perfectly awful

Reviewed by Bob Epling

2 january 2015       archive

Take a philanthropic but pitiable team owner, add an inept general manager, toss in a hapless rookie coach charged with leading a mismatched NBA roster and what do you get? Welcome to the world of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, a surprisingly collegial collection of marginal talents remembered mostly, perhaps solely, for historic levels of losing. Their 9-73 record stands as the most losses by a team in one season in league history.

Novelist and basketball writer Charley Rosen chronicles the disastrous season with a game by game accounting, analyses of the major figures associated with the team, and enlightening anecdotes about life in the NBA of the early 1970s.

At times the sheer magnitude of the losing becomes numbing as Rosen grinds through the accumulating futility. A league record 0-15 start, a law-of-averages defying 4-47 mark at the All-Star break, a twenty game losing streak to bottom out at 4 wins and 58 losses, before the squad resuscitates enough to win five of its last twenty. The numbers are so bleak as to be compelling, but the people and inside-the-locker room details make the book an interesting read.

The team owner was Irv Kosloff. A native Philadelphian and founder of the Roosevelt Paper Company, Kosloff brought NBA basketball back to the City of Brotherly Love in 1963 after a one-year hiatus created when the original Philadelphia Warriors franchise moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1961-62 season. Kosloff and business partner Ike Richman purchased and relocated the Syracuse Nationals, patriotically rechristening the team the 76ers in homage to the city's historic significance. While Kosloff was the public face of the franchise, Richman ran the day-to-day basketball operations until his death in 1965. That very year Richman laid the foundation for a future championship by trading to bring the NBA's biggest star, Philly's own Wilt Chamberlain, home from the Warriors. Two years later Wilt and the 76ers were NBA champions.

That title marked the apex of Kosloff's ownership tenure. The next five seasons saw the team's fortunes sag as Kosloff struggled to replace Richman's basketball acumen. After the 1968 season, Chamberlain forced a trade to the L.A. Lakers, and head coach Alex Hannum jumped to the rival American Basketball Association to lead the Oakland Oaks. At the end of the 1971-72 season, Hannum's successor Jack Ramsey (who doubled as general manager) left for the Buffalo Braves, and the 76ers' best player, Billy Cunningham, skipped leagues to join the ABA's Carolina Cougars.

So, by the summer of 1972, Philadelphia was coming off a 30-52 campaign, with no coach, no general manager, and an unimposing roster. The stage was set for futility, and Kosloff's next two hires made the situation worse; much worse.

To run the team, Kosloff brought in Don DeJardin as general manager. DeJardin was more businessman than basketball lifer, and although decisive, he was a poor judge of talent. He would pull the trigger on eight major trades between October and February of the record-breaking season, few of them worth any value to the Sixers. DeJardin would later find success by starting a sports agency and representing hundreds of players, but his season-long stint as GM of the Sixers was disastrous. His most damaging move was to hire Roy Rubin as head coach.

"Poor Roy Rubin" – as the relentless Philadelphia press would soon dub him – came to the Sixers after eleven seasons as head coach of the Long Island University Blackbirds. His hiring followed a humiliating, drawn out search that saw DeJardin and the franchise rejected by several candidates, all of them more well-known, and well-qualified, than Rubin. The team even resorted to placing a coach-wanted ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Enter Roy Rubin. Rosen traces his path from New York City high school coach through the successful run at LIU to his unlikely ascension to the NBA. The portrait is one of a man with significant personal lifestyle quirks, an insecure and combustible personality, and minimal people or coaching skills to succeed at the professional level. Simply put, Roy Rubin was in way over his head, and it took his team all of one preseason meeting to figure it out.

Not that everything was Rubin's fault. The 76ers' roster included one past-his-prime star in Hal Greer, a few solid pros like Fred "Mad Dog" Carter and Kevin "Murph" Loughery, and a bench full of journeymen like Dale Schlueter, LeRoy Ellis, Manny Leaks, John Block, and Freddie Boyd. Not exactly a lineup to threaten the New York Knicks, that year's league champions, and their eight future Hall of Famers (Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Phil Jackson, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, and coach Red Holtzman). Still, Rubin never established any rapport with his players. His erratic personal behavior, inconsistent substitution patterns, and lack of ability to make adjustments during games only exacerbated the flaws of the roster. At the All-Star break, Kosloff and DeJardin pulled the plug on Rubin and made Loughery player-coach.

Known to all as "Murph" (because he slept on a pull out Murphy bed during his rookie pre-season camp in the league), Loughery at least instilled some sense of professionalism with the squad. After losing his first eleven games at the helm, Loughery and the Sixers mustered a 5-15 record to close out the year. Surprisingly, the team remained mostly harmonious throughout all the losing. Greer occasionally complained about his lack of playing time, and many players sniped about Rubin's flaws, but for all their faults the Sixers never completely fractured.

For the Philadelphia 76ers front office and fans, much of the last half of the lamentable season was spent pondering whether UCLA's Bill Walton would forego his final season of eligibility and enter the NBA draft, where the Sixers would be waiting to snare the big redhead with the overall first selection. As with nearly everything else in 1972-73, fate frowned. Walton stayed in school, was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1974, and would lead the Blazers to the 1977 NBA title … over the Philadelphia 76ers.

By then, only memories remained of the 1972-73 team.

After that losing season, Loughery surprised Kosloff and DeJardin by bolting for the ABA (on draft day no less) to take the helm of the New Jersey Nets. He would lead the Nets to the ABA title that season, and go on to coach several NBA teams. By the autumn of 1973, Don DeJardin was also gone. He would find his niche as a successful sports agent over the next three decades. Irv Kosloff sold the franchise in 1976, missing the 76ers' run to the championship finals that season and their subsequent title in 1983. Roy Rubin never coached another basketball game at any level after the 76ers fired him. He moved to Florida and opened an International House of Pancakes restaurant.

Charley Rosen's Perfectly Awful provides an insider's summary of the worst season in NBA history. His anecdotes and knowledge of the game give the reader an enlightening sense of the pre-merger NBA of the early 1970s, and of the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, still the team most associated with losing by American sports fans.

Charley Rosen. Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers' Horrendous and Hilarious 1972-1973 Season. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. 198 pp; epilogue; $24.95 (hardcover)

Copyright © 2015 by Bob Epling

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