On this day 44 years ago, the New York Nets won the final ABA championship.
It took six games for the Nets to separate themselves from the Denver Nuggets, but on May 13, 1976, a 112-106 victory in Game 6 solidified New York’s supremacy.
The biggest star of the Nets and the entire ABA, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, put on a show in the league’s sendoff, scoring 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field and hauling down 19 rebounds. His teammates, Brian Taylor and John Williamson, combined for another 52 points and Jim Eakins had a double-double of his own on 15 points and 13 boards.
Dr. J wasn’t the only massive name on the court that night: Denver had Rookie of the Year David Thompson on its squad, and he put up 42 points in a losing effort. Dan Issel also had a huge night for the Nuggets, posting 30 points and 20 rebounds in Game 6.
Unfortunately for Denver, though, it surrendered a massive fourth-quarter lead, letting the Nets come back from a 20-point deficit in the game’s final period, ending the series, 4-2.
“I never doubted this team. We knew we had a shot,” Nets head coach Kevin Loughery said when asked what he was thinking when his team was down 22 in the third quarter. “Great players did it. People underestimated our team all year. (This is) the happiest basketball moment of my life.”
It was a fitting end to an incredible series, with no team winning any game by double digits. The series was knotted at 1-1 after two showdowns – New York taking Game 1, 120-118, before Denver responded in Game 2, 127-121 – and then the Nets won back-to-back games to take a 3-1 advantage. The Nuggets avoided elimination in Game 5, 118-110, but couldn’t hold their late lead in Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7.
“I don’t know, Bob,” Williamson said to a reporter in the post-game locker room celebration when he asked him how much he scored in the second half. “All I know, we got that diamond again. The feeling of having that diamond again. I’m on top of the world, number one!”
The Nets entered the 1976 ABA Playoffs as the No. 2 seed following a 55-29 regular season. It moved by No. 3 seed San Antonio Spurs, 4-3, in the semifinals to play the top-seeded Nuggets in the championship. Denver, which went 60-24 prior to the postseason, dispatched of No. 4 seed Kentucky Colonels in the semifinals, 4-3, to reach the ultimate series.
In the month after New York won the championship, the Nets, the Nuggets, the Spurs and the Indiana Pacers left the ABA to join the NBA, with the rest of the ABA folding. That meant the championship Dr. J and the Nets won in 1976 was the last one the ABA administered.
You can find almost the entirety of Game 6 on YouTube to relive a defining basketball moment that people might not have understood the importance of at the time or even still don’t today. While the ABA didn’t survive beyond 1976, the up-tempo, high-octane play style and fan-focused atmosphere helped shape a lot of what we’ve seen in basketball now and since.
In that sense, the ABA is still alive and well in 2020, at least to the degree that anything can be alive and well in 2020.