Wendell Ladner, one of the most feared ABA’s enforcers, was a 6-foot-4, 220-pound forward. A 1971 and 1972 All-Star and 1973-74 ABA champion with the New York Nets, Ladner averaged 8,1 rebounds per game, even though he gave away two to five inches to his rivals in rebounding the ball. Ladner died in a plane crash in June 24, 1975, at the age of 26.
Physically, he could just brute you to death. If he’d throw a bad pass, he would just chase it down, running over guys to get the ball. He loved to take wild 3-pointers (112/444 for his career, 25%), even though he missed most of them, you couldn’t be angry at him as a coach because he gave you so much hustle and heart.
In game 5 of the 1973 playoffs, Wendell dived for a loose ball and went right into a water cooler. At that time they were from glass, so Ladner ended up with 48 stitches. He jumped up quickly and tried to get back to the floor but the trainer stopped him because he was bleeding profusely from gashes in his arm. Wendell was led to the locker room soaked in blood with the crowd in complete silence. Thirty minutes later, he came sprinting back to the bench.
Ladner just loved to fight, he would undercut guys and get into altercations even in team practice. The thing was that he really didn’t know what he did, he just played the same way all the time. Julius Erving’s (in New York) and Dan Issel’s (in Kentucky) bodyguard. He once fouled out in a high school game in 90 seconds.
Yet off the court he was one of the most popular guys in the league. Everybody seemed to have a good relationship with him. His vocabulary was pretty much limited to basketball and women, and he talked a lot more about women than he did about basketball. Wendell would spray his hair before games and at halftime, or even get phone numbers of girls from the stands.
My favorite Wendell Ladner story could be that in the second playoff game in 1975 between St. Louis and New York, Ladner was furiously getting after Freddie Lewis until he ran right out of his shoe. So with Lewis dribbling the ball away, Wendell hobbled around in one shoe until he became frustrated and simply threw his shoe at Lewis’s back. When Freddie turned around, ready to fight back, he saw that it was Ladner and just smiled.
Another great story. Wendell went to see a doctor and said he had a discomfort in his groin area.
The doctor said: “It looks like you’ve been having sex too much.” Wendell: “You think so?” Doctor: “Well, how many times a day do you have sex?” Wendell said: “I don’t know, three or four times.” Doctor: “Wendell, that’s too much.” Wendell: “Well, it’s never with the same girl.”
(As always, props to the book “Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association…” for the stories and information on Wendell Ladner)