What exactly is the ABA legacy?
Many people may consider the American Basketball Association (ABA) an afterthought. The league did not even last ten years, and financial woes mired its existence. It died an early death, so to speak, so why should modern basketball fans be interested? The answer is pretty simple: Many of the things that make basketball fun and exciting can be traced back to the ABA.
Let’s revisit the old ABA glory days and why its legacy should be given more weight.
The ABA: Renegade League
The ABA was founded in 1967. The years between 1960 and the mid-1970s are especially challenging for professional sports. That was when various upstart leagues competed against the more established professional sports organizations.
Basketball was considered a massive target. Its major league, the National Basketball Association, was the youngest of the Big Four, having only played 21 seasons to that point.
According to one of the Indiana Pacers’ owners, the team’s goal was to negotiate a merger with the more established league. Potential investors were advised that they could acquire an ABA franchise for half the price of acquiring an NBA expansion team at the time. When the merger was announced, ABA officials predicted that their investment would double.
Learning from Professional Football
If anything, the ABA’s existence resulted from a bastard idea. One of the co-founders, Dennis Murphy, failed to create a football team in Anaheim. As a result, he shifted his focus to basketball. The American Football League has successfully negotiated a merger with the NFL, and Murphy thought he could make a merger with the ABA’s endgame.
Murphy and his colleagues had an ideal outcome in mind; the only problem was executing it. The league figured they had to do something out of the norm to set the wheels in motion. And that they did!
First and foremost, the ABA needed to have a product and a pool of talent just for the NBA to even entertain the idea of a merger. The ABA did whatever means necessary to achieve that purpose. It is here that the ABA showed a humanitarian component to its business approach, whether by design or necessity.
An Anti-establishment Approach
It was an outsider league that thought like there was never any box, to begin with. They never shied away from working outside the basketball establishment or defying unwritten rules of order if it served its goal.
Case on point: How did the ABA find talent? ABA officials dug, scraped, and clawed. They discovered a plethora of outstanding players and coaches from the old AAU, Eastern League, and small college circuits. They offered folks a chance who had been effectively blackballed by pro ball.
Roger Brown, Doug Moe, and the legendary Connie Hawkins are among them. They let Spencer Haywood enter the league before his college eligibility expired, coining the loaded phrase “hardship.” Julius Erving did the same.
Haywood’s case served as a gateway for underclassmen to declare for the draft early into the 1980s. They let Moses Malone bypass college and threw the entrenched salary system into disarray with bidding wars for veteran players and bigger and more outrageous contracts. All the while, the ABA was instrumental in ushering in the star culture that enhanced the NBA’s stature in the years to come.
Rules and Gimmicks That the ABA Started
If you have read until this point, you may have already realized that the ABA is no ordinary league. In fact, they introduced several rules, concepts, and “gimmicks” that still exist today.
Here are some:
The ABA ditched the traditional orange basketball and played with a red, white, and blue ball instead. The reason was neither for show nor for the sake of being different. It was specifically ordered by the nearsighted commissioner George Mikan because he could barely see the ball in the dimly lit gymnasiums they played in.
The three-point shot
Can you imagine today’s basketball game without the three-point shot? Thanks to the ABA, the shot called “the biggest equalizer” has existed. This shot made the game more exciting and changed basketball forever.
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Slam Dunk competition
The ABA was all about flamboyance and showmanship. Nothing epitomizes that motto more than the Slam Dunk contest they inaugurated in 1976. The idea was nothing more than a desperate move to attract people. But then again, desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. The competition stuck and is one of the highlights of the All-Star weekend. Speaking of the All-Star Weekend…
Did you know the NBA All-Star game was once played on a ho-hum Tuesday? It was the ABA that made it a weekend extravaganza, with the All-Star game played on a Sunday. It was also the only time open slot for national television, something the ABA couldn’t pass up.
In such difficult, uncertain, and desperate times, the ABA saw its All-Star Game as a chance to promote both its brand and its top players. They held exhibition games as well as fan meet-and-greets. The events included photos, interviews, and autographs leading up to and including the big event.
Colorful logos and jerseys
Back in the day, basketball uniforms were straightforward: Light unis for home teams and dark for visiting squads. The Celtics wore white and green, the Lakers yellow and purple, and so on. It worked, but it was boring and predictable.
The ABA took the uniform game to another level by introducing a variety of dazzling colors. The Spirits of St. Louis debuted in 1974, wearing burnt orange, black, and silver uniforms with a polished, sophisticated emblem that perfectly reflected the league’s charm—brash, confident, and oozing personality.
Other teams like the Pittsburgh Condors, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and the Miami Floridians all sported visually stunning color combinations that never really went out of style.
Early jump to the pros
Until the ABA stirred things up, college basketball players were only eligible to play in their varsity teams after their freshman year. The ABA says, “not a chance.” The league encouraged the top college prospects like Spencer Haywood to forego their eligibility and go pro.
The issue became very controversial that it reached the Supreme Court, which ultimately decided in Haywood’s and the ABA’s favor. Soon, Dr. J followed along with Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone.
Like many players since Malone, nothing can stand in the way of a young prospect’s desire to become a professional athlete, and they can thank the ABA for that.
The ABA outdid its NBA counterpart by thoroughly categorizing and breaking down statistics. The NBA only tracked basic and pedestrian statistics at the time; blocked shots were not even recorded until the 1973-74 season.
The ABA was a different beast when it came to the numbers game. They were the first to differentiate between offensive and defensive rebounding. All facets of the game are being dissected, including scoring, passing, and defense. Minutes played, as well as shooting percentages, were all taken into account. In many ways, the ABA was ahead of its time, serving as one of the ancestors of today’s analytics.
The ABA vs. The NBA Video
Greatest Players in ABA History
The ABA gave us the precursor to run and gun offenses in its nine eccentric seasons. It was entertaining and free-flowing while producing some of the most wildly thrilling basketball players.
These are the top ABA players based on individual accomplishment, importance to team success, sustained excellence, and the eye test:
Dr. J is arguably a top-5 player of all time if his ABA accolades are given enough merit. Erving averaged over 28 points, 12 rebounds, and nearly five assists per game in five ABA seasons before taking his talents to the NBA. He was a five-time All-Star, a three-time MVP, and won two championships in the ABA.
If one player established the ABA legacy, it was Julius Erving.
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Gilmore was considered the ABA’s version of Wilt Chamberlain. He was so physically dominant that he once averaged 18 rebounds and five blocks in separate seasons! Gilmore is the all-time ABA leader in minutes, rebounds, and blocked shots per game, but in a league with so few proven big men, many believe he should have done even more.
In sheer numbers alone, Gilmore was “better” than Daniels, but the latter was viewed as a consistent “winner.” His greatest asset was his rebounding and once averaged over 19 rebounds a game in the playoffs. Daniels was a two-time MVP and a three-time champion in the ABA and only played one forgettable season after the merger.
Rick Barry was known for his ultra-accurate underhand free throws, but make no mistake about it; he was probably the best individual scorer during the 70s. Unlike the other stars on this list, Barry began his pro career in the NBA. He bolted to the rival league after getting at odds with the Warriors owner Frank Mieuli.
In the ABA, Barry did not miss a beat. He never averaged less than 30 points in all ABA playoff series he participated in. Barry once averaged 40 points and 10 rebounds a game for Washington in the 1970 ABA playoffs.
Nicknamed “The Horse,” Issel was a bruiser in the most literal sense of the word. He was primarily one of the first 20-point, 10-rebound guys and remained so even after the merger. Issel also had several records under his belt. He was the ABA’s 2nd All-Time scorer and led the league in scoring in 70-71 with 29.4 ppg. Issel holds the ABA record for most points in a season, with 2,538 in 71-72.
Dampier’s career was unique in a league with more moving parts than a timepiece. The Kentucky graduate was the only player to spend all nine ABA seasons with the same franchise. That means he plays home games in the same venue where he played college ball.
Dampier was best known for being a three-point sniper long before Steph Curry was born and when Reggie Miller was still a toddler. The sharpshooting guard made 500 threes in a three-season stretch from 1968 to 1971.
Thompson played a year in the ABA just before the merger, but boy, did he impress. He was basically Jordan before Jordan, earning the nickname “Skywalker” because of his insane vertical leap. A testament to the talent that he is, Thompson was selected an All-Star in his first season and bagged the MVP honors in the All-Star game.
If Thompson was Jordan before Jordan, McGinnis was LeBron before LeBron. He was a physical freak, standing 6-foot-8 while weighing 240 pounds. The most important thing was that he put all that into good use. Big Mac won two ABA championships and a league MVP in four seasons of work.
Marvin “Bad News” Barnes
Barnes averaged 21.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.9 blocks in 144 ABA games over two seasons. He was arguably the most colorful personality out of all the colorful ABA personalities.
One time, “Bad News” famously missed a team flight to Virginia after a night of partying in New York. He arrived on game day on a private plane, went to the arena, and quipped: “Boys, Game Time is on time!” Barnes ultimately finished with 43 points and 19 rebounds.
Nicknamed “The Iceman,” Gervin’s bag of offensive tricks is as deep as anybody’s. He can make finger rolls, bank shots, and mid-range buckets. He did not really win anything in four ABA seasons, but he transformed the San Antonio Spurs into a well-oiled offensive machine. Gervin’s ABA stats was a “cool” 23.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game.
Hawkins was an above-the-rim artist, a common sight in the ABA. However, aside from his aerial antics, “The Hawk” won the league MVP and championship in 1968, a testament to how good he was as a basketball player. That season he averaged a shade under 27 points, 13.5 rebounds, and almost five assists while playing 44 minutes a night.
The NCAA, NBA, and the ABA played a tug-of-war for Haywood’s services for one big reason: He was that good! In his rookie ABA season, Haywood already led the league in scoring (30 points) and rebounding (19.5 rebounds). He didn’t win a championship in the ABA, but he had the distinction of being the rookie of the year and the league MVP in 1970.
The ABA Legacy
You can call the ABA a product of a bastard idea or a renegade league, but it has shaped modern basketball into what it is today. Can you imagine the NBA without a three-point line, no All-Star weekend, or a Slam Dunk contest?
What about the number geeks who’d always take refuge in analytics to end basketball discussions? We all have the ABA to thank for that. The league may be long gone, but it is the lifeblood that currently flows through the NBA’s veins.
By Jan Rey
Jan is a sucker for all things basketball and still yells, “Kobe!” every time he tosses a crumpled paper into a trash bin.
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