Big Bill Cartwright: The NBA’s Best Young Center, 1981

[In the 2010 book, When the Game Was Ours, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (with plenty of help from the outstanding writer/journalist Jackie MacMullan) made the case that “their uncommonly competitive relationship” was key for myriad cultural reasons in “helping to save a floundering NBA.” No real quarrel there. However, it’s also assumed that Bird and Magic turned heads and took the league by storm from day one. After all, Bird was the NBA Rookie of the Year in a landslide (decided by NBA beat reporters), and Magic wowed the world with his versatility in willing the Lakers to the 1979-80 championship. 

What’s to debate? The hair-splitting answer is some of the league’s best minds back then considered New York’s Bill Cartwright to be the top rookie that season. In this short article, published in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest, wire-service reporter Bert Rosenthal lays out the thinking. That’s not to argue that Cartwright was better than Bird or Magic. He wasn’t. But these emphatic thumbs up for Cartwright show just how stuck in the paint the NBA game was in 1981. Thirty-plus years of NBA history had proved that the franchises perennially  in the  championship hunt featured a quality big man (from Mikan to Abdul-Jabbar) anchoring the middle. It would take Bird, Magic, and their “uncommonly competitive relationship” a few NBA playoff runs to loosen that mindset and save a “floundering” league from itself. 

That’s not a knock against Cartwright. In fact, for the sake of full disclosure, I grew up in Sacramento during the 1970s when he posted up the city’s prep finest and made mincemeat of them. I watched it firsthand. Now, more than 40 years later, I remain a real homer when it comes to Bill Cartwright. That’s why I’m happy to add Rosenthal’s article and give a special tip of the hat to the great Bill Cartwright.]

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In the first 34 years of the National Basketball Association—this is the league’s 35th—it has been proved that the big men have dominated the game. With them, teams have won titles, from George Mikan in the late 1940s and up to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s. And in the 25 years that the NBA has been selecting a Most Valuable Player award, the honor has gone 21 times to a center. 

So, the importance of a good big man cannot be underestimated. His dominance, his talent, his presence, his bearing, can be the springboard to success.

That is why the New York Knicks, who have made the playoffs only once in the past five seasons, suddenly feel so secure for the next several years, confident they can regain the prestige that made them one of the most respected teams in the NBA during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period when they won their only two league championships and annually reached the playoffs.

The Knicks have a young, powerful force in the middle—7-foot-1, 240-pound Bill Cartwright. The 23-year-old Cartwright, the all-time scoring leader at the University of San Francisco—ahead of Bill Russell, ahead of K.C. Jones, ahead of Winford Boynes, ahead of James Hardy—was the third player chosen in the 1979 draft and the first center. He was taken by the Knicks after the Lakers selected Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the Chicago Bulls picked forward David Greenwood.

It was understandable why the Lakers and Bulls would bypass the awesome Cartwright. Both were well fortified at center, L.A. with Abdul-Jabbar and Chicago with Artis Gilmore. 

It also was understandable why the Knicks could not let him get away. They had weak-kneed Marvin Webster at center, and they needed Insurance. If Webster was injured, as he often was during the 1978-79 season when he missed 22 games and played many others in pain, the Knicks had no one to play the position because they had traded Bob McAdoo to Boston.

If, on the other hand, Webster was healthy, Cartwright would be used as a reserve and brought along slowly to learn the difficult position. There even was a third reason. “You always need two centers,” said Red Holzman, the Knicks’ wizened coach. “Having both of them may enable each player to be more aggressive and not worry about fouls.” Added Holzman, “I may play both of them at the same time under certain conditions.”

As it turned out, Cartwright was not only the Knicks’ starter in all 82 Games, but he wound up third in the league in minutes played with 3,150 (behind only the 3,226 of Los Angeles’ Norm Nixon and the 3,183 of Washington’s Elvin Hayes).

As for Webster, he reinjured his right knee after playing only seven minutes of the team’s first exhibition game and did not play again until February 23, missing 62 games. 

By the end of the season, Holzman acknowledged the yeoman work done by his rookie center. “If anyone has the right to be tired, it’s Bill,” said Holzman. “He played a lot of minutes. He’s been a workhorse.”

Cartwright was a productive workhorse. His stats (21.7 scoring average, .547 field-goal percentage, and 726 rebounds) were perhaps the most impressive for a first-year pivotman since Abdul-Jabbar broke into the league in the 1969-70 season in Milwaukee. Kareem averaged 28.8 points, shot .518, grabbed 1,190 rebounds, and was named Rookie of the Year.

Despite Cartwright’s impressive figures, he didn’t receive a single vote for rookie of the year. Boston forward Larry Bird, chosen by the Celtics in the 1978 draft when he still had one year of college eligibility remaining—and decided to exercise it—earned 63 votes, and Johnson got the other three.

The voting was done by three members of the media in each of the league’s 22 cities. But if it had been conducted among some of the players and coaches, the results may have been different. “I think Cartwright is the best rookie in the league this year,” said Wes Unseld, the veteran center of the Bullets. “He contributed more to his team than anyone else. I have a great deal of respect for him. He plays hard, used his size well, and never gives up. I think his most-important asset is his willingness to take over down the stretch of close games. He wants the ball in tight situations, and that’s unusual for most rookies.

“I know Bird has had a great year,” continued Unseld, “but I think that center is the toughest position to break in at because you never get an off night. At guard or forward, every once in a while, you get a soft touch playing you. But not at center.”

“I hear everybody talking about Johnson and Bird,” Atlanta coach Hubie Brown said at the time of the balloting, “but how about Cartwright? Johnson has Kareem, and Bird has Cowens to take off the heat. But the Knicks don’t have anybody to take the heat off Cartwright.”

Phoenix coach John MacLeod was also impressed with Cartwright. After the Knicks’ imposing rookie had a big game against the Suns, MacLeod said, “We had a man in front of him, and a man behind him. And nothing stopped him.”

”He was,” said New York’s general manager Eddie Donovan, “much better than we’d thought he be.”

“When I first reported to the Knicks,” admitted the soft-spoken Cartwright, “I really didn’t know what to expect at all. I mean, I didn’t know how much I’d be playing, and I didn’t know much about the players I’d be playing against. But when Marvin got hurt and I became the starting center, I think I was ready. It didn’t surprise me that I could score in the NBA, because I’d always been an offensive player. I could always shoot.”

That he could. In college, he averaged 24.5 points per game in his senior season to surpass Boynes as San Francisco’s all-time leading scorer. That season, he also became the first player in the 27-year history of the West Coast Athletic Conference to win the MVP award for the third time.

Cartwright’s four-year totals at USF were 2,116 points—he was the first player in conference history to score more than 2,000 points—and 1,137 rebounds in 111 games. Those figures helped earn him a $250,000 multi-year NBA contract.

Nevertheless, there were some doubts that Cartwright could be an outstanding player in the pros. Some observers said that at 260 pounds (he has lost some 20 pounds since the end of last season through a weight-training program), he was too bulky and too slow. Others said that he was not aggressive enough.

But there were others that were convinced that the son of a California farm laborer would be an NBA star. “He’ll be the best center to come out [of college] for the next two or three years at least,” predicted Marty Blake, director of the NBA’s scouting agency. “He has a chance to be a dominating center in a couple of years.”

Even Blake had to be surprised at how fast Cartwright progressed in his first season in the NBA.

So did Holzman.

“I didn’t envision him so good so soon,” said the Knicks coach, who is generally reserved in his praise. “He’s become an important force for us. We knew we were putting him on the spot, but he responded to the challenge. Other than Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, and Russell, I’ve never seen a rookie center play like Cartwright.”

There is little question that Cartwright will be playing in New York for a long time. He is the nucleus around whom the Knicks are being rebuilt, the dominant center who is the key ingredient on any winning club. 

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