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BIT OF HISTORY: How Nets-Knicks rivalry evolved from Dr. J to Brooklyn move

A look at an oft-told tale of how the Nets lost a superstar and a less-told one about how they got just a bit of revenge years later.

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New Jersey Nets: Julius Erving Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic New York provided a little history lesson the other day on the origin of the Nets-Knicks feud, how the Knicks fleeced the Nets in the NBA-ABA merger, forcing a cash-strapped Roy Boe to sell his greatest asset, Julius Erving, to the 76ers. That sale in October 1976 began the Nets long, slow descent and forced the franchise to leave Long Island and New York for the Meadowlands and New Jersey.

So that got us thinking not just about how things evolved nearly 40 years ago, which is an oft-told tale, but also about how the Nets quietly got just a bit of revenge decades later by turning the tables on the Knicks and ultimately moving back to New York, ending the Knicks monopoly inside city limits.

Let’s set the stage. As the NBA and ABA finalized merger talks in 1976, the Nets and Knicks were on different trajectories ... and the Knicks knew it. The NBA club had won their second championship in 1973 but by 1976, when the merger talks were underway, New York was a shell of its championship years. Stars were aging and they finished 1976-77 with 34 wins, good enough for fourth in the four-team Atlantic Division.

Meanwhile, the Nets were the strongest team in the ABA. They had won the championship in 1974 and again in 1976 with the league’s reigning superstar Dr. J (then 25) leading a group of young players that included Brian Taylor, a 3-point specialist; Bill Melchionni, a pass-first point guard; and Super John Williamson who knew his way to the basket. All but Taylor have their jerseys hanging at Barclays Center. Kevin Loughery was their coach.

If you want another indicator of the two teams’ relative fortunes, look no further than the three exhibition games the two teams played in pre-season during the three years prior to the merger. In 1973, the preseason after the Knicks had won their second title, the Nets beat the Knicks, 97-87, at the Garden. Then after a year hiatus, two more exhibition games were scheduled in the 1975 preseason. The Nets won both, beating the Knicks at Nassau Coliseum, 110-104 on October 8, then again at the Garden ten days later. Dr. J hit a buzzer beater to give the Nets a 103-101 win. Erving finished with 33.

After the season, the merger finally went through after some fits and starts but the price was high for Boe who then owned the Nets and Islanders. Here’s the basic outline in all its ugliness from the venerable (and historically essential) Remember the ABA.

The terms of the NBA/ABA merger were harsh for all four ABA entrants, but particularly severe for the Nets. Each of the former ABA teams had to pay $3.2 million to join the NBA. The former ABA teams were not allowed to participate in the 1976 NBA Draft, and could not share in any NBA television money for three years. In addition, because the Nets would play in the “territory” of the New York Knicks, the terms of the merger dictated that the Nets had to pay the Knicks an additional $4.8 million.

Faced with a financial nightmare (and some new contract problems with Erving), Roy Boe decided to sell Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers for several million dollars. The proceeds allowed New York to enter the NBA and survive. But, the arrangement took away the best player in pro basketball from the Nets. Without the Doctor, the Nets struggled to only 22 wins in their inaugural NBA season (1976-77). After that dismal season, the Nets moved to New Jersey, became the “New Jersey Nets,” and continued to flounder.

It should be noted during negotiations, the Nets offered “The Doctor” to the Knicks in return for waiving the $4.8 million indemnity. The Knicks said no. They wanted the cash. (Knicks mismanagement didn’t start with Dolan. Ned Irish owned the team back then.)

The sale was so shocking, so sudden that it even caught Sports Illustrated off guard. Here’s a picture from the cover photo shoot SI arranged to highlight the merger. The issue hit the stands the same day as the sale. (That’s Dave Cowens of the Celtics on the left, what passed for an NBA superstar back then.)

Moreover, the price tag kept going up, Over the next few years, as the Nets struggled financially, the Knicks once again turned the screws, exacting draft picks. It started when the Nets couldn’t meet the Knicks payment schedule. As Vorkunov wrote this week...

The Nets paid the Knicks $800,000 in their installment [of the settlement] but couldn’t make the next payment. The Knicks sued in federal court. That lawsuit was settled in 1978.

According to The New York Times, it came with a high price. In addition to the $3.2 million settlement, the Nets had to swap picks with the Knicks in the 1978 draft. The Knicks received the fourth overall pick and took Michael Ray Richardson (who later played for the Nets); the Nets picked 13th and took Winford Boynes. The Nets also had to give the Knicks the better of their two first-round picks in the 1979 draft (the Knicks had traded their pick away in 1975 to Seattle for Spencer Haywood). That turned out to be seventh pick in the 1979 draft but it wasn’t in New York by then. The Knicks traded that pick to the Sonics in October 1978 as part of the compensation for signing Marvin Webster that month, sending Lonnie Shelton away too for Seattle’s 1981 first-rounder. The Sonics took Vinnie Johnson with New York’s pick, who later went on to have a great career in Detroit as a superb scorer off the bench.

But the Nets got something, Vorkunov noted. A young power forward named Phil Jackson was dealt to the Nets. He later became a Nets assistant coach and the rest ... well, you know the rest.

Fast forward to 1996. Up until to that point, the Knicks controlled the territorial rights to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, the latter something else the Nets lost in the merger. But then, good fortune shined on the Nets. Ownership, known as the Secaucus Seven, saw an opportunity. The Knicks were changing hands and needed the Nets approval, so the team wrung a concession from their rivals: an end to the Knick’s territorial monopoly in the city. From that point on, the Nets could move into the city or the Island and the Knicks couldn’t stop them. Specifically, who needed the Nets vote on the NBA Board of Governors? The Dolans!

Back then, Michael Rowe was CEO of the Nets. In 2012, as the Nets were set to make the move to Barclays Center, he answered our questions about how the Nets “stole” Brooklyn from the Knicks. Here’s his recollection...

In 1996, the New Jersey Nets had just turned down an offer to sell the team to the late John Mc Mullen, owner of the NJ Devils, and instead the Nets were turning their interests towards maximizing their opportunities for a possible sale/relocation.

At the same time, the lease to play in the Meadowlands was re-negotiated to give the team flexibility to move and concurrently, the arrangement with Sportschannel, [a Dolan-owned entity] who had local broadcast rights for New Jersey Nets games at the time, was re-negotiated to allow the Nets to end the agreement without the broadcaster having a right to “match”..something that would prove invaluable if/when the Nets sought other broadcast opportunities.

While all this was going on, an [NBA] ownership vote affecting the Knicks required that the Knicks receive the Nets approval and, keeping in line with our Ownership’s strategic plans, we sought to have the territorial restrictions that the Knicks had over the Nets totally eliminated. We were receiving strong interest from the NY Islanders ownership about relocating to Nassau [County on Long Island], but such a move would have surely been blocked by the Knicks under the old provisions.

I met with [MSG CEO] Dave Checketts at the Garden. We hashed through the issue and the League approved the revision. David Stern was very supportive of the change.

In fact, we were told Stern wasn’t just supportive. He engineered the whole thing to help the Nets ownership facilitate a sale. The commissioner wanted the Nets to have the right to play in New York, Interestingly, Rowe told us the Nets wanted the rights so they could move back to Nassau Coliseum if prospective owners preferred that venue. Here’s his explanation of his owners’ thinking...

In essence, the clause was designed to aid a sale, or move to Nassau Coliseum, not Manhattan or Brooklyn (although we did have some brief discussions with Garden about moving into their building…a la Staples Center teams –Clippers, Lakers and Kings). So, the NY/NY Rivalry almost happened back in that 1996 timeframe (actually, a few years later, we had a serious offer from Islanders to sell the team and move it to Nassau in 1998).

But the real “Gem” of the above accomplishments was that when our new ownership group [Raymond Chambers, Lewis Katz et al] purchased the Team in 1998 there was NO restrictions on where to move, NO restrictions on our cable rights and NO mandate for the Nets to remain in the Meadowlands. These conditions created a perfect storm to form the Yankee Nets Organization and the YES Network.

In 2004, Chambers and Lewis, after failing to get a Nets arena built in Newark, sold the team to Bruce Ratner who planned to the team in Brooklyn as the centerpiece of a 22-acre, 16-building “neighborhood” near the borough’s downtwon. There’s no way the Dolans would have approved that move if they had the means to stop it. But because of their (short-sighted?) decision in 1996, they had to sit by and watch.

The Nets of course have not supplanted the Knicks the way they might have in 1976 with Doctor J. So, was the move to Brooklyn a bit of revenge for the loss to Julius Erving? Hardly. If the Nets didn’t have to pay the king’s ransom to the Knicks in 1976, Boe’s team would have entered the NBA —and the New York market— with a young team led by a superstar.

Now, once again, the Nets have the city’s leading superstar (two actually) and have an opportunity to right a wrong. That would be nice.