It was the new league with the funny red, white and blue ball, a revolutionary 3-point shot and players nobody ever heard of or cared about.
Yet the American Basketball Association lasted nine years, changed the pro game with its wide-open, flamboyant style and launched the careers of many future NBA stars.
“I think it’s a special thing, but it was a special league,” former Indiana Pacers coach Bob Leonard said Friday at the start of a weekend reunion celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the founding of the ABA.
“It was a wonderful era in professional basketball. We challenged the establishment, and as far as the Indiana Pacers are concerned, we won the battle, and we won the war because we ended up with an NBA franchise.”
The Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and New York Nets were the four ABA teams absorbed by the NBA in 1976. But there were others that came and went throughout the league’s brief existence, such teams as the Anaheim Amigos, Memphis Sounds, Minnesota Muskies, Oakland Oaks, Pittsburgh Condors, San Diego Conquistadors and Virginia Squires.
The names of ABA alumni dotted NBA rosters for years after that, including Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, Rick Barry, Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas, David Thompson, Dan Issel and George McGinnis.
“It gave a lot of players an opportunity they may not have had to play professional basketball,” Leonard said. “And it gave a lot of players an opportunity to start their careers who later went on to the NBA after the merger and became great stars. So I think we accomplished a lot.”
The ABA struggled in its early years, dismissed by NBA purists as an inferior league made up of players who couldn’t make it in the older league. Barry, the NBA rookie of the year in 1966, was the first big name to defect to the ABA, crossing the bay from San Francisco to Oakland in 1968. He played four years in the ABA before returning to Golden State in 1972.
With Leonard as coach, the Pacers dominated the ABA most of its existence, winning the championship three times with such players as McGinnis, Mel Daniels, the late Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Bill Keller and Bob Netolicky, one of the organizers of the reunion.
“The NBA had probably the bigger players, maybe more a power-type game than what the ABA had, but I don’t think they had the excitement and the flamboyant style the ABA had,” Keller said.
“I think the 3-point play made it a faster game, a more wide-open game, more of an opportunity for players to express themselves. I think about Julius Erving, for example. He was such … a guy who could create and do things, to make the game more exciting to watch.”
Erving, Barry, Gervin and Issel now are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Brown, who died of liver cancer in March, was nominated for the Hall of Fame last year.
The year after the NBA merger, Thompson was first-team All-NBA and Erving, McGinnis and Gervin were second-team picks. The next year, Erving, Gervin and Thompson were on the first team and Lucas was a second-teamer.
The most valuable players in three of the first four NBA All-Star games after the merger were from the ABA - Erving, Thompson and Gervin.
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