Those who know me are painfully aware that I keep an absolutely stunning amount of useless **** in my head. My response is, “There is no such thing as useless information, because…well…ya know… how would you know (you’ll never use it)?” So, combine that trait with the attention span of a goldfish and easy access to the internet, and well…
Any-hoo, the combination of a draft analysis I’m working on and reading When the Game Was Ours (the Bird/Magic book) started me wandering down a path looking at Rick Robey’s history with the Pacers. Rick Robey, for those who aren’t already aware of this, was “the guy we picked instead.” That is, the guy we picked, instead of taking Larry Bird.
Either I never knew this, or had forgotten it, but the Pacers actually held the #1 pick in the 1978 Draft, which was the year Bird was drafted 6th by the Celtics. Apparently, after Slick Leonard met with Bird and learned that the Indiana State star was committed to staying in college, he elected to trade the #1 pick to Portland for Johnny Davis and the #3 pick. Portland selected Mychal Thompson, while Rick Robey became the answer to a trivia question.
Really, if you remove what Bird became from the equation, and look at in terms of what they knew then, it actually was a pretty good trade. Johnny Davis was a starting quality point guard, and he was the reward for moving only two slots back in the draft. Sure, Robey was a complete stiff, but after 43 games, the Pacers parlayed him into the return of Billy Knight, who was a much better player than people remember.
So, yeah, not a bad deal. Johnny Davis and Billy Knight for Mychal Thompson, who had a relatively disappointing career. In fact, it was actually a really good deal for the Pacers, despite the fact that Knight’s knees were shot. Pacer fans can actually look back on that one and feel pretty good about it.
As long as you can ignore the fact that, in effect, they still could have drafted arguably one of the five greatest players to ever lace ‘em up, who, just happened to be an Indiana native.
But, really, that was a different time. It’s almost impossible to describe how different things were. The NBA was, quite possibly, dying. They were considered too black, too violent, and too riddled with drug problem for mass consumption. Their lone television contract was with CBS, and around that time, CBS elected not to show any of the NBA weeknight telecasts during prime time. (In fact, only playoff games were televised on weeknights. During the regular season, there was a single game broadcast each week on Sunday Afternoon.) They were played on tape delay at 11:30. As late as the mid-1980’s, even the finals were broadcast on tape delay. I can remember avoiding the sportscast on local news, so that I could watch Magic, Kareem, and the Lakers play Julius Erving and the 76ers without knowing the outcome.
Teams were broke, and the Pacers were broker. I think in many ways, the post-Magic-Larry-Michael generation may not be able to understand what it was like back then. That’s not a slight on them. When I look at the money and the access now, I sometimes wonder if I understand.
But this all brings me to the random thing I discovered when I was bored. It’s something that probably can illustrate how different the worldview was back then. I’ve rambled more than I intended, but we can get to it now.
The Saga of the 4th Pick in the 1981 Draft
If you’re a serious NBA fan today, you are aware that there are few things that get more attention, more discussion, or more love than a draft pick. I’m not talking about the player, rather the pick itself. It’s the NBA’s version of the Golden Ticket, a chance to see Willy Wonka’s (or Pawtucket Pat’s, if that’s more your milieu) magical world. There are few things more breathlessly (and senselessly) overvalued than a draft pick. However, back in the ’70’s and ’80’s, draft picks were almost like cans to be kicked down the road. Trade a future asset for success today, and ensure that asset declines in value by being good. For Pacer fans, the Tom Owens trade leaps readily to mind.
The fourth pick in the 1981 draft rightfully belonged to the Cleveland Cavaliers – at least in theory. Cleveland’s 28-54 record had earned them the slot, but they had long since bartered that particular asset away. The story starts almost four years before draft day:
- On October 3, 1977, the Cavaliers traded the rights to their 1981 and 1983 First Round draft picks to the Philadelphia 76ers for swingman Terry Furlow. Furlow was a Michigan State star and sometimes mentor to a very young Earvin Johnson. He played just about 100 nondescript games for the Cavs before being traded to Atlanta. Furlow was a member of the Utah Jazz in May of 1980, when he was killed in a car accident in Ohio. Police said his blood contained traces of cocaine and valium. The 1983 pick was later traded by Philly, along with Caldwell Jones, for Moses Malone and a championship. (Houston used that pick, which was #3, to draft Rodney McCray.) The 1981 pick did not stay with the Sixers, either.
- In February of 1980, the Sixers were serious title contenders and interested in a little backcourt help. The poor little pick was forwarded to Portland along with cash for guard Lionel Hollins. Hollins had been part of the 1977 Portland team that had defeated Philly for the title. In his 2 1/3 season stint, Philly went to the Finals twice (losing to LA both times) and fell in the Eastern Conference Finals once. Hollins started the lion’s share of games for them during that time. The 1981 pick resided in Portland, but it just couldn’t set down roots.
- Barely four months later, the pick was on the move again. This time, to the Windy City. Chicago sent Portland the rights to Kelvin Ransey and their 1981 1st Rounder. That pick turned out to be the 16th pick, and Portland spent it on another point guard, Darnell Valentine. Both Ransey and Valentine had brief, but relatively productive stints in the Pacific Northwest. Portland sent Chicago the rights to Ronnie Lester and, get this: The choice of Portland’s 1981 1st round pick, Portland’s 1992 1st round pick, or the star of our little story, the Cavs 1981 1st rounder.
- Well, since the Cavaliers sucked again in the 1980-81 season, the Bulls elected to take that option, which had been established as the fourth pick in the draft. (If you’re keeping score, the Blazers’ 1981 pick was 15th (Jeff Lamp – UVa), and the 1992 ended up being 26th (Dave Johnson – Syracuse.)) However, Chicago decided not to hold onto it. On June 8, 1981, the Bulls traded the little-passed-around #4 pick, along with the #38 pick, to Atlanta in exchange for the #6 and #26 picks in the 1981 draft. Chicago selected Orlando Woolridge at #6 and Ricky Frazier at #26.
And finally, our wayward pick found a home with the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks used the pick to take Al Wood, the 6-foot-6-inch swingman from North Carolina, and they all lived happily ever after…
Until January of the following year, when Wood (who had played only 19 games for the Hawks) was traded along with Charlie Criss to the San Diego Clippers for Freeman Williams.
God, I miss those days.
There are some fantastic books about professional basketball during these times. If you haven’t done it yet, do yourself a favor and read the following: Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam; Loose Balls by Terry Pluto; The Punch by John Feinstein; Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by Pete Axthelm; The City Game by Pete Axthelm.
Note: I found this little gem when I was looking around for some footage from when Red Auerbach used to give basketball tips at halftime of Sunday afternoon games. This is from 1978.