The American Basketball Association — a look back

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    With over 75 years of basketball history under the NBA’s belt, one might ask: why is the league as popular as it is today around the world? One has to rewind the clock to the 1960s when upstart leagues were challenging the very existence of the NBA. Enter the American Basketball Association (ABA), which was considered one of the most successful rival professional basketball leagues at the time. The ABA has had far more of an impact than today’s NBA fans might know, despite only existing from 1967 to 1976.

    One ABA team owner said that the intent of forming the ABA was not to directly compete with the NBA, but to force a merger with the NBA. Investors in the ABA were attracted by lower startup costs in smaller markets, slight tweaks in rules, and ultimately, a more attractive version of basketball that the NBA was lacking at the time. The marketing campaign for the ABA also changed how professional sports approached their marketing efforts. The league used a red, white, and blue ball, which drew more attention on TV than the traditional orange ball. The ABA also had a three-point line and slam dunk contest. ABA franchises used strange promotions and marketing tactics that piqued the interest of basketball fans. This forced the NBA to react to these innovative new ways to play (and market) the (at the time) nearly 80-year-old sport of basketball.

    At some point, all of these ABA innovations would make it (in some shape or form) into the NBA. The Slam Dunk Contest made its way to the NBA for the 1976-1977 season, but did not return until 1984, and has been a staple of the NBA All-Star Weekend ever since (with a brief hiatus in 1998 and 1999). The three-point line made it to the NBA in time for the 1979-1980 NBA season. The red, white, and blue ball was kept as the “money” ball for the NBA’s Three-Point Contest in 1986, also as a part of the NBA All-Star Game festivities.

    The ABA sought to attract star players with promises of higher salaries. Some notable early stars of the ABA also went on to play in the NBA. College star Spencer Haywood, in particular, left college early to play for the ABA’s Denver Rockets, citing family hardship as his reason for going professional. At the time, NBA rules required potential draftees to play all four years in college, which made the ABA more attractive to talented players who sought to play professionally sooner. The ABA was an upstart league, and playing in smaller markets (and in some cases, competing in NBA-dominated markets) showed it. Very few teams were financially successful, and attendance was low. The Houston Mavericks reportedly drew only 89 fans against the New York Nets during the final game of the 1968-1969 season.

    Some legendary players who got their start in the ABA include Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George “The Iceman” Gervin, Moses Malone, and David Thompson. Thompson is especially important since Michael Jordan considered him his idol, and Thompson inducted Jordan into the Hall of Fame in 2009. Other names familiar to basketball fans, such as legendary NBA coaches Larry Brown and Hubie Brown (no relation), also received their start in the ABA. 

    One NBA star, Rick Barry, even went from the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors to the ABA’s Oakland Oaks in 1968 in a robust deal valued at USD500,000 (~USD4.26 million today) over three years and even 15% ownership of the Oaks. He later returned to the NBA, re-signing with the Golden State Warriors in 1972. 

    Another ABA star, Ron Boone, once held the record for most consecutive games played in NBA/ABA combined history. Maurice Lucas, who played with the Kentucky Colonels and Spirits of St. Louis, won an NBA championship with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977.

    The ABA also went after the NBA’s referees in its early days. One particular target was Hall of Fame referee Earl Strom, one of the most prominent referees in NBA history. He became known as “The Pied Piper” for his flamboyant style of controlling basketball games throughout his 29 years in the NBA and three years in the ABA. While these referees eventually returned to the NBA, the allure of a rival league and a bigger paycheck made the ABA tempting to anyone associated with basketball.

    The ABA was not without its share of controversy. Today, NBA fans might remember Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. While some ABA players continued to be successful in the NBA as well, many ABA stars had failed to adjust to the NBA. 

    For example, Spirits of St. Louis star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes was often at the center of negative news reports due to his interactions with the justice system and drug use. 

    David Thompson also fell out of the NBA due to injuries and drug use. 

    Another NBA legend, Hall of Fame center Bill Walton, thought of Thompson so highly that he described him as “Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James rolled into one.” How good would he actually have been had he stayed injury-free and drug-free? 

    Another ABA star, John Brisker, was notorious for on-court fights, leading players to nickname him “the heavyweight champion of the ABA.” He suddenly disappeared in 1978 after traveling to Uganda, prompting speculation about his whereabouts to this very day.

    When the ABA came to an end in 1976, four teams made it to the NBA: the San Antonio Spurs, the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, the Indiana Pacers, and the Denver Nuggets. Each team has prospered in its own right in the NBA. 

    The San Antonio Spurs became the most successful former ABA franchise, winning five NBA championships. 

    The Denver Nuggets pioneered the fast-paced offense we see in today’s game. 

    The owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, Ozzie and Daniel Silna, scored a major business victory by accumulating hundreds of millions of dollars despite the franchise folding in 1976. As part of a series of deals with the former ABA franchises that went to the NBA and the NBA themselves, they were entitled to a share of TV revenue and other payments that continue to this very day, even pocketing USD500 million in 2014 as a lump sum payment from the NBA.

    The ABA’s aggressive marketing and recruitment approach forced the NBA to adopt many of its innovations that we see today. If you’re wondering whom to thank for basketball’s fusion with entertainment and innovation, the ABA is the place to see the beginnings of such changes. The upstart league forced changes in an institution that was previously reticent to do so and sparked the global reach of basketball that we witness today.

    Words by Jose Alvarez
    Also published in the Relic section of Gadgets Magazine November-December 2022 Issue

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