[When Roy Rubin passed away in August 2013, the obit writers couldn’t help themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer called him among other things “a miscast schlub.” The Miami Herald went more diplomatically with “a top-notch college basketball coach improbably elevated to the NBA for one disastrous Philadelphia 76ers’ season in the 1970s.” The Boston Globe suficed with the headline: Set Futility Record as NBA Coach.”
All admittedly have their elements of truth. Rubin bombed big time. But all miss the larger point: Rubin was set up to fail. Former 76er coach Jack Ramsay and his GM Don DeJardin already had decimated the franchise. As former NBA great and Ramsay’s point guard Archie Clark kept telling me while we worked on his biography, “Philadelphia was a sinking ship. I wanted out of there.” Rubin, lacked the good sense, to want in. That was his tragic flaw. His poor judgment cost him his otherwise “top-notch” coaching career and stigmatized him as, well, “a miscast schlub.”
Rubin accepted his unfair fate and only occasionally did he try to tell his side of the story. This article, published on April 4, 1977 in the Miami News, is one of those occasions and really worth reading. (Look for Fred Carter. His quotes are spot on.) The outstanding Jeffrey Denberg, better known for his work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is at the keyboard.]
The story is very familiar, about the guy who dreams of setting up his own business, who saves for years, living for the day he can buy a fast-food restaurant and become his own boss. So, when you walk into International House of Pancakes No. 12, 24th and Biscayne Boulevard, you see Roy Rubin behind the cash register, and you figure that Roy Rubin must be such a man.
Rubin is 50, tall and robust with a full head a graying hair that is combed back off his forehead. His face is remarkably unlined, and he gives the appearance of a fellow who did 30 years in the service or maybe put in his time with the force and is now living off his pension and his new business.
But this is not simply the story of a small businessman. Not at all. Until very recently, the only business Roy Rubin knew was the basketball business.
Instead, this is the story of a man who once coached the worst professional basketball team in the entire history of professional basketball teams. This is the story of a nice man who was screwed by the people who sought him out and employed him. This is the story of how a gentle man’s life was torn apart by ignorant and arrogant people. And it is the story of how this man put his life back together again.
The ruin of Roy Rubin’s career began the day in 1972 when he was hired away from Long Island University to coach the Philadelphia 76ers for the National Basketball Association. The 76ers, champions of the NBA in 1967 with a record 68 victories, had gone into steady decline after winning 62 games the following season.
Their rapid fall is attributed mainly to the death of a man named Ike Richman, who operated the franchise with his partner Irving Kosloff. Richman was the basketball man; Kosloff, a paper goods manufacturer, put up the money.
Shortly after Richman’s death, Kosloff traded the symbol of his franchise, Wilt Chamberlain. The most-dominant figure the game has ever known. Wilt was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers for center Darrall Imhoff and guard Archie Clark, neither of whom were around by the time Rubin entered the picture. On his own after Richman’s death, Kosloff had listened to the wrong people, trading badly and drafting poorly. In 1970, for example, the team squandered its No. 1 choice on a young man [Al Henry]who was not good enough to play regularly for a second-division team in the Big 10. The 76ers slipped to 55 victories in 1969 and 42 in 1970. A year later, they won only 30 games. They fired their coach, Jack Ramsay, and hired Roy Rubin.
Rubin’s version of his first two days in Philadelphia is typical of his short and unhappy tenure. “They called a press conference to announce me as the coach. It was a nice day. The following day, they called a press conference to announce that Billy Cunningham had jumped to the ABA.” Cunningham had averaged 23 points a game over the previous four seasons. He was the only ranking star on the roster until the day he jumped to Carolina in the ABA.
Rubin might as well have jumped with him. He lost his first 13 games as a pro coach, and he lost his last nine. When he was dismissed the evening of the 1973 NBA All-Star game in Chicago, his team has compiled a record of four victories in 51 games. That is 4-47, a percentage of .079. Kevin Loughery, a veteran member of the team and now coach of the New York Nets, was named interim coach of the 76ers. The team responded to the change in command by losing its first 11 games under Loughery. That meant 20-straight defeats, a league record. Kevin was treated to five victories, 26 defeats, for an overall record of 9-73, 59 games behind the division champions, the New York Knicks. The 76ers thus obscured the standard for futility established in 1971 by the expansion Portland Trail Blazers, who won 15 games in their first season.
How did this happen? “Simple,” says Harvey Pollack, the team’s director of public relations. “Rubin wrecked the team. He was responsible. Nobody on the team had any respect for him. He couldn’t cope. You shouldn’t have had the job.”
But Pollack’s very simple explanation for the disaster of 1973 should be put into perspective. The 76ers organization was in such disarray, the team won just 25 games a year later when new coach Gene Shue kept only four of the woeful incumbents. Philadelphia won 34 games a year later with Billy Cunningham home finally from the ABA wars, and only Fred Carter and Leroy Ellis as season-long holdovers of the Rubin administration. Not coincidentally, there was also a new general manager.
Today, the 76ers also have new ownership. They lead their division, but they had to buy Julius Erving and George McGinnis to get there.
Fred Carter can almost laugh when he is told Philadelphia people blame Rubin for all their troubles. “Roy was in a terrible spot,” Carter said the other day from Milwaukee, where he now plays for the Bucks. “Roy took a situation that was downhill, and he didn’t have full authority to change things. He couldn’t cut players, and he couldn’t make trades.
“Philadelphia went from the best record ever to the worst record ever in five years. How can they blame all that on Roy? He was a victim if you want to know the truth.”
Carter said the record of the 1973 team has haunted him. “Every year, I hope somebody does worse. I thought the Nets might this year. When Milwaukee got off to a 4-21 start, I thought they might do it. I was cheering for them to do it . . . until I got traded here. But it seems that 9-73 is a distinction I’m going to have to live with for a long time.”
Roy Rubin was not the first man to attempt the transition from college to the professional level when he was hired by then general manager Don DeJardin, a refugee from Pittsburgh and Carolina of the ABA. Rubin had a successful 11-year career at LIU after being asked in 1961 to build the program from the ashes of the point-shaving scandals that had killed college ball in New York City a decade earlier.
Rubin’s LIU teams had a combined record of 174-76. In consecutive years of the late 1960s, his teams were 22-4, 22-7, and 22-2. LIU won three Eastern Region NCAA college division titles, and in 1968, advanced to the quarterfinal round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Rubin was regarded as a solid coach, respected by the kids who played for him and by the men who coached against him. A man who knows Rubin and is familiar with the Philadelphia story says: “They fed Roy to the lions. He never had a chance. He inherited a team comprised of players who were either lacking in basic fundamental skills or who were too old and tired to care. It was no secret that this was a bad team. Maybe Roy could have won a few more games if he had done things differently. But, all in all, it would have made very little difference.”
A prominent figure in an NBA front office says: “Rubin had a team that needed coaching, but you can’t discipline these players. Not today, not four years ago. How the hell can you teach fundamentals to a guy who’s making more money than you are and whose job is more secure than yours?”
Rubin, who had life-long newspaper friends in New York, had no friends in the Philadelphia press. “Red Holzman (the Knicks coach) warned me before I went. He said, ‘Roy, don’t read the Philly papers.’ I didn’t listen to them. I couldn’t.”
New York sports people read three papers a day because there are only three in existence. When there were six papers, they read six. It is a way of life. Unable to break the habits of a lifetime, Rubin read and suffered. “I was called ‘Poor Roy Rubin’ from the day I took the job. And I was Poor Roy Rubin every day thereafter.” The Philadelphia writers cut Rubin to pieces and, as this team continued to lose, he was totally defenseless.
Nineteen players wore 76er uniforms that season. Among the eight who suffered through the entire season, Luther Green, an ex-LIU player, worked only 32 minutes the entire year. Green was Rubin’s charity case. “A chance for the kid to earn a year’s pay,” Rubin admits. “After all, if I got rid of him and brought in another 12thman, what difference would it have made.”
Once an all-star, Hal Greer was too old to help this team, and Loughery was almost disinterested. Both Greer and Loughery had labored too often for contenders to break their backs for a team that was going nowhere. The only bona fide player on the roster was guard Fred Carter, who scored 20 points a game.
But again, there were 19 men on the roster, so the 76ers did deal. Among the deals DeJardin worked for his coach was a trade made November 2, 1972, in which the 76ers sent veteran forward Bill Bridges to the Lakers, who needed playoff insurance. The Lakers gave up their skinny backup center, Leroy Ellis, and a forward named John Q. Trapp, who once mystified the New York press corps by introducing himself to them as Red Holzman’s favorite player. Holzman had no idea who John Q. Trapp might be.
Today, Trapp is an undergraduate graduate assistant coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, the group that made it to the NCAA semifinals. Four years ago, Trapp met Rubin for the first time and responded to his coach’s introduction by belching.
By his own admission, these 51 games in Philadelphia nearly cost Roy Rubin his sanity. “It took me over a year to recover,” he said the other day while relaxing in a booth at his restaurant. “I had met Don DeJardin a few years before when he was at Pittsburgh (of the ABA) and trying to sign one of my players. Little did I know what I was in for. I figured I made the transition from high school to college, why couldn’t I make the move from college to the pros?”
Why indeed. Today, Rubin swears he will never coach again. He says a man on the board of trustees of a state university offered to help him a get a head coaching job, but he says he declined. “I’ve had enough. I would like to get back into basketball in some capacity, but not as a coach.”
Recently, Rubin was affiliated with a group that attempted to buy the troubled Houston Rockets franchise, but with the intention of keeping the team in Houston. Rubin’s group lost out. “It would have been nice,” he says, “but again, I would never have considered coaching that team.”
After the way he left the last club, who can blame him?
Rubin said he had heard rumors that his job was in jeopardy, but what man with a record of 4-47 would not hear rumors? “We we’re waiting for the coaches’ meeting (at the all-star game) to start. The only guys in the room were coaches and general managers, and DeJardin kept asking me whether I wanted to tape or film the games the next year. They were so cheap that season we didn’t do either. I turned around and I saw Kevin Loughery in the room, and I thought, ‘Why is a player here?’ I would have been pretty stupid not to know the answer.”
Rubin waited for DeJardin to fire him. DeJardin said nothing. Rubin grew angry and left Chicago before the all-star game began. He flew back to Philadelphia, where there was a message to call the general manager back in Chicago. Only then, Rubin says, was he told of his dismissal.
“They wanted me to work out my contract. I’d signed for three years, but I said no. I left, and I came to Florida to sit it out.”
Rubin played golf for a year and then decided to find a business that would support him but not require a great deal of technical know-how. “Friends put me onto this.”
Last week, Rubin sat in front of his television set and watched his friend Al McGuire win an NCAA championship in his last fling as a coach. At the finish, McGuire wept.
Rubin felt something, too. “Al is a tough guy, sure, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have emotions. Everything he fought for as a coach those kids had given him. It’s a helluva way to go out.”
Roy Rubin knows how the other half lives.