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Monday, October 01, 2007

The Legacy of the ABA

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 4/14/07

"Wow. That’s a long time. Those years got by fast," Hall of Famer David Thompson said during All-Star Weekend when I asked him his thoughts about the 40th anniversary of the founding of the ABA. Fellow Hall of Famer Earl Monroe also can hardly believe that four decades have passed since the ABA was founded: "Wow. Has it been that long? Gosh almighty. Those teams were a great addition to basketball. They were really able to put people in a frenzy, so to speak, because of their style of play. Obviously, the style of play was great because, when you look at it, that is the style that guys are playing today. I remember just seeing those teams and wanting to play with those guys."

Julius Erving scored 27 points in a 97-87 New York Nets win over Monroe’s New York Knicks on October 2, 1973. More than 17,000 fans showed up at Madison Square Garden to see the contest between the reigning NBA champions and the upstart Nets, who had just traded for New York native Erving and would go on to win that season’s ABA title with one of the youngest starting lineups to ever win a championship. The rival leagues played a total of 155 preseason games between 1971-72 and 1975-76, with the ABA enjoying a 79-76 edge. From 1973-75, ABA teams posted 15-10, 16-7 and 31-17 records respectively versus the NBA teams. "Those games that we played against teams like the Nets and the Indiana Pacers were hard fought because they were trying to get recognition and we were trying not to give them that recognition," Monroe recalls. "Those games were very special. The battles that we had between us were kind of legendary, especially in the minds of the guys who played in those games."

The NBA initially refused to sanction any games against ABA teams, ostensibly because the ABA was a minor league. That conceit was proved false at the Houston Astrodome on May 28, 1971 when the best players from both leagues faced off (without NBA approval) in the first NBA-ABA All-Star Game, with the proceeds being contributed to charity and to the two leagues’ players’ association pension funds. Nine of the 10 NBA players who played in that game were later inducted in the Hall of Fame and selected to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list, while the ABA roster featured one future Hall of Famer and several extremely underrated players. The myth of clear NBA superiority was shattered when the NBA’s cream of the crop only beat the ABA’s best by five, 125-120. This was not an ordinary All-Star game, either. In the 2007 NBA All-Star game, the two teams combined to attempt 22 free throws; in the 1971 NBA-ABA All-Star game, the NBA squad attempted 70 free throws, including 31 in the fourth quarter alone, which would have been a regular season record at that time.

After that kind of contest, the NBA could no longer justify ignoring the ABA and that fall NBA teams played preseason games against ABA teams for the first time. On May 25, 1972, a second ABA-NBA All-Star game was held, with the NBA winning 106-104. On the court, the ABA could match the NBA basket for basket and actually showcased a more exciting, more modern game, with the three point shot, an uptempo style and a legion of high flying dunk artists. The ABA was the Vincent Van Gogh of basketball--an artistic success but a commercial failure, at least in its own lifetime. Van Gogh struggled to make ends meet but now his paintings sell for millions of dollars. ABA players used to race to the bank to cash their checks before they bounced but the NBA eventually adopted the style of play popularized by that league and used it to become a global success in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. The ABA no longer exists but, like Van Gogh, it left behind a rich legacy.

That legacy is manifested in many ways. "I think that the story of the ABA actually begins with Spencer Haywood and what he went through in order to get undergraduates into the pros, which is what the ABA did; they went after a lot of undergraduates," says Ollie Taylor, a high-flying 6-2 guard/forward who played four years in the ABA. "Their mindset was to get the players before the NBA did. There is a really untold story there. Now after all these years they are finally bringing it to the forefront that we were legitimate and that we were the new age coming. Playing above the rim was a big focal point of that."

In 1970, Haywood jumped to the NBA after averaging 30 ppg and 19.5 rpg in his first and only ABA season, winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. The NBA attempted to forbid him from playing because his college class had not graduated. The resulting case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately paved the way for players like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to leave college early and for players like Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and others to turn pro straight out of high school. The fierce competition between the ABA and the NBA for talented players led to a salary explosion that has continued to this day.

The ABA developed and nurtured many of the players who became the NBA’s marquee stars in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George Gervin, David Thompson and Dan Issel. The scintillating Erving had an excellent NBA career but those who saw him in his ABA days got a special treat. Mike Gale, a two-time ABA All-Defensive Team guard who played with Erving on the 1974 ABA champion New York Nets and later played against him in both leagues, says, "Doc was an awesome player. Because of the way the ABA was at that time (not having a national TV contract), most of America did not get to see him in what we would call his prime. Some of the moves that he made, you will never see again. It was amazing to see his work ethic. After practice, we’d be out there playing and shooting. He just loved the game. He’d try to think of things that were out of the ordinary and not done the regular way. It was a sight to see. We sat back (as teammates) and would say, 'How’d he do that?'"

The ABA changed the way that basketball is played and the way that it is packaged and presented. The ABA did not introduce the three point shot--t had been previously used in the ABL and some college teams had experimented with it decades earlier--but the ABA popularized it. The rivalry between the leagues was so bitter that the NBA could not bring itself to start using the three point shot until four years after the merger. College basketball began using the three point shot a few years later. It is impossible to imagine basketball at any level today without the three point line. March Madness would not be the same without the possibility of an underdog team getting hot from three point range and knocking off a blue chip school.

The ABA wrapped a concert and a Slam Dunk contest around the 1976 ABA All-Star Game, essentially creating the concept that has morphed into what is now known as All-Star Weekend. The NBA scoffed at that idea for years before finally embracing it in 1984. The ABA’s influence can even be felt in the box score. Steals, blocked shots, turnovers (the ABA called them "errors") and offensive rebounds are statistics that were first tracked by ABA scorekeepers before the NBA decided to make them part of the game’s official numerical language. Ironically, while the NBA adopted these categories for its own use it stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the statistics compiled by ABA players. The NFL recognizes that the AFL’s Joe Namath was the first pro quarterback to pass for 4000 yards in a season but the NBA acts as if the 11,662 ABA points scored by Namath’s New York contemporary Julius Erving do not exist. The careers of great ABA players like Roger Brown and Mel Daniels exist in a statistical netherworld; sometimes, they are mentioned in articles or on TV but often their accomplishments are completely disregarded.

During the Legends Brunch before this year’s All-Star Game, the National Basketball Retired Players Association took a step in the right direction by honoring the contributions of its ABA alumni. Rick Barry, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and Spencer Haywood--each of whom starred in both leagues--read off the names of dozens of ABA alumni, who then each stepped forward to receive a trophy and some well deserved applause. The next thing that should happen is that the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame should assemble a committee to review the careers of ABA players who have been passed over for Hall of Fame induction.

Artis Gilmore has to be the greatest basketball player who is eligible for Hall of Fame induction but has not received that honor. He amassed 24,941 career points (19th all-time) and 16,330 career rebounds (fifth all-time) during his ABA-NBA career. Maurice Lucas, an All-Star in both leagues and a teammate of Gilmore’s in the ABA, is angered and mystified by the Hall of Fame’s ongoing snub of Gilmore: "I don’t know why he is not in the Hall of Fame; I think that it is criminal that he is not in there. Artis is one of the greatest players who ever played this game. If you look at his statistics, he’s got more rebounds than probably 95% of the people in the Hall of Fame and he’s got more points than 95% of the people who are in the Hall of Fame. He was just a fabulous player and his time will come and I am real hopeful that someone recognizes him real quickly because he deserves to be in there without even a question about it."

"If you look at Gilmore’s numbers—field goal percentage, rebounding and everything—he definitely should be in the Hall of Fame," Thompson says. Monroe hopes that Gilmore and other deserving ABA players will eventually be recognized by the Hall of Fame: "I think that the way the Hall of Fame is conducting its searches that a lot of those guys are being looked at a little bit more and I think that is the right thing to do because they made such a great addition to basketball in general and they brought people out. I’m sorry that we are not using the red, white and blue ball because that was a great invention."

Major League Baseball set a good example by inducting several deserving Negro Leaguers into its Hall of Fame (even though they botched things by leaving out Buck O’Neil) and the NBA should work with the Basketball Hall of Fame to do something similar regarding ABA players. It is incumbent on the Hall of Fame to make sure that the neglected ABA greats finally receive the recognition that they earned long ago.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 AM

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