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Thursday, July 30, 2009

The ABA "Ol’ School Reunion" Rates a Perfect 10

A shorter version of this article was originally published in the July 29, 2005 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

A Special Event Brings the ABA Family to Denver

The "ABA Ol' School Reunion" kicked off on the afternoon of Thursday February 17, 2005 when several ABA players—including Rick Darnell, Mike Davis, Willie Davis, Joe Hamilton, Bobby Jones, Warren Jabali, Eugene "Goo" Kennedy, and James Silas—signed autographs and spent time with fans during a public appearance at Denver's East High School. The Reunion is the brainchild of seven year ABA veteran Fatty Taylor and his longtime friend, James Render. They expect to make the Reunion an annual NBA All-Star Weekend event and are already making plans for Houston, the site of the 2006 NBA All-Star Game.

The Reunion is not an "official" NBA All-Star Weekend event and Taylor has no plans to change this: "The ABA players are a little different from the NBA players. We had a close knit league. This (the ABA Reunion) is something that could be for us every year at the All-Star Game—an ABA Reunion, having different festivities." The ABA players battled each other during games and on the practice floor, but they have always felt a togetherness that transcends individual or team rivalries. Joe Hamilton helped rookie teammate James Silas adjust to the professional game, even though Silas' improvement could potentially have cost Hamilton playing time. Silas still remembers the good advice that Hamilton gave him about protecting the ball in traffic against smaller, quicker players; the friendship between the two men is readily apparent three decades after they first met in training camp. What made the ABA unique was not just the tri-color ball, the dunks and the three pointers—it was the character and demeanor of its players.

On Thursday evening the ABA players convened at the Doubletree Hotel for the Welcome Reception. The players savored the opportunity to reminisce with teammates--and opponents. Fans who bought tickets for the event mingled with the players, swapping old stories and taking pictures with childhood heroes.

Grammy Award winner India.Arie, the daughter of five-time ABA All-Star Ralph Simpson, performed a rousing set of her hits—plus tracks from her new CD--at Friday night’s "Ol’ School ABA Reunion Party" at Invesco Field. Meanwhile, overhead video screens displayed ABA highlights provided by Arthur Hundhausen, webmaster of RemembertheABA.com. The exciting footage brought everyone back in time to a league that featured a fun, fast moving game punctuated not only by high flying dunks and dramatic blocked shots but also accurate outside shooting and deft player/ball movement.

No Reunion events were scheduled on Saturday, so players gathered together informally or did some sightseeing. The next morning, Cedric the Entertainer emceed the NBA Retired Players Association's annual brunch, held this year at the Hyatt Regency/Denver Tech Center. Hundreds of retired NBA and ABA players packed the hotel ballroom, including Rick Barry, Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving, Bill Russell, David Thompson and Bill Walton. Several ABA players and coaches received awards, including Byron Beck (Original Denver Nugget), Larry Brown (Coach of the Year; he was unable to attend the ceremony), Spencer Haywood (Legend Award), Dan Issel (Founder Award), Doug Moe (Humanitarian Award) and David Thompson (Mr. Denver Nugget Award). Lafayette "Fat" Lever (Community Service Award) and Kiki Vandeweghe (Basketball Executive Award), who both played for the Nuggets in the NBA, were also recognized. At the event's conclusion many of the players stuck around to sign autographs.

The final ABA Reunion event happened on Sunday at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center of Performing Arts, just a few blocks from the Pepsi Center. ABA players joined fans to watch the NBA All-Star Game on big screen TVs. After the game ended, those in attendance were treated to more of Hundhausen's ABA highlight video montages. The After Party lasted until past 1 a.m.

Signing Basketballs and Reliving Memories

Throughout the weekend, Lelands.com coordinated in-person signings of 300 ABA replica basketballs by nearly two dozen ABA players--including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone. Lelands.com will sell the limited edition balls over the next year. Taylor says, "Some of the proceeds are going to our AAU team, the Colorado Hawks. I'm one of the directors and one of the coaches. We start at the fourth grade and go up to the twelfth grade."

After Julius Erving finished his signing on Friday, he spent some time with Branio Buckner. Buckner and some of his friends attended the first NBA Slam Dunk Contest, held in Denver in 1984. Buckner recalls, "We were sitting in the stands and maybe about an hour before the Dunk Contest started we were trying to figure out some props or what we could do to be seen or something. I thought about some cardboard boxes, so I went to the box office and asked if they had any empty boxes. They said, 'Yeah,' so we got them and ripped them apart. Then we asked if they had a marker and they said, 'Yes,' so we got a marker and wrote zero to ten on the cards. We went back to our seats and started testing the crowd. Every time somebody dunked we raised up a '5' or if they deserved a '10' we’d give them a '10.' Dr. J got a '10,' so we gave him a '10' and the crowd just went crazy. So we just kept going that day. Then the Rocky Mountain News approached me and asked me some questions. The same day as the Dunk Contest was going on they came up and recorded us talking and took some pictures. Also, Sports Illustrated took some pictures and they put me on the videotape. I'm on the (dunk contest) videotape that year."

Although Buckner received a lot of media attention for his impromptu contest judging, he had never met Erving prior to the ABA Reunion. Buckner explains how he finally got to share a moment with Erving after waiting more than 20 years: "I got introduced to Fatty Taylor. I knew that he was a former ABA player and I was working with him to help promote and sell tickets for the ABA Reunion Party and he said that he would make sure to introduce me to Dr. J and let him see the cards and pictures that I saved for 20 years."

Buckner has a lot more in his collection than just his hand made signs and the 1984 Slam Dunk Contest press clippings: "I have some cards. I have pictures. I have basketballs. I like to collect the red, white and blue balls from the three point contest. I have probably five or six of those, plus an ABA basketball." Not surprisingly, Erving is his all-time favorite player. Among active players Buckner likes Earl Boykins and Carmelo Anthony.

The night before Buckner met Erving he got his picture taken with Magic Johnson during one of the many All-Star events that were held in downtown Denver. Buckner says, "Now I have pictures of the two players I idolized."

Most of the ABA players genuinely seemed to enjoy interacting with the fans and signing autographs. While he took his turn doing the Lelands signing, four-time All-ABA guard Mack Calvin spoke about what it means to him, as a former Denver Nugget, to participate in an ABA Reunion in Denver: "I think that what is important and special about it is that the ABA players—Doc and Gervin and all the guys—have always been a unit. There has always been some camaraderie; we are like a family. I think that this exemplifies the overall attitude for over 30 years. It is an opportunity for guys to sign a few balls, make a few bucks and be excited about being here. We are family. The ABA guys are like a family. We had to stick together in order to survive."

Calvin added that he has participated in other signings and card shows and has enjoyed the experience. He is very grateful for the opportunities bestowed upon him as a result of playing professional basketball: "I've just been very fortunate and blessed to have been given the gifts of the physical abilities to play this game and to meet the wonderful people that I’ve met. I thank God for that."

The NBA brought back all of the original 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest participants—winner Julius Erving, runner-up David Thompson, George Gervin, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore—as judges for the 2005 Slam Dunk Contest. After the Friday Lelands signing, Gervin took a moment to reflect on how far things have progressed from 1976: "I think that it’s fantastic, man. Carl Scheer and Angelo Drossos had a vision—I wish Angelo were here today to see what his vision has become. They wanted to add some entertainment to the game and they did. It's 30 years later and players are dunking and shooting three pointers and taking All-Star Weekend to another level."

I took these two photos at the Lelands basketball signing on Friday of All-Star Weekend 2005. The first photo features Moses Malone and Julius Erving, while the second photo shows Erving signing several items for Branio Buckner:

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM



At Monday, August 03, 2009 1:21:00 PM, Anonymous Jason said...

Great sports blog man. I'm going to visit here more often. I have a sports blog myself and I would like to exchange links with you. Let me know. Jason


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