The Freewheeling League That Changed Basketball - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Freewheeling League That Changed Basketball

The Freewheeling League That Changed Basketball

By Sean Braswell


Because sometimes it helps to have a little competition off the court.

By Sean Braswell

As Julius Erving paced off his route to the basket, an eager murmur spread through the packed house at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Teammates of the New York Nets forward had seen him do it countless times, but now the legendary Dr. J was about to show the entire basketball world — at the first ever slam-dunk contest, held during halftime at the American Basketball Association’s 1976 All-Star Game. Those who knew what was coming, including Doug Moe, an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets who had made a friendly wager with Erving before the event, fixed their eyes on the free-throw line lying directly in Erving’s path, 15 feet from the basket. 

Then Dr. J took off toward the basket, loping majestically, with his Afro blowing behind, the trademark red, white and blue basketball cradled in one of his enormous 12-inch hands. Erving’s left foot crossed the line by a few inches, but after soaring through the air and slamming the ball through the net, and igniting the rapturous crowd, such a transgression was a mere footnote to an instant legend. Dr. J’s commanding dunk, executed in the freewheeling ABA’s waning days, was both a fitting valedictory to, and symbol of, a basketball league that had spurred the game to new levels of innovation, excitement and spectacle. That legacy lives on today in the ABA’s archrival, its devourer and, ultimately, its successor: the NBA. 

A free-spirited philosophy permeated every aspect of the league.

The first slam-dunk contest itself was, as Terry Pluto writes in Loose Balls, an entertaining oral history of the league, “like most things in the ABA — an act of desperation designed to get a few more fans to walk through the doors.” And desperation can be a powerful force for innovation. From the ABA’s origins in 1967, its founders, including Dennis Murphy, a former mayor of Buena Park, California, and serial sports entrepreneur, had one endgame in mind: a merger with the NBA. But getting there in a world without cable- or network-television contracts — never mind Internet or social media — took some hustle, especially for a sport that was probably the fourth or fifth most popular in America.

Murphy and Co. essentially made it up as they went along. To lend the newborn league some instant credibility, they named former NBA legend George Mikan the ABA’s first commissioner, a move that resulted in the ABA being headquartered in Minneapolis (where Mikan owned a travel agency) and using the now iconic tricolor basketball, which the nearsighted Mikan found easier to see. Mikan also suggested the three-point shot, the response to which — as with so much in the ABA — was, “Sure, why not?”

It was a free-spirited philosophy that suited the time and permeated every aspect of the league, from the rampant marketing gimmicks to its in-game entertainment, including the Miami Floridians’ bikini-clad dance team, which was placed strategically to distract the visiting team’s bench and, as Pluto observes, really “skipped the dancing part and just strutted their stuff.”

Gettyimages 81363761

The New York Nets’ Dr. J makes a dunk against the Denver Nuggets.

Source John D. Hanlon/Getty

But what made the ABA special — and ultimately forced the NBA’s hand — were the players, starting with Dr. J, whose still unshaped skills at the University of Massachusetts were given free rein by the permissive league and allowed to shine, and who ultimately became not only the league’s premier talent but also its greatest ambassador. The outsider league also gave second chances to NBA rejects like Connie Hawkins, and it both tapped new talent and pursued it, where the NBA would not, signing college underclassmen like Spencer Haywood and high school standouts like Moses Malone. The result was an iconoclastic group of star players, which included future NBA greats like George “the Iceman” Gervin and Artis Gilmore, and a wide-open game that elevated the slam dunk and ushered in other innovative plays like pressing and trapping defenses. In the words of Ron Grinker, a veteran agent, “The NBA was a symphony, the ABA was jazz.”

At the same time, life in the ABA was rough, especially for the players. Many teams competed in second-rate arenas, and getting there was hell, starting with 5 a.m. wake-up calls followed by an odyssey of two to three flights in which the long-limbed athletes would try to fold themselves, platform shoes and all, into coach seats. As former broadcaster Joe Tait puts it, “To us in the NBA, it was amazing that those guys could still stand up, much less play.”

When four ABA teams — the Nets, Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers — finally merged into the NBA in 1976 and the league, which had been struggling financially for years, was dissolved, it may have marked the end of an era, but it was just the beginning of a new age of professional basketball. The NBA welcomed former ABA players like Dr. J. with open arms, and the expanded league would adopt, co-opt and retool several of the ABA’s most innovative features, from the slam-dunk contest and dance squads to its fast-paced game.

“Hell, the ABA might have lost the battle,” Moe tells Pluto, “but we won the war. The NBA now plays our kind of basketball.”

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