A pioneer league that changed the face and essence of pro basketball
As the 2021 NBA Finals arrive, it’d be remiss not to give the ABA — the American Basketball Association, a shoutout. A thank you and homage to an old-school style of basketball with its funk and style in full bloom.
The legacy of the ABA travels far beyond their red, white, and blue basketball. Today’s NBA as well as the NCAA are shaped and influenced by the American Basketball Association.
Formed in 1966 as a pro basketball league, the ABA began with 11 teams. By 1976, the ABA’s final season, the league was reduced to seven. In place of a merger, the NBA absorbed four ABA franchises. For financial reasons, the NBA brought them in as expansion teams.
Starting in the 1977 Season, the New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and Indiana Pacers began their NBA tenures. The NBA also held a draft for the ABA free agents, independent of their folded and former teams.
Many ABA players enjoyed great and storied NBA careers. All-Stars, MVPs, champions, and league-leaders in various statistical categories. Many have also reached the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. In subsequent seasons, most of the Eastern and Western Conference rosters at the NBA All-Star Game were comprised of former ABA players.
The ABA began as a fun and alternative brand of basketball. The league’s sense of sport and entertainment value not only influenced but changed the narrative and landscape of pro sports for years to come.
At the time, the established NBA looked down their noses at the ABA’s style of play and innovations. Regarding the ABA’s gimmicks as carney basketball. Little did they know, generations later, today’s NBA would resemble the ABA more so than their NBA of the 1960s and 70s.
Here are some of the things adopted and fashioned by the ABA. All of which are part of today’s NBA style, game, and fabric:
The 3-Point Shot
Beyond the Arc — the biggest and most exciting bucket in both the NCAA and NBA originated in the ABA. Besides a scoring opportunity, the shot changed basketball as we know it.
Despite the NBA’s reluctance to incorporate any ABA rules, this one proved to be their biggest loss and the ABA’s gain. Like the forward pass in football, the 3-Point Play opened up pro basketball, changing the game forever.
Today’s open-court game coupled with the full and backcourt press flourished. It also spurred the game’s evolution. From an inside game to an outside game. From a standard lineup to a roster of position-less players.
Players like Dirk Nowitski and Anthony Davis would be unimaginable in yesteryear’s NBA. Big men were centers and centers only. They hung around the rim for rebounds and layups. A perimeter shot, now and then.
Big men who could shoot the three while playing both a physical and finesse style. This type of player wasn’t hatched from the ABA, but the innovations and influence of the ABA propelled basketball's evolution to create and welcome such players.
Without the 3-Point Shot, basketball would be a boxed-in and sluggish game. A less fluid one with stunted growth. Add in today’s size, style, and athleticism of the modern player, you’d have a restricted brand of basketball. Unimaginable, unrecognizable, and unwatchable comes to mind.
Back in the day, the NBA All-Star Game was played on a Tuesday night. A ho-hum affair compared to the current era’s weekend extravaganza.
It was the ABA that decided to hold the game on a Sunday evening. They also turned it into a weekend event. Borne from the opportunity to showcase and promote itself as a league. It was also the only time slot available for national TV — an opportunity the ABA couldn't afford to pass up.
In these lean, uncertain, and desperate times, the ABA envisioned its All-Star Game as a way to promote its brand as well as its best players. They held exhibition games along with meet-and-greets for fans. Pictures, interviews, and autographs were all part of the festivities. All leading up and into the main event.
At halftime of its final All-Star Game, the ABA held pro basketball’s first slam-dunk competition. Julius ‘Dr. J’ Erving, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, and David Thompson were among the participants. Before Air Jordan, there was Dr. J. (For the skeptics, check out the Doctor’s hang-times and jams on YouTube — it’s eye-popping stuff).
Erving won the competition with his signature slam — a leaping and skyward dunk from the foul line. Sound familiar? Jordan might have perfected the move, but Julius invented it. Erving was the ABA’s greatest and most dynamic player and the league’s best ambassador.
One and Done
The lexicon might be current, but the origin — the Hardship Case, began with the ABA. By the late 60s and early 70s, the NBA required all of its incoming players to be college graduates. If an underclassman left college, he remained ineligible for the NBA Draft until his designated class graduated.
In this era, Division-I freshmen were unable to play on their varsity teams as well. It’s hard to fathom today, but yesteryear’s freshmen were forced to play on the JV squads until their sophomore seasons when they became varsity eligible.
As the ABA began competing with the NBA for top college prospects, they set their sights on Spencer Haywood, the best player in the country. Spencer was a sophomore at Detroit Mercy College and Gold Medal champion of the men’s basketball team at the 1968 Olympics.
The ABA trumped the NBA’s doctrine by encouraging Spencer to leave Detroit Mercy for the ABA. Both the NCAA and NBA cried foul, but the ABA backed Spencer all the way to the circuit court. By all accounts, Spencer had outgrown the college game and was ready to turn pro.
A judge decided that Spencer could legally leave college and join the ABA. Spencer Haywood was drafted by the Denver Rockets where he began his illustrious career.
Moses Malone became the first player to skip college altogether. As an eighteen-year-old, every NCAA powerhouse recruited Moses. Growing up impoverished, a pro salary would give Moses the means to move his family out of the projects. Moses agreed to join the ABA and was drafted by the Utah Stars.
Like many players since Malone, there is nothing to stop a young prospect and their dream of becoming a pro athlete. Whether it’s LeBron James bypassing college, or Magic Johnson opting out after his freshman year. Players today enjoy the freedom of choosing their own path and time frame. This entire lineage of players owes the ABA a high-five.
Signing and Compensating Game Referees
To poach the best officials, the ABA realized it had to up the ante with better pay and perks. With no competition, the NBA held the upper hand on its referees. Back in the day, refs made little money. By today’s standards, NBA refs were pounding out a side-hustle.
This all changed when the ABA came knocking. The ABA to get experienced officials with the pro game began by offering the NBA refs a substantial raise to jump leagues. Doubling salaries with multi-year and guaranteed money.
Again, necessity is the mother of invention. By securing this experience and talent, the ABA’s level of play rose. As did the status of the professional referee, spawning higher salaries and enhanced benefits. Unions formed and followed that took shape in all sports on all levels.
The ABA superseded its NBA counterpart by categorizing stats. A complete breakdown. At the time, the NBA kept basic and pedestrian statistics.
The ABA separated rebounding into offensive and defensive. All aspects of the game — scoring, passing, and defense. Minutes played and shooting percentages were all included. One of the forefathers of today’s analytics.
The level of play in the ABA was not semi-pro, despite the uncertainty surrounding the league. Of course, they carried marginal players. Guys that would never make it in the NBA. What upstart league in any sport would not have more or fewer mediocre players?
On the upside, a slew of ballers and coaches took advantage of opportunities they would have never realized without an alternative league. A canvass for innovative coaches with defensive and penetrating schemes.
The ABA also provided second chances for NBA players looking to extend their careers from smaller-sized point guards, press defense, and theatrical slam-dunks. Role and bench playing opportunities for seasoned pros added roster depth and athletic integrity.
The ABA was a godsend for Doug Moe and Connie Hawkins. Two great players who were embroiled in a point-shaving college scandal and banned from the NBA. Neither player was found guilty and their cases dismissed. In the ABA, both became stars — a win-win for their careers, legacy, and an opportunity for fans to see exceptional players on the pro level.
Like any startup, the ABA had its share of defeats and growing pains. Despite the absence of a national TV contract, the league persevered. It continued to bring its own brand of pro basketball to smaller and corner markets. And they delivered.
As franchises merged, folded, and relocated, the league’s attendance continued to lag. Without a TV contract, and the NBA expanding in size, scope, and popularity, the ABA had run its course.
Today’s NBA may or may not be a coincidence. Employing their cutting-edge attitude and style as they continue to grow. Their hand in social justice, activism, and inclusion efforts. The Orlando Bubble and successful resumption of the 2020 Season is another testament to their commitment and fortitude.
The NBA has been lauded, and deservedly so, for its innovation and fingers on the pulse. They encourage and enjoy the open dialogue, trust, and partnership with their players and coaches. As fans, it’s obvious and refreshing. As people, we feed off of it and find it inspiring and encouraging.
Is it possible that today’s NBA retained the bravado and freewheeling genes in its bloodline somewhere along the line? Like the traits, essence, and virtues of a long-lost relative?
I’d like to believe that the spirit of the ABA is alive, well, and present. A heart full of soul that continues to guide, inspire and influence the NBA.
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