Years of Existence: 1967-68 through 1973-74
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In the spring of 1967, Denver received a charter ABA franchise by default, when the original owners of the Kansas City franchise couldn't get their act together. The league needed solid ownership for the franchise, which it eventually found in the form of Denver trucking executive Bill Ringsby. Ringsby was the owner of the Denver-based "Ringsby Rocket" Trucking System. Therefore, it made sense for the team to be nicknamed the "Rockets." The team's unique colors (orange and black) and logo (the "Ringsby System" logo, above) were borrowed directly from Ringsby's trucks.
The team's first year on the court (1967-68) had to be considered a successful one, especially attendance-wise. Unlike other ABA teams, Denver started out very slow at the gate. Only 2,748 fans attended the Rockets' first home game against the Anaheim Amigos. But, attendance picked up over the course of the season, as Denver residents gradually warmed up to their new pro team. In their inaugural season, the Rockets averaged a healthy 4,128 fans per game. This figure encouraged the Ringsbys and confirmed that Denver could, indeed, support a pro basketball franchise.
On the court, the Rockets were good, but not great. The Rockets had two powerful offensive weapons. Larry Jones (left, #32) (from Wilkes-Barre of the Eastern League) soon served notice that he was one of the quickest, deadliest guards in the ABA. At times, he was a scoring machine. On November 28, 1967, he scored 52 points at home against the Oakland Oaks. He averaged 22.8 points per game that first year, and was named First-Team All-ABA. Despite Jones' spectacular play, Willie Murrell (also from the Eastern League) was voted the team's MVP. Murrell averaged 16.4 points and 9.0 rebounds for the season. Other original Rockets were Byron Beck (out of Denver University), Wayne Hightower (from the Detroit Pistons of the NBA), Lefty Thomas (from the Harlem Clowns), Julian Hammond (out of Tulsa), and Tom "Whammy" Bowens (a great leaper, out of Grambling).
Under coach Bob Bass, Denver finished a respectable 12 games above .500. Unfortunately, during the last two weeks of the season, the Dallas Chaparrals pushed Denver out of second place in the ABA's Western Division, and into third. Under the ABA's initial playoff system, this was a disastrous result: the Rockets lost the all-important home court advantage for the first round, and had to play the Western Division's first place team, the powerful New Orleans Buccaneers (led by Coach Babe McCarthy and All-Stars Doug Moe and Larry Brown). At New Orleans, the Rockets lost the first two games of the best-of-five series. They also lost their leading scorer, Jones, to a broken arm. The series seemed over, but the Rockets surprised everyone by winning the next two games of the series (both played in Denver). In the absence of Jones, Murrell shouldered the scoring burden. In a close Game Four played at the Denver Coliseum, Murrell scored 14 points in the first seven minutes of the 4th quarter (and 28 points in the game) to propel Denver to the series-tying win. The rubber game of the series was played back in New Orleans, where the Bucs barely nipped Denver by 5 points, 102-97. After barely beating Denver, the Bucs eliminated Dallas and almost beat Pittsburgh in the first ABA Championship Series.
Denver's roster did not change much in the ABA's second year (1968-69). The only significant Denver rookie of note was forward Walt Piatkowski (out of Bowling Green), who averaged 12.2 points per game and made the ABA All-Rookie team. Overall, the team's talent was still good enough to produce an above-.500 finish (44-34). In particular, Larry Jones continued to improve. He finished third in the ABA in scoring (averaging 28.4 points per game) and was named First-Team All-ABA for the second straight year. On March 21, 1969, Jones scored 52 points at home against the Houston Mavericks.
Again, the Rockets made the playoffs, but their third place finish in the Western Division put them in the same position as the year before -- they had to play the Western Division first place team in the first round, without the home court advantage. This time, the Rockets faced the unenviable task of playing the 60-18 Oakland Oaks -- the ABA's best team -- in a seven game series. Most observers expected the Oaks (with Doug Moe, Larry Brown, and Warren Armstrong) to quickly dispatch the Rockets. But, like the year before, the Rockets surprised everyone. They stole one of the first two games played in Oakland (Game 2, 122-119). In Game 3 at Denver, the Oaks crushed the Rockets by 22 points.
But in Game Four, in front of 5,431 fans, Denver eked out another close win to tie the series. With only 30 seconds left in the game, the Rockets trailed by one point (106-105) but had the ball. In a timeout, Coach Bass drew up a clearout play for 6'2" guard Lonnie Wright. Wright was supposed to exploit his 5-inch height advantage over Oaks' defender Larry Brown, and that's exactly what he did. To the delight of the Denver crowd, Wright canned a short baseline jumper over Brown, to give Denver a 107-106 lead. The Rockets managed to hang on for a 109-108 victory. With the series tied at two games apiece, the surprised Oaks still had the home court advantage. They certainly needed it, as the series went the distance, with the home team winning each succeeding game. In the decisive Game 7, played at Oakland, the Oaks finally eliminated the pesky Rockets, 115-102. The Oaks went on breeze past New Orleans (4 games to 0) and Indiana (4 games to 1) to win the ABA Championship.
After Denver's playoff defeat at the hands of the Oaks, Denver's front office knew it had to improve the team's talent level. The Ringsbys contented themselves (and shocked the basketball world) by signing an undergraduate phenom from the University of Detroit: Spencer Haywood. The 6'9" Haywood had played only one year of junior college ball (at Trinidad Junior College in Colorado), and one year of Division I basketball at Detroit. But, having averaged 32.2 points per game at Detroit (he was an All-America choice as a sophomore), and having sparked the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team to a gold medal performance at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games, Haywood was bored with college ball. Despite protests from the NCAA and the NBA (and even some ABA owners), Haywood was allowed to play for the Rockets, even though he had not completed his four years of college eligibility. Haywood was the very first pro player to take this route. The Rockets publicly explained it as a "hardship" exception, designed to allow Haywood to provide for his large family (including his mother and nine brothers and sisters).
Haywood's presence made a huge impact on the 1969-70 Rockets. Initially, the team lacked chemistry. Denver started out slowly, and was 9-19 early in the season. This prompted the firing of new coach John McClendon. Former ABA official Joe Belmont was hired to replace McClendon. Under Belmont, the Rockets suddenly ignited. At one point, they won 15 straight games. Eventually, they leapfrogged all the other teams in the Western Division and claimed first place with a 51-33 record. The key was forward/center Haywood, who scored (and dunked) at will and terrorized opponents with his shot-blocking. Denver fans found it hard to believe that Haywood was really a rookie. In retrospect, Haywood had one of the most memorable seasons in ABA history. He led the entire league in scoring (30.0 points per game) and rebounding (19.5 rebounds per game). At the ABA All-Star Game in Indianapolis, he won the MVP award. And at the end of the season, he was voted the overall ABA MVP (also making the All-ABA First Team), and the ABA Rookie of the Year.
|ABA MVP and Rookie of the Year Spencer Haywood (above left, #24) fueled the Rockets' drive to the 1969-70 Western Division Title. Haywood was Denver's first pro basketball superstar. He became a tremendous gate attraction: in the spring of 1970, nearly every Rockets game in Denver's small Auditorium Arena was sold out.
Denver also had a few role players, like forward Julius Keye (above right, #50). Keye made the 69-70 Denver roster as an unknown rookie out of Alcorn A&M. His specialty was rebounding and shot-blocking. Later in his career with Denver, Keye set the ABA record for blocked shots in a game (with 12 against Virginia on December 14, 1972).
Center Byron Beck (left, #40) was a home-grown talent from Denver University. He stuck with the Denver franchise (Rockets/Nuggets) for all nine years of the ABA. In his early years, Beck was known more for his physical play than for his scoring. But he soon developed a feathery hook-shot as his trademark. Beck was also a dead-eye from the free-throw line: he shot 81% from the line during his ABA career.
(Photos copyright © John Oznick and used with permission)
In the 1970 playoffs, the Rockets had high expectations. In the first round, they met Rick Barry and the Washington Caps (the former Oakland Oaks and defending ABA Champions). Nobody expected the proud Caps to roll over, and they did not. While Denver won the first two games of the seven-game series (in Denver), the Caps held serve in Washington D.C. with two easy victories. Fortunately for the Rockets, they had the home court advantage, and two of the final three games of the series were to be played in Denver. Predictably, the series went the full distance. In Game 7 in Denver, in front of 9,893 fans at the Denver Coliseum, the Rockets simply dismantled the Caps (143-119) for their very first playoff series win. Rocket veterans Larry Jones and Byron Beck led the team with 27 and 25 points, respectively. Beck had 11 rebounds, and Haywood had 19. With the game all but over (the score was 132-103), a frustrated Rick Barry knocked Rocket guard Jeff Congdon to the floor with an intentional foul. While Congdon shot his free throws, two Rocket players (Haywood and Julius Keye) surrounded Barry at the mid-court line. Haywood deliberately bumped Barry when the Caps came down the floor. Barry then heaved the ball at Haywood, and Haywood threw a punch at Barry. After Haywood was ejected from the game, another series of fights broke out. Rocket guard Lonnie Wright eventually decked Barry with a vicious blind-side punch, as a number of fans spilled onto the floor. One of the fans also took a swipe at Barry, who was on the floor being aided by a trainer. It was an ugly end to an exciting series -- the only playoff series that the Denver Rockets would ever win.
The Rockets moved on to face the surprising L.A. Stars in the second round. Again, the Rockets had the home court advantage in the seven-game series. Most observers expected the Rockets to handle the young Stars, but the confident Stars were peaking behind the play of shot-blocking center Craig Raymond. For Game 1, CBS came to Denver's Auditorium Arena to broadcast the game to the entire nation. It was the very first time a network came to Denver to nationally televise a basketball game. In Game 1 itself, the Rockets struggled and barely squeaked past the Stars in overtime, 123-113. Larry Jones was the hero for the Rockets, with several clutch baskets late in the game. Behind Raymond, the Stars still played well in defeat, and they played even better for the duration of the series. Incredibly, after their Game 1 loss, the Stars beat the Rockets four straight times to eliminate Denver, 4 games to 1. In the final game of the series, Game 5 (another nationally televised game from Denver's Auditorium Arena), the Stars' Merv Jackson hit a clutch baseline jumper over Larry Jones with 16 seconds left, to give Los Angeles a 109-107 lead. The Rockets then had a chance to tie, but Jeff Congdon's mid-range jumper clanged off the rim and into the hands of Raymond. The series clinching win gave the Stars their 25th victory in their last 32 games. After the game, Denver Coach Belmont simply stated: "As far as I'm concerned, Craig Raymond was the difference in this series." The Stars went on to lose to the Pacers in the ABA Championship Series.
Haywood's spectacular 1969-70 rookie season gave Rockets fans cause for optimism for the 1970-71 season . But, the season turned out to be a disaster for the franchise. In the fall of 1970, Haywood played only two exhibition games for the Rockets (scoring over 40 points in each). After those two games, he bolted the team because of a contract dispute. Haywood was upset because much of his salary was in the form of deferred (future) payments. The Rockets refused to restructure his contract, and Haywood decided to jump to the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA. The Rockets filed several lawsuits to keep Haywood in Denver. For months, the Rockets stubbornly held out hope that Haywood would return to the team (for much of the 1970-71 season, Rockets game programs still contained Haywood's name in the lineup section). Denver eventually relented, and Haywood played 33 games for the Sonics in the spring of 1971.
On the court, the team floundered during the 1970-71 season. After a 3-10 start, Coach Belmont was summarily fired and replaced by Stan Albeck. The change didn't help much as the Rockets finished 24 games below .500. The team's only consistent scorer was Larry Cannon (a forward obtained from the Miami Floridians in exchange for longtime Rocket Larry Jones). Cannon averaged an impressive 26.6 points per game, and was named Second-Team All-ABA. In one game, Cannon shot an incredible 26 free throws, making 23 of them. Another promising Rockets player was rookie Ralph Simpson. Simpson was another "hardship" case from Michigan State -- he had only played two seasons for the Spartans before signing with the Rockets. He averaged 14.2 points per game in his rookie season, and showed glimpses of superstar potential. Still, the team's outlook was bleak. Denver fans blamed the Ringsby front office for failing to keep Haywood. Attendance dropped sharply: Denver averaged only 4,139 fans per game in 1970-71, as compared to 6,281 the year before.
The Rockets' front office tried bring the franchise back to respectability by hiring venerable Alex Hannum (left) as head coach (and General Manager) for the 1971-72 season. Hannum immediately overhauled the team's entire image: the team colors (and uniforms) were changed from orange and black to columbine blue and yellow (the colors of the columbine, Colorado's state flower). Hannum signed two more promising rookies, Dave Robisch an All-American center out of Kansas) and Marv Roberts (an All-American forward out of Utah State). The Rockets' new slogan was "New in '72." With Hannum's structured offensive patterns (and stingy defense), the Rockets were certainly new, but they weren't much better (at least during the regular season). They showed some promise, but finished 16 games below .500 (at 34-50). Simpson had a career-best year scoring-wise, averaging 27.4 points per game. He was named Second Team All-ABA. Guard Larry Brown, who had been acquired from the Squires the year before, was the team's capable ball-handler. Brown finished third in the league in assists, with 7.2 per game.
Behind Simpson's scoring and Brown's playmaking, the Rockets barely made the playoffs (ahead of the hapless last-place Memphis Pros), and had to face the powerful Indiana Pacers in the first round. Surprisingly, the Rockets gave the favored Pacers all they could handle, and nearly pulled off a memorable upset. According to the Indianapolis press, Dave Robisch suddenly played "like Superman" in this series. He battled the Pacers' All-Star center Mel Daniels to a virtual draw in each every game. Simpson also gave the Pacers fits with his slashing drives and jumpers (in Game 2 at Indianapolis, Simpson hit a floating jumper with 4 seconds left to give the Rockets a 106-105 victory). At several points during this seven-game series, the Rockets had the chance to take control. But, the Pacers always seemed to bounce back. The series came down to a decisive Game 7, which was played at Indianapolis. For Indiana fans at the game, and for Denver fans listening on the radio, this game was truly a nail-biter. With ten seconds left in the 4th quarter, the Pacers' Billy Keller hit a crucial free throw to give Indiana a slim 91-89 lead. With four seconds left in regulation, the Rockets had the ball and a chance to send the contest into overtime. Dave Robisch took the ball out of bounds underneath the Denver basket, and tried to throw a quick, short inbounds pass to Ralph Simpson. The Pacers deflected the pass, and time ran out -- giving Indiana a heart-stopping, series-clinching two point win. After seven grueling games against the Rockets, the Pacers were relieved to advance. After this first-round scare, the Pacers went on to beat Utah and New York in succession for their second ABA Championship.
In 1972-73, Hannum's plan to resurrect the Rockets franchise seemed to be working. Home attendance increased to 4,963 fans per game. Behind Simpson's consistent scoring, and the playmaking of tough guard Warren Jabali (acquired by Denver in the Floridians' dispersal draft, Jabali played in the 1973 ABA All-Star Game at Salt Lake City, and became the second Rockets player to win the All-Star Game MVP Award), the Rockets improved on the court as well. They achieved an impressive 47-37 mark. However, this was only good enough for third place in the Western Division. For the second straight year, Denver had to face Indiana in the first round of the playoffs without the home court advantage. Mainly due to injuries to several key Rockets (including Jabali), Denver quietly succumbed to the Pacers, 4 games to 1. Off the court, some significant (and perhaps positive) changes took place, as the Ringsbys sold control of the franchise to new owners A.G. "Bud" Fischer and Frank M. Goldberg. Bill Ringsby remained as a minority owner, but for Denver it was the end of the longtime"Ringsby Era."
The core of the franchise remained the same for 1973-74, but the team fell backwards. Despite high expectations from the year before, Denver fans were disappointed to see Hannum's team finish only 37-47. The Rockets lost a one-game playoff in Denver against the San Diego Conquistadors for fourth place and the final playoff spot. Attendance dipped to only 4,132 per game (almost the same figure that the team had achieved in its very first year in the ABA -- 4,128 per contest in 1967-68). The future of pro basketball in Denver seemed precarious, even though plans were in place to move the team from the small downtown Auditorium Arena (capacity 6,900) to a brand new, state-of-the-art arena that would seat 18,000 fans.
|From 1971 to 1974, the Denver Rockets had some talented players, like Byron Beck (above left, #40), Dave Robisch (above middle, #25), Ralph Simpson (above right, #44), and Warren Jabali (left, #12).
But, the Rockets never won a playoff series under Hall-of-Fame coach Alex Hannum. During Hannum's last season with the team (1973-74), the team struggled and lost many fans.
(Photos copyright © Dave Gonyea and used with permission)
Majority owners Fischer and Goldberg were concerned about their ABA investment, and decided to take drastic action. On April 30, 1974, they dismissed Hannum from his position as head coach, general manager, and president of the team. And on June 3, 1974, they hired Larry Brown as the new coach, and Carl Scheer as the new general manager and president of the team. Scheer and Brown quickly overhauled the struggling franchise. The Denver Rockets died and the "New Denver Nuggets" were born for the 1974-75 season.
Rockets Fan Memories (Page 1)
Rockets Fan Memories (Page 2)
From 1968 to 1975, Warren Jabali (Armstrong) was an enigmatic force in the ABA. In 1973, when he played for the Denver Rockets, Jabali was voted MVP of the ABA All-Star Game, over players like Artis Gilmore, Julius Erving, and George McGinnis. In August 1997, Dave Thomas posted his "Tribute to Warren Jabali" on this web site. Dave recently spoke with Jabali, who now lives in Miami, Florida. Since then, Dave has revised his article, and has also added a postscript: a letter written by Jabali in May 1998 to the Kansas City Star newspaper.
Record: 45-33, Third Place in Western Division
1968 Playoff Results:
Western Division Semifinals vs. New Orleans Buccaneers (48-30)
Buccaneers won series, 3-2
Record:44-34, Third Place in Western Division
1969 Playoff Results:
Western Division Semifinals vs. Oakland Oaks (60-18)
Oaks won series, 4-3
Record: 51-33, First Place in Western Division
1970 Playoff Results:
1970 Western Division Semifinals vs. Washington Capitals (44-40)
Rockets won series, 4-3
1970 Western Division Finals vs. Los Angeles Stars (43-41)
Stars won series, 4-2
Record: 30-54, Fifth Place in Western Division
1971 Playoff Results:
One Game Playoff vs. Texas Chaparrals (30-54) for Fourth Place & Playoff Spot
Chaparrals won 115-109
Record: 34-50, Fourth Place in Western Division
1972 Playoff Results:
1972 Western Division Semifinals vs. Indiana Pacers (47-37)
Pacers won series, 4-0
Record: 47-37, Third Place in Western Division
1973 Playoff Results:
1973 Western Division Semifinals vs. Indiana Pacers (51-33)
Pacers won series, 4-1
Record: 37-47, Fifth Place in Western Division
1974 Playoff Results:
One Game Playoff vs. San Diego Conquistadors (37-47) for Fourth Place & Playoff Spot
Conquistadors won 131-111