Break out the red, white and blue basketballs, dust off the Converse high-tops and let your hair down – or blow it out big and round.
It’s the 53rd anniversary of the American Basketball Association’s birth, and today I pay tribute to the greatest roundball circuit ever created.
Announced on February 1, 1967, the ABA was officially unveiled during a news conference in New York on February 2. Plans called for the circuit to be divided into an Eastern Division featuring franchises in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, New York, New Orleans and Pittsburgh and a Western Division of Anaheim, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City and Oakland.
Former National Basketball Association great George Mikan was named commissioner, and he made it clear the newbies were going to challenge the NBA for talent.
“I have not read the present NBA contract, (but) we would be stupid not to ask players if they are not tied down,” Mikan told the Associated Press. “You have to respect contractual obligations, but if there is a player without a contract, we invite him to contact us.”
As for a bidding war, Mikan fully expected it.
“When two people compete, you show me a way it won’t spiral cost,” he said. “I’d like to be a 25-year-old kid now. The NBA isn’t happy with our move. They try to give the impression there’s no room for somebody else, but they’re expanding.”
Philadelphia 76ers standout Wilt Chamberlain was the first target of the ABA, and the 7-1 center didn’t deny his interest – or the interest of other NBA stars.
“I have been approached,” Chamberlain told the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate. “I do listen to all financial offers – that’s all I can tell you. I know some of the other names, but I can’t reveal them.”
As a kid I wasn’t concerned with the business aspect of the ABA, but they had me at the red, white and blue basketball.
“It’s a patriotic ball,” Mikan told the Associated Press when he unveiled the multi-colored orb on August 19, 1967. “Everyone will stand when this one goes up.”
It was the 3-point shot (from 25-feet and beyond), however, that kept me.
It was actually a rule “borrowed” from the defunct American Basketball League, which lasted only one full season in the early 1960s.
“It gives the smaller players who usually perform at guard more of an opportunity to star in the ABA,” Mikan told United Press International. “It’ll open up the defense and make the game more enjoyable for the fans.”
Other rules that differed from the NBA included a 30-second shot clock and 12-foot lane.
But you have to have athletes to succeed, and the upstarts got them. In fact, 36 players selected by the NBA in the 1967 draft chose the ABA instead.
The league started in October, 1967, and actually had 11 teams – the Anaheim Amigos, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, Minnesota Muskies, New Jersey Americans, New Orleans Buccaneers, Oakland Oaks and Pittsburgh Pipers.
Chamberlain decided to stay in the NBA but the ABA had guys like Connie Hawkins and Doug Moe, and quality basketball was delivered right out of the gate.
Over nine seasons the ABA produced superstars such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Artis Gilmore, and it was easy to love the high-scoring, free-spirited nature of the league. The players performed with such joy and abandon that it made every game fun to watch.
Like most leagues that challenge the establishment, however, the ABA struggled. Only two of its original teams (Indiana and Kentucky) survived relocation, dissolution and/or name changes during the organization’s existence.
And with most of its teams losing money (and losing bidding wars to the NBA) the ABA had no choice but to agree to a limited merger in 1976.
The Pacers, New York Nets (originally the Americans), Denver Nuggets (originally Rockets) and San Antonio Spurs (originally the Chaparrals) were absorbed by the NBA, and the American Basketball Association was no more.
I hated to see it go, but glad at least a few pieces of it lived on.
To this day the Nets remain my favorite pro team, and I always find myself rooting for the ABA survivors against the rest of the NBA.
The best part, though, is that the ABA’s stars and rules influenced the NBA to such a degree that it elevated the sport. Look at it that way, and it’s like the American Basketball Association never even left.
Still, I miss that red, white and blue basketball …