Bob McAdoo: Was He a One-Man Basketball Revolution? 1975

[While working on my book, Shake and Bake: The Life and Times of NBA Great Archie Clark, one of the toughest characters for me to crack was Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay in his first NBA job with the Philadelphia 76ers. If you recall, that was back in the late 1960s. 

As advertised, Ramsay was smart, innovative, intense, inclusive, well-spoken, funny, and magnanimous in so many ways. And yet, the buck stopped a little too much with him as the playcaller-in-chief. He needed to learn, as a former elite college coach, there’s no substitute for talent in the NBA. In Philadelphia, he traded away a ton of talent to chase the perfect, well-oiled five-man machine sketched out somewhere in his mind. His fine-tuning worked at first, then coughed, sputtered, and by the end of his tenure in Philadelphia veered off toward that ditch called the bottom of the NBA. 

Ramsay, with all his superb qualities and now hard NBA lessons learned, moved on to Buffalo. There, he experimented in a way that few NBA coaches of his generation would have dared. He built the Braves’ offense around his lean, quick, jump shooting big man Bob McAdoo. This unorthodox experiment took, and the Braves became one of the most entertaining shows in the 1970s NBA. 

The team’s success led to plenty of analysis, and popular articles like this one from writer Dick Joyce to explain, as the headline read, “Why Bob McAdoo is a one-man basketball revolution.” Joyce’s story ran in the February 1975 issue of the magazine Super Sports.]

Outside the snow was falling and an icy wind blew off Lake Erie. It’s not the kind of night that brings people out of the warm confines of their homes. But people from Buffalo, New York, are a hardy lot and some 15,000 of them braved the weather to see the Buffalo Braves team compete in the National Basketball Association playoffs for the first time last April.

The main objects of their attention were a flashy, little backcourtman, rookie Ernie DiGregorio, and the slender, elongated Bob McAdoo, possessor of a deadly scoring touch and a solid all-around performer whose skills have stamped him as one of the new superstars of the NBA.

“That’s two for McAdoo,” becomes a familiar cry from the arena’s public address man, Dan Neaverth. He echoes it more than a dozen times that night and most likely will do so for many seasons to come. The 6-foot-10, 205-pound McAdoo is the backbone of a budding dynasty put together by shrewd general manager Eddie Donovan and molded into a cohesive and powerful unit by coach Jack Ramsay.

Forget that Buffalo was knocked out in the first round by the Boston Celtics, the eventual champion, four games to two. The Braves are for real with a big future in sight. 

Everyone has heard of DrGregorio, who wowed fans with his fancy playmaking while at Providence College and in leading the United States to a four-to-two victory over the Russians  in their series in early 1973. As a rookie last season, Ernie D led the league in assists (8.2) and free throw percentage (.902).

He brilliantly directed the Braves’ fastbreak last season, and McAdoo was on the receiving end of many feeds. It may surprise some people, but McAdoo led the NBA in scoring last season, with a 30.6-point average and also in field goal percentage (.547). Big Mac also ranked No. 3 in rebounds (15.1) and blocked shots (3.32). Yet he has been largely unheralded nationally.

It could be the fact that he’s operating out of Buffalo. Of course, that hasn’t hurt O.J. Simpson. But O.J. already had plenty of media attention as a football All-American at Southern California.

McAdoo played only one year of major college basketball at North Carolina before joining the Braves as a hardship case. He helped the Tar Heels’ 1971-72 team finish with a 26-5 record, win the Atlantic Coast Conference title, and finish third in the NCAA tournament. He also was a member of the 1971 Pan American team and hit the winning basket against Brazil in Cali, Colombia. Prior to that, he paced Vincennes, Indiana, to the national junior college crown in 1970.

McAdoo also earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors for his efforts as a forward during the 1972-73 campaign. Despite these accomplishments, he’s hardly a household name. Some observers felt he won the rookie award by default after averaging 18 points and nine rebounds that season because it was regarded as a lean year for rookies. During the campaign, Big Mac was used as a forward, a position he disliked, and was much maligned for his defensive work while guarding players much smaller.

After Donovan traded away seven-foot center Elmore Smith following the 1972-73 season, it paved the way for McAdoo to return to his natural center position. The lanky son of a Greensboro, North Carolina, carpenter took to the job like a Buffalo hardhat downs his Genesee beer. He proved that you don’t have to be seven feet and/or muscular to play the pivot spot in the fashion of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Nate Thurmond, and Bob Lanier.

McAdoo runs like a deer—the quickest center getting downcourt, according to Donovan—and can pop from the corners as well as doing his job around the boards. 

Despite his success, McAdoo has had several down moments with Buffalo. Later last season, he commented: “I think I’m sort of ignored, and I resent it. Sportswriters treat me like I don’t even exist. It’s beyond me. Buffalo is fighting for the playoffs, and I’m doing my thing against the best men in the game, but people tend to ignore me.”

The Buffalo star is candid about his ability. “In my first year, I was intimidated by Jabbar and even in the beginning of my second season. But I’m not anymore. I believe I gave the best players, dudes like Lanier and Jabbar, as much trouble as they’re giving me. I know I go to the hoop as well as anybody.”

Recalling his first campaign, McAdoo’s eyes grew sad. “As a rookie, I sat on the bench until around the first of December. I should have been playing. I wasn’t told anything about why I wasn’t playing. I just didn’t play. I was crying inside. I couldn’t take it. I wasn’t too friendly with the players. I had a problem with people. I wouldn’t mingle too much. I was always teed off.”

He played scared for a while, but eventually playing time soothed his nerves and his talent began to show. Several high 30-point performances proved that. Walt Frazier, Knicks’ star backcourtman, recalls the night during McAdoo’s rookie season when 6-foot-5 forward Bill Bradley scored 38 points against McAdoo. “The next game, they put him (McAdoo) on me, and I considered it an insult. So, I scored 38 on him.” It helped to bring about the no-defense rap on Big Bob. 

“I played center all my life,” McAdoo explained recently while recalling the anguish of that first season. “Then they put me at forward and asked me to play quick guys. You just don’t see 6-foot-10 players defending against Bradley, Frazier, Don Chaney, Lou Hudson, and guys like that.”

Offseason deals engineered by Donovan before the 1973-74 campaign changed the fortunes of McAdoo and the Braves. When Buffalo traded center Elmore Smith, they landed Jim McMillian, a solid forward from the Los Angeles Lakers. It picked DiGregorio in the college draft and obtained forward Garfield Heard from Chicago. Late acquisitions of veterans Jack Marin and Matt Goukas also helped the Braves in the drive to the playoffs.

The transition of the Braves to a smaller faster class with McAdoo at center made the Braves a contender. “The big guys don’t stay with Mac that well,” says Buffalo coach Jack Ramsay. “And you’ve got to stay on top of him, because if you don’t, he’s going to get open,” Bill Bridges, the Lakers’ veteran forward says. “The game is easy for him. He’s the best talent to come into the league in a long time. Maybe Oscar Robertson and Jerry West made it look that easy, but that’s all. He scores 30 against Jabbar, 30 against Thurmond, 30 against Cowens. For him, the game is easy. He hasn’t reached his peak either. He will continue to get better. Just remember, the game is easy for him, easy.”

Late last season, Los Angeles coach Bill Sharman remarked after McAdoo’s 44 points, 24 rebounds, and six blocked shots against the Lakers: “McAdoo is tremendous. He’s having a sensational year—as good as any had by Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar. He’s great at both ends of the court. What is really impressive is that he’s leading the league not only in scoring but also in field goal percentage. That’s difficult to do when you’re taking so many shots.”

Walt Frazier was duly impressed by McAdoo’s second season as a pro. “He’s almost like a Bill Russell near the basket. He has unbelievable jumping ability. His timing is great.”

Granted McAdoo is dangerous near the basket, but he also gets a lot of points on 15 and 20-foot jump shots, which he unleashes with a noticeable snap of the wrist, rather than a pushing maneuver. 

“I don’t think I’ve never seen a better shot anywhere,” said Boston old timer Don Nelson. “His release is unbelievable.” Nelson’s comments came after a 52-point performance by McAdoo in which he hit 20 of 28 field-goal tries. It capped a seven-game stretch where Mac made good on 104 of 152 shots for an outstanding .684 percentage. “That so-and-so never misses,” said Boston coach Tom Heinsohn. Celtic forward Paul Silas added: “There’s no way I could guard him. He jumps out of the sky. I bump him, and he still shoots over me.”

The Buffalo club did a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in order to land McAdoo. Before the 1973 NBA college draft began Commissioner Walter Kennedy warned all clubs that the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association had signed McAdoo. The Portland Trail Blazers had the No. 1 choice in the draft and were apparently scared away by the Kennedy announcement. [Editor’s note: Not true. Predraft contract negotiations between McAdoo and Portland failed.] They chose LaRue Martin of Loyola of Chicago. Buffalo had the second choice. 

“The Braves select Robert McAdoo of North Carolina,” Donovan announced on the conference call. Stunned silence followed. The Buffalo club had done their homework. The weekend before the draft, Donovan and owner Paul Snyder visited McAdoo, his attorney, and agent. They uncovered that McAdoo was under 21 at the time he signed the Virginia contract and therefore was invalid.

McAdoo helped turn the tables for Buffalo, an expansion club which suffered through the first three seasons before qualifying for the playoffs last season. With McMillian, Randy Smith, and Heard contributing to the attack, the Braves emerged as the top scoring team in the NBA with a 116-point average.

[The one-man revolution was short-lived. As Jack Ramsay later explained, “When I was coaching at Buffalo, Bob McAdoo, who was clearly the team’s outstanding player, was paid less than Ernie DiGregorio, a flashy guard who had signed a very high-salaried contract with the team’s owner, Paul Snyder. When I decided that Ken Charles, rather than DiGregorio, deserved to start, McAdoo found an even stronger basis for his claim that he should be paid more than Ernie D. McAdoo wanted to renegotiate his contract. Snyder did make an offer, but it was not one satisfactory to McAdoo.”  

Snyder and McAdoo settled in the short term. But McAdoo questioned his new contract and its mostly unattainable dangle of lucrative incentive clauses. Snyder boiled, anxious to sell the Braves and cut his NBA losses. He was done talking new contracts, and in December 1976, the Braves’ new owner John Y. Brown unloaded McAdoo and his expiring contract on the New York Knicks for center John Gianelli and $3 million. As news of this seemingly epic NBA transaction broke, long lines formed spontaneously outside of Madison Square Garden for tickets to suddenly the biggest show in town. “We get [long lines] when tickets go on sale for a rock show,” a security guard commented on the line. “But not for the Knicks and Rangers.”

Big Mac showed Gotham that he could score with the best of them. The game, as Bill Bridges put it, was just “easy for him.” But it soon became clear that McAdoo and his one-man revolution wasn’t what New York wanted. Knicks coach Red Holzman played a traditional pass-and-cut game that the masses loved. Holzman had never game-planned for a player of McAdoo’s ilk, and the Knicks struggled to find their rhythm on the court and in the win column. All of the losses under McAdoo’s had Madison Square Garden longing for the halcyon team-first, make-the-extra-pass days of Reed, Bradley, Frazier, DeBusschere, and Barnett.

McAdoo was now whispered to be a flawed experiment, one with plenty of poof but no winning product. New York and its new wheeler-dealer top exec Sonny Werblin let the rest of the league know that Big Mac was available for the right discounted price. The Celtics—make that, the team’s new owner John Y. Brown (he famously swapped ownership of the Braves franchise for the Celtics)—took the bait. He dealt three first-round draft choices and reserve center Tommy Barker to Werblin for his former star McAdoo. 

In Boston, McAdoo arrived between an unpopular rock named Brown and a hard place named Red. Red Auerbach had just signed All-American Larry Bird for next season, and McAdoo and his one-man revolution wasn’t needed. As discussed by Boston’s Globe’s Bob Ryan on February 18, 1979, neither was it wanted.]

The ultimate importance of the Bob McAdoo trade is not whether it was a good or bad move for the Celtics. The fact is that it was simply wrong, which is a far different matter. 

This was a maneuver conceived in a casual manner which was insulting to Red Auerbach, Eddie Donovan, Red Holzman, and Dave Cowens. Propriety, decency, and common courtesy apparently mean nothing to Sonny Werblin and John Y. Brown, the two Glitter Guys. Only Harry Mangurian among the three involved owners bothered to mention the name of his general manager, even if it was merely in a throwaway line (“Gee, I wonder what Red will think of this?” or words to that effect).

Trading McAdoo makes sense from a New York standpoint in the long run, although every basketball person with whom I have spoken in the past week thinks the Knicks were crazy to settle for three draft choices in this most barren of draft years. I was among the many who wondered why the Knicks didn’t get more for McAdoo until one expert explained the reason to me. “Sonny Werblin,” said Mr. VIP, “doesn’t know a damn thing about basketball.”

But I’m not concerned about the Gulf and Western [owned] Knicks. I am interested in the Boston Celtics, a team which, following a year and a half of turmoil (a staggering total of 30 players have worn Celtic uniforms since opening day of the 1977-78 season) had just become a team at the very time this unsettling trade was made. By his actions, John Y. Brown proved that he has learned nothing from the developments of the past year.

There was, for example, the matter of Tommy Barker, a player both Cowens and his teammates had come to appreciate during his month as a Celtic. To Brown, Barker was a nobody, a disposable, replaceable 11th man. To Sonny Werblin, who knew so little he thought Barker’s name was “Markham” (Are you beginning to grasp the degree of gall these egomaniacal moguls possess?), the player was an abstract figure. 

But to Cowens, this seven-foot hustler was a flesh-and-blood reality, an enthusiastic, agreeable workman who represented the type of player he wants on his team. Mr. Brown cannot understand the value of a simpatico 10th or 11th man. He thinks loftier thoughts. Three-time scoring champions mean something to him, journeyman centers do not. 

Let us assume, furthermore, that Auerbach views Bob McAdoo as a marketable commodity at the end of the season. Is this fair to McAdoo? This man is no ax murderer. He is no Elvin Hayes or Sidney Wicks, alienating teammates continually. He is an incomplete player, true, but he is a basically well-liked human being who deserves better treatment than to be shipped to Boston as a bargaining chip in some future transaction. 

Nobody ever told him to his face that he was letting the Knicks down. I don’t care if he makes $500,000 or $5,000,000 a year. Isn’t he entitled to some dignity?

He is a Celtic for the remaining 26 games of the season, and this poses a problem for Cowens as a coach. How should McAdoo be used? He could be a valuable service as an outside shooter and wing man on the fastbreak, but whose time should get? Curtis Rowe has just regained his old efficiency. Cedric Maxwell is a scoring machine. Cowens is a better center. Rick Robey was supposed to be the hope of the future as a frontcourt swingman.

If McAdoo spells Maxwell too much, this is unfair to Maxwell. And the immediate solution to employ McAdoo as a backup center, deprives the team of Cowens’ valuable services. You’ll notice we haven’t even mentioned the name of Larry Bird, whose first question to Jeff Judkins and Robey last Monday was, “What’s with this McAdoo thing?”

Clearly, the acquisition of McAdoo was an impetuous and greedy move on the Celtics’ part. Not even the successful marketing of McAdoo for a couple of valuable players will alter the fact that by carrying out a transaction over the heads of the teams’ general manager and coach, two people who have worked to rebuild the team in a classic Celtic tradition, the ownership has demeaned their achievement. John Y. Brown, especially, doesn’t seem to understand that acquiring the right pieces is paramount, and that while there surely is a place in the league for McAdoo, that place may not necessarily be Boston. 

It is obvious that as long as John Y. Brown is determining the destiny of this team, intrigue and deception will be the rule. Auerbach and Cowens had managed to undue the harm of John Y’s last big move, but he couldn’t leave well enough alone. He had to be a Big Shot. We can only hope that he has it all out of his system. 

[He didn’t in his 26 game tryout. “Bob was more concerned with personal achievements than team achievements,” Auerbach characterized McAdoo, whom all parties agreed didn’t want to be there. Before the 1979-80 season, Boston handed the former NBA MVP (1975) and what remained of the revolution to Dick Vitale and his Detroit Pistons. 

“Injuries and another poor fit scuttled his stay in Motown. In February 1981, after much wrangling between player and team, the Pistons issued the following terse public statement: “Bob McAdoo will not play for the rest of the season. The available minutes will be given to young players.” The next month, Detroit waived Big Mac. With the season winding down, the New Jersey Nets took a chance and claimed him off waivers. The New York Daily News’ Bill Verigan details just how low the once-celebrated McAdoo had sunk when he arrived in New Jersey. His article ran on March 15, 1981.] 

Why Bob McAdoo? Why not? That seems to be what the Nets’ GM Charlie Theokas figured when he claimed the maligned player on waivers.

Nobody knows whether McAdoo can help the Nets. But he probably can’t hurt them very much this season because they are already out of the playoffs and can afford to experiment. They are willing to take a cheap peek at McAdoo to determine if he’s right for them in future seasons. 

The Nets must watch him carefully before deciding whether they want him to come back. They must decide whether his injuries and attitude have healed. Over the years, McAdoo has been a victim and a villain. He had been at the scene of so many disasters that he has to be a suspect. His last three teams have gone down in flames. The teams were smoking when he arrived, but they became infernos. In that case, is McAdoo a firemen or a firebug? It’s not easy to tell.

Not so many seasons ago, when Buffalo was part of the NBA, McAdoo was a very big deal. Buffalo was never a champion with him, but it was a winner. He was the NBA scoring champion, and he was a hero.

His game was flawed, but most diamonds are flawed. Back then, his offensive dazzle blinded the fans to his lack of an inside game and defense. His glory days all happened at Buffalo a long, long time ago. Since leaving that town, he has been a loser who played for losers.

When Buffalo finally dumped him, it was because of a contract dispute, not because he couldn’t play. He missed a few games with a bad back and was called a malingerer, an unjustified charge that has always haunted him.

The time he spent with the Knicks was another episode in his undoing. He played the same way he had always played. He never had a scoring slump. People now forget how he dived for loose balls, how he rebounded, and how he hustled on transitions even if you didn’t know what to do once he got there. He did things that Bill Cartwright has only dreamed of doing.

McAdoo did lots right, but he also did lots wrong. He was a star, and he expected to be treated like a star. He did not fit into the system. He did not even try. He wanted the system to be tailored to him. Red Holzman’s team-oriented style with a dominant defensive player in the middle was completely alien to McAdoo. So Holzman was fired.

The Knicks became too dependent on him. The word traveled around the league that beating up McAdoo was the way to beat the Knicks, and he was bumped and bruised and elbowed at every opportunity.

GM Red Auerbach and all Boston were furious at the trade that sent McAdoo to the Celtics. McAdoo never had a chance with the Celtics. He was booed upon his arrival and relegated to the bench. He went into a long sulk. He still believed he was a 48-minute man. 

His days with Detroit were a disaster, too. He was always hurt. The injuries were real enough, but the charge that he was a malingerer was dredged up. He played in only six games this season because of injuries. When he healed and the Pistons refused to let him put on a uniform, he threatened to sue them. Finally, they placed him on waivers, and the Nets picked him up.

Will the Nets keep the 29-year-old McAdoo at the expense of losing some promising rookie next season? Is McAdoo finally willing to be a sub? Will he sulk when negotiations are over if they pay him less than he made in the past? Will he play as hard knowing that he is on his last contract?

They are difficult questions, but the Nets must be certain of the right answers before bringing McAdoo back for an encore next season.

The Nets are his last chance. If the experiment does not succeed, McAdoo might be finished at the age of 29. It would be a waste for the team and the man.

[The Nets experiment didn’t succeed. In December 1981, New Jersey traded McAdoo to the Los Angeles Lakers for a future second-round draft choice and cash. Translation: Please take him off our hands. But, like a cat with nine lives, McAdoo rekindled his Hall of Fame career in L.A. Surrounded by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, and loads of other talent, McAdoo didn’t have to be a one-man revolution or absorb all the bumps and body blows. He just got to play to his strengths and show how easy the game was for him. The moral of this NBA story: The league is all about finding the right fit, and not getting trapped along the way in struggling organizations and career-threatening situations.]

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