It’s never too late to mark and quantify the impact of Ernie DiGregorio. Not in New England. Not when the subject is college basketball. Yet here’s the immediate news peg, the reason to contemplate Ernie D and his attendant rabbit hole early in 2024: It was 50 years ago this week that DiGregorio set the NBA rookie record for assists in a game: 25, for the old Buffalo Braves, during a 120-119 win over the hapless Trailblazers, in Portland, on New Year’s Day 1974.

This particular moment in NBA history, in and of itself, packs enough meaningful hoops serendipity to justify an entire 30 for 30 documentary:
• Ernie D led the Association in assists that 1973-74 season, his first. He led the league in free throw percentage, too.
• The Trailblazers were indeed terrible enough to earn the no. 1 pick in the June 1974 draft. They took a guy named Bill Walton.
• The Braves coach that record-setting January night? Dr. Jack Ramsey, who left for Portland the summer of 1976, whereupon he and Walton immediately led the Blazers to their only NBA championship.
• After acquiring Nate Archibald in September 1977, Buffalo let DiGregorio go — to the Lakers, who waived him halfway through the season. Boston signed him but didn’t offer a new deal. Just like that, Ernie D’s NBA run was over.
• That same summer, Buffalo owner John Y. Brown Jr. swapped franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin, who promptly moved the Braves to San Diego.
• A year later, the newly christened Clippers signed Walton, meaning Ernie D missed playing with The Big Redhead by only a couple Degrees of NBA Separation.

Consensus NCAA Player of the Year in 1973, at Providence College. NBA Rookie of the Year in 1974. Out of the league by the summer of 1978.

Today, that sounds like an epic tale of crash and burn. Yet the mid-1970s did represent the most turbulent period in NBA history. The league had battled the ABA for talent and eyeballs the previous 10 years, before absorbing its competitor prior to the 1976-77 season. Free agency was instituted at roughly the same time. Many on-court careers were cut short or otherwise doomed by the ensuing roster consolidations, by franchise-swapping owners, by drugs, by a decidedly incoherent league promotional strategy. In the pre-cable age, television networks weren’t at all convinced the NBA would ever prove marketable as a major sporting enterprise. One reason why: The newly merged league was far more Black (the pre-merger NBA was so lily white, there was meaningful playing time for not one but two Van Arsdales!). Would middle America ever watch something so “urban”? Ultimately, yes; it would. But as late as June 1980, two full years after Magic and Larry showed up, CBS was still showing NBA Finals games at 11:30 p.m. EST, on tape delay.

It’s no coincidence that college basketball first planted its own flag during the Seventies, this period of marked NBA chaos/weakness. In this sliver of broadcasting daylight, especially, college hoops created a viable toehold in the culture. And it was the college game where Ernie D would prove a far more influential figure.

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