Monday, May 3, 2010
League of Legends
Almost 35 years after its demise, the American Basketball Association is still hard to take seriously. The league’s nine-year tenure can’t shake its sideshow image, conjuring thoughts of blown-out Afros, borderline psychopathic players and hucksterish financial dealings.
That fringe element certainly existed, and the presence of Pat Boone and Morton Downey Jr. as early franchise owners certainly doesn’t help the ABA’s historical record. Game 6 of the 1976 ABA finals would end up being the swan song for the league, but it also serves as a metaphor for how far the NBA’s red, white and blue-headed stepchild had come.
As the New York Nets and Denver Nuggets gathered for the opening tap at the Nassau Coliseum, the collection of basketball talent was eye-popping. The Nets’ Julius Erving would vie for the jump ball against the Nuggets’ Bobby Jones. Denver had a high-scoring team with Dan Issel and David Thompson and was coached by Larry Brown in the first stop of his peripatetic career. Erving was the undisputed star of New York, but coach Kevin Loughery deployed key role players like Swen Nater, Brian Taylor and John Williamson.
That star power was a far cry from the ABA’s inaugural season in 1967-’68 when the league cast its lot with players banned from the NBA like Connie Hawkins and Doug Moe, and lesser-talented refugees from industrial teams. In 1976-’77, after the NBA absorbed four ABA teams, 10 of the 24 players in that year’s All-Star Game had logged time in the ABA.
There was also the matter of the red, white and blue ball. It is the obvious symbol of the ABA and was the brainchild of its first commissioner, George Mikan, the legendary NBA big man who lent the upstart league instant credibility. From the moment Erving and Jones jumped for the opening possession, the spinning ball had a hypnotic pull. In Terry Pluto’s indispensable ABA book “Loose Balls,” players spoke of being transfixed by the rotation of the ball on a jump shot. It was fitting for a league based on offensive exploits that the fans’ eyes were always on the ball.
Issel was the first player to get hot in Game 6. Despite looking like a middle-aged weekend warrior, Issel was only 27 and in the prime of a 15-year ABA/NBA career that saw him score 27,482 points. His game was predicated on mid-range jumpers, and they were falling as the Nuggets raced to an early lead.
As expected, the scoring load for Denver eventually transferred from Issel to Thompson, the star rookie who averaged 26 points per game. This might have been the only professional season that “Skywalker” was in full possession of his talent, before he was beset by injuries and cocaine abuse. A key component to the ABA luring Thompson away from the NBA was the signing of his former N.C. State teammate Monte Towe. During their college days, the duo had such a connection that they brought the “alley-oop” into basketball’s working vocabulary. Towe and Thompson hooked up for their signature play a couple times in the first half, and Thompson had 27 points on 13 shots as Denver took a 58-45 lead at halftime.
The Nets were able to stay in the game only because of Erving and Taylor. Taylor hit a couple of three-pointers, which are probably the greatest legacy of the ABA. The three-point shot was an idea the ABA had taken from the American Basketball League, a precursor to the ABA that lasted a little more than one season in the early 1960s. Basketball purists decried the three-pointer, saying players would start bombing away from long range. But the fans loved it and the three-pointer stuck, eventually getting adopted by the NBA in 1979-’80.
It is often stated that one couldn’t understand the greatness of Erving if one didn’t see him the ABA. He was truly an athletic marvel in Game 6. He took over after the Nuggets established a 22-point lead in the third quarter. Erving, with his Afro in full flower, used his unmatched leaping ability and large hands to make gymnastic forays to the rim. He scored 31 points and pulled down 19 rebounds in his final ABA game, often against Jones, Erving’s future teammate with the Philadelphia 76ers and an acknowledged defensive ace. The Nets outscored the Nuggets, 34-14, in the fourth quarter and claimed the last ABA championship with a 112-106 victory.
The goal of the ABA from the beginning was to force a merger with the NBA. That finally came to fruition in the months after the Nets’ victory. The Nets and the Nuggets were admitted to the NBA, along with the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers. The ABA’s St. Louis Spirits, Kentucky Colonels and Virginia Squires settled and closed up shop. The Nets had to pay such hefty fees (mostly for cutting in on the Knicks’ market) that they had to sell Erving to the 76ers to stay solvent.
That was it for the ABA. Most of its games weren’t televised and were played before sparse crowds, so the re-telling of some of the league’s memorable moments have probably been exaggerated. But the stylistic, wide-open artistry of Thompson and Erving that was fostered in the irreverent ABA had an undeniable effect on basketball culture.