Kevin Joyce: Tales of Captain Kevin, 1976

[Kevin Joyce was one in a string of All-American guards at the University of South Carolina during the 1960s and early 1970s. All were white, and, like Joyce, hailed from a New York City borough. “Captain Kevin,” a determined scorer with a knock-down fadeaway jumper from the corner, was predicted to go early in the 1973 NBA and ABA drafts. And so, under the advisement of the well-connected South Carolina coach Frank McGuire, he signed with an agent. Not just any agent, but one of McGuire’s old acquaintances, Arthur Morse.   

Morse, pint-sized, fidgety, thick glasses, was a character with a capital “C.” As Morse could tell you in meandering detail, an omnipresent stogie smoldering in his right hand, he’d seen it all in his then 65 years and, as his critics grumbled under their breath, thought he knew it all. Most GMs admitted that Morse was tough but fair. Others bypassed any player that he represented. In these early days of agents, they didn’t want the aggravation or risk getting shown up. In 1972, Morse negotiated a “better” contract for rookie NFL running back Leroy Keyes than the one signed by widely celebrated top pick, O.J. Simpson.

In the 1973 pro drafts, Joyce went as predicted in the first round to the NBA Golden State Warriors, and the ABA San Antonio Spurs grabbed him in the second round. San Antonio bid low and quickly backed off, leaving Morse to compare numbers with Golden State GM Bob Feerick, a pro basketball star from the 1950s when rookies took whatever their teams offered. Feerick didn’t see why Joyce shouldn’t take what the Warriors were offering. But Morse insisted on a three-year no-cut contract, which guaranteed the money. Feerick chuckled, explaining that the Warriors didn’t give no-cut contracts to rookies. Morse didn’t budge from his position, and a stubborn agent and a stubborn GM agreed that they didn’t particularly care for each other. 

The San Francisco press piled on Feerick and the Warriors over the contract stalemate, wondering why they drafted Joyce if they didn’t plan to sign him? Then in early May 1973, news leaked that Joyce had been arrested for possession of 25 grams of marijuana, a.k.a., a couple of joints, while driving through a small South Carolina town. He was fined $500. The Warriors tried to leverage the arrest to their advantage, now openly questioning Joyce’s character. Morse repeated: He wanted a three-year, no-cut contract.

By early September, with training about to start, Joyce remained unsigned. “We aren’t far apart on money,” said team owner Franklin Mieuli, “but I can’t give him any more than a one-year, no-cut [contract], and I think that’s generous. The boy has something to prove. He is under a cloud, and he has to prove himself a straight arrow.” Back in Chicago, Morse vowed, “I’ll never negotiate with Golden State again.”

A month later, the ABA Indiana Pacers opportunistically jumped in and offered Joyce a two-year, no-cut deal for $65,000 per annum. He signed, and this article, which ran in the San Antonio Spurs Illustrated, 1974-75 without a byline, catches up with Joyce during his second ABA season to hear how things are working out for him in Indiana shooting a red, white, and blue basketball.]

****

Some place in New York City sits some unknown figure (wouldn’t it be funny if he were a Nets fan) who got Kevin Joyce rolling toward a career in basketball. The guy we’re talking about is the one who decided, back in 1959, that the golf course down the street from K.J.’s home in Queens should be torn down to make room for a housing development.

Only eight years old at the time, Kevin was forced away from the game that his four older brothers had learned well enough on that course to eventually become professionals. But with the encouragement of his family, Joyce (11 years younger than his next youngest brother) moved away from the fairways onto the playground cement and into the sport of basketball.

“My brothers had grown up with golf,” relates the Indiana Pacers’ number one guard, “but basketball was their favorite sport, and they kind of pushed me toward it. Now they’re very proud of the things I’ve done.”

All the second-year pro out of South Carolina has done is become—along with forward George McGinnis—the man who can be counted upon to be in Coach Bobby Leonard’s starting lineup, night in and night out.

“When you start, you can’t complain about anything,” says the 6-foot-3, 190-pound native of Merrick, N.Y. “It’s up to you to do it. I’d just like to be consistent and produce every night. That’s what the great ones do.”

Because of his consistency, it’s easy to overlook Joyce. Not one to break away for 30 to 40-point games, K.J. nevertheless is rarely out of double figures. Averaging 15 points per game (third on the team) and a 44 percent shooter, Joyce has left his defenders shaking their heads more than once after that falling-away baseline jumper of his rips through the cords.

After a superlative collegiate career at South Carolina, including a starting spot on the 1972 Olympic team, Joyce signed late with the Pacers last season and never spent much time off the bench. But Leonard told him late in the campaign not to worry, he would be the number one guard this year because the Pacers were going to trade away their starting backcourt of Freddie Lewis and Donnie Freeman, now with the Spurs.

So, K.J. hung in there, worked out over the summer, and reported in shape and rarin’ to go last September. “I think stamina is important,” Joyce says. “Your shot is affected by how tired you are, and you have to make sure you’re in top condition. Players have to learn when to rest when they’re on the court, and I’m learning how to do that more and more.”

Kevin is quick to point out, though, that you can’t rest when you’re on defense. That’s where he’s working hardest to improve. “Defense has probably been my biggest adjustment in the pros, simply because I never had to play it,” he says. “In college, we played a zone all of the time, or I was always matched against the other team’s weakest offensive player.

“They tell you that the pros don’t play defense. But that’s a fallacy.”

Joyce has already had some memorable battles with San Antonio’s James Silas, and the two have swapped a variety of bumps, bruises, and—once—fists. Saying he enjoys the physical aspects of the rugged pro game, K.J. nevertheless is quick to deny any bad blood between him and Silas.

“In a game, you have a totally different personality,” number 43 asserts. ‘There’s nothing personal between Silas and I. I don’t take my game off the court with me, and I think it’s a pretty shallow person who would carry a grudge with him.”

Kevin finds happiness in the atmosphere surrounding this year’s team, and he believes it has an effect on the Pacers’ oncourt performances. “This team talks more than any team I know of,” he says. “The other teams can’t believe how well we get along, and I think it has something to do with us all being pretty close to the same age.

“And this shows on the court because nobody gets offended when you say something that’s just trying to help”

Asked if his responsibilities to the team have decreased the pressure on him to produce, Joyce replies that “I’m just going to play my game.

“Basketball is a game of reaction anyway, and you don’t have any time out there to stop and feel any pressure. If you think too much, you’ll just mess it up.

“But you take a guy like George McGinnis. Heck, all the pressure is on him, really, considering all that’s expected from him.”

McGinnis, personally, is sold on the future ahead for Joyce. “I think Kevin Joyce has all the tools to become a great guard,” says Big Mac. “He can shoot, he can play defense, and he can handle the ball.”

An intense player with dark handsome looks, Kevin says that basketball currently “is the only thing I’m concerned about.”

“I just love it so much. I’m doing something right now that people around the world would enjoy doing. Or at least, they’d like to have a job to enjoy as much as I enjoy mine and still get paid for it.”

Just 23 years old, Joyce likes to travel in the offseason and counts Key West, Fla., as his favorite spot right now.

And about that golf game. Well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing he had basketball to fall back on.

[Kevin Joyce was obviously on his way to a long-and-productive pro career. Right? Well, not so fast. His contract was up at the end of the season, and Arthur Morse soon reared his demanding head in Indianapolis. Morse wanted another no-cut deal that doubled Joyce’s salary to $130,000 per season. The Pacers, like most ABA teams, were in deep financial trouble and paying that kind of money was out of the question. “Why give him that when I can take the money and spread it out among my rookies,” scoffed Bobby Leonard, the Pacers’ coach and now GM. Leonard then took a swipe at his starting guard. “To me, Kevin is an average professional guard. If we were talking about a Jerry West, then it would be a different story.”

Joyce still had to play out his ABA option year for $65,000, but the Pacers didn’t want him and hefty contract demand around. They traded Joyce before the 1975-76 season started to the ill-fated San Diego Sails. The Sails folded in no time, and Joyce bounced to the Kentucky Colonels, coached by Hubie Brown. Joyce fought through a series of nagging injuries, but enjoyed some special moments teaming with Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier during the ABA’s final season.

When the Colonels weren’t included that summer in the so-called NBA-ABA “merger,” Joyce was without a team—and up a creek. His ABA contract had expired, meaning he was now a free agent. In fact, the Colonels didn’t even submit his name for the ABA dispersal draft that transferred the league’s best-and-ablest to the NBA. Joyce was now on his own. He’d have to make peace with Golden State, which still owned his NBA rights and didn’t need him or Arthur Morse. Joyce, through no fault of his own, had been transformed in three seasons from highly touted first-round draft choice to ABA journeyman.

Enter Indiana’s Bobby Leonard. In late summer 1976. Leonard got the okay from Golden State for Indiana to resign Joyce, no doubt well below his $130,000 asking price. It was exactly the break Joyce needed—but it was the pop that he hadn’t anticipated. 

On October 17, 1976, the Pacers were in Fort Wayne to play an exhibition game against the Detroit Pistons (formerly, the Fort Wayne Pistons). Leonard motioned Joyce into the game to start the second quarter and, with 5:07 left, the Pacers rebounded a Pistons miss. Joyce turned quickly to get downcourt on the fastbreak. He’d done It thousands of times in his life. But this time, his left knee popped, and Joyce crashed to the floor in agony. He was rushed by ambulance to a hospital, and doctors operated immediately to reattach the damaged ligaments. As the weeks and months would attest, Joyce’s knee was shot. And so was his pro career. By the early 1980s, Joyce was back in New York working on Wall Street as a stockbroker. “I was very disappointed when I got hurt,” said Joyce. “But now I’m at the point where just about everybody my age that I played with is retired, so that eases the pain a little bit.”]

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