That’s former New York Knicks bonus baby Tom Riker on the cover of this 1973 program from the Allentown Jets (1958-1981) of the Eastern Basketball Association. The Knicks selected Riker, a 6′ 10″ center out of the University of South Carolina, with the #8 overall selection in the 1972 NBA draft and signed him to a three-year, $100,000 per year contract. The Knicks viewed Riker as the heir apparent to future Hall-of-Famer Willis Reed, but those plans went sideways quickly when Riker showed up to training camp overweight and slow during his rookie year.
In December 1972, with Riker bolted to the end of the bench, the Knicks farmed him out to the Allentown Jets of the EBA. The Knicks had a special relationship with the Jets and the team’s General Manager Frank Wagner dating back to the 1960′s. The Jets served as a sort of unofficial “triple-A” club for the Knicks and players such as Mike Riordan and Harthorne Wingo had cut their teeth in Allentown before moving up to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
The EBA more broadly was the third best league in America, after the NBA and the ABA, and players understood they were potentially one step away from the big-time, despite playing in dimly-lit, half-empty high school arenas in small Pennsylvania cities. This 1971 Sports Illustrated profile gives a good idea of what life was like for EBA players in the early Seventies. Teams played only one weekends, as players needed to hold down jobs during the week to make ends meet. Players had to be active to get paid, and pay meant somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 to $100 per game. A typical annual payroll for an EBA club in 1971 was $30,000. Riker’s $100,000 salary, paid by the Knicks, was likely larger than the entire annual operating budget for the Jets. The Jets errant 1st round pick was far and away the highest paid player in the league that winter of 1972-73.
A little over a year after this game was played at Allentown’s Rockne Hall, Riker was back in Manhattan, finishing out his second season on the Knicks bench. The Associated Press ran a profile of Riker which revealed a player whose confidence had been totally shot. Riker’s $100,000 annual contract made him virtually untradeable and, judging solely by his comments in the AP article, Riker himself seemed to doubt if he was cut out for the NBA at all. Riker played out the final year of his contract with the Knicks in 1974-75 and this marked the end of his pro career.