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The ABA

May 24, 2013

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The ABA distincted itself with the red, white and blue basketball *photo courtesy of turbosquid

One of the themes of the 1960’s was that establishment was being challenged.  The big example in sports was the American Football League challenging and competing with the well-established National Football League.  Eventually they forced a merger and it came to the betterment of the game.  The AFL had been a throwing league whereas the NFL in the 1960’s had powerful running offenses.  But what is the NFL today and what has it been for the past 30 years or so?  A passing man’s league, just like the AFL.

The American Basketball Association was established in 1967 in the model of the AFL.  They were renegades who introduced a different style.  Basketball in the American Basketball Association was more of a playground game.  This is more or less what the game is today.  Dennis Murphy along with 11 ownership groups established the Anaheim Amigos, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver RocketsHouston Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Minnesota Muskies, New Jersey Americans, New Orleans Buccaneers, Oakland Oaks, and Pittsburgh Pipers.

Their first publicity move was to hire former NBA star George Mikan as the first commissioner.  Mikan and company came up with radical ideas that went against traditional basketball, like the red, white, and blue ball and the three-point shot.  The red, white, and blue was just something distinctive but it added to some ragged early play because the paint on the balls were slippery.  It was also mentioned that some players got distracted by the colors as the ball went through the air.  That aspect also turned on some fans as it was beautiful to see the red, white, and blue spinning through the air in a perfect rotation that a great jump shooter provided.  Speaking of great jump shooting, the gimmick that opened the defense was the three-point shot.  In the NBA at the time, the game was played within 15-20 feet.  But the three-point line extended the game out farther and opened the middle for some creativity.  After the NBA realized that these gimmicks worked, they saw the ABA as legitimate pests.

But the biggest thing that angered the NBA was that the ABA attempted to steal their players with higher salaries.  The first of which was Rick Barry.  Barry had played two years for the San Francisco Warriors and had led the league in scoring in 1967.  For 1968, Oakland Oaks’ owner Pat Boone was able to lure Barry to the Oaks with money and Barry’s father-in-law coaching the team.  Because of the reserve clause at the time, Barry had to sit out the 1968 season.  Barry in fact became the first athlete to challenge the reserve clause, but Curt Flood got more publicity.  The ABA just missed out on their biggest steal.  In 1969, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was drafted by the New York Nets (the former New Jersey Americans) as well as the Milwaukee Bucks.  Jabbar would listen to one pitch from both leagues but privately preferred the Nets because New York offered more to Muslims than Milwaukee.  However, Mikan and the ABA lowballed Kareem and Abdul-Jabbar vowed to never play in the ABA.  Here’s an excerpt from the Book of Basketball about it.

The first ABA game was on October 13, 1967 between the Barry-less Oakland Oaks and the Anaheim Amigos.  The other thing the ABA did to get players and stars was grab NBA outlaws.  Those were players that were banned from the NBA because of being named in the 1961 Point-Shaving scandal.  This included players such as Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, and Doug Moe.  Hawkins’ Pittsburgh Pipers won the first ABA Championship in 1968, beating the New Orleans Buccaneers with Moe and Larry Brown.  But the problem for the ABA was attendance, averaging around 3,000 for the first year and the arenas.  There are stories about both where in some games the attendance was less than 100!  The arenas were also interesting in some cases, one game was played in a 10 degree ice rink.  There was a tilted floor in Miami and a floor in New Jersey where the wooden boards had to be nailed down during timeouts.  There was open ended stadiums where wind would affect shots.  There was glorified high school gyms.  There was also a story where a team employees desk got sold to Jerry Rubin, money was that tight.

To survive, the ABA had to bend the rules a bit.  The first case of this was when they signed college sophomore and All-American Spencer Haywood to the Denver Rockets for the 1970 season.  To be eligible for the NBA at the time, you had to be four years removed from your high school graduating class.  So Haywood even with his family living a hard life would have to wait until 1971 to be drafted by the NBA.  Haywood ended up challenging the rule in court and winning.  The ABA and then eventually the NBA called early entrants hardship cases (although the ABA would take a player anyway).  The ABA would hold ‘secret’ drafts so that the NBA couldn’t get word of what players they were going after and what kind of money they were offering them.  The ABA’s survival tactic of offering big-time salaries to underclassmen and other superstars ended up being their downfall.  But their goal was to get a merger with the NBA.  They had merger terms in 1970, but the Oscar Robertson suit lengthened the process until 1976.  The Robertson vs. National Basketball Association suit was essentially to prevent the merger and get rid of the reserve clause structures.  ABA salaries were driving up NBA salaries which was what the players were in favor of.

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Spencer Haywood was the first under-classman to sign a professional contract *photo courtesy of Remembering the ABA

The salaries were able to get some players but other agreements by the owners of the league also helped them get players.  Much like the territorial pick in the early days of the NBA, if a college player was a popular attraction at his college the ABA tried to play him with a team in that city.  For example, University of Kentucky graduates Louie Dampier and Dan Issel played for the Kentucky Colonels.  Purdue graduates Billy Keller and Rick Mount played for the Indiana Pacers.  While another player who went hardship after one year at Indiana University ended up with the Pacers and as one of the best players in ABA history.  That would be George McGinnis.

The Pacers would end up being the ABA’s most successful franchise, winning three championships in five finals appearances.  The Pacers in the process built a love affair with the fans of Indiana (where basketball is king) that lasted until the aftermath of the Ron Artest Malice in the Palace brawl.  The Pacers had players such as Roger Brown, Bob Netolicky, Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, Darnell Hillman, Billy Knight and Don Buse to go along with McGinnis, Keller and Mount.  The Pacers were the envy of the league as they usually had the best team.

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Powerful George McGinnis going against another fair player in Julius Erving *photo courtesy of NBA.com

But not every ABA city was Indianapolis and fans still weren’t coming in some places.  There was also no National Television contracts of the ABA.  So exposure was big.  There were some wacky promotions but the wackiest was for the 1975 All-Star Game in San Antonio.  The prize for winning the MVP was a quarter-horse named Tough Julie.  Unfortunately for MVP Freddie Lewis, the horse didn’t last very long.  In the ABA, the players weren’t acting surly to the media.  They were happy with any type of exposure.  The best story was one told by Woody Paige in which after he wrote a story a Miami Floridians player, the player paid for and sent a prostitute to his hotel room as a thank you.  Speaking of the Miami Floridians, they may have had the best promotion of all-time (at least if you’re a guy).  And that promotion was bikini-wearing cheerleaders.  Not only did this bring fans but was probably a huge home-court advantage as they were seen as distractions for opposing players, but then again they were probably distractions for their own team too.  Miami was gone after 1972 but it was a good promotion.

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This was the uniform of the Miami Floridians cheerleaders *photo courtesy of ESPN

Yes, it took me this long in my post of the ABA to get to Julius Erving.  One can talk about how getting the best players because of early ‘secret’ drafting and/or high salaries kept the league going but what really kept the league going was Dr. J.  The Doctor was so graceful and fluid that he drew attention when he started playing for the Virginia Squires.  Erving filled the seats and created legends about the types of moves he was able to make.  Erving described going to the ABA as getting the chains released.  There was no zones and dunking was allowed, unlike in college.  And the Doc took advantage of it and dunked on everybody as well as used his huge hands to get off unbelievable shots and get them to go in the hoop.  Erving was one of the first high-flyers who could move the ball around with one hand.  What eventually helped the ABA more was when Erving went to the big market New York Nets and became more of a folk legend.  Doctor J had threatened to jump to the Atlanta Hawks a year after Barry went back to the Golden State Warriors, so the league appeased him by getting him to the Big Apple.

The ABA in 1974 signed the first high school player to ever jump to the pros.  That was Moses Malone.  But the ABA was hemorrhaging money and lost franchises.  By their last season in 1976, only the Denver Nuggets, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels and St. Louis Spirits (or Spirits of St. Louis) remained.  The Spirits had a quirky inexperienced team but its most famous personality was its young broadcaster, none other than Bob Costas.

In its last year, the league had no Divisions.  So the All-Star Game was a team of All-Stars playing against the first place Denver Nuggets in Denver.  Denver had acquired Dan Issel from Kentucky to go with Bobby Jones, Ralph Simpson and rookie David Thompson.  One of the great inventions from that All-Star Game would be the Slam-Dunk contest.  Superstars Artis Gilmore of the Colonels, George Gervin and Larry Kenon of the Spurs competed against Thompson and Erving.  There was a criteria for each contestant’s five dunks in two minutes.  One had to be from a standing position under the basket (the best attempts at this were with two basketballs).  One had to take off from the bottom of the free throw circle 10 feet from the basket.  The other three had to drive from the right wing, the left wing, and the baseline.  The order was Gilmore, Gervin, Kenon, Thompson and Erving.  The contest got better as it went along.  A lot of the dunks looked rudimentary at least by today’s standards but nobody had seen anything like this ‘dunk contest’ before.  Thompson put on a good show in front of his home fans but ultimately lost out to Erving thanks to this gem below.

January 27, 1976 – ABA All-Star Game: ABA All Stars 138 @Denver Nuggets 144

It was a long night on this Tuesday in Denver, Colorado.  The pre-game started with a Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich concert.  Then the slam-dunk contest at halftime made the intermission longer than usual.  In the middle of the 4th quarter of this game, it was midnight in Denver.  That probably wouldn’t have gone down if this was a national television broadcast, but the ABA only had local deals.  So we got this game (mostly the 2nd half) courtesy of Marv Albert’s brother, Al, and former Nuggets scout Tom Jorgensen.

The All-Stars were up 56-55 at halftime with James Silas leading the way at 12 points and Dr. J right behind him at 10.  The second half started quickly as Denver’s David Thompson got a three-point play off the tip.  Then Marvin Barnes got a slam and a foul on a Brian Taylor assist.  After a 7-0 run, Denver had a 67-61 lead.  Then Larry Kenon scored on an offensive rebound, Ron Boone got a layup on a Thompson goaltend, and then Barnes, Boone and Kenon each got layups and Billy Paultz hit two free throws to complete the 12-0 run.  The All-Stars took as much as a nine point lead on back-to-back Boone jumpers but then Denver went on an 8-0 run.  The All-Stars kept a narrow lead until the end of the third when they took a 97-92 lead on a Don Buse three-pointer.

The fourth quarter was typical ABA back and forth action.  Denver’s Ralph Simpson got a dunk and a foul off the tip.  Then after Billy Knight got a layup for the All-Stars, Dan Issel got an assist on a Byron Beck layup and then Simpson got a steal and slam.  Erving after winning the dunk contest rested the whole third quarter.  But he was back and the forward combination with him and Billy Knight was effective.  Erving had 13 fourth quarter points while Knight had 12.  But Denver’s team play kept them in the game, along with David Thompson’s heroics.  Thompson’s finish versus two defenders plus one put Denver up 109-108.  Then back and forth they went as James Silas, Bobby Jones, Byron Beck, Artis Gilmore, Gus Gerard, Billy Knight, David Thompson, and Claude Terry got into the scoring book and the game was tied at 119.  After an Issel layup, Thompson skied for an offensive rebound on Denver’s next possesion and then finished over Gilmore (who was only 10 inches taller than Thompson).  After a Gilmore three-point play, Thompson hit two free throws for his 25th point and then Simpson got a breakaway slam and Jones got an offensive rebound slam and it was 129-122 Denver.  The All-Stars cut it back to 133-129 but then Thompson came back to the rescue with an offensive rebound and dunk.  After two Erving free throws, Thompson hit a pull-up and then Issel got a rebound slam.  The astonished announcers said they hadn’t seen a rebound slam from Issel all year.  The Stars continued to make a run though.  George Gervin hit a three and then Erving got a dunk off a Silas steal.  After two Denver free throws, Silas threw an alley-oop to Erving which Julius hit a reverse layup and the lead was 14-138 for the Nuggets.  Chuck Williams split a pair of free throws and then Denver controlled the clock after a Silas miss and ran it out getting fouled with two seconds left.  After Jones’ two clinching free throws, David Thompson received the MVP award for the ninth and last ABA All-Star Game.

ABA All-Star starters (teams) and point totals

Julius Erving (New York Nets) 23 – Small Forward

Billy Knight (Indiana Pacers) 20 – Power Forward

Artis Gilmore (Kentucky Colonels) 14 – Center

Brian Taylor (New York Nets) 6 – Point Guard

James Silas (San Antonio Spurs) 20 – Shooting Guard

ABA All-Star bench (teams) and point totals

Billy Paultz (San Antonio Spurs) 10

Larry Kenon (San Antonio Spurs) 10

Ron Boone (St. Louis Spirits) 10

George Gervin (San Antonio Spurs) 8

Maurice Lucas (Kentucky Colonels) 5

Don Buse (Indiana Pacers) 5

Marvin Barnes (St. Louis Spirits) 7

ABA All-Stars Coach: Kevin Loughery (New York Nets)

Denver starters (points scored)

David Thompson (29) – Small Forward

Bobby Jones (24) – Power Forward

Dan Issel (19) – Center

Chuck Williams (14) – Point Guard

Ralph Simpson (19) – Shooting Guard

Denver bench (points scored)

Claude Terry (7)

Byron Beck (14)

Gus Gerard (12)

Monte Towe (2)

Roger Brown (4)

James Foster (0)

Denver Coach: Larry Brown

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1976 ABA All-Star Game program *photo courtesy of Remembering the ABA

February 24, 1976 – Spirits of St. Louis 116 @Kentucky Colonels 102

This gem is what I like to call a matchup of the two teams in the ABA for its last season that didn’t merge to the NBA (the Virginia Squires also did exist that last season).  Young Bob Costas and Arlene Weltman (the daughter of the Spirits co-owner) called this game for a radio and television audience.

The Spirits were 4.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers for the last playoff spot at the time of this game.  Five of the 7 teams made the playoffs in the ABA’s last season in which there were no divisions.  Kentucky ended up locked in the 4th spot and lost a 7-game series to the 1st place Denver Nuggets.

There were several future NBA mainstays in this game.  St. Louis’ star was Marvin Barnes but the Spirits also had Ron Boone who appeared in 1,041 consecutive games between the ABA and NBA and averaged just under 17 points per game in his career.  There was M.L. Carr who would star with Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the early 80’s.  There was center Caldwell Jones who would move on to the Philadelphia 76ers next season and started on three NBA Finals teams for Philadelphia before being traded to Houston for a man who was also on this Spirits team.  Moses Malone was in his 2nd year and still only 20 years old.  Moses jumped to the Utah Stars from high school in 1974.  In 1975, the NBA got its first two high school-to-the pros jumpers with Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.

The 1975 ABA Champion Kentucky Colonels had Hubie Brown as their coach.  They had Artis Gilmore as well as the ABA’s all-time leading scorer Louie Dampier.  The Colonels also had Maurice Lucas who would star as the enforcer for several NBA teams over the next decade.

For those who remember Caldwell Jones for the 76ers, offense wasn’t exactly needed or part of his game.  Early in this game, Caldwell was very offensive minded against Gilmore.  He scored 6 of the Spirits first 13 points (Marvin Barnes had 5 of the other 7) to give St. Louis a four-point lead.  And then he hit a jumper after Kentucky tied it on a Gilmore hook and a Lucas slam after a Wil Jones steal.  Jones eventually went out for Malone who got a bucket to give the Spirits a 24-23 lead after a quarter.

St. Louis started the 2nd quarter on an 8-0 run as Freddie Lewis hit a driving layup, Caldwell hit 2 free throws, Boone hit a jumper on the break and Barnes hit a double-pump layup.  The Spirits then increased their lead helped by the bench.  Randy Denton and Mike Barr (both of whom weren’t happy with their playing time) scored several key baskets to give St. Louis a 47-32 lead.  Marvin Barnes kept the Spirits attack going and the lead grew to 55-36 and 62-43 at the half as Boone got his 4th assist on a Malone three-point play.

St. Louis increased their lead to as much as 24 on a Lewis three-point play.  Lewis would score 12 in the period.  Kentucky’s deficit stayed around the 15-20 point range though as Gilmore and Lucas started to get going.  Artis scored 24 second half points and Lucas scored 10 points in the third including a buzzer-beating running jumper from the top of the key that cut St. Louis’ lead to 88-73 after the quarter.  Kentucky made its only semi-legitimate run in the fourth as reserve Johnny Neumann scored 11 fourth quarter points.  But the closest Kentucky got was 10 and Marvin Barnes hit enough baskets to hold them off.  This was the first time in the 2-year existence of the Spirits that they won a game at Kentucky.  They would play Kentucky twice more (a home-and-home at the end of the season) and lost both games.  The Spirits would finish 4 games behind Indiana for the final playoff spot.

St. Louis starters (points scored)

M.L. Carr (12) – Small Forward

Marvin Barnes (33) – Power Forward

Caldwell Jones (18) – Center

Freddie Lewis (16) – Point Guard

Ron Boone (12) – Shooting Guard

St. Louis bench (points scored)

Moses Malone (5)

Randy Denton (11)

Steve Green (0)

Mike Barr (9)

Mike D’Antoni (0)

St. Louis Coach: Joe Mullaney

Kentucky starters (points scored)

Wil Jones (10) – Small Forward

Maurice Lucas (17) – Power Forward

Artis Gilmore (33) – Center

Louie Dampier (6) – Point Guard

Bird Averitt (6) – Shooting Guard

Kentucky bench (points scored)

Johnny Neumann (14)

Jim McDaniels (4)

Jan Van Breda Kolff (6)

Kevin Joyce (2)

Ron Thomas (4)

Kentucky Coach: Hubie Brown

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Marvin Barnes (here going against Julius Erving) was a talented player but had the nickname of ‘Bad News’ *photo courtesy of AOL News

May 1, 1976 – ABA Finals, Game 1: New York Nets 120 @Denver Nuggets 118

I know this game showed on ESPN Classic and NBATV, I only have the last two minutes from Vintage NBA.  And because basketball-reference.com doesn’t have ABA box scores yet, I can’t give you an accurate one.

It was picked up with the Nets up 109-108.  Julius Erving got a tip-in for his 37th point and a 3-point Nets lead.  Denver rookie big man Marvin Webster tipped one in to make it 111-110.  Erving then scored again on an offensive rebound.  Bobby Jones then hit two free throws for Denver.  The Nets got the ball back to Erving.  Denver almost stole it from him but Dr. J recovered and hit a jumper from the right elbow.  After Webster made two free throws, Julius came back with an up-and-under.

Denver cut it to 117-116 with 52 seconds left.  However, both teams missed and the Nets got the ball back trying to run out the clock.  Bobby Jones committed his fifth foul sending Tim Bassett to the line with 11 seconds left.  Bassett made one of two.  After a timeout, Denver got the ball to Dan Issel for a corner jumper.  He missed but Webster rebound-slammed the ball at 4 seconds for his 14th point and a tie game.

The Nets called a timeout and predictably went to the Doctor.  He worked the ball to the corner and hit a long jumper over Jones at the buzzer for his 45th point and a 120-118 Nets win in Denver.

New York went on to beat Denver in 6 games.  They moved to New Jersey after the 1977 NBA Season.

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Julius Erving concluded the ABA’s 9 seasons leading his Nets to a Championship *photo courtesy of Bleacher Report

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