For younger fans of the NBA, the American Basketball Association is nothing more than some lines in the record book, a short-lived reminder of a time when competing professional leagues were a reality in football (the established NFL and the upstart American Football League), hockey (the established NHL and the upstart World Hockey Association) and basketball (the NBA vs. the ABA).
But for some older fans, the ABA was where they cut their teeth in professional basketball. For me, I grew up a fan of the New York Nets and two of the most memorable days in my childhood revolved around the Nets and a certain star player.
On Aug. 1, 1973, the Nets purchased budding superstar Julius Erving from the Virginia Squires. That led to the club winning two of the last three ABA titles in 1974 and 1976 before the league merged with the NBA.
The Doc put together some big performances for the Nets, particularly his 35-point performance against the Kentucky Colonels in the 1974 Eastern Division Finals.
That was another big day, the realization the Nets would no longer be the renegade outlaws in the ABA, but would rather be competing with the big boys in the NBA. On Sept. 10, 1976, the Nets made a big splash, trading Jim Eakins, Brian Taylor and a pair of first-round picks to the Kansas City Kings for All-Star point guard Tiny Archibald.
Erving was a high flyer, as evidenced by his legendary performance in professional basketball’s first slam dunk contest–done at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game in Denver.
Tiny and the Doc? Together? The Nets would be unbeatable.
Until Oct. 20, that is. That is the darkest day in the history of the Nets franchise, the day that owner Roy Boe—faced with a deadline to make a $3 million payment to the New York Knicks for invading their territory—sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for … wait for it … $3 million.
Then Archibald suffered a foot injury and played just 34 games. The Nets went 22-60 in their first NBA go-around, moved to New Jersey and floundered for years.
The merger included four teams: the Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.
The Nuggets and Spurs were contenders right away in the NBA, with each making the playoffs in their first year in the established circuit. For the Pacers, the merger couldn’t have come at a worse time. Indiana was the ABA’s version of the Boston Celtics, having won three titles in four years in the early 1970s, but the core of the team was aging and the team’s decline coincided with its arrival in the established league.
The ABA had spent nearly a decade being laughed at by its established big brother, but the 1977 All-Star Game served as a sort of vindication for the guys with the red, white and blue ball as nine of the 24 selections for the game had roots in the ABA.
The Denver Nuggets had three players in the game with David Thompson, Bobby Jones and Dan Issel all named to the starting lineup. Don Buse and Billy Knight of the Indiana Pacers were there, too, as was George Gervin of the San Antonio Spurs. Maurice Lucas played for the Portland Trail Blazers, but had started his career with the Spirits of St. Louis before playing with the Kentucky Colonels in the last days of the ABA. Erving was there representing the 76ers, as was former Pacer star George McGinnis. Rick Barry had played for the Oakland Oaks, Washington Capitols and New York Nets in the ABA
Five of the 10 starters in the 1977 Finals between the Portland Trail Blazers and Philadelphia 76ers had played in the ABA.
That number included Erving, McGinnis and Lucas, as well as Portland guard Dave Twardzik (Virginia Squires) and center Caldwell Jones of the 76ers (San Diego Conquistadors and Sails, Kentucky Colonels, Spirits of St. Louis).
No one imagined it would be more than two decades before one of the ABA’s survivors would compete for an NBA title, but the four ABA clubs were shut out of the Finals until 1999, when the Spurs finally got there and beat the Knicks in five games to become the first former ABA club to win an NBA title.
The Pacers were in the Finals the very next year, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in what is still the franchise’s only NBA Finals appearance.
The Nets were the next to break through, getting to the Finals in 2002 only to be swept by the Lakers.
That set up the moment we old fans of the ABA had dreamed of for more than a quarter of a century: The 2003 NBA Finals between the New Jersey Nets and the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs wound up taking their second title, beating the Nets in six games. San Antonio went on to add two more championships in 2005 and 2007 and as the Spurs prepare to tip off against the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, they are still the only one of the ABA Four to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Now more than 35 years removed from the merger, those ties to the ABA are still a big deal for some of us.
For those of you who might enjoy it, I’ve included the 1997 HBO documentary “Long Shots.” It’s divided into six parts–about an hour long. But if you’re wanting to learn more about the wild days and crazy times of the American Basketball Association, it’s a great place to start.