has used vast depth, a Popsicle schedule and a lot of home games to get off to a quick start. Nevertheless, Thompson and his mates are no flukes. Last week after embarrassing the New York Knicks in a nine-point game that could have been 59—"We paid them to play in this league?" shouted one Denver fan—the Nuggets went on the road and used 36 points by Thompson to come from behind and beat Chicago 93-85. The next night they won their seventh straight by defeating Milwaukee 105-103. These were Denver's first real tests. "On the road we may have trouble," says Brown, "but we don't lose many at home."
The Nugget coach likes to produce ABA-deprecating one-liners like "Now that we're in the bigs we can fly to games non-stop." But away from home the Nuggets warm up with the red, white and blue ball. They want to remember where they came from during their holy crusade for recognition.
On the season's opening night in New York, Brown and his old college and pro teammate, San Antonio's Moe, watched the Lakers and Knicks play an error-filled game. "All Doug could say was how awful they were," says Brown. "But I was in shock just realizing we were finally in the same league. It really was a thrill."
The grand experiment in Denver is the transition of Thompson to guard. The Nuggets lead off with Dan Issel, Bobby Jones and Gus Gerard—history's last all-white front line?—while Thompson is in backcourt with the tough quarterback, Ted McLain. As he was at Boston, newcomer Paul Silas is the sixth man.
Thompson says that as a guard he is "more alert and I see things better," but he appears uncomfortable away from the basket. Sometimes he forces shots. His quickness is not so evident as when he is a cornerman, driving against taller forwards, and his rebounding prowess is often wasted when he is so far from the hoop. Yet even on an off-shooting night against the Knicks' Living Legends 1 and 1A, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, Thompson managed 24 points, including a couple of high-rise numbers that brought the house down.
"My, my," said Earl the Pearl in that marvelous way of his, "it would be hard for this young man to look bad. This team seems to have everything. The dudes are rolling as long as they keep that donut on the ledger."