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In October of 1975, the American Basketball Association kicked off what would prove to be its final season, before merging with the NBA in 1977. But is “merging” really the proper way to describe the melding of the two preeminent hoops entities of the day? Depends on what your definition of “merge” is. If you’re comfortable calling an esteemed older league absorbing a flailing younger league’s only four viable franchises a merger, then sure, it’s a merger.
The ABA had its own way of spinning things. So they called it a merger. Because that’s the way they rolled.
From the free-spirited players to the plaid-suited coaches, from the scrappy front offices to the never-say-die league officers, from the warp-speed style of play to the whimsical logos, from the goofball mascots to the arresting red, white, and blue ball, from the sardonic announcers to the goofy pre-game festivities, the ABA wasn’t your grandfather’s professional hoops emporium.
The renegade league was electric, delusional, brave, rowdy, pugnacious, scintillating, cocky and oftentimes hilarious.
Few, if any of those adjectives applied to Version 1.0 of the National Basketball Association.
Between 1946-58, the NBA was not a sexy place to be.
For the first decade-plus of its existence, the NBA’s look and feel was, oh, let’s be polite here and go with bland. Offenses were plodding and heavily-scripted, defenses boringly fundamental, and awe-inspiring athletes were few and far between. This isn’t to say the league’s small fan base wasn’t treated to some compelling basketball—the George Mikan-led Minneapolis Lakers took four titles in five years by simply pounding their opponents into submission; and even before they began racking up championships, the Bill Russell/Bob Cousy Boston Celtics demonstrated what kind of havoc could be wreaked with telepathic teamwork—but there was little grace to be found.
Things began to get a tad hotter in 1958, when the Minneapolis Lakers drafted an athletic 6’5″ forward out of Seattle University by the name of Elgin Baylor. A straight-up scoring machine, the speedy Baylor was arguably the first truly modern basketball player, a strong yet graceful athletic specimen who could either own you in the post or take you off the dribble. His twisting, turning, hanging finishes at the rim were unlike anything the NBA had seen. Elgin was Michael Jordan before there was Michael Jordan.
Baylor was such an incomparable outlier with a style so rare, original, and beautiful that the NBA didn’t see anybody with a similar skill set until the ABA knocked down the front door and took over the joint.
The American Basketball Association was far from an altruistic venture.
The league wasn’t a charity created to give players who couldn’t find a home in the NBA a gig. It wasn’t there to reshape and beautify the sport of basketball. No, the league’s founders had two goals, and two goals only: To force a merger with the NBA, and to make tons of money.
In their inaugural season of 1967, the ABA trotted out 11 teams: the Anaheim Amigos, the Dallas Chaparrals, the Denver Rockets, the Houston Mavericks, the Indiana Pacers, the Kentucky Colonels, the Minnesota Muskies, the New Jersey Americans, the New Orleans Buccaneers, the Oakland Oaks, and the Pittsburgh Pipers.
Eleven teams. Only one less than the NBA. The upstarts weren’t messing around.
But considering the NBA’s monopoly on the product and the general public’s hot-and-coldness about professional basketball, they couldn’t mess around. The chances of success were slim, but if the ABA didn’t go all-in—if they slapped together, say, a six-franchise, West Coast-only league—they’d be lucky to survive a single year.
The ABA’s first season was defined by empty stadiums (the league claimed to have averaged over 2,804 attendees per game, but that was, by all accounts, a huge lie), shockingly violent on-court fights (Minnesota center Mel Daniels said, “To survive the ABA that first year, you really had to be pretty tough. In my case, it was 78 games and 78 fights.”), and lots and lots of scoring (The baskets began raining down on opening night, when Oakland beat Anaheim, 132-129.)
Once the new league’s fans got past the fights and the pregame cow-milking contests, they were treated to some colorful, newfangled basketball.
The ABA offenses were more jazz than classical, improvised rather than composed. And defensively-speaking, there was more chance-taking, more jumping in the lanes, more ball-swipes, and more fists to the jaw. The skill level wasn’t up to the NBA’s standards, but they more than made up for it with their breakneck playground approach to the game.
While the ABA’s nightly scoring average was a tad lower than the NBA’s—117.4 to 108.9—it felt as if the upstart league was putting more points on the board, thanks primarily to what would prove to be their greatest contribution to the game: The three-point basket.
The ABA didn’t invent the three-pointer. They just perfected it.
The NCAA briefly experimented with the long shot in a 1945 Columbia/Fordham contest, but apparently nobody was impressed, because it was dropped immediately, not to be revisited for decades. In the early-1960s, two short-lived professional leagues—the American Basketball League and the Eastern Professional Basketball League—gave the three-ball a whirl; sadly, the ABL and the EPBL both folded without making a mark in the basketball world, so the three-pointer was forgotten.
That is, by everybody but Dennis Murphy and his merry band of ABA-ers.
Murphy, a sports entrepreneur who co-founded the ABA, explained to author Terry Pluto in his must-read ABA history book, Loose Balls, “The three-point play was going to be a part of our league from the beginning. Everybody involved in putting together the ABA liked the idea because it was good for the little man. The three-point shot was exactly what our league was supposed to be about: Something a little wild, a little out of the ordinary from the basketball they played in the NBA.”
The ABA’s first commissioner, George Mikan, in a mismatched sports metaphor, affectionately referred to three-pointer as a “home run,” but he would’ve been better off using a weapon metaphor, something like “missile” or “bomb,” because the top of the ABA’s original arc was located a whopping 25 feet from the basket, while the corner shots were 22. (It was eventually determined that 25 feet was, um, nuts, so the line was moved in to its current distance of 23 feet and nine inches. The corner remains the same.)
Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels from 1974-76, knew how and why the trey altered a coach’s entire approach to managing a game. “The three-point play is a form of mental gymnastics. All your life, you’ve been trained that a basket is worth two points. That was how you always played the game, how the game was always played, until the ABA made the three-point play popular. So a guy makes two field goals, you figure that’s four points. But in the ABA, it could be six points and that can shake you up as a coach. It makes you constantly check the scoreboard.”
Brown also noted coaches weren’t the only ones who had to readjust their approach. “You have to tell your players to remember who the shooters are and when those guys are 25 feet from the basket, get in their jocks, and guard them,” Brown explained. “Don’t give them the 25-footer, which is something players had been conditioned to do all their lives. And as a coach, if you have a shooter with range, you have to give him the freedom to take the 25-footer, which is a philosophy that goes against what you learned as a young coach—namely, pound the ball inside. The three-point play forced ABA coaches to be more creative and to give their players more freedom.”
The NBA eventually adopted the three-pointer for the 1979-80 season, and the initial reviews were mixed, many citing it as a gimmick. It took a good 10 years for the shot to be woven into the fabric of the league: From 1979-1987, the most made threes in a season came from Darrell Griffith, who canned 92 of them for the Utah Jazz in 1984-85. But once the 1987-88 season rolled around, outside shooters decided it was time to take advantage of the new-ish weapon at their disposal. Danny Ainge led the league that year with 148 made threes, and from that point on, it was bombs away.
Broadcaster Bob Costas, who got his start covering games for the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis, once mused, “The [ABA] players, their fashions and lifestyles were a reflection of the times, from the huge Afros to the beards, bell-bottom pants and platform shoes. I remember Larry Brown coaching while wearing farmer’s overalls. But the real flair was on the court.”
Costas was exactly right: All the external flair in the world wouldn’t make one iota of difference if things weren’t bubbling on the hardwood. And in the ABA, things bubbled from the get-go.
Players like the Florida Floridians’ speedy point guard Mack Calvin, Indiana’s silky-smooth Roger Brown and Kentucky’s hard-nosed Dan Issel helped make the ABA an exciting, viable, unique product. The league’s first three years were a blast, but the real fun didn’t begin until the summer of 1971.
First, let’s backtrack.
In 1969, after only two seasons in Oakland, the Oaks relocated to Washington DC and christened themselves the Capitols. Despite the presence on their roster of future Hall of Famer Rick Barry, savvy point guard Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown), and Warren Jabali—a former ABA Rookie of the Year who was acknowledged by his peers to be the meanest man in the league—the Caps couldn’t sustain local interest. So they packed up their gear, drove 200 miles south on I-64 East, planted a flag on the campus of Old Dominion University, and dubbed themselves the Virginia Squires.
The Squires’ first year in Norfolk was a partial success: Led by coach Al Bianchi, Virginia won 55 regular season games, but were upset in the second round of the playoffs by the 44-40 Kentucky Colonels.
That summer, word got out that the star of the University of Massachusetts basketball team was going to turn pro after only two seasons with the Minutemen, the second of which he averaged 26.3 points and 20.3 rebounds.
That star was Julius Erving. Erving inked with Virginia, and basketball was never the same.
Erving wasn’t fazed about spurning the NBA and joining a band of renegades. “In some respects we were a maverick league,” he said, “but so what? What was wrong with a red, white and blue ball? What was wrong with the three-point shot or creating a faster tempo so that the little man would have an opportunity to play? What’s wrong with a little experimentation and encouraging an individual to excel in a team sport?”
In his first season with the Squires, Erving more than excelled: He put up numbers that, even in a league filled with statistical freaks, were eye-popping — 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting, 15.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 42 minutes a night. And he did it with style—dunking, driving and generally creating mayhem both in and out of the paint.
To this day, Bob Costas still gushes about Erving’s first couple of ABA seasons, saying, “You know that play Julius made against the Lakers in the fifth game of the 1980 playoffs, where he went under Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then under the basket and then hit that incredible reverse layup? I saw him make plays that good or better several times just in my two seasons covering the ABA.”
(It should be noted we have to rely on eyewitness accounts of Erving’s exploits to understand his impact, because, as Costas pointed out, “There was no ESPN or CNN to bring Julius into the nation’s living room. Julius and the rest of the ABA stars performed in this netherworld of pro basketball that really wasn’t pro basketball because the NBA didn’t sanction it. It was almost as if the ABA players were a bunch of unappreciated artists saying, ‘We may die impoverished, but one day our work will hang in the Louvre.'”)
Erving’s best individual work came during his five years in the ABA, two of which he spent with the Squires, and the other three with the New Jersey Nets. He averaged 28.7 points, 12.1 boards and 4.8 dimes, but the points weren’t as important as his vibe, both on and off the court.
Then, as now, Erving was an enthusiastic basketball emissary, always eager to extol the virtues of both his league and the sport.
Carl Scheer, Denver’s team president, echoed the sentiments of the entire ABA: “The spirit of the ABA was the spirit of Julius Erving. One night, I came into the old Charlotte Arena. The game had been over for at least an hour and I saw about 50 kids in the balcony and Julius sitting in the middle of them, signing autographs and talking. There was no press around or anything like that. He took the time because he wanted to do it.”
After the ABA went belly-up, Erving’s spent the remaining 11 years of his basketball-playing life with the Philadelphia 76ers, and while he had an undeniably brilliant career, there’s a good chance that had the ABA not given him the opportunity to let his creativity flow, he never would have evolved into the transcendent gentleman who influenced multiple generations of basketball players.
The ABA’s final season was a disaster.
In most ABA arenas, there were thousands of empty seats, and the cash-flow was so limited that two of the franchises—the San Diego Sails and the Utah Stars—shut it down during the first month of the season. The remaining seven teams limped to the finish, the gimpiest being the Virginia Squires.
In his diary of the Squires horrendous 15-68 season, Virginia broadcaster Warner Fusselle related tales of late payments (“The players have said that they won’t play two days from now in Indiana if their checks don’t show up.”), desperate attempts to raise quick cash (“[Virginia forward] Willie Wise came into a restaurant in our hotel in Denver and told us that he heard that unless 50 Squires banners were sold [for $5,000] by tomorrow, the team would fold.”), and questionable business decisions (“Heard that Squires got a $250,000 bank loan to save the team.”).
The league’s myriad off-the-court issues began to affect the games themselves, most notably the increasing level of violence. Rod Thorn, who spent time coaching both the Spirits of St. Louis and the New York Nets, explained why the games were more brutal than ever. “With only seven teams left at the end of the ABA, rivalries became very heated and bitter because you played the same teams so often. If you had a fight with a guy, you probably would see him again next week. There was no time to cool off.”
After a whole bunch of legal wrangling—some of which was of the shady variety—the NBA/ABA merger came to fruition. (It bears mentioning that the NBA refused to refer to the transaction as a merger, the ABA’s general counsel, Mike Goldberg, saying, “The four ABA teams in essence bought their way into the NBA and the NBA considered it an expansion.”) The NBA welcomed the four ABA teams whose rabid fan bases made them legitimate NBA cities: the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers, the New Jersey Nets and the San Antonio Spurs.
The Nuggets, Pacers, Nets and Spurs respective rosters remained more or less intact, while the remaining ABA players were made available in what was termed a “dispersal draft.” With the first pick, the Chicago Bulls selected center Artis Gilmore, who went on to become a franchise cornerstone. Next came forward/center Maurice Lucas, who helped lead the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 NBA Championship. Three picks later, the Blazers snatched up future Hall of Famer Moses Malone, who, much to their eternal regret, they traded to the Buffalo Braves. Ugh. (And much to the Braves eternal regret, they traded Malone to the Rockets. Again, ugh.)
Unlike the Denver, Indiana, New Jersey and San Antonio owners—who were aware they were only a few years away from making boatloads of money—many of the ABA players weren’t pleased. Not one bit.
Doug Moe, who played and/or assistant coached for four teams in his five-year ABA career, echoed the sentiments of dozens of ABA-ers when he said:
“One of the biggest disappointments in my life was going into the NBA after the merger. The NBA was a rinky-dink league—listen, I’m very serious about this. The league was run like garbage. There was no camaraderie; a lot of the NBA guys were aloof and thought they were too good to practice or play hard.”
For his part, Bob Costas was thrilled for the merger—but not for the reasons one would expect: “There was such pride in a league that had to endure so much simply to survive, and we wanted the world to know how great our players were. It was an obvious contradiction, but both feelings were understandable. I’ll tell you this: we saw so many of our players do well after the merger, it was an incredible feeling for those of us who had been in the ABA. We could say to the world, ‘See, we told you so.'”
Ron Grinker, a legendary NBA agent who represented his fair share of ABA players, agreed with Costas, saying, “The standard of excellence in the NBA was the Boston Celtics, who were the masters of fundamental basketball. Those guys would pick-and-roll you to death. They played right out of the textbook. The ABA was Julius Erving, it was glitzy, get the ball out and let’s run and jump and play above the rim and we’ll make things up as we go along. People weren’t sure exactly what they did even after they did it. They felt something and they tried it.”
They tried it.
And they succeeded. And they helped make the NBA what it is today.