By Neil Beldock
(This is the 8th installment of a continuing series about the ABA)
In the first year of the ABA, the league did something which nobody thought would be able to be accomplished; It survived!! Yes, against all odds and predictions, there would be a second year. But changes would occur prior to that second season.
In many ways, the American Football League (AFL) provided a blue print for how a new league could survive. The formula was to play a different, alternate and more exciting style than the style of play within the league being challenged. The AFL, much like what the ABA was trying to do, played a more wide-open and more exciting brand of football than that which was being played in the NFL. Eventually, this approach caught the attention of the football fan.
The AFL also recognized that it was paramount to identify which franchises could survive in their present locations and which franchises needed to find new homes and/or new identities.
Within three years, two struggling AFL franchises, the Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas Texans, would find success by relocating to new cities. The Chargers would move to San Diego and the Texans would move to Kansas City and become the Kansas City Chiefs.
Another franchise in a city critical to the survival of any new league was struggling as well. The New York Titans were on the brink of failure. Leaving New York City was not seen as beneficial for the new league. What did turn out to be successful was to re-brand the Titans as the New York Jets and play in the newly constructed Shea Stadium. The Titans had been playing in the old and antiquated Polo Grounds while they were waiting (with the New York Mets) for Shea Stadium to be constructed.
For the ABA, effectively applying the same approach as the AFL did with it’s initial franchises would be critical if it were to survive.
The first year of the ABA did reveal some solid locations and franchises. Both the Indiana Pacers and Kentucky Colonels showed signs of being able to become very successful franchises. There were also positive signs in Denver and Pittsburgh.
And although teams such as the Dallas Chaparrals and New Orleans Buccaneers were struggling, both held out hope and found enough encouraging signs to feel as if they could survive and potentially thrive.
So with 6 of the 11 teams, or 54% of the league showing an ability to survive and potentially thrive, hope and optimism were felt within the league and the league office.
But there were troubled franchises, and making adjustments would be necessary if the league as a whole were to survive.
Entering Year 2, the New Jersey Americans relocated to Long Island, New York and re-branded themselves as the New York Nets, a move mirroring that which had been successful for the New York Jets of the AFL.
Another change was made by the Anaheim Amigos who followed a similar blue print in moving and re-branding themselves. They became the Los Angeles Stars.
In the case of both the Americans/Nets and Amigos/Stars, the hope was that becoming embedded in more essential locations would catapult the franchises to success while providing the league exposure in two major cities.
A third move, which would facilitate a fourth move was puzzling.
The Minnesota Muskies, in spite of finishing 2nd in the Eastern Division and winning 50 games, were struggling. They did not draw fans and ownership didn’t see the potential to be successful in their present location. As a result they relocated the franchise to Miami and became the Miami Floridians.
Here’s where the ABA made perhaps their biggest early mistake.
The ABA’s league office, run by Commissioner George Mikan, was located in Minneapolis. Mikan, as commissioner, felt that if the league office was in Minneapolis, there should be a team in-state, specifically in Minnesota. His target to replace the relocated Muskies was the team which had won the league championship during the ABA’s inaugural season, the Pittsburgh Pipers. This was perhaps not the wisest decision Mikan ever made.
Said Pipers star player Charlie Williams: “When I think back on it, none of it made sense. There was no reason for the NBA to deny guys like Connie (Hawkins) and myself a chance to play. Then we went to Pittsburgh and won more games than anyone in the league. No one paid attention to us until the final game. Then we packed in the fans and the town started to talk about the Pipers and Connie Hawkins. You would think that would be something to build on. We were the defending champs, and Connie lived in Pittsburgh year-round. We should have been ready for a big second season at the gate and on the court”.
Added Williams: “Minnesota? I mean Minnesota just had a team and it moved to Florida because it didn’t draw. So whether we liked it or not, we were going to Minnesota”.
Said ABA executive Mike Storen: “The real reason for the move was that George Mikan was putting on the pressure for an ABA team to be in Minnesota after the Muskies went to Florida. Mikan and the ABA league office were in Minneapolis. It would look bad if a team wasn’t there, especially since Mikan was criticized for not having the league office in New York”.
So Year 2 in the ABA would present a bit of a different look with new teams in new locations.
There was yet another major change which would occur which did not involve a team moving, but rather players moving in order to bolster a struggling franchise.
Once again seizing upon experiences from the AFL, the ABA looked to bolster a struggling franchise in a city where the AFL had realized profound success. That city was Oakland, California.
The Oakland Raiders were a tremendous success of and for the AFL. It would stand to reason that if a new football team in a new league could thrive in Oakland, the same could also happen for a basketball team in the ABA.
And being able to transform a team which lost more money than any other team in the league in Year 1 into a successful franchise would certainly bode well for the league going forward.
The first year of the ABA saw the Oakland Oaks lose more money than any other team in the league. It was reported that the team lost $750,000 during the inaugural season. But the Oaks had perhaps the most recognizable name in the league becoming eligible to play in Year 2.
After having to sit out a year, Rick Barry, who had been a superstar during his first two years in the NBA playing for the San Francisco Warriors before signing to play for the Oaks, was now eligible to play after having to sit out a season due to the reserve clause in NBA contracts which tied a player to his exiting team for one year after the expiration of the contract.
Once again leaning upon experiences witnessed within the AFL, what was seen as being critical to the Raiders becoming a successful franchise in the upstart AFL, was winning football games.
With the Oakland Raiders providing the formula for success, it stood to reason that a winning basketball team in Oakland could provide the impetus for the ABA to develop a successful franchise in the city of Oakland as well. And with an ex-NBA superstar on the roster and ready to start playing, winning seemed to be an attainable.
Seeing the possibility to completely reverse the fortunes of the Oaks led to one of the most lopsided trades perhaps in the history of basketball. But a trade which would appear to ensure a successful season for the Oakland Oaks.
Prior to the start of Year 2 of the ABA, Larry Brown and Doug Moe who had led the New Orleans Buccaneers to the ABA finals in year one, and both of whom were All-ABA 1st team selections, were traded from the Buccaneers to the Oaks for Steve Jones.
For the record, although a very good player, Steve Jones was not an All-ABA selection. Steve Jones had averaged 10.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game for a last place team the previous season. In contrast, Larry Brown averaged 13.4 points and 6.5 assists per game while Doug Moe was even better averaging 24.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game for a league finalist.
So the Oaks, in trading Steve Jones, gave up 10.6 points per game and received in Brown and Moe 37.6 points per game.
At least on paper, teaming Larry Brown and Doug Moe with Rick Barry would appear to be the construction of not only an ABA super-team, but perhaps a team that could compete with any team, even and including any team in the NBA. (In retrospect this is yet another example of the ABA being years and years ahead of it’s time as it relates to how players team up in the NBA now to former super teams.)
Said Doug Moe of the trade: “When Oakland traded for me and Larry and only gave up Steve Jones, this had to be the most lopsided trade in the history of professional sports, bar none”.
Said Rick Barry of the trade: “We could have played against the best NBA teams and held our own. I could say that from the perspective of a guy who played in both leagues. The only teams that might have given us problems were the few with All-Star centers. We had Ira Harge in the middle and he was a hard-working guy on the boards, but he was only 6-foot-8. Our other key players were NBA caliber”.
Added Barry: “You can’t tell me that Larry Brown couldn’t have been a good NBA point guard. But no one would give him a chance because he was 5-foot-9. The guy was the ideal point guard because he really ran the offense. Doug Moe was a Dave DeBusschere type, only he was better because he could score more. I’m very sincere when I say that you take Moe and DeBusschere in their primes and Moe was a better player”.
Added Moe: “We can talk all we want about how good the Oakland team was and no one will believe us. They just say ‘You guys were in the ABA’ and that’s it, end of discussion. We were better than the (NBA) Warriors, but that’s reality and people don’t like to face reality and give the ABA credit”.
The Oaks did turn out to be as good as projected. They would win 60 games during the regular season and lose just 18 before defeating the Indiana Pacers to win the league championship.
But franchise success was not imminent and, in spite of the Oaks on-court success in Year 2 of the league, problems loomed going into Year 3.
(Next: Volume 9 – Turmoil, More Changes & A Revolutionary Occurrence)