ABA Numbers Should Also CountA slightly different version of this article was originally published in the May 2001 issue of Basketball Digest.
Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Rick Barry. George "the Iceman" Gervin. David Thompson. Artis Gilmore. That looks like a formidable starting five, but there is one way to contain them. Each of these players spent time in the ABA--and the NBA has put the ultimate defensive clamps on them by acting like those seasons do not exist.
The Official NBA Guide has hundreds of pages of history and statistics. Each of the five players from the above "Dream Team" is listed among the Guide's career scoring leaders. But take a look at what appears next to Julius Erving's name: 11 years (1977-87), 18,364 points in 836 games (22.0 ppg). Question: How do you stop a guy who averages 28.7 ppg? Answer: Act as though he never did. Erving's career began in 1972, not 1977. In his first five years he scored 11,662 points in 407 games (28.7 ppg), but the NBA pretends that those numbers do not matter. The same holds true for Barry, Gervin, and the rest.
To find Dr. J's first five seasons and the statistics of other ABA greats in the Guide, you have to search for a list that is awkwardly titled "Combined NBA/ABA, Career Scoring."
Unfortunately, the "combined" numbers are not considered "official" by the NBA and are almost always ignored in discussions of basketball history. Karl Malone's climb up the career scoring list a few years ago was well documented. When he passed Michael Jordan and topped the late Wilt Chamberlain, those accomplishments were justifiably celebrated in the media. What wasn't mentioned is that Erving and Moses Malone should appear just below Chamberlain on the career scoring list (Moses' first two pro seasons disappear down the same memory hole as Erving's first five years, so Karl "officially" passed Moses during the 1997-98 season).
It's even worse when you examine the media guides of the four former ABA teams, the New Jersey (then New York) Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs. These teams have every right to be proud of their ABA heritage and to even overstate the importance of their ABA years but instead they act as if franchise records set during the ABA years hardly exist.
This shortchanges players such as Erving and Gilmore by wiping out the first five seasons of their careers. Erving won two championships, three MVPs (sharing one with George McGinnis), two Playoff MVPs and three scoring titles in the ABA, while Gilmore notched one championship, one Playoff MVP and four rebounding titles.
No player's resume would emerge unscathed from such drastic revisions. Take away Michael Jordan's first five years and you erase one MVP, his two highest scoring seasons, his only Defensive Player of the Year award, two scoring titles, one steals title and his playoff single game scoring record of 63 points. Larry Bird would lose two of his three championships, one MVP, one NBA Finals MVP and his best single season totals in rebounds and steals. Magic Johnson would forfeit two of his five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, two steals titles, one assists title and his single season bests in rebounding and steals.
Pacers Roger Brown and Mel Daniels are two Hall of Fame-caliber players whose great careers are largely ignored in no small part because their statistics are unrecognized. Brown was a four-time ABA All-Star who won three ABA championships with Indiana. More than one observer has said that Brown was Jordan's true precursor. In the 1970 ABA Finals, Brown averaged 32.7 ppg, scoring 53, 39 and 45 in the final three games. In the 1972 ABA Finals, Brown led the Pacers to a series-clinching victory in game six by outscoring future Hall of Famer Rick Barry 32-23. Daniels played center on those three championship teams, winning two regular season MVP awards. His 1608 career playoff rebounds place him 14th in pro basketball history.
It doesn't have to be this way. In the NFL Record and Fact Book (2008 edition), Len Dawson, George Blanda and others are listed as statistical leaders even though they spent parts of their careers in the AFL. The section on team histories includes the statistics of players such as Joe Namath, Don Maynard, and Paul Lowe among many others who set franchise records that date back to the AFL. NFL records show that Joe Namath is the first player to pass for 4,000 yards in a single season (4,007 in 1967); no one suggests that Dan Fouts' 4,082 yard performance in 1979 is more valid because it is the first such effort that occurred after the NFL and AFL merged.
The 76ers feted Larry Brown several years ago when he reached the 1000 victory milestone as a pro coach, which served as a de facto recognition of his combined ABA-NBA win totals. Was that a sign that things are changing for the better? Perhaps, but it also underscored the nature of the problem. During a TNT broadcast shortly after the ceremony honoring Coach Brown, commentator (and ABA old-schooler) Pete Vecsey quipped that if Brown's ABA wins were being recognized, Dr. J's ABA points should be acknowledged. Vecsey did not pursue the issue further, but as long as ABA statistics are not "official," media guides and other publications will continue to ignore them or mention them only as afterthoughts.
ABA numbers should be made "official" by the NBA. Then Larry Brown's wins, Dr. J's points and the rest of the ABA's glorious history would assume its proper place in the basketball record book.
The real pro basketball career statistical leaders appear in the accompanying charts. Playoff career leaders are also listed; inexplicably, even sources that publish "combined" NBA/ABA regular season statistics make no mention of ABA playoff statistics.
(2/27/09 Edit: I have replaced the original charts with versions that are up to date as of the start of the 2008-09 NBA season):
ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Scoring Leaders:
ABA-NBA Playoff Career Scoring Leaders
ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Rebounding Leaders
ABA-NBA Playoff Career Rebounding Leaders
ABA-NBA Regular Season Career Assists Leaders
ABA-NBA Playoff Career Assists Leaders
posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM