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When the Nets and Knicks were champions, who was better?

Mike Zarrilli

It's a common refrain among Knicks fans. When Nets fans point out that the Dolan crew hasn't won an NBA championship in 40 years, the New Yorkers reply, Yeah, but the Nets have never won an NBA championship. ABA championships in 1974 and 1976 don't count, they say. And so the argument goes nowhere.

It's too bad that the Nets and Knicks didn't play each other during the two teams' heydays back in the early 70's.

Oh wait, they did! As the ABA and NBA merger talks ebbed and flowed back then, teams from the rival leagues often played exhibition games in the pre-season, recalls Remember the ABA, a great ABA fan site.

During the first few years of the rivalry, most of the interleague games were played in ABA arenas. The NBA simply did not want to showcase (and legitimize) the ABA in front of NBA fans. On the other hand, ABA cities were happy to host well-known NBA teams. The games attracted extra fans, made money, and painted the ABA as "major league." Results from the first few years were not highly publicized by either league. Again, the NBA did not want to promote the fact that its teams were competing against ABA teams. And the ABA was red-faced because its teams lost most of the early games.

However, in the later years of the rivalry, the tide began to turn. Buoyed by younger, better talent and (in many cases) the home court advantage, ABA teams began winning most of the games. Over the last three seasons of the rivalry, the ABA steadily pulled ahead: 15-10 (in 1973), 16-7 (in 1974), and 31-17 (in 1975). The ABA won the overall interleague rivalry, 79 games to 76.

So how did the New York Nets do against the New York Knicks in those years? About the same as the ABA did against the NBA. In five games, the Nets won three -- the last three before the merger.

As with the ABA, things started slowly for the Nets. In the pre-season prior to the Knicks last championship season of 1972-73, the city guys beat the suburbanites twice, the first time in a blowout. Of course, the Nets didn't yet have Julius Erving in red, white and blue.

Then from 1973 until the 1976 merger, things changed. Dr. J was a Net (those are his hands in the picture) and the Nets dominated the ABA .. and the Knicks. In pre-season exhibitions in 1973 and 1975, prior to the Nets last two ABA championship seasons, the Nets beat the Knicks all three times the two teams played. Was that the reason that the Knicks demanded a $4.8 million "entry fee" from the Nets on top of the $3.2 million the league required? Did they know the fee would strangle the Nets, require them to undertake a massive cost-cutting, which ulitmately included the sale of Dr. Jr. to the 76ers? Ya think?

Here, thanks to Remember the ABA, are thumbnail descriptions of what went down in each of the five games

October 5, 1972
Knicks 117 - Nets 88
at New Haven, CT
Leaders: John Roche 26 points; Jerry Lucas 25 points; DeBusschere 15 points

October 6, 1972
Knicks 100 - Nets 91
at Uniondale, NY
Leaders: DeBusschere 19 points; Frazier 19 points; Johnny. Baum 19 points; Billy Melchionni 18 points

October 2, 1973
Nets 97 - Knicks 87
at New York, NY (Madison Square Garden)
Attendance at MSG 17,226;
Leaders: Julius Erving 27 points (12 in 3rd quarter); Frazier 25 points

October 8, 1975
Nets 110 - Knicks 104
at Uniondale, NY

October 18, 1975
Nets 103 - Knicks 101
at New York, NY (Madison Square Garden)
Leaders: Erving 33 pts & jump shot at buzzer to win game; Frazier 22 points

Should the Nets ABA championship banners count as much as the Knicks NBA banners from that era? The Nets were willing to see. As Remember the ABA notes, after the 1975-76 season, the ABA Champion Nets offered to play the NBA Champion Celtics in a winner-take-all game, with the proceeds going to benefit the 1976 United States Olympic team. Predictably, the Celtics declined to participate. So we'll never know.