Trading Dr. J dealt death blow to Virginia Squires

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Trading Dr. J dealt death blow to Virginia Squires

Postby rlee » Sun Aug 02, 2009 5:17 am

Trading Dr. J dealt death blow to Virginia Squires

By Melinda Waldrop

Newport News Daily Press


It was the last major professional sports franchise to call Hampton Roads home, and some of the people most closely associated with it don't envision another replacing it.

The Virginia Squires' existence began with controversy and ended in disorganization, with a cameo by the American Basketball Association's greatest player as a sidenote to history. The cash-strapped team parted ways with Julius "Dr. J" Erving 36 years ago this week, beginning a downhill slide that eventually led to the team's demise and demonstrated the problems facing a regional franchise in a small market.

The ABA team formerly known as the Oakland Oaks (1967-1969) and Washington Caps (1969-1970) arrived in Virginia in 1970. The team was based in Norfolk but also played home games in Hampton, Richmond and, briefly, Roanoke.

Rick Barry, an original Oak, appeared on the cover of the Aug. 24, 1970, edition of Sports Illustrated in the team's red, white and blue uniform, but he was less than elated with his destination, telling the magazine that he didn't want his children to grow up saying "Hi, ya'll, Dad."

Despite the misgivings of Barry — later traded to the New York Nets — the Squires won 55 games and the Eastern Division in their first season. The next year, the team drafted Erving, who left area fans starstruck with his above-the-rim skill and showmanship.

"I'd be sitting on the bench watching him play and (say) 'Oh, my God, did you see that?' " said Dave Twardzik, a former star at Old Dominion who played with the Squires from 1972-1976.

Erving averaged 27.3 points per game as a rookie and 33.3 in the postseason as the Squires again won a first-round playoff series, then averaged almost 32 points in his second season.

"I played with Doc for a year," said Twardzik, now the assistant general manager of the Orlando Magic. "The nice thing about playing with him back then is it was early in his career when he was extremely healthy, (and) it was a wide-open style of basketball. … What the public saw during games was only a glimpse of what he used to do at practice. Seeing him every day at practice, you knew he was going to be one of the great ones to ever pick up a basketball."

The Squires, who also featured a young George Gervin, looked like an ideal situation to Barry Parkhill, drafted out of the University of Virginia in 1973 by both the Squires and the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers.

"I knew a little bit about George Gervin, but Julius was one of the better players in professional basketball, and a chance to play with a guy like that, and a chance to play in the state where I played collegiately, was pretty exciting," Parkhill said. "But it all changed overnight."

Erving was sold to the Nets on Aug. 1, 1973 — just before Parkhill reported to rookie camp.

The deal gave the Squires an infusion of cash — along with George Carter and the draft rights to Kermit Washington — but stripped the franchise of its marquee player.

"Julius was not only a great player, but a really good person," Parkhill said. "Obviously he drew crowds. So that was a pretty big blow to the entire franchise."

A slow slide

Talk of Dr. J leaving was nothing new (Erving signed with the Atlanta Hawks after becoming eligible for the NBA draft in 1972, but a court order sent him back to the Squires). That didn't lessen the blow when he finally left.

"There's no question there's an effect when you trade a guy that was really the face of your franchise, and you can argue that he was really one of the strong faces in the entire league," Twardzik said. "So when you lose a player like that, obviously it hurts us credibility-wise a little bit, and obviously the performance of the team is affected by it."

The hits to the team's roster kept coming. Gervin was sold to San Antonio during the 1973-74 season for cash, despite the efforts of ABA commissioner Mike Storen, who tried to block the deal on the grounds that selling the team's last bona fide star wasn't good for the league.

Jack Ankerson, who'd worked for the more successful franchise in San Antonio when Gervin was dealt there, took over as the Squires' general manager in 1974.

"The first year we came, the team had been pretty well stripped of its players," Ankerson said. "In 1974, we were essentially starting over from scratch, and we took our lumps."

There were other problems, too. Ankerson said injuries hampered the team's rebuilding efforts, and the team had trouble drawing the crowds it got in Norfolk to the Hampton Coliseum.

"We averaged over 5,000 a people a game at Scope," said Ankerson, now the executive director of the Hampton Roads Sports Commission. "… At Hampton Coliseum, we were fortunate to get 1,000 people a game. … A lot of people on the Peninsula didn't respond to us as being like a real home team over there."

Coaching changes, including the dismissal of the popular Al Bianchi, didn't help the Squires boost their following, and neither did precipitously declining play. The team went 15-69 in 1974-75 and 15-68 in 1975-76.

Financial problems also plagued the Squires. Wylie French, a minority investor in the franchise, remembers having to fly to Indianapolis with a load of cashier's checks so the Squires players, already down a few paychecks, would take the court. In 1974, Parkhill sued the team after his paychecks bounced.

In 1976, the team disbanded, and the struggling ABA soon followed.

Four teams — the Nets, the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets — were absorbed into the more successful NBA, with the rest of the ABA players dispersed in a draft.

A salary dispute with the Nets sent Erving to Philadelphia, where he scored 18,364 points in 11 all-star seasons and led the 76ers to the 1983 NBA championship.

Moving on

Erving, who won three scoring titles in five ABA seasons, scored a combined 30,026 points in the ABA and the NBA and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.

The Squires played their last game on April 6, 1976.

"In some areas, it was good," Ankerson said. "Stop the bleeding, it's over with. But it was still hard to take, because of all the time and effort that went into this thing."

Although the writing, punctuated with capital letters after Erving's departure, was on the wall for the Squires, the team's disbandment still surprised some.

"You get kind of conditioned to it, knowing that the checks are bouncing, but the ultimate shutting down of the franchise was a shock," Twardzik said. "I don't think we saw that coming. I thought the franchise would try to stick it out and be part of either the merger or some kind of settlement from the teams that weren't going into the NBA, but unfortunately that didn't happen."

Twardzik ended up signing with Portland, while Parkhill, traded after two years with the Squires, went on to play for the ABA's St. Louis Spirits.

"My pro career was very mediocre, but that's more me than anything else," Parkhill said. "But it was a disappointment when Julius was sold. That was something I had really gotten excited about, and then it just didn't work out."

As to whether major pro sports can again work in Hampton Roads, the men associated with the Squires aren't overly optimistic.

"I'm not a demographic expert, but I think obviously population has a lot to do with it," Parkhill said. "Having a facility has a whole lot to do with it. … It's emotional. Part of me would say I think it might be able to happen, but with the economy the way it is, I can't see Norfolk building a brand-new basketball arena with all the bells and whistles.

"The fans are great. Always have been and probably always will be. I just don't know if there are enough of them to support an NBA franchise."

French, who estimated he lost almost $100,000 investing in the Squires, is more bottom-line blunt.

"You have to have somebody with money," he said. "If you get somebody with money who's willing to endure the tough seasons when you start out as a new franchise … and you get a good coach and a good staff (and) if the teams win, the people will come. If you put out a substandard product with a losing team, they're not going to come."

Parkhill and Twardzik cherish the friendships they made with the Squires. And though the team took a bite from his pocketbook, French doesn't harbor any bitterness, either.

"If I had it to do over again, yeah, I'd probably be fool enough to do it," he said. "It was a loss, but it was a lot of fun."

The good doctor

In two seasons with the Virginia Squires, Julius Erving averaged 29.4 points per game. He was traded after the 1972-73 season to the Nets.
rlee
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