Tip-Off Timer: ABA Began Play 42 Years Ago, and Legacy Remains
Tip-Off Timer counts down the days until the first game of the 2009-10 season. On Tuesday, there are 42 days remaining.
The uniforms arrived. The sneakers showed up. So did the basketballs.
Well, there was one problem with them. They were the wrong color.
The American Basketball Association had been formed 42 years ago to compete against the stodgy NBA, and the Denver Rockets and Oakland Oaks were set to make their preseason debuts Sept. 27, 1967 at a Phoenix high school. But one of rules of the newfangled league was to play with a red, white and blue ball, and the balls on hand all were brown.
"The commissioner, George Mikan, told us to just get a brown ball and paint it,'' said Bob Bass, a longtime NBA and ABA coach and executive who was the first coach of the Rockets. "So the PR guys painted it, and it was terrible. The ball was so slick there were like 45 turnovers in the first half.''
Eventually, genuine red, white and blue balls began to arrive. And the ABA played its first regular season game Oct. 13, 1967, when the Oaks defeated the Anaheim Amigos 134-129.
The ABA lasted just nine seasons, but its legacy continues. Aside from giant Afros and wild fastbreak play, the league popularized the three-point shot, which didn't enter the NBA until 1979. And the dunk contest was born in the ABA.
Four teams were admitted into the NBA from the ABA in 1976: Denver, Indiana, New Jersey and San Antonio. All the Spurs have done is win four of the past 11 NBA titles.
The ABA provided the first pro stop for basketball legends Julius Erving, George Gervin, Moses Malone and David Thompson. It's where Larry Brown and Hubie Brown got their head-coaching starts.
Two icons inducted into the Hall of Fame last Friday each chose men with ABA roots to be their presenters. Michael Jordan went with Thompson and David Robinson with Gervin and Larry Brown.
Of course, the Hall of Fame is a sore spot for some ABA enthusiasts. There are nine players in the Hall who played in the ABA. But Erving, Gervin, Malone, Thompson, Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham, Cliff Hagan, Connie Hawkins and Dan Issel are enshrined primarily because of what they accomplished in the NBA.
Some have called for ABA legends Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore to be inducted. Roger Brown's career ended before the merger with the NBA, and Daniels was then over the hill. Although Gilmore did become an NBA All-Star, he was truly dominant in the ABA, averaging 22.3 points and 17.1 rebounds in five seasons.
In addition, some call for coach Bobby Leonard, who led the Pacers to three ABA titles, to be enshrined. The only coaches in history to have won three or more NBA and ABA titles are Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, John Kundla, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and Leonard."A lot of people are forgetting the ABA and what was accomplished. It's like the old Negro Leagues (in baseball).''
-- longtime ABA guard Mack Calvin
"A lot of people are forgetting the ABA and what was accomplished,'' said Mack Calvin, a longtime ABA guard. "It's like the old Negro Leagues (in baseball).''
One ABA event, though, is pretty hard to forget. Early in the 1975-76 season, with three teams having just folded and the ABA down to seven teams, league officials knew the days were numbered.
So the ABA came up with a slam-dunk contest during halftime of its All-Star Game to serve as a final hurrah. On, Jan. 27, 1976 in Denver, Erving took off from the free-throw line to throw down a memorable dunk and defeat Thompson, who earlier had made what he calls the first-recorded 360.
"Everything came together,'' said Carl Scheer, a longtime ABA and NBA executive who, as Nuggets general manager, played a key role in the 1976 ABA dunk contest and in bringing a similar show to the NBA in 1984 when the NBA All-Star Game was played in Denver. "It was one of those nights that happen once in a lifetime.''
It wasn't enough, though, to save the ABA, which folded half a year later after Erving's New York Nets had defeated Thompson's Nuggets to win the league's final crown. But it didn't take long for ABA veterans to establish themselves in the NBA.
In the first NBA All-Star Game played after the merger, five of the 10 starters had ABA roots, and Larry Brown of the Nuggets was the West coach, his team having the conference's best record at the break. Taking the floor at the start Feb. 13, 1977 in Milwaukee were Issel, Thompson and Bobby Jones for the West and Erving and George McGinnis for the East.
The ball was brown. But none of them seemed to matter, especially Erving, named the game's Most Valuable Player.