By Neil Beldock
(This is the 6th installment of a continuing series about the ABA)
So let’s recap where the ABA is: They have owners with sufficient money. They have as commissioner one of the greatest players and most recognizable names in all of basketball in George Mikan. They have a brand new look for the game with a tri-colored red, white and blue basketball. They have implemented a revolutionary rule whereby if a shot is made from a far-enough distance 3 points are awarded. And they have created some shock-waves throughout the NBA by reaching out and contracting with one of the NBA’s youngest and most marketable stars in Rick Barry.
But with all that in place, players are needed to fill rosters in order to play games and have a league. It was time to find players and get going!
Said Dick Tinkham, former legal counsel for the Indiana Pacers: “We did some crazy things before that first season. All the owners got together one day and we drafted all the NBA players. It was like dealing baseball cards. We were deluding ourselves into thinking that all these NBA guys would jump leagues. The college draft didn’t interest us that much because we thought we’d get our talent by raiding the NBA. Of course it didn’t take long for reality to set in. The ABA made some offers to NBA guys and got absolutely nowhere, except Rick Barry, which was a special case because of his father-in-law”.
So perhaps for the first time since conceptually organizing the new league, the ABA hit a major roadblock. Their concept and strategy to build the league, fill rosters and capture the imagination of basketball fans took a major hit. What now?
The answer to the question as to what to do next in order to build rosters enacted a 4-prong approach.
There would be an effort to contact ex-NBA players. There would be a strategy of looking at players playing in the numerous semi-pro and AAU leagues who might not have gotten a fair chance with the NBA. The new league would reach out to players who had successful college careers but never got a shot in the NBA and were now not playing anywhere. And there would be open try-outs which would yield some of the most interesting and legendary basketball stories of all time.
Said Bob Bass who coached numerous ABA teams before becoming the General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs: “I took the NBA rosters from 1965-67 and looked for the names of guys no longer in the league. Then I tried to track them down figuring if they were good enough at one time to play in the NBA then they should be good enough for our league”.
Added Bass: “The most important thing we did was sign Wayne Hightower who had played in the NBA”.
Said Lee Meade, Public Relations Director for the ABA: “Even though Hightower probably would have a hard time finding another NBA job, it still was a big deal when he signed with Denver. I mean, at least the hard-core fans had heard of him”.
The ABA did find success in locating and signing former NBA players. Amongst those who signed to play in the ABA were names such as Cliff Hagan, Tom Hoover, Larry Jones, Wayne Mollis, Freddie Lewis, Jerry Hawkins, Jim Caldwell, Cotton Nash, Art Heyman, and Chico Vaughn, all who had played in the NBA and now populated the initial rosters of ABA teams.
Said Jerry Hawkins who had been drafted and played for the New York Knicks before ultimately being cut: “A lot of the players in the early ABA were like myself. Good college players who never got a chance in the NBA. Then I read about the ABA starting and I kept thinking that maybe I should try it once more. If I don’t try it, I’ll never know”.
Bob Bass would point out that the semi-pro leagues and AAU leagues would deliver some of the better early players of and for the ABA: “Teams such as the Akron Goodyears (Larry Brown), the Phillips 66ers (Darel Carrier) and the Jamiaco Saints (Steve Jones & Levern “Pop” Tart) sent us a lot of players”.
Said Steve Jones: “When the guys in AAU ball heard that the ABA was forming we said it will never last. Then we said where do we go for a try-out? So like a lot of guys I went for it and it felt great when Oakland signed me for $10,000”.
There were also numerous players who had highly successful college careers, were overlooked by the NBA, and were now not playing at all.
The strategy in signing these players was that their name recognition would drive fan interest and bring people to the arena to see players they saw play very recently in the college ranks. In many cases there was a regional approach in signing these players to create an even greater level of fan interest and attachment.
These “non-playing” players included Bob Verga from Duke, Byron Beck from the University of Denver who would sign with the Denver Rockets, Louis Dampier from the University of Kentucky who would sign with the Kentucky Colonels, Mel Daniels from the University of New Mexico, and Wes Bialosuknia from the University of Connecticut. Bob Lloyd from Rutgers, Bobby McIntyre from St. John’s and Barry Leibowitz from LIU, all who played and starred for New York City area schools, would all sign with the New Jersey Americans (who would become the New York Nets).
The league also publicized and held open try-outs in an attempt to unearth previously undiscovered talent. These tryouts were a whole different deal all together.
Said Max Williams, Coach and General Manager of the Dallas Chaparrals: “Our biggest job was to find players. I got a lot of letters and calls. One guy wrote me from the state penitentiary in Oklahoma. He said that if he could produce a contract they’d let him out to play. I passed on that one”.
The stories about those try-outs were numerous, each one more entertaining than the previous one.
Said San Antonio Spurs broadcaster Terry Stembridge of a player found during open try-outs: “One of my favorites was Maurice “Toothpick” McHartley. He was a 6 foot 3 guard who had to have a toothpick in the corner of his mouth or he wouldn’t play. He worked hard at being Mr. Cool. I remember him shooting the ball a lot, but I don’t remember it going in that often”.
Stembridge also shared the following story about another player discovered during open try-outs: “Another one of my favorite guys was A.W. Holt. Holt went into the General Managers office to sign a contract. When he came out I was asked to drive A.W. to the airport. In the car I asked A.W if he signed a contract. He said ‘No, man’. I asked him why not and he said ‘I made up my mind that unless I got a bonus of one thousand dollars I wasn’t going to sign. All they offered me was fifteen hundred.’ I started to laugh, but I realized that A.W. was serious, and that was sad. He eventually did sign”.
Yet another success story of the open try-outs is explained by Larry Brown: “The guy is Lefty Thomas. He went for 20 points against us, but he shot it every time he touched it. That wasn’t that unusual. But Lefty was the first player I had ever seen who wore a ring on every finger”.
Steve Jones described what the open try-outs were like: “I remember walking into a tryout with the Oakland Oaks and there were 100 guys there. You could tell there was a division at the camp between guys who were supposed to be able to play and guys basically off the street. I couldn’t believe that mass of humanity in the gym. The coaches seemed overwhelmed. They started having 3-on-3 games for 15 minutes. If you didn’t show much in that 15 minutes you were outta there. They cut 60 guys the first day. I think back on that as the ‘100 Rifles’ camp because you had 100 guys doing nothing but shooting”.
Said Larry Staverman, the first coach of the Indiana Pacers: “We must have looked at 1,000 guys. We did get one out of it. That was Bobby Joe Edmonds”.
There was one other source which would bring three of the biggest names and early stars to the rosters of ABA teams.
In 1960 there had been a point shaving and gambling scandal in New York City in which 3 of the best New York City area players were indicted, though never proved guilty. They were Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown and Tony Jackson. All three, though never proved of any wrong doing, had been banned from the NBA. And they were truly great, great players who the ABA was more than willing to embrace and allow to play in their new league.
Said Commissioner George Mikan: “One of the first things I did as ABA commissioner was to let Roger Brown, Tony Jackson and Connie Hawkins play. I investigated the situation and they seemed all right to me. I figured they deserved a second chance”.
Tony Jackson was from Brooklyn, New York and played collegiately at St. John’s University. He is considered one of the greatest high school players to ever play in New York City. He was a 2-time All-American at St. John’s which included being the MVP of the 1958 Holiday Festival Tournament and 1959 NIT Tournament, both played at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. He signed with the New Jersey Americans. A knee injury limited Jackson’s career to just 2 years. In his initial season, which was his only healthy season, Jackson averaged 19.4 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game.
Roger Brown was another New York City legend from Brooklyn who had been banned from playing in the NBA, but was unquestionably and inarguably one of the best basketball players in any league, anywhere, including the NBA. Stories are told of how Brown would outplay the great Oscar Robertson in pick-up games in and around the Cincinnati area where he worked and played semi-pro ball. Brown would play 8 seasons in the ABA and was one of the early superstars of the league. He was a 3-time ABA champion, a 4-time ABA All-Star, and in 1997 was selected as a member of the ABA All-Time Team. His #35 jersey was retired by the Indiana Pacers.
As great as Tony Jackson was and might have been barring injury, and as great as Roger Brown was and turned out to be, neither compared to Connie Hawkins. Hawkins was on a different level all together.
Connie Hawkins, another New York City legend from Brooklyn, did things on a basketball court which had never before been seen. He was Julius “Dr. J” Erving years before the Doctor would be paying house visits throughout the ABA. With his huge hands and amazing jumping ability, he would swoop to the basket for rim-shattering, acrobatic dunks making his nickname “The Hawk” most appropriate. Nobody in the basketball universe questioned his greatness and dominance which would be on full display in the ABA. He was the greatest player in the ABA for the 2 years he played in the league before winning a lawsuit against the NBA which permitted him to jump leagues. In his 2 years in the ABA he averaged 28.5 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. He also was the MVP of both the regular season and playoffs during the ABA’s first season and his team won the first-ever ABA league championship.
Said Steve Jones about the significance of Connie Hawkins playing in the ABA: “The Hawk gave our league instant credibility and brought us a lot of attention. For years everyone had heard how great the guy was, but very, very few people saw him play. The ABA became his first stage. He was doing things with the basketball, with those huge hands of his, that people had never seen before. Just about all the stuff Julius Erving did, Connie did first”.
With rosters now in place, the ABA was ready to launch.
(Next in the series: Volume 7 – Let The Games Begin)