There are many oft-told tales about the Nets history of incompetence and bad luck. Every team has some of that, of course, but on Tuesday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retells a story of how he almost became a New York Net out of UCLA.
Must you, Kareem?
In his latest offering on substack, the Hall of Famer and six-time NBA champion wrote about his relationship with Wilt Chamberlain in the context of how the Lakers historic 33-game winning streak came to an end 50 years ago this week. The two seven-footers dominated two different NBA eras but their careers did overlap and they competed against one another. Kareem wrote about their differences in personality. Wilt was notoriously flashy, singular in many ways; Kareem, then known as Lew Alcindor, more laid back, more involved in the community. To show just how different, Abdul-Jabbar relayed the story of how he chose between the NBA (Bucks) and ABA (Nets) back in 1969.
My idea of success no longer looked like Wilt’s idea. It wasn’t based on flash and conspicuous wealth. I established that during the negotiations my first year in the NBA draft. The Nets and the Bucks both wanted me so I told them to make a one-time offer. There would be no going back-and-forth because at the time I felt that bidding wars degraded people. The Bucks made the better offer of $1.4 million, which I accepted. Immediately after, the Nets came back with an offer of $3.2 million, which I declined because I’d already given my word to the Bucks. I think the influence of my UCLA coach John Wooden, who always emphasized personal integrity over personal gain, had matured me away from my childhood fascination with Wilt’s glamorous lifestyle.
Ouch. Like we said, still stings.
it’s not the first time the story has been told. It was in “Loose Balls,” the history of the ABA by Terry Pluto and “Giant Steps,” Kareem’s autobiography. Pluto, in fact, wrote of the other side of the discussion between the college superstar and George Mikan, the ABA commissioner at the time and the first great pro basketball big man. Arthur Brown, the Nets owner at the time and a New Jersey trucking magnate was on hand as well. The Nets had selected Alcindor in a “secret draft” and so held his rights. Abe Storen, GM of the ABA’s Pacers told Pluto the story of the Nets failed bid, one that included a certified check for a million dollars. He relayed details of the conversation among league leaders, Mikan and Brown.
“Mikan said, ‘We decided that it wasn’t necessary to give him our best offer. We figure when he comes back to us, then we’ll use the check for the second round of talks.’
“I screamed, ‘You did what?’
“Mikan said, ‘Don’t panic, we know that he’s coming back. He’s going to get the NBA’s offer and he’ll come back to us.’
“I said, ‘Is that what he said he would do?’
“Mikan said, ‘Not exactly. The kid did say that he would make the decision.’
“I was really screaming. ‘You dumb SOBs, why did we spend all that money to find out all this information if you’re not going to use it? How could you guys not give him the check?‘”
No matter how many times it’s told or whatever mode, it’s a big part of NBA history.
Signing Alcindor would have cemented the ABA’s reputation and proved to the media — and other prospects — that the league had the financial wherewithal and the willingness to use it. But i didn’t happen and seven years later, the leagues merged with the Nets, Pacers, Spurs and Nuggets joining the NBA fray.
For the Nets, of course, it would have been the coup of coups. Abdul-Jabbar was seen as the best player in the world and he grew up in the city. He would have joined the Nets when they were competing, and not very well, with the Knicks, then at the beginning of the championship runs. He would have changed the calculus. Too bad, but then again, the best player in the world currently plays in New York City at Barclays Center. Maybe this time it will work out better.