If ever there were a non-native whose laidback personality and lifestyle seemed perfectly suited to New Orleans, that person had to be Doug Moe.
But the star forward of the New Orleans Buccaneers during their inaugural season in the now-defunct American Basketball Association said his memories of that 1967-68 campaign have less to do with the French Quarter, strong libations, spicy cuisine or hot jazz than with his new team and the new league.
When anyone who loves the game as much as Moe — a New York City native who played his college ball at North Carolina — has to wait as long as he did to play professionally in the United States, his focus tends be on the task at hand rather than even the most enticing of local attractions.
Besides, just being around that eclectic, fun-loving group of original Bucs should have been enough to keep any true hoops junkie amused. With the 6-foot-5 Moe averaging 24.2 points, New Orleans’ oddly cohesive cast of characters advanced to the ABA finals, where they lost in seven games to a Pittsburgh Pipers team led by the league’s leading scorer and MVP, Connie Hawkins.
So, Doug, was New Orleans as much your kind of place as might be surmised?
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” the 75-year-old Moe cracked from his home just outside of San Antonio, one of three NBA cities (the others being Denver and Philadelphia) where he was a head coach. “But you have to remember, I was only in New Orleans for a short time, just that one season. It takes a while to get to know a town, and during the season you’re kind of busy playing the games and going to practice. I didn’t get to know New Orleans all that well. But from what I did see, it’s definitely an interesting place.”
New Orleans probably missed out on knowing Doug Moe as much as Moe missed out on knowing New Orleans. As this year’s NBA playoffs rolls into a Finals rematch between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, it’s a good time to catch up with the most swashbuckling of those first-year Bucs — a player who, like Hawkins, was barred from the more established league because of perceived transgressions.
Hawkins and Moe — who spent the previous two seasons in the Italian pro league — were ineligible to play in the NBA because of admittedly tenuous connections to individuals linked to fixing college games. Although Hawkins, who filed suit against the NBA, settled out of court and eventually became a four-time All-Star with the Phoenix Suns, Moe spent two years playing in Italy and three in the ABA before tearing up a knee and retiring at 33.
Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach now turning things around at his latest reclamation project, SMU, told the tale of how he and Moe, his teammate and roommate at North Carolina, arrived in New Orleans to talk contract with a Bucs executive named Morton Downey Jr. Yes, the same Morton Downey Jr. who later was the first trash-talk TV host, a 1980s predecessor to Jerry Springer.
“We left the meeting with signed checks,” Brown recalled. “And I told Doug we better get them cashed quickly so they could clear, just in case any other players got to the bank ahead of us.”
The Bucs were better than anyone might have expected of a start-up operation — but all 11 ABA teams were in the same boat, trying to become acquainted not only with their new teammates but with the red, white and blue ball and a host of innovations that included, among other things, three points for shots launched from behind an arc painted on the court.
New Orleans went a Western Conference-leading 48-30, had three players (Moe, Brown and center Austin “Red” Robbins) in the All-Star Game and dispatched the Denver Rockets and Dallas Chaparrals before taking on the Pipers and Hawkins in an instant-classic championship series that went the full seven games. All seven were decided by nine points or fewer.
New Orleans took a 3-2 advantage into Game 6 at Loyola Fieldhouse, its home floor, but Hawkins scored 41 points to help Pittsburgh overcome a 72-59 halftime deficit to win 118-112. That set the stage for the Pipers’ 122-113 home win in Game 7 in which “The Hawk” filled up the stat sheet with 20 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists.
“Oh, man, he was terrific,” Moe said of Hawkins. “He could do everything. He was probably the most talented player, by far, I’d ever gone against to that point.”
But the Bucs, less of a one-man gang than were the Pipers, also had their moments behind Moe, the 5-9 Brown (the ABA’s leading playmaker with 6.5 assists per game), the rail-thin Robbins (6-8, 185 pounds) and guard James Jones, the sharpshooting rookie from Grambling who averaged 18.8 points.
“We had a good team with good guys and a good coach in Babe McCarthy,” Moe said. “Everything sort of fell into place. Just an enjoyable time.”
Moe said there were moments when communication between fellow New Yorker Brown and himself got lost in translation when filtered through the syrupy-voiced McCarthy, a true son of the South whose nickname was “Ol’ Magnolia Mouth.”
“Larry and I didn’t always know what Babe was saying, what with that great Southern accent, but he knew his basketball and he was an easy guy to play for and a pleasure to be around,” Moe said.
The same could be said of Gerald “Go-Go” Govan, the 6-10 power forward from St. Mary’s of the Plains (Kansas) College by way of his hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. Govan came off the bench and quickly became a fan favorite with his nerdy, black-framed glasses, shot-blocking defense and plug-ugly jump shot.
Playing for four teams over the course of the ABA’s nine-year existence, Govan was distinctive in more ways than one. Before the 1972-73 season, he wanted to legally change his name to Lew Alcindor because, he said, “the name isn’t being used anymore” — the original Alcindor having converted to Islam and going by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Govan never followed through with the required paperwork.
“I’m not sure it really happened that way, but it’s a good story,” said Moe, who was traded with Brown to the Oakland Oaks before the ABA’s second season. “There are a lot of good stories about Go-Go. Some of them are even true.
“It wouldn’t be the first time he was known as something else. His name (while playing) in Italy was Gowan, not Govan. It became Govan again when he came to New Orleans. I asked him about that and he said, ‘Well, in Italy, they couldn’t seem to pronounce my name the right way. It always came out as Gowan, so I went with that and didn’t say anything.’ ”
Moe still harbors fond feelings for the ABA, several of whose teams were absorbed into the NBA when the ABA folded in 1976. He called the NBA at the time of the merger a “rinky-dink” league whose on-court product was actually inferior to the ABA’s.
“There was a perception that the NBA was great and the ABA sucked, but the reality was almost the opposite,” Moe said. “It took a few years for the NBA to make needed changes, which it finally did when David Stern came in (as commissioner).
“To me, the NBA wasn’t as good as we thought it would be when we merged. It wasn’t so much about talent, but the overall feel of it. It was blah, dull. Now the NBA has the three-point shot and the dunk contest — all that stuff lifted straight from the ABA.
“Heck, the ABA might have lost the battle, but we won the war.”