Simply the Worst

Nobody wanted to coach the 1972-73 edition of the Philadelphia 76ers. Among the notables who spurned a job offer from General Manager Don DeJardin were Red Holzman, Adolph Rupp, Al Bianchi, KC Jones, Tom Nissalke and Bob Bass. Al McGuire was interested but was turned down when he demanded substantial up-front money, plus total control of the roster, trades and contracts.

The reasons why the job went unclaimed included a miserable 30-win season the year before; the team’s best player, Billy Cunningham, on the verge of jumping to the rival American Basketball Association; and a roster loaded with older players well past their respective primes. Which is why the team’s previous coach, the highly respected Jack Ramsay, had quit.

In desperation, the 76ers management placed a “coach wanted” ad in all of the Philadelphia newspapers—and got no real responses.

Then, a friend of DeJardin’s recommended Roy Rubin, a highly successful coach at  Long Island University (LIU). DeJardin had briefly encountered Rubin during several scouting trips and knew that he amassed a 174-94 record at LIU, appeared in two NCAA Tournaments and upset top-ranked Bradley in the 1968 NIT before losing to Notre Dame by 2 points. Wasn’t Rubin reputed to be a hoops junkie and a defensive genius? And hadn’t guys like Dick Motta, John MacLeod and Bill Fitch come to the NBA straight out of coaching undergraduate players?

A productive interview led to Rubin accepting a guaranteed three-year, $300,000 deal. All parties were happy and optimistic. There were, however, many aspects of Rubin’s 10-year tenure at LIU that DeJardin didn’t know about.

After Barry Liebowitz graduated from Bronx (NY) Clinton, Rubin recruited him to LIU. “I was the first white guy to play in Harlem’s Rucker Tournament,” says Liebowitz, “where I played for the approval of the stoned fans sitting up in the surrounding trees who went crazy over any fancy pass whether it was completed or not.”

No wonder Liebowitz was upset when Rubin turned out to be “a dictator.” No behind-the-back dribbles or passes were permitted. No between-the-legs crossovers. No-look passes? Dunks during games? Even sips of water? All forbidden.

“Even worse,” Liebowitz recalls, “Rubin only recruited guys like me who were best suited to run and press. But then he wouldn’t let us get out and go. He insisted we play grind-it-out basketball because he really wanted to keep the scoring down for both teams, and the low level of points allowed by us did, in fact, make him famous as a defensive coach.”

Liebowitz grants that the LIU Blackbirds were an excellent team. “But we would have been even better with a different coach who had a different style. Hell, Roy should have recruited slow white guys.”

During Liebowitz’ senior year of 1966-67, the NBA and the ABA were involved in a bidding war for established NBA stars as well as for outstanding college players.

And since Spencer Haywood had established that college players could plead “hardship” and sign with ABA teams before their class graduated, several ABA teams were sniffing around after Liebowitz. “Before the season,” says Liebowitz, “Rubin asks me what I wanted to stay in school. I said that the night before every game, he had to get me laid. He did—with a parade of gorgeous hookers.”

After Rubin got the job, his initial meeting with the team was a disaster. The scene for that initial pre-practice face-to-face meeting between the coach and his players was a classroom at Ursinus College, adjacent to the gym. Among the players who were uncomfortably stuffed into the desk-chairs facing Rubin were two veterans of the glory years of the Washington Bullets: Freddie “Mad Dog” Carter, mischievous and hard to control; and Kevin Loughery, a tough, pragmatic native of the Bronx whose entire career had been plagued by injuries. Other vets included Dennis Awtrey and Dale Schlueter.

Rubin insisted that he would diligently enforce several hard-and-fast rules: A strict dress code would be in force for road trips. There’d be no beer or smoking allowed in the locker room. That’s when Carter raised his hand: “But, Coach, I’ve been smoking in the locker room ever since I’ve been in the League. That’s the only way I can calm down and get ready to play.”

Rubin didn’t blink. “OK,” he said. “You can smoke, Freddie, but you’re the only one.”

Carter and Loughery had to stifle a laugh, and in a flash all of the players realized that Rubin didn’t have a clue.

It didn’t take long for Carter to develop an even lower opinion of Rubin. “The guy was a joke,” he says. “In training camp, he and his assistant Paul Lizzo didn’t even know the pro rules.”

In one of their first pre-season games, the 76ers defeated the Celtics in New York, 106-102. Post-game, Rubin celebrated like his team had just won the Championship. “We knew the Celtics had played their starters only the first eight or nine minutes of each half,” says Dave Wohl, then a second-year point guard, “then they finished the game with guys you’d never hear about again. But Rubin was prancing around, saying, ‘These Celtics are not so tough.’”

Looking back, Loughery says that Rubin’s post-game celebration was a turning point. “For sure it was a good win in his hometown for Rubin, but the veterans on the team really didn’t give a shit about an exhibition game wherever it was, whoever was the opponent,” Loughery says. “The season hadn’t even started yet, as far as we were concerned, and it was the beginning of the end for him.”

The Sixers opened the season with 15 consecutive losses. Their first victory was followed by six more defeats, succeeded by a win, three losses, a win and 14 losses. Through it all, Rubin’s substitution moves were inept. He routinely yanked players who had a hot hand and paid no attention to matchups. Moreover, he often spent entire timeouts arguing with the refs.

Whenever the Philadelphia sportswriters had to mention his name, they took to calling him “Poor Roy Rubin.”

“He knew absolutely nothing about how to coach in the NBA,” says Schlueter. “During halftime he’d say, ‘Way to go, guys.’ Then he’d turn to Lizzo and say, ‘OK, how many minutes before the second half starts?’ Then there was one halftime when he just stood there with his mouth open and said nothing. Not a word. After a few minutes of this, we just left him there and returned to the court.”

“One time Rubin came to me and told me to shoot every time I could see the basket,” recalls Carter. “He said that I was the only guy on the team who could score. OK, now I had a license from the coach. An E-ZPass. Of course I never told any of the other guys about this. But then the word got to me that Rubin was going around and saying to my teammates that I was selfish, a gunner. I couldn’t help wondering what else he was telling everybody behind my back. I mean, the guy was unbelievable. He had no idea how to deal with pro players.”

John Q. Trapp was a mean-looking dude from Detroit, and during one game in his hometown, several of his buddies were treated to seats right behind the Sixers bench. During a late-game timeout, Rubin told Trapp that another player was replacing him. Trapp shook his head, saying, “No, man. I’m staying in the game.” Then he turned to look at his crew, who had easily overheard Rubin’s order. And when Rubin looked up to see what Trapp was staring at, he saw a man stand up and open his coat to reveal a shoulder holster and a gun.

Rubin was quick to rescind the substitution, and Trapp’s teammates almost choked on their own laughter.

Here’s how unpopular Rubin was with his players: When the team arrived for a game in Houston, two vans were waiting to drive them to their hotel. When all of the players, and their luggage, squeezed into one van, Rubin was the only passenger in the other van.

On January 7, 1973, the 76ers carried their pitiful 3-38 record to Seattle. The Sonics had a record of 13-31, and coach Tom Nissalke had his hands full trying to manage a roster of malcontents like John Brisker, Spencer Haywood and Jim McDaniels. At various times, Nissalke had tried benching them, fining them, lecturing them, threatening them and cajoling them, but chronic lateness, missed practices and extremely selfish and lackadaisical play continued.

As much as Nissalke disliked many of his players, the feeling was mutual. So much so that Nissalke, the media, and the Sixers players firmly believed that the Sonics had deliberately tanked the game in an attempt to get their martinet of a coach fired. Even so, a couple of Rubin’s misguided strategies nearly turned a sure win into another agonizing loss.

The worst occurred when the Sixers led 83-82 and had possession with 31 seconds left in the game, and only seven on the shot clock…and Rubin called a timeout. Carter was furious. “Why did you do this?” he screamed at his coach. “We’re ahead!” Then Carter launched into a blistering series of curses. Several other experienced players joined Carter in cussing out Rubin.

Rubin claimed he was trying to make sure the Sixers offense was “totally organized” to get the best shot possible. His players felt that the Sonics benefitted more from the play stoppage, being able to re-group and prevent the Sixers from scoring in the remaining seven seconds. The outcome was that Carter was double-teamed and forced to launch an errant jumper under severe time pressure. The Sonics grabbed the rebound, but a subsequent steal by rookie Freddie Boyd saved the win.

The victory was Rubin’s last in the NBA. Also, Nissalke was fired three days later.

A couple weeks later, over the League’s All-Star break and with the Sixers carrying a record of 4-44, Rubin himself was fired—and replaced by Loughery. Rubin protested that he was under the impression that he had the entire run of his three-year contract to rebuild the team, and that he’d been betrayed.

Rubin subsequently got married, moved to Florida and died from cancer last August. He never coached another game. To this day, no team has had a worse 82-game record than the ’72-73 Sixers.

This story is adapted from the book Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers Horrendous and Hilarious 1972-73 Season to be released by University of Nebraska Press this November.