Saturday, March 8, 2008

Woody Paige Interview, Part I

While going through my archives, I found an unpublished gem: in October 2004, I interviewed Woody Paige for an article about Larry Miller, holder of the ABA' s single-game scoring record (that article was eventually published in the July 29, 2005 issue of Sports Collectors Digest; you can read a reprint of it here). Paige has spent a lot of time--and made a lot of money--convincing people that he is some kind of buffoon but his real personality is nothing at all like the character he plays on ESPN. I've never met Paige in person and I had never been in contact with him prior to this interview but he spent the better part of an hour talking to me about a wide range of subjects in addition to sharing his memories of Miller's record-setting game, which Paige covered as a young beat writer:

Paige: "I covered the ABA from like '69, then I moved to Denver in '74 and I covered it until its demise. So I covered it for like seven or eight years."

Friedman: "So if you were covering it for Denver obviously then you were at the ABA Finals against the Nets and Julius Erving?"

Paige: "Oh, yeah. My greatest memory of that is that the Nuggets were up by 22. I walked by the Nets bench to go the bathroom and I heard Kevin Loughery say to the players, 'Just go out and beat them up. We're out of this game, go and hurt them.' I mean, not hurt them in the sense of hurting them physically, but in the sense that they're a soft team and the only way to get back in the game is to just bang on them. They came back and John Williamson was a mean guy and Taylor must have been on that club--"

Friedman: "Yeah, Brian Taylor."

Paige: "And Kenon. Kenon could be a banger. Billy Paultz was a banger. They went out and they did it and (Denver Coach) Larry Brown was defenseless to stop it. I mean, he couldn't stop it. Maybe Larry learned something (from that experience) by the time he got to Detroit. They (New York) came back and won the game and I always remember just the oddity of walking by the bench and hearing his strategy. It's kind of funny because I had to be within three or four feet (to hear it) because it's not something that I would be able to hear in a lot of large buildings, but the crowd was out of it because the Nets were down 22. If they go on to win the game then the Nuggets would (probably) have won the last ABA Championship. They got beat on a freaky play in the first game. Bobby Jones was a great defender and went up to defend Julius on the baseline and Bobby's shoe exploded."

Friedman: "I know--I read about that. I heard about that."

Paige: "And Bobby's not a guy who would make up a story or make up an excuse. He said he went up and the moment he went up his shoe blew apart and it distracted him for just enough time that Julius was able to get off the shot and make the basket. So, I mean Denver could have won the last ABA Championship...The Celtics would play Denver (in exhibition games) and you'd talk to those guys and they'd say, 'Yeah, these guys can play.' Because they (the Celtics) never saw the ABA. CBS put on eight games a year or something like that. They (the ABA) played in a lot of small towns."

Friedman: "Do you remember the first game that you saw Julius in person and what you thought at the time?"

Paige: "Yeah, it was in Virginia. It was a game toward the end of the year. I don't know why I know that it was the end of the year, but I wrote pieces for Basketball Digest later and that's why I distinctly remember that Bob Bass had a great quote that I used. He said that whenever Julius went up for a shot, for one his dunks, a tomahawk or something, everybody's ears in the building popped. It sucked the air out of the building--a different way of applying it. I guess Al Bianchi was the coach in Virginia."

Friedman: "Sure."

Paige: "I got to know Al Bianchi pretty well and he said that you're going to see a kid tonight that you're not going to believe. Yeah, yeah, ok, sure. If he's so good how come I've never heard of him? I never heard of him coming out of UMass. You heard of most of the good players but I guess he left after his junior year or whatever. He couldn't shoot, he didn't have any outside shot at all, but I've never seen anything like him. He had the Afro. I remember thinking that this guy's going to play his career in a vacuum. The NBA really never saw him early, because he had to be so much more creative going to the basket and doing things because he couldn't shoot a lick from the outside. He was a terrible outside shooter. If you remember--and you're old enough to remember--Magic Johnson couldn't shoot."

Friedman: "Of course."

Paige: "Well, Julius was that bad. (ed. note: To be fair to Erving, it should be noted that in his third season he shot .395 from three point range and he was a .778 free throw shooter during five ABA seasons, including .801 in his final campaign in that league). Nobody would guard him outside, obviously, because he couldn't shoot, so he had to do even more amazing things going to the basket than he did later when he could shoot from the outside. Yeah, I remember him distinctly. Two times in my life that I walked away (amazed). I went to see John Elway when he was a senior in college--because of the NFL strike--and I came back and told Dan Reeves, 'I've seen the future and it's John Elway.' He went, 'Yeah, he's a good quarterback.' Good quarterback? He's an incredible quarterback. That doesn't make me someone who discovered electricity."

Friedman: "Sure. I understand."

Paige: "When I saw him play at Stanford he would throw a ball through a cornerback's hands. You've seen the thing where a guy drops a dollar and you try to slap your hands together to catch it before it hits the floor. Well, the cornerback couldn't react quickly enough. I mean the ball was right between his hands but he couldn't react quickly enough to stop it from going past him, like guys could do in the pros. We started talking about him. It didn't seem like there was any way Denver could get him, but you know that story. The only two times I ever felt that way were seeing John Elway in college and seeing Julius Erving for the first time. We all knew about David Thompson from playing UCLA. I knew Michael Jordan could play--I saw him in the national championship game. I never knew what he was going to be, but I knew that he could play and that he was going to be a great player. I never thought that he would be the greatest. But Julius Erving was a totally unknown player and to see him and go, 'My God, I have seen the Messiah of basketball!'"

Friedman: "What do you think would happen if somehow through a time machine you would have the young free flowing Julius from the ABA and Michael Jordan from whatever we might think is his best year, what do you think that would be like?"

Paige: "Oh, I think that there is a natural progression. I didn't get to see him, but people would say about Elgin Baylor that nobody will ever be as creative or as demonstrative or as good in that position. Then Julius Erving came along and just blew him away and you go, boy, Baylor couldn't hold his jock. Then Michael came along and he did stuff that Julius couldn't do. I mean, he took it a step further. But I think Kobe--forgetting everything else--in certain ways can do some things that even Michael couldn't do. I'd say that there is a natural order, as has been pointed out by Darwin."

Paige laughs, then continues, "There is a natural order. There was never anybody like Julius Erving, not (even) Elgin Baylor. Well, Michael Jordan was like Julius--shorter, better shooter. He had--­probably because he had the North Carolina background--a much more functional game. I mean, he had a more solid game. Julius' game was based on the playground. Michael played in a very formalized system under Dean Smith. That is probably what made him able to take it (further)--because he could do things that Julius couldn't do in a formalized setting and win championships and he had Scottie Pippen, who had his back. I would have loved to see them (go head to head with both in their primes), but we got to see Larry Bird and Magic and I don't know how much more I could have taken. What was funny to me is that Julius Erving leaves Bianchi and those people in Virginia and you say, 'How in the world could you do that?' and Al Bianchi says, 'Wait until you see this next kid.' Yeah, sure, ok. Then you see George Gervin and you go, 'Where do they get these guys?' I mean, people that just show up out of nowhere and can play their asses off. Gervin had been in junior colleges and he was sort of like Jim Thorpe--you didn't know if he was playing for pro teams when he was 14 years old or what."

Friedman: "You're right. These guys come out of nowhere and then these guys could really play."

Paige: "Who in the world could imagine that one stupid club that lasted three years or whatever could come up with Julius Erving and George Gervin? I mean, where in the hell did that come from? The Boston Celtics did not come up with Larry Bird and then another Larry Bird. You don't come up with Magic Johnson and then another Magic Johnson. You (much later) come up with Kobe Bryant."

Friedman: "That franchise, in its earlier incarnation under a different name, didn't they have Rick Barry? He didn't want to go (to Virginia) when they changed the name--"

Paige: "They didn't discover him."

Friedman: "Oh, right, I see what you're saying--they didn't discover him (like they discovered Erving and Gervin)."

Paige: "Yeah, I mean Julius Erving and George Gervin came out of nowhere and suddenly are playing for the Washington Caps/Virginia Squires."

Friedman: "No, I see what you are saying--players that they discovered, not just who showed up on the team."

Paige: "Yeah. Did they totally discover them? Maybe not, but everybody says that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity and also discovered small town newspapers and the post office. Well, you know, other people equally 'discovered' some of those things, but Benjamin Franklin is remembered for it. I don't know that the Virginia Squires get the credit that they deserve for discovering a couple guys that nobody had ever heard of."

Friedman: "They just didn't have the financing to keep them, right?"

Paige: "Yeah. I don't remember the owner's name, but he said that we did as much as we could and then we sent them along. They hung on as long as they could. Julius got to play in New York and got to play in Philadelphia, so we all got to see him, but by the time he got to Philadelphia he was not--he was a much more fundamentally sound player and smarter player and a classy player, but he was not the young man who just played such a natural game that--well, most people never saw what Julius Erving was really about. Would you like to see a young Julius against a young Michael Jordan? Yeah, but I would like to see Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth play in the same game, but you can't do that."

Friedman: "With Julius and Jordan I am interested in your perspective because you have seen them both in person. I always thought, observing more from a distance, it seemed to me that Julius had more of a tendency to defer to teammates. When he came to a team he wouldn't say 'It's my team.' He would always say that it was McGinnis' team and Collins' team--that we are sharing that role. It seemed to me that Jordan had a personality that whatever team he was on was his team and he made it clear to everybody on the other team and on his team that it was his team and that he was taking the last shot and averaging 30 points and everyone falls in line behind him. Do you think that there is any credence to that, that maybe Julius' personality was a little different than Jordan's in some way?"

Paige: "He (Erving) was for most of his career a much lower key person, yes. I think there is a great deal of truth to that. I'll tell you, on the other side, he was a lot better leaper than Jordan. People think of Michael as a great leaper, but he couldn't touch Julius' leaping. If you were to go see Julius today, Julius has the biggest hands I've ever seen. I mean, that's why (he was so exceptional)--when you add leaping ability to the incredible hands. You know, who cares, but the untold story about Artis Gilmore is that he couldn't palm a basketball. He was a guy who was 7'2" and had to put stickum on his hands and players hated playing against him because the ball was always sticky because Artis Gilmore couldn't palm a basketball. He had the smallest hands in the world. Julius had the largest hands. I mean he wore the size 14 or 18 glove that you would see on a defensive lineman now. That really never got noticed. He had just incredible hands, so he could do a lot more with the basketball than Michael ever could and he had better leaping ability. He was not the shooter that he (Jordan) was and he was not the leader. Fundamentally he was not the guy, because as I said, Michael Jordan played for Dean Smith, who had the great ability to take incredible players and turn them into really average players. Dean and I are friends, but I mean everybody who went there you think, 'This guy isn't going to be much of a pro' and then (after they do well in the pros) you go, 'Why didn't he play great there?'"

Friedman: "It's the system, right?"

Paige: "Yeah. I think there is a great truth to that. He was much more of a leader than Julius was but that happened late. When he was in Philadelphia he took control of the team over McGinnis and when they played the Lakers and Pat Riley's club he was really a great leader at that point."

Friedman: "I don't know in would even call it being more or less of a leader--I think it (Julius Erving's style) is a different kind of leadership. I think Jordan was an assertive leader. Julius was more of a leader who led by example, it seemed to me. He would work hard, he'd show up, he'd practice, he'd play hard, but he wasn't the kind of person to get into someone's face--"

Paige: "A lot less vocal."

In Part II, Paige explains how he developed the persona that he uses on "Around the Horn" and which prominent NFL coach first asked the famous question, "Why I always have to straighten you guys out?"


rayray said...

Larry Kenon & Billy Paultz were on the Nets '74 title team but were NOT on the '76 team which beat Denver in the final ABA finals.

Their positons were filled by Rich Jones & Jim Eakins.

Yes, Brian Taylor & Super John Williamson played important roles.
See this memory from Bill Melchionni:

David Friedman said...

Ray Ray:

You are correct. As I noted in my September 16, 2007 HoopsHype article about Mike Gale (links don't work here in the comments section but you can find the link at 20 Second Timeout in the NBA/ABA History section), the Nets blundered and traded away Kenon and Paultz to the Spurs for Swen Nater. That deal strengthened the Spurs for years to come. I meant to include a parenthetical note correcting Paige's quote.