By Neil Beldock
(This is the 1st of what will be a continuing series about the ABA.)
The American Basketball Association (ABA) doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves as being the forerunner to what the current NBA game has evolved into.
Fact of the matter is that the NBA game today looks and is played much more, if not almost identical to the ABA game of the late 1960’s to mid 1970’s.
In many ways the NBA game of that same time period bares little to no resemblance to the NBA game of today.
To say the ABA, a league which lasted from 1967-1976, was years or decades ahead of it’s time, is not setting the time frame correctly.
In fact, the ABA was close to a half-century ahead of it’s time when you consider that the NBA team which most epitomizes the way the ABA game was played, is the Golden State Warriors (circa 2015) who’s style is now dictating the style of not only the NBA game, but every level of basketball as well.
When the ABA was formed the concept was to provide an alternative to the NBA game. An alternative which set out to offer a more exciting, wide-open, free-wheeling and fan pleasing game.
Replete with a red, white & blue basketball, cheerleaders (some in bikinis) and a three-point shooting line, though in a constant struggle to survive, the ABA was redefining basketball as an entertainment medium.
The ABA game was a faster, more up-tempo and more wide open game than the NBA game of the same time period. Players were encouraged to be flamboyant and the ABA, as a league is unparalleled for it’s players having large and flowing afro’s.
Some of the greatest NBA players of all-time got their start in the ABA. The list includes Julius Erving, George Gervin, Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, George McGinnis, Maurice Lucas, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and Spencer Haywood.
The ABA also housed some of the greatest “characters” to ever step on a basketball court, players such as Marvin Barnes, James “Fly” Williams and Wendell Ladner.
The ABA gave us the Brooklyn (New York) Nets, the Indiana Pacers, the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs, all original ABA franchises.
The ABA gave us the first-ever dunk from the foul line (Julius Erving) in the first-ever Slam Dunk Contest.
And the basketball played in the ABA was not only good or very good, it was truly exceptional.
Hubie Brown, who coached the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, and the Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA, and is now an NBA broadcaster had this to say about the ABA:
“I go around the country giving basketball clinics and people ask me about the best team I ever coached. I say, ‘It’s not even close – the 1975 Kentucky Colonels (of the ABA)’. We were ahead of the NBA in so many ways. We had the 3-point play. The NBA said it was a gimmick; now it’s one of the most exciting parts of the pro game. We used pressing and trapping defenses, something you never saw in the NBA. We had All-Star Weekends, Slam Dunk Contests. About everything we did in the ABA they do now in the NBA except they didn’t take our red, white and blue ball.”.
Said Hall-of-Fame NBA player & coach Billy Cunningham: “I played in both leagues and I can say without a doubt that the ABA had a huge impact on the NBA. The ABA players and coaches forced a faster pace to the game, they pushed the ball up the court, they created a more exciting brand of basketball, the kind of basketball you see in most of the NBA today.”.
Said Players Agent & Attorney Ron Grinker: “The difference between the two leagues (ABA & NBA) is this; The standard of excellence in the NBA was the Boston Celtics, who were the masters of fundamental basketball. They played right out of the text book. The ABA was Julius Erving. It was glitzy, get the ball out and lets run and jump and play above the rim and we’ll make things up as we go along. The NBA was a symphony, it was scripted. The ABA was jazz.”.
And this from Julius “Dr. J” Erving: “In some ways we were a maverick league, but so what? What was wrong with a red, white and blue ball? What was wrong with the 3-point shot or creating a faster tempo? What’s wrong with a little experimentation and encouraging an individual to excel in a team sport? The guys were playing to win, but also playing for fun and playing to entertain, pretty much how it is in the NBA now. Listen, the ABA gave the NBA a wake-up call. We were the first league that really knew how to promote it’s team’s stars. What the NBA now does (with it’s players) is what the ABA was doing (with it’s players). In my mind, the NBA has just become a bigger version of the ABA. They play the style of game that we did.”.
If you consider yourself a true basketball fan, an intelligent basketball fan, a basketball fan with a deep appreciation for the history of the game, then understanding how the ABA influenced, essentially created the blueprint for the NBA game of today is must-have knowledge.
(Next in the series Remembering The ABA: Volume 2 – The Formation Of A League)