The ABA's Unsung HeroesThis article was originally published in the October 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
By the mid-1970s, the ABA was failing financially but the league featured many of the sport’s young, rising stars, including Julius Erving, Gilmore, Moses Malone, George Gervin and David Thompson. The NBA needed these marquee players to boost its attendance and its television ratings. The leagues finally merged in 1976, with four ABA teams (Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs) joining 18 NBA teams.
In the first post-merger All-Star Game, 10 of the 24 All-Stars had ABA playing experience. That year the Pacers’ Don Buse led the NBA in assists and steals and the 1977 NBA Finals between Philadelphia and Portland looked like an ABA reunion: Sixers starters’ Erving, George McGinnis and Caldwell Jones all began their careers in the ABA, as did Portland starter Maurice Lucas and key reserve guard Dave Twardzik.
Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame seems to have closed its doors to all but a handful of ABA players. Three players in particular personify the ABA’s unrecognized greatness: Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Artis Gilmore.
Bob “Slick” Leonard, who coached the Indiana Pacers to three ABA titles, has high praise for Brown, the small forward on those championship teams: “He was a money player. Anytime the game was on the line, Roger was always there. Roger had tremendous ability—one of the greatest small forwards to ever play the game…I’ve seen everyone who came down the pike in the last 50 years—playing against them, coaching against them or broadcasting them. Roger Brown deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”
A young Erving looked at Brown as a role model: “His depth of knowledge made him someone who I wanted to watch and also watch out for. I was just running and jumping and trying to jump over people and (it helped) just to see what he was doing on the ground, knowing that he was a great jumper in his day but that by this time he had channeled his energies to be a complete player, be a team player and win championships. So he was already at a place that I was trying to get to.”
Barry says about Brown, “He certainly had a terrific basketball career and is probably one of the more underrated guys that most people don’t know a whole lot about. He is not really given the recognition that he deserves for the career that he had. He was just a very skilled and gifted player, especially on the offensive end of the court.”
Brown’s teammate Daniels offers this tribute: “I think you could sum it up simply like this. Those who did not see Roger Brown or didn’t know him, missed a treat…We ran an isolation play for him and he was so good one-on-one that I remember defenders actually screaming for help. He actually dislocated or broke eight guys’ ankles…I think that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player I have ever seen or one of the best. Roger Brown was right there in his class.”
Daniels grabbed a staggering 1608 career postseason rebounds, ranking in the top dozen in pro basketball history. Erving remembers Daniels’ imposing presence: “Mel was the workhorse on that team. Mel just put the fear in people…I think that if contributions to the game of basketball and the history of basketball are the things that are the criteria for someone becoming a Hall of Famer, then the championships that they won in the ABA—three championships in nine years—warrants consideration because it affected fans globally and the recognition of it would paint a much clearer picture of what basketball was like in the 1970s.”
Gilmore’s omission from the Hall of Fame is especially puzzling because he followed his ABA career with a productive NBA career, which seemed to help the Hall candidacy of Hawkins. Erving notes, “I’ve written letters on his behalf to get him in the Hall of Fame.” Barry observes, “When Artis first came into the league he was the first guy who I’d ever seen who could block guys’ jump shots from the corner. This guy was unbelievable.” Daniels, who went head to head with Gilmore for years, adds, “He was very efficient, a very good offensive basketball player, could defend, could block shots, could run very well and could score on the block. He should definitely be in the Hall of Fame.”
Three decades after the leagues merged the NBA stubbornly refuses to “merge” ABA statistics with NBA statistics, but Daniels makes an interesting point: “If you look back at the (yearly) leaders in different categories, scoring and rebounding, it’s the ABA ball players. Isn’t that amazing?” While the NBA’s flawed record keeping unfairly reduces the career totals of many all-time greats, the NBA cannot hide the fact that Gervin won four NBA scoring titles or that Malone won six NBA rebounding titles or that Gilmore won four NBA field goal percentage titles and holds the NBA career record for highest regular season field goal percentage (.599). Former ABA players figured prominently among the NBA’s single season category leaders for many years after the merger, a lasting testament to the greatness of the league and a permanent reminder that the ABA players deserve to have their statistics accorded equal status with NBA statistics.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 PM