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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...ABA RECOLLECTIONS & NBA EAST UPDATE
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


As the 2013-14 NBA season swings into the clubhouse turn, there are a handful of hard-to-ignore developments, mostly in the Eastern Conference, that demand a bit more attention. And we'll get to those updates in a moment.

In the meantime, however, every so often on these pages and those of TGS Football, we like to assume the role of reviewer if a certain book merits attention, as we are for this issue. While our featured book has been around for a good while, it remains as good of a read as it was when first published over 20 years ago.

And it remains a must for any pro basketball fan.

More specifically, we're talking about the singular printed source for everything ABA. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, authored by Terry Pluto, remains the definitive work on the history of the ABA. And though the ABA has faded out of the consciousness of most modern-day basketball fans, the inside story of its existence, as so expertly constructed by Pluto, remains compelling reading to this day.

We at TGS admit to having a bit more appreciation than most for the ABA simply because we are old enough to remember the league, which involved a lot more than Julius Erving. Although Dr. J.'s exploits remain among the most enduring memories of the ABA, the league proved a forerunner to the modern game, and in fact would influence the course of basketball history in ways that even its founders in the late '60s couldn't have envisioned.

When we talk to modern-day hoops fans (at least those who are aware of the old league) and mention that we we actually saw ABA games in person, we get the same looks that some long-ago citizens might have received when telling someone that they witnessed the Gettysburg Address. "You really saw an ABA game!," recently said one acquaintance to us who had only heard of the mythical stories of the old league, with its red-white-and-blue ball, long three-point shots, 30-second (as opposed to 24-second) shot clock, slam dunks, and wild hairdos, all combined into an irresistible entertainment package.

This writer has several ABA memories, including one disappointing one as a high school senior in what would be the final season (1975-76) of the league's existence. Along with several high school basketball teammates, and just prior to the beginning of our own season, we were planning to skip the normal Friday night high school football ritual and instead take an excursion from Long Beach, California down to San Diego, where we were looking forward at the chance that night to watch the aforementioned Dr. J. and his New York Nets face the San Diego Sails, the successor team to the infamous Conquistadors (who have their own colorful chapter in ABA history, coached as they were at one time by none other than Wilt Chamberlain). A couple of days prior to the game, however, came word that the Sails had folded, so there would be no trip down the coast to the San Diego Sports Arena, where UCLA had beaten Kentucky for the NCAA title a bit more than seven months earlier.

In the decades since, whenever the chance arises to talk to someone who either played or coached in the ABA, or knew of someone who did play in the league, we have always made sure to make some extra time. Being old enough to vividly recall the league makes such discussions a pleasure, but even if we didn't have first-hand knowledge of the ABA, we'd probably still find the tales fascinating.

Pluto's Loose Balls, however, satisfies all of the curiosity we could ever have about the old ABA. Including recollections of that final season of 1975-76, which was perhaps the most difficult of all in ABA annals and preceded the end of the league, with four of the remaining franchises (San Antonio, Indiana, Denver, and the Nets, who would continue to play in the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and keep their New York name in the 1976-77 campaign, though doing so without Dr. J., traded to the Sixers at the beginning of the campaign; the Nets would relocate back across the Hudson River to New Jersey, from where the franchise originated in the 1967-68 season, and Rutgers' RAC in Piscataway) absorbed into the NBA.

Although, as chronicled by Pluto, one of the enduring tales of that NBA "merger" was the disposition of the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis, a remarkable tale in its own right that continues to have repercussions in the modern-day NBA. As opposed to Kentucky Colonels owner John Y. Brown, who accepted an all-cash settlement of $3.3 million to disband his team (with players to be made available to the rest of the league in a dispersal draft), the Silna brothers, Ozzie and Daniel, owners of the Spirits, also disbanded their team but decided to accept a lesser up-front payment and a partial share of future NBA TV revenues as part of their buyout package from the NBA. Still in force today, that bit of forward thinking has turned out to be perhaps the greatest business deal in pro sports history, as the Silna's share of the revenues have increased consistently over the past 37 years, to the tune of more than $300 million...and still counting!

Pluto's book is presented in an easy-to-read, timeline fashion with each season, from the original 1967-68 campaign, all of the way through the difficult and final 1975-76 season, chronicled extensively. Moreover, it is told almost entirely in the words of those who played, coached, managed, wrote, or otherwise covered the league in its wild nine-year run.

Rules-wise, the real innovation of the ABA was the introduction of the three-point shot. Or, shall we say, the reintroduction of the three-ball, which had also been utilized in the predecessor ABL (American Basketball League) in the early '60s. The old Eastern Professional Basketball League also used the 3-point line during its lone 1963-1964 season.

Mostly, the three-pointer was considered a gimmick when reintroduced for the ABA, which original commissioner George Mikan (yes, that George Mikan) believed would re-involve the "little man" in the game. But since players of the day had not grown up with a three-point line, only a handful of long-range gunners fully exploited the rule at the outset. In fact, ABA teams averaged only five triple attempts per game in the inaugural 1967-68 season, although a handful of teams made better use of it. Such as the Kentucky Colonels, who utilized the long-range shooting skills of guards Louie Dampier (a teammate of Pat Riley's on Adolph Rupp's Kentucky teams in the mid 1960s) and Daryl Carrier to strike fear into the hearts of ABA foes.

Pluto, however, made sure to acknowledge some of the truly unique ABA players and personalities. Regarding the three-pointer, Pluto saved space for recollections of Anaheim Amigos G Les Selvage, who alone took more three-pointers than all but one other other ABA team (the Pittsburgh Pipers) attempted in that initial season of 1967-68. When the dust settled, Selvage had attempted a staggering 461 triples, connecting on 32% beyond the arc.

Selvage's story was not especially unique for the league during that inaugural season, as he was one of many players who took a circuitous route to pro basketball. As Pluto noted, Selvage attended Kirksville (Mo.) State, where he broke all of Harry Gallatin's records, then moved to Los Angeles, where he played some AAU ball and with the Phi Beta Sigs of the Interfraternity Negro League. He then worked as a shipping clerk at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, got married and had two sons. The Amigos found him bombing in the long ones in the Interfraternity League and signed him up straightaway.

Eventually, the Colonels' Dampier would attempt more triples in following seasons than did Selvage in that 1967-68 campaign, but Selvage's style created quite an impression. "He acted like if he stepped over it (the three-point line," said former Denver Rockets, Floridians, and San Antonio Spurs HC Bob Bass, "he was going to get killed or something.

"He didn't just shoot 25-footers, he shot 30-footers. And he did it at any time of the game. He'd be on the wing on a fast break, stop a good step behind the three-point line, and just cut loose.

"Against us at the Denver Coliseum, he got on a roll and hit six three-pointers in the third quarter. By the end of that game, we were running four guys at him, begging him to take a layup, but he just kept shooting from farther and father out."
Selvage would eventually take a hard-to-believe 26 triples in that game and make ten of those long-range bombs!

(During our own research for book project Ramblers vs. Bearcats, we interviewed former Loyola-Chicago star G Jerry Harkness and had to ask about his days with the Indiana Pacers, and in particular a three-pointer of note, the 90-foot shot early in that 1967-68 debut season that still stands as a pro basketball record. It also won a game at the buzzer for the Pacers against the Dallas Chaparrals. Harkness described the long heave of 90 feet when we spoke. "I got a short pass from Oliver Darden right about at the baseline and just whirled and flung it blindly as far as I could, almost like a discus throw," said Harkness. "Darned if it didn't go in." Harkness confirmed that, for a moment, everyone by habit believed the miracle bucket was a 2-point shot and had merely forced an overtime period, until the referees reminded all that it was indeed a three-pointer according to league rule, which was still a new concept at the time. So Harkness' miracle shot had not only gone in, but also had given the Pacers a one-point win that his HC Larry Staverman didn't even see as he was barging toward the locker room after he believed Dallas F John Beasley's shot had won the game for the opposing Chaparrals with 2 seconds to play.)

The tale of three-point marksmen and Les Selvage are only a few of the many recounted by Pluto, who also devotes space to the many long-forgotten teams of the league such as Selvage's Amigos, the Houston Mavericks, New Jersey Americans (forerunner to the present-day Brooklyn Nets), Pittsburgh Pipers, Minnesota Muskies, Oakland Oaks, Washington Caps, Floridians...name the team, and Pluto has made sure to include several passages of interest.

As could be imagined, there were plenty of intriguing and colorful personalities involved with the league, including none other than entertainer Pat Boone, a partial owner of the Oakland Oaks, a team that made quite a splash at the outset of the ABA's existence when signing All-Star F Rick Barry away from the cross-bay San Francisco Warriors. To entice Barry, the Oaks hired Barry's father-in-law, Bruce Hale, as their original coach. But the Warriors sued, and Barry was prevented from playing for the Oaks in the 1967-68 campaign, sitting out the entire season, before making his ABA debut the following year. Those 1968-69 Oaks, coached by Alex Hannum, who had won the NBA title with Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers in 1966-67, would take the ABA by storm in its second season, with Barry joined by an interesting collection of teammates that included none other than Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown), Doug Moe, and a Wichita State rookie named Warren Armstrong (later to become Warren Jabali), featured in a TGS piece last March, who played a power forward spot at all of 6'2 but nonetheless scared the daylights out of opponents with his attitude, physical prowess, and flying slam dunks that could match anything that future stars such as David Thompson or Michael Jordan would ever produce.

The Oaks would average a staggering 126 points, although they did so with Barry (who scored a whopping 34 ppg) available for only the first half of the season. Barry blew out his knee in a collision with the Nets' Ken Wilburn in a game at the old and drafty "ice box" Commack Arena on Long Island (the Nets had moved from the old Teaneck Armory in New Jersey, dropped the name Americans, and had adopted the new name of Nets, for the 1968-69 season). Oakland would eventually win the title without Barry, as Moe, Armstrong, Brown, ex-BYU C Jim Eakins and ex-Ohio State C Gary Bradds would lead Hannum's team past Slick Leonard's Pacers, 4-1, in the finals.

The list of characters (which would include Connie Hawkins, who found a home in the ABA after being banned from the NBA due to a college point-shaving scandal in which he was not involved, wronged by the legal system of the day) is too extensive to cover in the space allotted. Another of Pluto's contributors to Loose Balls was none other than Bob Costas, whose first significant announcing gig out of Syracuse was his work in his mid 20s as play-by-play announcer for Ozzie and Daniel Silna's Spirits of St. Louis.

Pluto also goes in depth to recount the legendary slam-dunk contest at the 1976 All-Star Game in Denver, when the Dr. J. legend would be further established in a stirring showdown with David Thompson, George Gervin, Marvin Barnes and others. It set the template for a similar contest that would be adopted by the NBA and become a centerpiece of its future All-Star weekends.

For us, however, we were also entertained greatly by the recollections of Pluto's commentators regarding some of the most intimidating players in the league in a chapter appropriately entitled "The Meanest Men in the ABA." Prominently featured were the aforementioned Warren (Armstrong) Jabali and John Brisker, a menacing scoring machine out of the University of Toledo who was an All-Star for the Pittsburgh Condors but also perhaps the meanest player in ABA history...which is saying a lot.

Legendary Van Vance, for years the University of Louisville's play-by-play announcer who also filled the same role for the ABA Colonels, related his favorite Brisker tale to Pluto.

"I was at the 1971 All-Star Game and after it was over, I saw Brisker walking through the stands.

"I said 'John, who are you looking for?'

"He said, '(Commissioner) Jack Dolph.'

"I said, 'Why do you want to see the commissioner?'

"He said, 'I want my All-Star money right now.'

"Dolph came by just then and Brisker said, 'I want my $300.'

"Dolph started to say something and Brisker repeated, 'I played in the game. I get $300 for being in the game. I want my $300.'

"Brisker had that look about him. So Dolph just took out his wallet, peeled off three $100 bills, and handed them over to Brisker."


Brisker was always looking for trouble. Former All-Star G Steve "Snapper" Jones (also a longtime TV announcer) related to Pluto a brief tale about Brisker's reaction to another tough guy and Jones' teammate with the 1970-71 Memphis Pros, Wendell Ladner. Brisker had heard of Ladner's reputation and wanted to know more about the big rookie before facing him for the first time.

"Before the game, Brisker said to me, "I hear you've got this tough white kid on your team,' said Jones.

"That was how good the ABA grapevine was. Wendell was in the league for only two games and already the word was out on him.

"I told Brisker, 'Ladner can fight. I wouldn't mess with him.' Brisker told me, 'Well, we'll find out tonight.'"

"Once Brisker got his 30 points, he decided it was time to go after Wendell. John threw an elbow at Ladner, who didn't pay any attention to it and just ran down to the other end of the court. The next time down the court, Brisker threw another elbow, and Ladner went crazy. It became more like two bulls trying to gore each other than a basketball fight.

"In their next game, they got into a fight at the jump ball to start the game."


Former Dallas coach Tom Nissalke admitted to a bounty being placed on Brisker. "I wanted to do something dramatic to end our losing streak," said Nissalke. "Brisker had been just kicking us all year. I mean beating the hell out of us. So I told the team, 'The first guy in this room who decks Brisker will get $500'

"Lenny Chappell said, 'How about starting me?' I normally didn't start Lenny, but if he wanted to go out there and get a piece of Brisker, that was fine with me. I figured that Brisker would go up for a layup or a rebound and Lenny would nail him.

"But as the ball went up for the opening jump, and everybody was looking at the ball, Chappell just flattened Brisker. After the game, I gave Chappell his $500 and we won the game.

"From that point on, there was a $500 bounty on Brisker's head. If he ever started up talking or shoving somebody, the first player on my team to deck him would get $500."


Even Brisker, however, granted a wide berth to the menacing Jabali. Rudy Martzke, then the PR director for the Floridians, related to Pluto why HC Bob Bass wanted to bring Jabali to the team in 1971.

"When we got Jabali, " said Martzke, "I asked Bob Bass why he went out and did it. Bass said, 'Because all we had to give up was a second-rounder to Indiana for him.'

"I said, 'Bob, I know he's good. I know we almost got him for nothing, but you know what kind of guy he is.'

"Bass said, 'We got a bunch of weaklings on this team and we need a guy who'll stand up to Brisker. Brisker is always picking on our guys, and I'm sick of it. Brisker doesn't mess with Jabali.'"


Nobody did. Even teammates were petrified of Jabali. According to Dan Issel, Jabali, even late in his career, put the fear of God into into his Colonels' teammates after being traded to Kentucky. "Our whole team was scared to death of the guy because he was so mean," said Issel. "We were in the dressing room once and we had a black rookie on our team. Warren noticed that the kid was wearing cotton underwear. Jabali reached over and literally ripped the shorts right off the kid. Warren said, 'Don't you know that our ancestors had to pick this cotton? Get yourself some slick drawers!'"

Loose Balls is still available in the occasional bookstore; if not, it can also still be purchased online at amazon.com. We highly recommend it!

Meanwhile, as mentioned, a few notes on the NBA Eastern Conference, where heading into the weekend only two teams (Miami and Indiana) had posted better than .500 straight-up records. In fact, rebuilding Boston, with an 8-12 record, led the Atlantic Division as of Thursday; collectively, we cannot recall a conference looking as suspect as does the East.

As TNT's Charles Barkley said recently on one of the Thursday night telecasts, "Let's get to Miami and Indiana as soon as we can."

No arguments here, but before we skip to the expected East Finals, let's take a look at a handful of squads that have been particularly disappointing as we head into mid-December.

Brooklyn Nets...Thus far, the Jason Kidd-as-head-coach experiment is looking like a disaster, although injuries have not much helped the Nets. Veteran Boston offseason acquisitions Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry all had worn a lot of tread off of their tires, and Pierce (hand) and Terry (knee) are both on the shelf until further notice. Center Brook Lopez has missed seven games. More importantly, team catalyst Deron Williams has been in and out of the lineup with ankle problems and is not expected to return to action soon after recently re-aggravating his injury. As for Kidd, he has just banished assistant Lawrence Frank, who was expected to be a valued aide as Kidd learned the ropes of NBA coaching, to a reduced role and off of the bench during the games. It looks like this situation is getting worse before it is going to get any better at Barclays Center. At 5-13 thru December 4, Brooklyn is showing little indication that it is going to pull together anytime soon.

Cleveland Cavaliers...A brief rally in the past week suggests that maybe the Cavs are pulling out of their lurch. Although the only other good news is that the East is so watered down that even after a 6-12 start, the Cavs have a chance to get into the playoff mix. But sitting at just 6-12 in what was supposed to be a playoff season, it's no wonder Cleveland is already involved in trade speculation. Trade rumors are flying involving G Dion Waiters, the fourth pick in the 2012 Draft but reportedly involved in a dust-up with backcourt mate Kyrie Irving not long ago. Waiters has been recently benched by the team and his future in Cleveland, especially alongside Irving, looks bleak. The 76ers, Knicks and Bulls have been listed as possible suitors. Number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett out of UNLV has also been a disappointment, and vet FA C Andrew Bynum has not made many positive contributions, either. Old/new HC Mike Brown already has his hands full, and the apparent internal dysfunctions could impact those LeBron-back-to-Cleveland rumors, which are becoming bit less audible as the Cavs unravel and make it more unlikely that James might want to return to home territory when he can opt out of his contract after this season.

New York Knicks...Perhaps an even bigger disappointment than the Nets, the Knicks stood at just 3-13 SU heading into last Thursday's "showdown" vs. Brooklyn at Barclays Center. New York has an injury excuse, too, as it lost C Tyson Chandler to a broken leg in the fourth game, taking away its most valuable defensive player. Without a rim protector in reserve, HC Mike Woodson has been forced to make all sorts of defensive adjustments, but to no avail, to the point where his job is now considered to be in serious jeopardy. The Knicks took a nine-game losing streak, their longest in eight years, into the Thursday game against the Nets. Guard J.R. Smith, suspended for the first five games of the season, was promoted to the starting lineup but has been bothered lately by knee issues and seemed to be shooting himself back onto the bench, and PG Ray Felton has missed action as well. Carmelo Anthony was wildly successful as a power forward last season; he has started at small forward eight times already, despite the Knicks having a totally dilapidated frontline. Recent nights have seemed to be straight out of the Isiah Thomas era, with bizarre story lines, bad basketball, and unrest coming from the stands. There have been continued trade rumors surrounding Iman Shumpert and louder and more frequent "Fire Woodson!" chants in MSG.

Stay tuned.


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