If you ask basketball fans and aficionados what they remember about the ABA, some may talk about the ABA being where Julius “Dr. J” Erving started his illustrious career. Some may point to the ABA having the first ever slam dunk contest. And some may even mention the number of huge afro’s the league had on display.
But for many, and certainly those who can remember the early days of the ABA, the first and most enduring image of the ABA was the Red, White & Blue basketball.
As the league was commencing, with marketing being identified as a key element in capturing the attention of basketball fans, it was the idea of playing with a tri-colored ball which caught mass-media attention. And to this day, the red, white & blue basketball is still the most enduring symbol of the league.
But at the outset, not everyone was sold or supportive of the idea of playing basketball and catapulting a league with a ball which, as described by former NBA & ABA coaching legend Alex Hannum, “belonged on the nose of a seal”.
But Commissioner George Mikan insisted upon implementing the tri-colored basketball. Said Mikan about the red, white & blue ball: “The ABA had a red, white and blue ball because I said it would have one. We wanted our own identity, and the ball is a symbol of basketball.”.
Mikan had supporters of the idea at the most influential levels of the league. Said league founder Dennis Murphy: “In our first meeting with George (Mikan) to seriously discuss what the ABA should do, he brought up the colored ball. I loved it. I saw it as an incredible gimmick, something so easy to promote.”.
And there were those who may not have been totally on board with the idea, but recognized and understood how critical Mikan was as Commissioner of the league, and if Mikan wanted it, acquiescing would be necessary if maintaining Mikan was indeed important.
Said Bob Bass, who coached several ABA teams before becoming General Manager of the San Antonio Spurs: “While George (Mikan) never said it, you had a feeling he wouldn’t have stayed as commissioner unless we approved the colored ball.”.
And there were those who’s initial skepticism reversed course and became ardent supporters of the concept of a colorful basketball.
Said former ABA league executive Mike Storen: “At first I argued vehemently against the ball. I thought it would make us look like buffoons. But once we adopted it, the benefits of the ball became clear to me. This was a great marketing tool. In Indiana, one of our first and most successful promotions was with Standard Oil and we gave away a half-million of those basketballs. Kids just loved them. We did a test where we put a bunch of 9 year olds in a sporting goods store and told them they could either have the brown ball or the ABA ball. Every kid picked the ABA ball. I mean every single one. And I’m talking about hundreds of kids!”.
Even Alex Hannum came around: “I was coaching in the NBA at the time and it looked like a beach ball to me. But when I went to Oakland and then Denver (of the ABA) and had a chance to coach with it, I liked the ball. It was a good ball to teach shooting with because it (the colors) made it easy to see the rotation.”
There was no turning back. Basketball in the ABA would be played with a tri-colored, red, white and blue basketball.
But even for the players, the idea of playing basketball with a tri-colored basketball had mixed reactions.
Said ABA superstar Mel Daniels: “When I signed with the Minnesota Mustangs I had no idea that they were going to use a red, white and blue basketball in the ABA. Then I showed up for training camp and there they were using the red, white and blue ball. I said ‘what the hell is that?’ I couldn’t believe it.”.
But before long, players began to come around to the idea of playing with a red, white and blue basketball, and actually started to embrace the tri-colored basketball.
Said former ABA player and NBA coach Gene Littles: “What I liked about the ABA ball was the color. It was a special feeling to take a long shot and watch those colors rotate in the air and then see the ball with all those colors nestle into the net. It made your heart beat just a little bit faster.”.
Said former ABA and NBA player and coach Dave Twardzik: “As a shooter, what I liked about the ABA ball was when you hit a jumper and the ball would take that last little spin while in the net. You’d see those colors turn…..It was just neat.”.
And this from former New York Nets and current New York Yankees broadcaster John Sterling: “When I broadcast the New York Nets games, some people gave me flak about the ball – they were Knicks fans. But the thing about the ball was that it made the game much easier to watch for the novice fan. That’s why kids were attracted to it. The colors were almost mesmerizing.”.
Some players even found a way to utilize the colors of the ball to the benefit of their game.
Said former Indiana Pacer and ABA great Roger Brown: “I developed a one-on-one move that was strictly for the ABA. It had to do with the red, white and blue ball. When you watched that thing spin in the air, there was something mesmerizing about the colors. So I’d get the ball and sort of spin it before I made my move. Some defenders’ eyes went right to the ball, to the colors spinning. It was hypnotic, and that one second that they stared at the ball was enough for me to get by them.”.
So the ABA was on it’s way with what many feel was one of the most ingenious and revolutionary in-game marketing tools of all time; A tri-colored, red, white and blue basketball. But the ABA was not done revolutionizing basketball quite yet…….
(Next in the series “Remembering the ABA: Volume 4 – The 3-Point Shot)