By Hami Arain and Adam Chalifoux
If you were looking to go back in time and start a basketball career where you know you can find a place to ball, look no further than the early 1960s. Three different leagues dominated North America; of course, there’s the NBA, the American Basketball League (ABL) and the once famous American Basketball Association (ABA). The ABA-NBA merged in 1977 and the NBA took a couple of classic ABA teams with them.
Today’s 100 Days of Hoops looks at the ABA independently as the league was created in 1967.
A couple of differences between ABA and NBA basketball: instead of a 24-second shot clock, it went up to 30 seconds, the free throw lane extended its width from twelve feet to eighteen and the offense was more dynamic and flashy than the NBA’s defensive-minded strategies. Even off the court, ABA players often had nicknames, let’s take a look through some:
Dr. J (Julius Erving)
A-Train (Artis Gilmore)
Iceman (George Gervin)
Bad News (Marvin Barnes)
Wondrous (Willie Wise)
The Magician (Mervin Jackson)
Machine Gun (Travis Grant)
Mr. Excitement (Wendell Ladner)
and who could forget Zelmo Beaty, the original “Big Z”!
Those are only some of the nicknames, you can find more here.
Let’s take a look at the teams who competed, franchises often moved cities and changed names throughout the ABA’s existence. The logo of the team will be shown first followed by a brief summary of the team’s accomplishments:
The Utah Stars were originally the Anaheim Amigos for a season, then the Los Angeles Stars for two seasons before moving to Utah in 1970. The Stars franchise is currently in the NBA, kicking out the New Orleans Jazz and making them Utah’s in 1979. Big Z played for them, just remember him as OG Big Z instead of Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The state of Utah tasted a championship in 1971 and made a Finals apperance three seasons later.
Dallas/Texas Chaparrals/San Antonio Spurs
When Dallas businessmen gave up ownership of the Chaparrals, the San Antonio ownership group initially went with the Gunslingers as San Antonios team. Eventually, they went with Spurs and thank God they did. Imagine having an all-time Gunslinger duo in David Robinson and Tim Dunc-actually that sounds pretty cool. Either way, San Antonio fans were said to be the loudest. The ABA as a league averaged around 7,000 fans per game and the Spurs often drew in at least 10,000 fans per game. Even though San Antonio was only a part of three seasons in the ABA, they were known for their suffocating defense and good-enough offense, sounds familiar, right?
Carolina Cougars/Spirits of St. Louis
This franchise was originally the Houston Mavericks but the Mavericks were pretty forgettable. Carolina’s original team came in 1969 led by head coach Bones McKinney. Even the head coach was as energized as his players as he danced around the court, yelling at players and referees, constant leaping in the air. You never wanted to get too close with Bones, otherwise, he might just accidentally sock you in the face. When Bones left the team two years later, the Cougars snatched up Larry Brown. Along with him, they picked up Billy Cunningham from the 76ers. Brown and his Cougars loved to run and pass and Brown emphasized on defense. Eventually, they moved to St. Louis in 1974. The St. Louis Spirits have its own 30 for 30 titled Free Spirits. A team that loved to run the fast break and had many characters on the team. Bob Costas called games for the Spirits when he began his career right out of college.
God bless the Indiana Pacers. This is a franchise that never left town and was allowed as part of the merger to the NBA. The Pacers have the most ABA titles at three which came in 1970, 1972 and 1973. The Pacers qualify for GOAT status when it comes to ABA. Believe it or not, the Pacers were a very stable and well-run organization and made five trips to the Finals in the nine years of ABA hoops.
While the Pacers were constant and safely made it to the NBA, the Kentucky Colonels would not save its franchise. The Colonels have a good case for top three of the best ABA teams of all-time. The Colonels are legendary in ABA lore, mostly for winning the final championship of the league before the merger with the NBA. They also made the Finals in 1971 and 1973. There have been rumblings of Kentucky gaining back a professional basketball team and if that’s the case, let’s hope the league can stick with the Colonels, it’s creative enough.
Another future NBA team featured Dr. J playing back in his hometown was the New York Nets. You can safely argue the Nets as the second best ABA team behind the Pacers with two championships out of three Finals appearances. The team was also originally the New Jersey Americans, then became the New York Nets. At this point, it’s been a see-saw of New York and New Jersey borrowing basketball teams but it looks like the Brooklyn Nets might be here for a while. You never know though as New Jersey patiently awaits. It’s worth noting the Nets won one of the last championships in 1975. Thanks again, Dr. J.
Are the Warriors afraid to go back to a look like this? Would it ruin their image and marketing? The Oakland Oaks were only around for two seasons before becoming the Washington Caps, the Oaks brought a title to the Bay but then lost again the following season, the owners had a championship-or-bust mentality and moved the team to Washington (at least, that’s what I’ve heard…from a friend). The Caps became the Virginia Squires for about six seasons then folded with the ABA in 1976.
The Pittsburgh Pipers won the first ABA title in 1968 in a 4-3 series win over the New Orleans Buccaneers. We’re guessing the Pipers, like almost every ABA team that’s not the Nets or Pacers had an identity crisis, so they moved to Minnesota for the ’68-’69 #DefendTheIndustrialLake run. When that didn’t work out, they moved back to Pittsburgh until the end of the ABA, they became the Pioneers for a season then the Condors. Pittsburgh was another possibility for NBA expansion, so maybe they go back to one of these names if it goes through.
Now, this is how you make an ABA logo. The Miami Floridians are now mostly known for their stylish jerseys. The Floridians began in Minnesota as the Muskies for the ABA’s inaugural 1967-68 season, they moved to Miami and became the Floridians from 1968-1972. The Miami Heat’s only link to the Floridians are their throwback jerseys they bust out every now and then.
Oh and here are the jerseys you might be familiar with:
Talk about identity crisis, this was a franchise that toyed with its fans enough. This was originally the New Orleans Buccaneers for about four seasons then moved to become the Memphis Pros for two seasons, then the Memphis Sounds for another two seasons then moving into a beanie-looking logo, the Memphis Tams for one season. Then they moved to Baltimore but only played three exhibition games before closing the door on the franchise.
Another classic logo honoring the San Diego Conquistadors. The Conquistadors were around for three seasons, and became the San Diego Sails in 1975 but soon folded. The Clippers had a brief stint in San Diego under the NBA before moving to Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Now, here’s a starting five on our All-ABA team!
ALL ABA TEAM
Team(s): Denver Nuggets
Years played: 1975-1976
Career Stats: 26.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.7 APG
Team(s): Virginia Squires, San Antonio Spurs
Years played: 1972-1976
Career Stats: 21.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.2 APG
Team(s): Virginia Squires, New York Nets
Years played: 1971-1976
Career Stats: 28.7 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 4.8 APG
Team(s): Oakland Oaks, Washington Caps, New York Nets
Years played: 1968-1972
Career Stats: 30.5 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 4.1 APG
Team(s): Kentucky Colonels
Years played: 1971-1976
Career Stats: 22.3 PPG, 17.3 RPG, 3.0 APG