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Remembering the ABA, the upstart league that challenged pro basketball and won

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The ABA began as a renegade league and ended up taking on the NBA, against all odds. Its legacy still lives on 39 years since its end.

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Sport Magazine Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

The American Basketball Association was a bastard idea, a product of a failed attempt to get a football franchise in the fledgling -- and soon to be incorporated -- American Football League. When Dennis Murphy's bid for a team in Anaheim didn't take, he turned his attention to basketball. Murphy reasoned that since there were only a dozen teams in the NBA, surely there must be room for more.

"Why? I don't know. What the hell," Murphy said in Terry Pluto's brilliant and essential oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls. "The AFL had worked, hadn't it? Maybe we could force a merger with the NBA."

That quote summed up the entire enterprise. What the hell may as well have been the league's motto, and forcing a merger was always the ABA's endgame. As it lurched forward in an ever-crooked line, this idiosyncratic league often found itself on the right side of history. It's enduring legacy reaches far beyond the handful of teams and players who eventually made it to the NBA. It is instead rooted in all kinds of aesthetic and social advancements that still hold currency in the modern era.

In stylistic terms, the ABA elevated the dunk to an art form and gave us the three-point line along with a faster pace. Because big men were such a scarce commodity, forwards became centers and everyone took shots. It can be argued that the league's style of play was one of the precursors to the pace-and-space systems that flourish today, and certainly there were innovators on the sidelines like Hubie Brown. The ABA also gave us inspired gimmicks like the slam dunk contest and a steady blitz of promotions and in-game entertainment. Hustle and desperation proved to be fantastic innovators.

To force a merger, the league needed talent. It's here that the ABA tended to have an altruistic side to its business plan, whether by design or necessity is largely beside the point. It was an outsider league that never blanched at working beyond the fringes of the basketball establishment or ignoring the unwritten rules of order if it suited their purpose.

They uncovered loads of talented players and coaches from the old AAU and Eastern League circuits and small colleges. They gave an opportunity to people who had effectively blackballed by pro ball. Among them: Roger Brown, Doug Moe and the great Connie Hawkins. They let Spencer Haywood into the league before his college eligibility had expired, thus coining the loaded phrase, "hardship," that served as entryway for underclassmen to declare early for the draft well into the 80s. They allowed Moses Malone to skip college entirely and threw the entrenched salary system into chaos thanks to bidding wars for established players along with bigger and more outlandish contracts. All the while, the ABA helped usher in the star culture that dominated and elevated the NBA's stature in later years.

A handful of teams flourished, but most failed. The casualties included the long forgotten Baltimore Claws and Anaheim Amigos, as well as the star-crossed Spirits of St. Louis. But the league also made incursions into new territories where the NBA would ultimately set down stakes, like Utah, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Miami and Minnesota. The expansion of the 80s and 90s that brought us the Mavericks, Heat, Hornets and Timberwolves had roots in the old ABA.

The ones that did survive went on to varying degrees of success once the merger finally went through after the 1975-76 season. The San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Denver Nuggets hit the ground running and have remained bedrock small-market franchises. One team that didn't make it to the finish line was the Spirits, but their owners made perhaps the best deal in the history of sports when they dropped their franchise claim for a cut of future television money. (The deal netted them approximately $300 million before a final settlement worth a reported $500 million was reached in 2014.)

The influx of talent reached every team in the league, and part of the price for admission meant that the Nets were forced to sell the league's greatest star -- Julius Erving -- to Philadelphia. It was a deal that took the Nets years to recover from, and ultimately helped propel the 76ers to their second championship.

The central ethos of the ABA was iconoclasm mixed with pragmatic socialism. There were very few rules in the ABA and when they needed one, they simply made it up as they went along. If they needed to get a certain player to a certain team, they made it happen. If they needed a ‘secret draft' to facilitate something else, they had one of those as well. The ABA had lots of secret drafts, which annoyed the hell out of the NBA. That was another point in its favor.

While the arenas (gyms, really) were often second-rate and the contracts were often loaded with outlandish payment schedules, the ABA was at heart a players' league. Consider the Doctor. Julius Erving wasn't exactly an unknown, but playing for the University of Massachusetts in the Yankee Conference at a time when college players weren't allowed to dunk didn't lend itself to a national profile.

Erving wanted to turn pro after his junior year and there was only one league that would have him. Freed to play his game in the ABA, the Doctor was a revelation. Tales of his exploits are legendary to the point of mythology, handed down through the years by those who saw it live, since most of his games weren't on television. If you wanted to see Dr. J, you had to buy a ticket. Erving was cognizant of his role as the league's premier showman and ambassador.

One incident stands out as the central difference between the two leagues. Following his rookie season with the late, lamented Virginia Squires, Erving negotiated a contract with the Atlanta Hawks, as he was now eligible for the NBA. The Bucks took him in the first round of the draft, negating what was probably an illegal contract and nullifying the simplest way to get Erving into the NBA. For their part, the ABA filed a lawsuit and the whole thing wound up in court.

To keep Erving in the ABA, the Squires agreed to send Erving to the New York Nets for a million dollars. The Doctor got the contract he wanted (he even got his money from the Hawks) and the league was saved until the merger could eventually reach fruition. It's not a stretch to suggest that if Erving made it to the Hawks, the league would have gone under and the merger would have never materialized. It was always that tenuous and Dr. J was that important. To the NBA, it was business. To the ABA, it was survival.

The league survives in a handful of books, documentaries, websites and cabal of true believers, but its impact is still felt today long after the Spirits owners collected their final windfall. You can see it on the court, in the stands and between timeouts. It's a part of the league's tortured past that its most visible symbol -- the red, white and blue ball -- didn't make the transition to the NBA along with the players, teams and the three-point line. It still holds a minor place in the game as the bonus shot in the three-point contest. That's fitting in that it's worth extra points in a made-up contest held over All-Star weekend, yet another ABA innovation gone legit.

All ABA FIRST TEAM

Guards: Mack Calvin, George Gervin
Forwards: Julius Erving, George McGinnis
Center: Artis Gilmore

SECOND TEAM

Guards: Ron Boone, Louie Dampier
Forwards: Rick Barry, Roger Brown
Center: Dan Issel

THIRD TEAM

Guards: Freddie Lewis, James Silas
Forwards: Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood
Center: Mel Daniels

A note about selections. I tried to find a balance between games played and impact, which was not always easy. Rick Barry and Connie Hawkins were hugely important historical figures and former MVPs but their time in the ABA was significantly shorter than say, Mack Calvin or Roger Brown. I only wish that I had room for Joe Caldwell, Zelmo Beatty, Bob Netolicky, and the incomparable Wendell Lander, to say nothing of Cincinnatus Powell, Red Robbins and Lavern ‘Jelly' Tart.