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Sapakoff: Gamecocks' Alex English deserved NBA 75th Anniversary Team spot

alex english (copy)

Alex English, a Columbia native who played at South Carolina before a 16-year NBA career, is 23rd in career points scored in ABA/NBA history but was left off the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team celebrated Feb. 20, 2022, at the NBA All-Star Game. File/AP

NBA All-Star Game Weekend festivities rocked in Cleveland. Two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year Steph Curry won the MVP award, the usual Slam Dunk Contest and Celebrity Game silliness, a very cool Howard-Morgan State game aimed at shining a spotlight on HBCU athletics.

Mainly, though, it was about celebrating the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, announced in October and formally introduced during a starry showcase at halftime of the Feb. 20 All-Star Game. Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among 45 members of the team on hand.

So fun.

So sad.

It is entirely fitting and proper that the NBA salutes its top 75 players on its 75th anniversary.

But the NBA, in this fundamentally serious academic exercise, flunked both math (76 players were picked because of a voting tie) and (Alex) English.

The NBA lists the elite in alphabetical order, avoiding such arguments as Michael vs. LeBron vs. Kareem vs. Wilt. But no silky smooth English listed between Kevin Durant and Julius Erving is a major omission.

Ridiculous that the NBA’s 20th leading scorer (25,613 points) doesn’t make the cut to 75 – er, 76.

Inexcusable that an eight-time All-Star from 1982-1989 – indeed, the NBA's leading scorer of the star-studded 1980s – wasn’t in Cleveland.

Note that there is bias here from a lifelong fan of the Denver Nuggets, an NBA franchise that counts English as its greatest player (and it’s not close), and someone who has spent more than three decades writing about University of South Carolina sports.

English, a 68-year-old Columbia native and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, is the school’s greatest major professional sports achiever (and it’s not close).

So to see if it’s misguided to believe the NBA missed out, I checked with the premier pro basketball journalist of the Alex English era.

“If Alex played in New York, L.A. or Boston, he’d be in,” said Terry Pluto, a prolific book author, beat writer and columnist based in Cleveland and Akron.

I agree.

Alex English agrees.

"I was disappointed and feel like the body of work I have produced during my time in the NBA warrants top 50," he told The Post and Courier on Feb. 26. "How can you lead a whole decade in scoring and not be on the list?

"That being said, those who know, know. And a list doesn’t validate my career."

‘Just a scorer’ is silly

It can get sticky balancing stats and the eye-test, comparing conflicting metrics and contrasting eras, factoring in styles of play and overall team talent.

But that English never finished higher than sixth in MVP voting for a season is explained by a 1980s dominated by stars we know by first-names or nicknames: Magic, Dr. J, Michael, Charles, Larry, Moses, Isiah, Dominique, Clyde.

English in Denver certainly benefitted from playing in former University of North Carolina star Doug Moe’s wide-open offense also featuring the likes of Dan Issel and Kiki VanDeWeghe.

That has to be the biggest knock, that English had only five career triple-doubles and apparently was too one-dimensional while playing 11 of his 16 NBA seasons in Denver, which made the Western Conference finals just once (a 1985 loss to the Lakers).

Too bad NBA 75th Anniversary Team voters – comprised of current and former players, coaches, team executives, WNBA stars and media – didn’t look closer. As impressive as it is that English is 20th in career NBA scoring, he’s 23rd in combined NBA-ABA scoring (adding in the ABA totals of Issel, Erving and George Gervin).

“‘Just a scorer’ is silly,” Pluto said. “What kind of scorer? He is a career .507 (percent) shooter and averaged 5.5 rebounds.

“You need to score to win, and score with efficiency. He did that.”

How about this?

English is 36th in career offensive rebounds (always tougher than he looked), 95th in assists (not bad for a scorer) and 52nd in games played (the key to ability is availability).

“I always loved his game,” Pluto said. “I wish I could have covered him in Cleveland.”

Off the court?

What a swell guy. On the board of trustees at South Carolina. Lots of charity work. Former head coach of the North Charleston Lowgators in the NBA’s development league.

U.S. State Department sports envoy. Ambassador for Basketball Without Borders. Starred in the film “Amazing Grace and Chuck.” Among other things.

But don’t you hate it when someone complains about a list without saying who should come off that list?

Better than Maravich

The NBA 75th Anniversary Team has two players with strong South Carolina ties, Greenville native Kevin Garnett and Dalzell Hillcrest High School graduate Ray Allen.

Tremendous.

But let’s look at a few other members of the squad:

Dave DeBusschere. My favorite thing about DeBusschere is that he played Major League Baseball as a Chicago White Sox pitcher in 1962 and 1963, two years in which he also played in the NBA. He made eight NBA All-Star Games, same as English, but is tied for 182nd in career ABA-NBA scoring (14,053), 159 spots behind English. He also won two NBA titles and, most importantly, did so with the popular New York Knicks.

• Pete Maravich. Had a “Pistol Pete” poster on the wall as a kid. Did one of the last interviews with Maravich (about his Christian outreach) before he died in 1988. Fascinating man. But those mind-boggling LSU stats don’t count here and English scored almost 10,000 more points in the NBA than Maravich’s 15,948. English was a better rebounder (5.5 average to 4.2). And Maravich played six seasons before the ABA-NBA merger when NBA talent was slightly diluted. Sure, glitz sells but consistency belongs.

• Sam Jones. English was more than 10,000 points better, played in more All-Star Games (8 to 5), averaged more assists (3.6 to 3.3) and wasn’t far behind in rebounds per game (6.4 to 5.5). But Jones was one of the NBA’s early Black stars and helped the great Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics win nine NBA championships.

• Bill Walton. Sure, Walton minus all his foot problems would have been so much more fun to watch. But while freakishly versatile, he made just two NBA All-Star teams over 10 seasons (not counting three seasons completely lost to injury). Total points isn’t everything; Bill Russell is 164th in that ABA/NBA category (14,522). But Walton finished with only 6,215 points and (just like English) five triple-doubles.

Wonderful for the sport, those four players.

Not better than Alex English.

“The guy was a class act,” Pluto said, “a great player lost in history because he didn’t play in major markets.”

The major markets part is unfixable without a retro Nuggets-Celtics deal.

Major shame on the NBA for the “lost in history” part.

Alex English file

Age: 68

High school: Dreher High School, Columbia

At South Carolina: averaged from 14.6 to 22.6 points per game over four seasons with the Gamecocks from 1972-1976

NBA: 16 seasons, including 11 with the Denver Nuggets; Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer; 23rd on the NBA’s career points list

Off the court: USC board of trustees member, former State Department sports envoy, Basketball Without Borders ambassador, former North Charleston Lowgators head coach, star of the film “Amazing Grace and Chuck”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.