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Charley Rosen recaptures the futility of that season through the firsthand accounts of players, participants, and observers. Although the team was uniformly bad, there were still many memorable moments, and the lore surrounding the team is legendary. Once, when head coach Lou Rubin tried to substitute John Q. Trapp out of a game, Trapp refused and told Rubin to look behind the team’s bench, whereby one of Trapp’s friends supposedly opened his jacket to show his handgun. With only four wins at the All-Star break, Rubin was fired and replaced by player-coach Kevin Loughery.
In addition to chronicling the 76ers’ woes, Perfectly Awful also captures the drama, culture, and attitude of the NBA in an era when many white fans believed that the league had too many black players.
It's Tough to Get Help These Days
The players weren't laughing—nor were they totally surprised—when the Sixers finished the season with a dismal record of 9-73, the worst since the NBA (then called the Basketball Association of America) first opened for business in 1946. Moreover, for the next thirty-nine years, the 1972–73 Sixers continued to be the NBA's model for ineptitude—until the Charlotte Bobcats suffered through an 7-59 season in 2011–12. Because Charlotte's winning percentage of .106 was lower than Philadelphia's .110, the Bobcats were touted as having supplanted the Sixers as the worst team in NBAhistory. However, there are extenuating circumstances that still support the 1972–73 Sixers' status as the league's most notable aggravation.
The Bobcats were certainly a bad team, but all their flaws were magnified by the lockout-shortened season that compelled teams to play sixty-six games at the rate four games per week instead of the usual three. Moreover, after the initial sixty-six games played by Philadelphia in 1972–73, the Sixers' record was also 7-59. Might the Bobcats have won two (or more) games if their season went to the full eighty-two games?
There were other more important, and infinitely more interesting, differences between these two sad-sack ball clubs. Throughout their season of distress, the Bobcats bickered in public, sent out vibes of doom and gloom, loafed their way through many games, and were routinely dull. Conversely, the Sixers always played hard and were essentially a cheerful lot.
Back then there was no Internet, and NBA action was only marginally attended to by the national media. Aside from the doings of the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Boston Celtics, the denizens of Sports America were primarily interested in the National Football League and Major League Baseball (whose off-season Hot Stove League generated more attention than anything happening in theNBA). It was only on selected Sunday afternoons that NBA games were broadcast nationally. Also, in many sections of the country, the league's championship playoff series was presented only on a delayed-tape basis.
With minimal media exposure, the Sixers were much less self-conscious about their days and ways. This led to a season full of outrageous under-the-radar behavior. Even so, cheerfulness and colorful escapades did nothing to compensate for the team's miserable performances. And the responsibility for this catastrophic season falls on four men: the two owners, the general manager, and the coach.
Born in Philadelphia to Russian immigrants in 1912, Irv Kosloff was a basketball star at Thomas Junior High School, where he was coached by the icon of Philadelphia basketball, Eddie Gottlieb. Next for Kosloff was a stint as the playmaking guard for South Philadelphia High, city champions in 1928. Upon graduation he enrolled in the pre-dental program at Temple University. But he dropped out after a couple of months upon discovering that sticking his hands into people's mouths was not something he wanted to do for the rest of his workaday life.
In the midst of the Depression, Kosloff worked for the Container Corporation of America and attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in the evenings. By 1933 Kosloff had saved $200 and founded the Roosevelt Paper Company. Within a few years, the success of his company made Kosloff a wealthy man. With the onset of his wealth, his philanthropic interests became legendary—primarily his contributions of time and money to aid underprivileged Philadelphia youths of all races and religions and his general focus on the needs of his employees and his community. He was admired for his lack of ostentation. No vacation mansion in sunny Florida, no trips around the world, not even a chauffeur-driven limo. Kosloff was just a plain-old, honest, modest millionaire with more than a modest interest in basketball.
Shortly after the 1961–62 season, the Philadelphia Warriors were sold to a West Coast businessman and relocated to San Francisco. Kosloff, along with many Philadelphia basketball fans, was brokenhearted when the City of Brotherly Love was not represented in the 1962–63 NBA season. This absence was especially painful since Philadelphia had been a charter member of the BAA and in 1947 had won the league's first championship.
Then, in May 1963, Kosloff came to the city's rescue, supplying most of the estimated $500,000 required to purchase the Syracuse Nationals, moving the franchise to his beloved hometown, and honoring Philadelphia's glorious history by renaming the team the 76ers.
Kosloff was inspired and encouraged to do so by his partner in this transaction: Ike Richman, a college classmate who, like Kosloff, was the son of immigrants. Richman'sfather was a cantor, and the language the family spoke at home was Yiddish. It's no surprise that Richman's religion was a major influence on him—he spiritually and financially supported the founding of Israel and worked with Israel Bonds throughout his life. Unlike Kosloff, Richman completed his undergraduate studies and went on to graduate from Temple's law school. His diligence in his chosen profession was ultimately rewarded by his being named managing partner of one of the city's most prestigious law firms. From 1948 to 1962, he also served as general counselor of the Philadelphia Warriors.
If Kosloff had no knowledge of the game, Richman's understanding of the hows and whys of hoops was widely respected. To the media Kosloff was the voice of ownership, but behind the scenes Richman ran the day-to-day operations of the team and had the final say in all basketball decisions. In the summer of 1965, Richman engineered the monumental trade with the Golden State Warriors that brought Wilt Chamberlain back to Philadelphia. The Dipper was so grateful to return to his hometown that he made Richman his personal attorney. Two years later the 76ers were the NBA's champions.
But when Richman suddenly died on December 3, 1965, while watching the 76ers host the Celtics, Kosloff was thrust into a decision-making role that was beyond his ken. In desperation he paid Alex Hannum and then Jack Ramsay a few extra grand to double as coach and GM. But after Hannum had jumped to the American Basketball Association in 1968 and Ramsay had resigned following the 1971–72 season, Kosloff hired Don DeJardin as full-time GM.
A native New Yorker, DeJardin had a résumé that was somewhat less than impressive. Sure, he had captained the basketball team at West Point and did his required time in the army. But he was more interested in the world of commerce—pursuing a master's degree in business at Duquesne and then enjoying a successful run in the corporate world of high finance. It wasn't until 1967 that, at age thirty-one, he decided to switch careers and get involved with professional basketball. After having served as the bean counter and GM for several teams in the ABA, DeJardin left the Carolina Cougars to become the 76ers' GM in the summer of 1972.
His peers, his players, and (as we shall see) his coaches questioned DeJardin's understanding of the game—which made rival GMs eager to deal with him. Many also deemed DeJardin arrogant and disdainful of any opinions that clashed with his, but that didn't stop him from wheeling and dealing at every opportunity. From October 10, 1972, to February 1, 1973, he engineered eight major trades—many of them to the 76ers' detriment.
The face of the ball club, and the individual who bore the lion's share of blame for the disastrous season, was Roy Rubin. In some ways Rubin was a simple man—"all basketball, all the time" was his credo. At the same time, he was an extremely complicated individual. Within the inner circle of the basketball universe, and in addition to his reputation as a defensive genius, Rubin was called everything from "incompetent" to a "great coach," from "a borderline lunatic" to a "semi-tragic figure," from "a great teacher" to "a control freak," from "a fag" to an "under-the-radar pussy hound."
Through it all, the Philadelphia media had their own name for him: "Poor Roy."CHAPTER 2
The Masters of Disaster
Roy Rubin's improbable journey to the NBA began in the schoolyards of the Pelham Bay section of the Bronx. He attended nearby Columbus High School for three years before transferring to Evander Childs High School, his primary motivation being the opportunity for more playing time. A left-handed, slow-footed point guard, the six-foot-two Rubin was a good ball handler and precision passer. His fail-safe shot was a two-handed set, and he shot his free throws underhand. In those pre–World War II days, New York City boasted dozens of all-time great high school players, the best being Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes. That's why Rubin's being named second team All-City was a meaningful accomplishment.
Upon graduating Rubin enrolled in the navy and served his time on an aircraft carrier. After his discharge he enrolled at LIU and became a starter on the nationally ranked basketball team, but he was horrified two years later when he realized that several of the school's hoopers were turning tricks for gamblers. Rubin quickly transferred to Louisville, where he backed up both guard positions.
With his degree in hand, he moved back to New York and sold insurance. "I wasn't very good at it," he said. "Maybe I sold a total of two policies."
A year later he jumped at a job opening at Columbus High School—teaching business and serving as assistant varsity basketball coach. When the head coach retired in the summer of 1951, Rubin set his ample bulk in the command chair. He was to remain there for the next nine years, producing teams that were always disciplined, fundamentally sound, and highly competitive. Many of his ex-players vouch for his dedication and ability to teach.
"From the first day of practice," says Nick Sforza, "he concentrated on basic things like how to hold the ball, how to throw bounce passes, chest passes, and the like, with both the right and left hands. His assumption was that we knew absolutely nothing about the game, so we rarely scrimmaged. Rubin had an aura that demanded respect. No nonsense would be tolerated. He was a strange guy, but we were in awe of him."
Among several other prohibitions, Rubin insisted that drinking water during practice was a sign of weakness. He also forbade players from chatting with fans during games. "One guy had sixteen points in the first half," Sforza recalls, "but when he said something to a cheerleader when someone else was taking a foul shot, Rubin yanked him and sat him for the rest of the game."
Rubin was proud to be called a perfectionist. "If a player made one mistake," says Sforza, "if he zigged twelve inches instead of zagging twelve inches, that was it. No matter who the guy was or what the score was, he watched the rest of the game from the bench."
Sforza went on to play basketball at Hunter College and then to teach physical education at Columbus. Looking back, he has one main criticism of Rubin: "He was unable to deal with people as they were. If any of his players had other things they were interested in besides basketball—like schoolwork, music, girls, whatever—then Rubin would really get down on them. He was a one-dimensional person and, considering what happened to him in Philadelphia, a semi-tragic figure."
Of the hundreds of players Rubin coached at Columbus, by far his biggest booster was Paul Lizzo. "I didn't know the game when I tried out for the team," says Lizzo, "but I was a scrapper so Roy kept me. He was a wonderful teacher and great to play for. For sure, he yelled at us a lot, but it was yells to teach, not to hurt. Once practice was over, all his dissatisfactions disappeared. My dad used to say that Roy was my second father."
Although he was a strict taskmaster, Rubin was willing to take chances. In March 1959 two undefeated teams faced off in Madison Square Garden with the championship of the Public School Athletic League at stake. The Columbus Explorers featured a trio of expert ball handlers—Ronnie Kessler, Donnie Mason, and Warren "Reno" Lifshitz. Their power forward was six-foot-one Ronnie Miller, and the center, Albie Grant, was only six foot three. The two stars for Boys High School were Billy Burwell, a six-foot-eight powerhouse center, whose pregame routine was to palm a basketball in each hand and dunk them both during one star-touching jump. WHAM!WHAM! Playing opposite Miller was six-foot-eight Connie Hawkins, who would eventually play his way into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Rubin knew there was no way his outsized team could overcome Boys in a conventional game—so he took fullest advantage of his trio of dribbling wizards and orchestrated a game-long stall. His players resisted, believing that the much-publicized game would serve as individual auditions for college scholarships. "Don't worry," Rubin said. "I'll get you all into college and I promise you won't be embarrassed."
At halftime Boys led 7–2. "The crowd was booing the hell out of us," said Rubin, and he was on the verge of calling off the big freeze. On his way into the locker room, Rubin crossed paths with Red Holzman, who was then a scout for the New York Knicks.
"Everybody thinks I've lost my marbles," said Rubin. "Listen to the fans ... Am I doing the right thing?"
"Do it," was Holzman's advice. "If you think you can win, fuck 'em. Do it."
Boys ultimately prevailed 21–16, and Rubin's game plan gained him a national reputation for being either a genius or a fool.
Basketball was foremost on Rubin's agenda even during the summers. For several years he was the head counselor and hoops instructor at Camp Greylock in upstate New York. Mike Fleischer was the basketball coach of the Hunter College Hawks and spent his summers overseeing Greylock's waterfront activities. The similarities in age and interest in basketball led to an on-and-off summertime friendship between the two.
"Actually," says Fleischer, "Roy was such an ego maniac that a true friendship was impossible. He had to control everything and was only loyal to himself. But he also had a good sense of humor, which made him good company."
Fleischer claims that he never saw Rubin with a woman, but he recalls a strange incident that occurred on one of their days off from the camp: "We went to a music festival at Berkshire and then to a bar. Some gals came over and started to flirt with us, and Rubin said to them, 'We're a pair of nice guys. To prove it, the worst word you'll hear from us is fuck.' And the gals made a quick exit stage right."
Fleischer's opinion is that Rubin was "a borderline lunatic."
In any case, in 1961 Buck Lai, the athletic director at LIU, thought enough of Rubin to hire him to coach the Blackbirds. Over the next eleven seasons, Rubin's squads were 174-94, won three Tri-State League titles, appeared in two NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championships, and reached the quarterfinals of the 1968 National Invitational Tournament (upsetting top-ranked Bradley and then losing by two to Notre Dame). In so doing, Rubin gained plaudits for being a defensive wizard and was called upon to give clinics in his specialty in Italy, Israel, Brazil, and Puerto Rico.
Rubin was not easily intimidated by opposing coaches. Not even the fiery Bobby Knight. When he took his LIU squad up to West Point to scrimmage the cadets' varsity, Knight was the resident coach. As the supposedly informal scrimmage proceeded, Knight's cursing of the referees and his own players became louder and more profane.
"Bob," Rubin said. "This is only a scrimmage."
Knight's response was to scream, "Mind your own business, Jew."
"See you later, solider," Rubin said as he marched his team back to the bus.
Rubin was also praised because all of his players graduated. Because of this, and after his success in the NIT, Rubin was offered the chance to coach Rutgers. "I turned it down," he said. "That turned out to be a big mistake."
Several of his LIU players, though, dispute Rubin's bona fides as a master of X's and O's. Howie Adelson played for Rubin first at Columbus High School and then at LIU. "In both places Rubin's trademark was a tough, aggressive man-toman defense," says Adelson, "and he discouraged any switching. But at LIU particularly, his offenses were dull and uninspiring. He'd stand during games and call out every play. It was like playing basketball in the 1940s."
At Columbus, Rubin advised his players to focus on their schoolwork, not skip classes, and generally behave themselves. "We were sixteen, seventeen years old," Adelson recalls, "and his guidance was often useful. But at LIU Rubin still thought he was dealing with young kids, so his advice was manifest as control. Plus, if he gave you a scholarship, he thought that he owned you."
Excerpted from Perfectly Awful by Charley Rosen. Copyright © 2014 Charley Rosen. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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