Monday, August 31, 2009

Arcane Birthday Biographies: Rubber Band Man

(This is the best and only picture I could find.  Sorry)

T.I. is not the original rubber band man.  That honor, as far as my in-depth research can determine, lies with Mickey Johnson, a steady power forward who played in the NBA for 11 workmanlike seasons in which he averaged about 15 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Johnson's career might be fairly unremarkable had he not played a part in one of the most important games in NBA history.

Let's go back to 1976.  That was a watershed year for the NBA for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, the ABA merger had just been completed and a number of new teams and players were joining the NBA and returning it to its rightful place as the best basketball league in the world.  1976 also produced one of the most memorable championship teams in history, the Portland Trailblazers team coached by the great Jack Ramsey and led by Bill Walton.  Those Blazers were the subject of what some regard as the best sports book of all time, Breaks of the Game by David Halberstram.

Perhaps because of Bill Walton's continuing fame or the aforementioned book, those Blazers hold a special place in the NBA fanship's collective memory.  Mickey Johnson was a victim of those Blazers, but he was part of the team that presented them with their greatest challenge that year, the 1976-77 Chicago Bulls.

Those Bulls were coming off their worst season ever.  They had just lost one of their better guards, Jerry Sloan, to a major knee injury, and seen the resignation of their borderline hall of fame coach, Dick Motta.  The Motta estrangement was a blessing in disguise, however, because the Bulls were led by Norm Van Lier, a five star general from the school of Fuck It, Let's Fight 'Em All, who was constantly at odds with Motta.  (Van Lier had a famously hot temper and led the NBA in technical fouls in almost every season he played.)  In addition to Van Lier and Mickey Johnson, some long-term planning on the part of Chicago's general office brought them a future hall of famer for their 1976-77 season.

Artis Gilmore was drafted by Chicago in the 7th round of the 1971 NBA draft despite clear indications that he would sign with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA.  When the merger happened in 1976, Chicago retained the NBA rights to Gilmore and was able to sign him for a cool $1 million, a huge contract at the time.

The mix of players in Chicago was an odd one.  There was almost no shooting ability at the guard positions (neither Van Lear nor his revolving door of backcourt mates averaged more than 12 points per game) and defenses collapsed on Gilmore and Johnson.  Johnson was called Rubber Band Man because he was lanky, and his game lacked the power to overcome the increased pressure.  Chicago went 2-1 to start their season, and then lost their next thirteen games.

Coach Norm Badger, who had taken over for Motta, always intended to make the Bulls a running team, and that helped mitigate their shooting struggles.  But the team's real turnaround came when Jerry Sloan found out that he couldn't return from knee surgery.  Despite his physical predicament, he just couldn't bear to leave the game, so he hung around as an "informal assistant".  His main focus, unsurprisingly, was defense, and he soon earned the nickname "Gestapo" in practice for his demeanor.

The combination of the Chinese fire drill and Sloan's ability to improve the defense made Chicago one of the best teams in the NBA and although they were six games out of making the playoffs after the all-star game, they finished the season 20-4 in what was called The Mircale on Madison Street.  Mickey Johnson and Artis Gilmore were the team's two best players and Van Lier was their leader.  The City of Chicago's interest in basketball became fervent for the first time and Chicago Stadium became notorious for its burgeoning, boisterous crowd.  me  and drew a first round matchup with the Blazers.

Back in 1977, the first round of the NBA playoffs was a best-of-three series, and Chicago and Portland split the first two games.  In the second game, there was a altercation between two players that was quickly escalated by Mo Lucas (perhaps the closest thing the NBA has ever had to an enforcer) which ended with Chicago's assistant coach attempting to strangle Portland's Herm Gilliam before releasing his grip in conjunction with a Mo Lucas right hook.

Mickey Johnson's outstanding play down the stretch and in the playoffs was key to Chicago's success and it was the best time of his life.  He was a son of Chicago, and he gave his best for his hometown crowd.

The decisive third game also went down to the wire.  Portland, the home team, opened an early lead, but Chicago made a furious rally.  The teams were tied when with less than thirty seconds, Lionel Hollins of Portland hit a contested jumper at the top of the key.  The Bulls eventually got in an inbounds situation with fifteen seconds leftt.  John Mengelt, the Bulls' starting shooting guard, tried to throw Artis Gilmore an alley-oop, but the ball ended up going in the basket.  The violation gave Portland the ball, the series, and eventually the championship.

Portland's Coach Ramsey forever remembered that Chicago was Portland's toughest series on its road to the finals, and Mickey Johnson was as big a contributor to the team as everyone.  Happy birthday, Rubber Band Man, as we at DGU remember that the defeated make history, too.

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