On April 9, 1975, the Spirits of St. Louis defeated the New York Nets in one of the biggest upsets in ABA history. The Spirits would go on to win the series four games to one. Here is how we covered the game.
UNIONDALE, N.Y. - It would be sorely tempting to call the Spirits' 115-97 shellacking of the New York Nets last night the biggest upset since another Spirit of St. Louis made it to Paris without crashing in the Atlantic Ocean about 50 years ago. But the fact is the Spirits probably could and should have won both American Basketball Association playoff games here at the Nassau County Coliseum.
They played that well.
Nonetheless, the Spirits were delighted to return to St. Louis today with a 1-1 tie in the Eastern Division semifinal series after not having beaten the defending ABA champions in the previous seven months and 12 games.
The series will be resumed at 8 p.m. tomorrow at The Arena, and suddenly the St. Louisans are talking not about staying in the series, but, indeed, winning it.
"We've got 'em," said Maurice Lucas, mindful that three of the next five games (should the series go the route) would be played in St. Louis. Of course, there will be a lot more mud in the Mississippi before that prospect can be realized, but the Nets' coaching staff sounded very concerned after last night's game.
"If we don't play any better than that, we're in big trouble," said assistant Rod Thorn. "Big, big trouble."
To savor the moment, as a St. Louis television audience did, let's recount the highlights of last night's contest.
After Larry Kenon hit a jumper for the Nets to tie the score at 2-2, the Spirits were never headed. They led by nine after one quarter and by 15 at halftime as Marvin Barnes, named ABA Rookie of the Year today in voting by sports writers and sportscasters, fired in 21 points and Maurice Lucas, playing with more aggression than he did in Sunday's first game, ripped off 17 rebounds, three more than the Nets' entire team.
However, the Spirits also had led by 15 in the first half Sunday, so no one in the crowd of 10,621 was convinced the game was yet over.
But, sparked by Freddie Lewis, who finished with 28 points, the Spirits immediately jumped to a 20-point lead in the third quarter, raised it to 29 and then 31 before the Nets cut into it late.
The Nets were in such a state of desperation that neither the harpooning of the officials by coaches Kevin Loughery and Thorn, nor 20 three-point field goal attemps, nor Wendell Ladner throwing his shoe put them in any better stead. Julius Erving was lifted during the third-quarter carnage and finished with Just six points, his career low with the Nets.
Barnes finished with 37 points, giving him an astounding playoff average of 39 and meriting him, in order, hugs from Mrs. Lula Barnes (his mother), coach Bob MacKinnon and team co-owner Dan Silna afterward.
"They beat us 11 in a row during the regular season, said Barnes. "That was gettin' a little bit monotonous. But this is the playoffs now and if we didn't deserve to be here, we wouldn't be here."
If you're looking for omens, consider the giant sartorial step forward token by MacKinnon, who heretofore had not been considered the ABA's raciest dresser. "I'm not quite into this mod thing yet," he said earlier in the day. At the time, he was wearing a beige leisure suit with the collar of his brown sport shirt tucked inside the suit, contrary to popular custom.
"Maybe, I'll wear it out next year," he said, "but this has got to be a gradual thing." But when MacKinnon spoke with his wife and daughter by telephone from the locker room before the game, next year became now.
"My wife told me that the game was on TV and she wanted me to wear the collar out because it looked bad the other way," said MacKinnon. The coach obeyed.
"He did his job," said Barnes.
Another portentous item was that the Spirits were totally relaxed in the locker room before the game. Lucas was firing M & Ms at Don Adams, who protested to MacKinnon to make him stop it.
"Why should we feel any pressure?," said Lewis. The pressure's not on us."
There is pressure on the Spirits now however, because of the sudden turn of the series, but there is still more on the Nets to prove they are worthy of repeating their championship.
"You outplayed us in every phase of basketball, said Loughery of the Nets. "You get what you deserve in this sport and we got it. We got the crap kicked out of us."
Even as the minutes ticked away in the second half and the margin kept mounting, the Spirits Mike Barr had his doubts. "I kept waiting for them to make their charge, he said. "I think that's why coach didn't substitute. He couldn't believe it."
Lucas could. "I knew if we played team ball, they couldn't beat us, he said. "The whole idea of winning was to play team ball and once we got that settled, we were okay."
About the only excitement for the local gentry, who booed lustily at times in the second half, was seeing Loughery booted from the game after his second technical foul, and reveling in the antics of Ladner, the league's most colorful character.
Ladner, who has been known to try to bowl over water coolers in the heat of combat, lost a shoe in a play under the Nets' basket late in the third quarter, and frantically tried to put it back on as play moved toward the other end. Finally, in apparent frustration, he tossed the shoe at a dribbling Lewis, although Ladner said it slipped from his hands as he was falling.
Official Joe Belmont thought it was thrown with malice aforethought and assessed Ladner a technical, a matter the latter said he would take up with the league office.
"If I had wanted to throw it, I would have thrown it overhand," said Ladner.
But what was the difference? The story was the Spirits. Don Adams again played a steady role as a reserve, scoring 17 points and handing out six assists.
"I feel like a champion," he said afterward, in the Spirits' jubilant quarters. "They (the Nets) were taking us for a joke."
Kenon was the only Nets' starter to score in double figures, hitting 28 points. Usual tormentor Billy Paultz was held to eight.
Silna, surrounded by newsmen after the game, was incensed when one New York reporter remarked, "I bet they only have 50,000 people there Friday night in St. Louis." The Spirits are hoping for at least 9,000.