Justin Barrasso will be perusing the box scores of the Boston Celtics during the Larry Bird years, starting with Bird’s rookie year in 1979-1980. The opportunity to reconnect with the Bird era is always fun, especially during his early years in the league. We’ll be posting the box score as well as some commentary each game day as we re-visit the ’79-’80 season. Enjoy.

Celtics (4-0) vs. Pacers (2-3)
Saturday, October 20
Market Square Arena

In 1979, the Indiana Pacers were still a relative newcomer to the National Basketball Association.  Entering just their fourth season since the NBA merged with the American Basketball Association, the one-time ABA stalwart was still in search of its first winning season in the NBA.  The Pacers were one of two teams, along with the Kentucky Colonels, who were able to stay in existence for all nine ABA seasons (1967-1976) without folding, relocating, or changing team names.  This is particularly impressive considering that the Pacers are still in operation.

1979-80 Indiana Pacers

The ABA offers a quirky history.  As easy as it is to poke fun at the league filled with red-white-and-blue basketballs and regional franchises who played “home” games in a variety of different cities, the league still lives on through the NBA today.  The 3-point line (though it didn’t help Indy in this game against the Celtics, as they shot 0-5 from international waters) and the Slam Dunk contest were both ABA-creations.

NBA.com’s David Aldridge, who writes an outstanding NBA notes column every Monday morning (if there’s a better column out available, I’ve yet to see it), documents perhaps the most fascinating decision – and continuing aftermath – in NBA-ABA history.  The key word is perpetuity.  The article can be found here, but here is a snippet of DA’s story:

The Silnas owned the Spirits of St. Louis ABA team, and in 1976, they wanted to join the other ABA teams that were going to be part of the then-upcoming merger with the NBA. Four teams — the Nets, Pacers, Spurs and Nuggets — made the cut, but the Spirits, along some other teams — most notably, the Kentucky Colonels, who had been one of the league’s top teams — didn’t. The Colonels took a $3 million flat payment from the ABA as compensation for not being part of the merger. But the Silnas didn’t.

The other four teams agreed to a deal with the brothers, who had come up with a potential solution for any of the ABA teams that were left out of the merger. The terms were these: Each of the teams that made it would give the ones who didn’t one-seventh of one share of the money those teams received from the NBA’s national television contract. And the deal would be in perpetuity — legalese for “forever.” The Silnas took the deal.

At the time, in 1976, the national deal the NBA had with CBS — and there was no national cable deal, as there was next to no national cable television at the time — was $21 million per year for the entire league. Two years later, the NBA got $74 million over four years from CBS, but the ABA teams that were coming into the league didn’t get full shares of the TV money until 1980. At the beginning, the ABA teams only received $116,000 each per year, according to an article that year by the New York Times. So no one thought much of the Silnas’ deal.

But times changed.

The NBA had a harmonic convergence of superstar players enter the league throughout the 1980s: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson. The two most important, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, came into the league in 1980, and soon built the Lakers and Celtics back into championship squads, each with a telegenic style of play that wowed both paying customers in NBA arenas and casual fans watching at home. Isiah Thomas built the Pistons into a hard-nosed contender that finally became a champion in 1989. And Michael Jordan took basketball to a level it had never reached before, making the NBA into must-see TV, and making NBA players credible pitchmen for advertisers, which only enhanced the value of the league further.

That value was reflected in the TV contracts, which grew to $88 million, then $175 million, then $600 million, then $750 million, then $1.75 billion, then $4.5 billion, and, now, $7.4 billion over eight years from ABC, ESPN and my company, TNT. And, in every year since 1980, the Silnas have gotten their 1/7th of one share of that money from the Nets, Spurs, Nuggets and Pacers.

Their up-to-date haul? Somewhere north of $250 million, with no end in sight.


The Pacers were the ABA’s dynasty, winning the championship three times and appearing in the finals a total of five different occasions.  Their coach, Bob “Slick” Leonard (born in Terre Haute, of all places), also played and coached in the NBA.  This 1978 Sports Illustrated piece from Bruce Newman highlighted some of the ABA’s unique ways:

“If anybody could get a team up for a game, it was Slick,” says Roger Brown, a star forward for the Pacers during eight of the team’s nine years in the American Basketball Association. “He was crazy and he wanted to win so much that he’d pick a fight with anybody he thought wasn’t putting out. Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky and I were all deputy sheriffs, so we always carried side arms. Some of the other guys on the team had permits to carry guns, too, and sometimes to ease the tension before a game we’d practice our quick draws on each other in the locker room. Slick would always be able to get our attention, though. He used to like to grab a hockey stick at halftime when we were getting our butts beat and try to start a fight with Neto or one of the guys. Those guns didn’t scare him. Neto was his particular whipping boy; some of the time Neto deserved to be, but even when he didn’t. Slick would usually go ahead and scream at him for our amusement.”

Red Auerbach was not a fan of all Leonard’s success, and in typical Red fashion, he voiced his opinion.  Auerbach was quoted in a SI article, stating that Slick was “a bad coach when he was with Baltimore in the NBA and he must be a dog now, too.”  Leonard took issue with the comment, and responded with some criticism of his own in this 1976 piece by Dan Pattison:

“Check Auerbach’s record before the Bill Russell era. He never won a championship. The one thing about him is what one guy said to me quite a while ago: ‘He’s got the biggest mouth and the strongest hands in the NBA. He held onto Russell’s jersey for 13 years.’”

Pacers coach Slick Leonard

Rivalries with Red aside, the Pacers dropped 41 points on the Celtics in the first quarter.  They also dominated the glass throughout the entire evening, out-rebounding the Celtics, 47-33.  The Celts fought back in the fourth quarter to force overtime, but this Pacers team – featuring the likes of James Edwards, Alex English, Billy Knight, and a combined 65-points from Mickey Johnson and Johnny Davis – held on to win by three, 131-128.  Boston had solid if not spectacular nights from Larry Bird (8-for-12 shooting, but only 2 boards in 22 injury-plagued minutes), Cedric Maxwell (8-for-10, 12 boards), and 27 points and 7 assists from Tiny Archibald.  Both Bird (for the first time in his career) and Max fouled out, and though the Celtics produced another game with seven starters in double-digits, the effort just wasn’t enough.  In his final season coaching, this was one small battle Slick won over Red.

Sticking with the ABA-theme, the Celtics returned to action on October 23 with a game in San Antonio against George Gervin’s Spurs.


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