The Game I’ll Never Forget: Bill Melchionni

Chuck O’Donnell

The Nets’ all-time assists leader fondly recalls the heroics of “Super” John Williamson in the 1976 ABA title game

WHEN MY TEAMMATES FROM the 1975-76 New York Nets and I reunited a few years ago to commemorate our ABA title, we all took a long stroll down memory lane.

We told our favorite stories about Brian Taylor’s brilliant outside shooting and his amazing ball-handling. We talked about the hustle and consistency Jim Eakins, Kim Hughes, Tim Bassett, and Al Skinner brought to the floor every night. We reminisced about Rich Jones’ battles under the boards and coach Kevin Loughery’s battles with the referees. And, of course, everyone played “top that” with Julius Erving dunk stories.

Eventually, the conversation turned to “Super” John Williamson and the ’76 title. We all agreed that if it weren’t for John being nothing short of super in the sixth and final game of that series, we may well not have had a rifle to reminisce about.

That night of Game 6, the sold-out crowd at the Nassau Coliseum had been somewhat lulled to sleep by our opponents, the powerful Denver Nuggets. Dan Issel, David Thompson, Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson, Byron Beck, and company had taken a big halftime lead and then further expanded the margin in the third quarter. The Nuggets seemed crisp and on top of their game, and Thompson, in particular, was having a big night putting the ball in the hoop.

None of us really wanted to play a seventh game. When you get to a seventh game, anything can happen. Although we had taken control of the series by winning some close games, it could all be erased by a freak injury or a buzzer-beater or a bad call by the referees in a seventh game.

I guess the idea of having to play a seventh game appealed to Super John the least of all our players. He wanted to end the series now–huge deficit or not. That little thing that he had–that little thing that separates good players from great players–began to rise to the surface.

You see, Super John had confidence. I remember when he arrived at training camp as a rookie, he already had that confidence. He walked in that first day with a big leather bag emblazoned with “SUPER JOHN” on the side. We had some pretty good players such as Doc and Taylor and Billy Paultz. Everyone was looking at Super John, asking incredulously, “Who in the world does this guy think he is?”

But confidence was a big part of Williamson’s game. He thought he was one of the best players around, which you could tell by the way he carried himself. He not only wanted to take the big shot; he thought he should take the big shot.

And it wasn’t all attitude–Super John had skills. He was a very physical player, a very strong player, and always the picture of fitness. He was one of the few guards in the league that played like a power forward and wore his opponent down. He was also a good shooter. When he had an open shot, you were surprised when he didn’t make it. When he was on his game, he was a tremendous offensive talent.

Trailing at halftime, Kevin and I (I was a player-coach at the time) began to address the team. We said, “Let’s get this thing down to single digits in the third quarter and hopefully make another run in the fourth quarter. We’re giving up too many easy shots. We’re not doing the things we should be doing, the little things.”

The Nuggets came out in the second half and added to their lead. With 17 minutes left in the game, we trailed by 22 points. Things looked bleak.

That’s when Super John took over the game I’ll never forget.

John started making shots of every type from every conceivable place on the floor.

Jumper? Swish!

Layup? Yes!

Dunk? Oh yeah!

He went left, right, straight ahead. He went past defenders, through defenders, over defenders. He later said that he was upset at himself for not playing as well as he would have liked to in the first half and that he wanted to make up for it in the second half.

Then, Kevin made a bold, but ingenious strategic move. He switched defenses late in the third quarter, going to a set code-named “Yellow.” We began to unmercifully press and pressure the Nuggets. And as we began to steal the ball on almost every Nuggets possession, we also began to steal their poise.

By the end of the third, we had cut the deficit to 92-78, but we were just starting.

Soon the lead was down to single digits. Then Jones and Issel fouled out. The next thing you know, we took our first lead since early in the first quarter. I’ll give you one guess who made the shot to give us the lead. Of course it was Super John. He lofted in a jumper from the corner to make the score 106-104 with 2:19 to play.

By now, the crowd was going crazy and we could feel our momentum surging, but the Nuggets reached down and showed some resolve. They were down, 108-106, with about a minute and a half left when their young backup center, Marvin Webster, went to the line. However, Webster missed both free throws and moments later was called for goaltending on Brian Taylor’s shot, sealing our victory.

After our 112-106 win, the champagne flowed in the locker room. Dr. J, who oddly enough didn’t score a point in that incredible fourth quarter, was named the Finals MVP. Reporters huddled around Eakins, who filled in for an injured Kim Hughes and gave us a 15-point, 13-rebound effort. But, there was no doubt that Super John was Superman that night. He finished with 28 points, including 24 in the second half.

Although we had no idea at the time, that game turned out to be the last in ABA history. During the offseason, the ABA folded, and our team, along with the Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs, joined the NBA.

At our championship reunion years later, the only regret we former Nets had was that Super John couldn’t be there sharing the laughs with us. Sadly, John died in 1996 of a blood disorder. Knowing him and his cockiness, at the reunion he would have still taken all the credit for the last ABA title.

And you know what? I wouldn’t have argued with him.

Always Willing to give an Assists

THE PRESS NOTES SAY WILLIAM P. Melchionni was born October 19, 1944, stood 6’2″, weighed 170 pounds, and played point guard.

But underneath the vital statistics, was Bill Melchionni, the type of point guard that championship teams are built around.

As the unspoken leader and floor general of the New York Nets, Melchionni was a vital cog in their two ABA championship seasons. He was willing to forsake his own ego and stats to get the ball to superstars such as Julius Erving, Rick Barry, John Williamson, Billy Paultz, Larry Kenon, and Brian Taylor. And if they weren’t open, he’d more than gladly take the big shots himself.

Melchionni’s road to pro basketball started when he took up the game as a kid growing up across the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia in Southwestern New Jersey. With last season’s Nets headman Don Casey as his coach, Melchionni led Bishop Eustace High School to two state titles. Next up was a stellar career at Villanova, which was capped off by a big senior year. He finished ninth in the nation in scoring, averaging 27.6 points per game en route to the NIT MVP and a second team All-America nod. He was selected as the player of the year in the Big 5, which includes the five Philadelphia schools: Villanova, LaSalle, Temple, St. Joseph’s, and Penn.

The Philadelphia 76ers selected Melchionni in the second round of the 1966 draft. He gained valuable experience as a rookie, playing in 73 games as the Sixers went 68-13, won the NBA title, and entrenched themselves as one of the best teams ever.

“I learned a lot from Wilt Chamberlain Lucious Jackson, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningnam, Hal Greer, Wali Jones, and coach Alex Hannum,” Melchionni says. “It was a tremendous advantage for a young player to be great players.”

After spending one more season as a reserve for the Sixers, the Phoenix Suns picked Melchionni in the expansion draft. He faced a dilemma: He could move to Phoenix where he might get a chance to play more, but that would mean uprooting his family from the area where he had lived and played his whole career.

“I refused to go and sat out a year,” Melchionni says. “I was making about $13,000, which was a reasonable amount of money in 1968, but I couldn’t ask my family to make that move.”

During his year away from basketball, St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca gave Melchionni a call, saying he was going to become coach of the Nets in the newly formed ABA. He wanted Melchionni to come play for him.

It was a match in basketball heaven. In his first year with the Nets, Melchionni averaged 15.2 points and 5.7 assists a game. He blossomed the next season, 1970-71, leading the ABA with a 8.3 apg. He also averaged 17.6 ppg and scored 12 points in his first All-ABA First Team.

The next season would be Melchionni’s best, He averaged a career-high 21.0 ppg and a league-record 8.4 apg. He started in the All Star Game at Louisville and was selected to the All-ABA First Team.

In 1972-73, it was much the same for Melchionni. He led the league in assists and played in the All-Star Game. Though he was displaced as the league’s assist king the next season, Melchionni helped the Nets beat the Utah Stars for the ABA title.

In 1976, Melchionni helped the Nets win another title, serving as player-assistant coach. The sixth and final game against the Denver Nuggets proved to be Melchionni’s final as a player. He finished third on the all-time ABA list in career assists and third among Nets in career ABA points.

When the Nets joined the NBA, Melchionni joined the club’s front office, serving as the team’s general manager for a year and a half. “There were stories circulating that the team was having some financial woes,” Melchionni says. “So, I decided to get out.”

He moved to Wall Street where he has worked since 1977. Today, he is the managing director in the fixed income department at Credit Suiss/First Boston, group.

Melchionni’s No. 25 has been retired by both the Nets and Villanova. He is a member of the Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame and is active with the Sixers’ and Nets’ alumni associations. He lives in Garden City, N.Y.

Bill Melchionni’s Most Memorable Game

ABA Finals, Game 6; May 13, 1976; at Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.

Denver 28 30 34 14-106

New York 23 22 33 34-112

Denver Min. FG-FGA FT-FTA Reb. Asst. PF Pts.

Jones, B. 33 2-5 0-0 9 5 6 4

Thompson 36 16-23 10-12 7 0 2 42

Issel 34 14-25 2-2 20 3 6 30

Williams 35 5-9 4-4 1 3 2 14

Simpson 35 1-9 2-2 2 3 1 4

Webster 18 1-3 0-2 6 0 2 2

Towe 16 2-3 2-2 0 5 5 6

Gerard 13 1-5 0-0 3 1 3 2

Beck 20 0-4 2-2 2 1 2 2

Totals 240 42-86 22-26 50 21 29 106

Percentages: FG-.488; FT-.847

New York Min. FG-FGA FT-FTA Reb. Asst. PF Pts.

Erving 45 10-19 11-16 19 5 2 31

Jones, R 29 1-12 0-2 9 2 4 2

Eakins 34 6-10 3-3 13 1 6 15

Taylor 43 9-24 4-4 1 3 2 24

Williamson 36 12-20 4-7 2 2 3 28

Bassett 23 2-5 0-0 3 1 6 4

McClain 9 0-5 1-2 0 1 1 1

Melchionni 4 2-3 0-0 1 0 1 4

Skinner 17 0-1 3-5 7 1 3 3

Totals 240 42-99 26-39 55 16 28 112

Percentages: FG-.424; FT-.667. Three-point field goals: Taylor (2), Attendance: 15,934. Referees: Norm Drucker and John Vanak.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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