Nassau Coliseum's reputation for kindling playoff magic is no fluke and no late bloomer. As soon as it opened and before it was completely finished, the Coliseum hosted a surprising run at a title by the Nets and their first American Basketball Association star, Rick Barry.
No one ever has called the Coliseum "The House that Rick Built," but they could have. Back in the spring of 1972, as workers kept installing seats between games, Barry led the Nets to two series upsets and came within an eyelash of a third. The Basketball Hall of Famer never will forget that season and the building that housed it.
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"When I went out to the Joe Namath charity [golf] event last summer, I saw it sitting over there behind the Marriott," Barry said during a recent trip to New York.
The Islanders still were months away from playing their first game, and county officials still were planning the formal dedication and opening when the Nets played the first game at the Coliseum on Feb. 11, 1972. Only the 200 and 300 sections were completed and there were some portable chairs near the court, but the occasion itself felt like a playoff triumph.
"After playing in the Island Garden, it was quite a change to have basically a first-class facility. In those days, it really was," Barry said. "It's antiquated now, obviously, but in those days it was nice to actually have a shower stall and hot water and things of that nature. And have fans on both sides of the court instead of on just one side. It was very nice."
He laughed when he was reminded what he said about having played a full 48 minutes in that first game: "A Coliseum record."
By playoff time, the Nets just seemed ready to write their own history. Despite never having won an ABA playoff series and having finished 24 games behind the Kentucky Colonels during the regular season, the Nets knocked off the Colonels in six games, clinching in Uniondale.
Trailing the second-place Virginia Squires and Julius Erving two games to none in the next series, the third-place Nets waited nine days for Game 3 because the new Coliseum had booked a circus. They won both games at home and eventually won the series in seven.
That brought them to the finals against the Indiana Pacers, the perennial ABA powerhouse. They won Game 4 at the Coliseum before a crowd of 15,870 -- a massive turnout for a team that had considered 6,000 a huge throng at Island Garden in West Hempstead.
The Nets were on the verge of winning Game 5 in Indiana and returning home for a nationally televised potential clincher, but they blew a lead in the final half-minute and lost by one.
"That game was ours," Barry said. "Looie gave us unbelievable instructions in the huddle on what to do and the guys didn't follow directions. He said, 'No threes, stay up on everybody' but we backed off of [Billy] Keller and he hits a three. Then we turn the ball over."
Worse yet, Barry suffered a freakish injury during warmups for Game 6. "Right before the buzzer went off, I did something and my neck went into spasms. I had to go into the locker room. They were working on me. I said, 'Shoot it up, I've got to get out there,' '' he said. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember those things more than I do the good stuff."
Having found a home he liked, Barry fought a court ruling that ordered him to return to the NBA. He lost, but he had established a pattern for the building he left behind. The Nets, with Erving, won two ABA titles, clinching both at the Coliseum. And eight years and four days after Barry's team lost Game 6, Bobby Nystrom and the Islanders won Game 6.