Posted Jan 2 2012 1:31PM
As trying as times are at the moment in the NBA, they pale next to the crisis faced by the old American Basketball Association in the summer of 1976.
Franchises were hemorrhaging red ink. Attendance was in freefall. The San Diego Sails and the Utah Stars ceased operations 11 and 16 games, respectively, into the 1975-76 season. That left only seven teams -- and then the Virginia Squires failed to pay a $75,000 league assessment and went under, too.
As sports broadcaster Bob Costas told author Terry Pluto in "Loose Balls," his terrific oral history of pro basketball's wild, rebel league, "By the end of the ABA, there were only five viable franchises -- Denver, New York, Indiana, Kentucky and San Antonio. The St. Louis owners had money, but were lucky to draw 2,000 a game. Virginia was in shambles. The league was finished and everyone knew it."
There had been rumblings of a "merger" for some time -- the NBA preferred the term "expansion" in what might be an absorption of ABA teams -- because both leagues were tired. The NBA was worn out from losing players to the alternative league and bidding up the price for college stars, while the ABA was losing steam -- and money, fans and venues -- after nine seasons.
Finally, an agreement was reached: The NBA would admit the Nuggets, Nets, Pacers and Spurs -- the strongest teams in the most desirable markets -- as new members. That left the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis, and those clubs' players, out.
The solution: A dispersal draft held on Aug. 5, 1976.
"I was upset," ex-Colonels center Artis Gilmore said. "I loved playing in Louisville."
Gilmore, the first ABA player to be put in motion, had no say in the matter. Just one year after winning the ABA championship, the Colonels were dead -- owner John Y. Brown negotiated a $3 million settlement for folding his franchise (then turned around and bought the Buffalo Braves for $1.5 million, getting into the NBA after all). Gilmore, the 7-foot-2 center who was seen as the ABA's answer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was targeted in the merger agreement by the Chicago Bulls, who had drafted (but failed to sign) him back in 1971.
Each ABA player was assigned a price for signing rights, with the funds used to pay off debts from the soon-to-be-defunct league. Gilmore's price tag: $1.1 million. St. Louis' Marvin Barnes was valued at $500,000, followed by Moses Malone ($350,000) and Maurice Lucas ($300,000), with others scaling down to $15,000.
Both NBA and ABA teams were permitted to participate, but 12 of the 22 clubs chose not to (Atlanta traded the No. 2 pick to Portland for Geoff Petrie and Steve Hawes, while Milwaukee swapped the seventh pick to Buffalo for a second-rounder in the 1977 Draft). Only the Kansas City Kings made a "second-round" pick in the dispersal draft, which meant that a number of eligible players -- including current New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni -- were not selected.
Like a lot of drafts, this one was top-heavy. Gilmore continued as a double-double machine in the NBA and, while he never dominated the way he had in the ABA or won another title, he played 12 more seasons, was a six-time All-Star and next week, finally, will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Portland used the No. 2 pick to grab Lucas and, three spots later, chose Malone. But the Blazers, with Bill Walton at center, traded the 21-year-old Malone to Buffalo in October for a 1978 first-round pick that would become Mychal Thompson. A week later, the Braves sent Malone to Houston for two future first-rounders.
Portland was fine short-term, using Lucas, Walton and a strong supporting cast to beat Philadelphia in the 1977 Finals for its lone NBA title. Malone, though, became a three-time MVP, a 12-time All-Star and was named Finals MVP when he and fellow ABA refugee Julius Erving led the 76ers to the 1983 championship. When he retired at 40 after the 1994-95 season, Malone was the last ABA veteran standing.
Kansas City took Ron Boone with the third pick, Detroit selected headache-inducing Barnes fourth and, with Malone off the board, the New York Knicks chose Randy Denton. The 6-foot-10 Denton averaged 12.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in 368 ABA games, but managed just 5.3 and 4.8 in 45 games for Atlanta after the Knicks swapped him for a 1977 pick.
Boone, an iron man for seven ABA seasons, was durable in the NBA, too. He played 379 games for the Kings, Lakers and Jazz, averaging 13.9 points and 3.4 assists and lasting until age 34. The gifted-but-troubled Barnes was not reliable. On talent alone, he averaged 15.2 points and 9.2 rebounds in the NBA, but his antics washed him out at 27 after brief stints with four teams.
The other six players selected in the draft combined to make 1,028 NBA appearances and averaged 6.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Ron (The Plumber) Thomas, a 25-year-old Louisville product picked ninth by Houston, never played in the NBA.
The ABA's impact went far beyond the dispersed draft. According to Pluto, of the 84 active ABA players at the time of the merger, 63 appeared in NBA games in 1976-77. Four of the league's top 10 scorers that season had ABA roots (Billy Knight, David Thompson, Dan Issel, George Gervin). Malone and Gilmore ranked in the top five in rebounding and Pacers guard Don Buse led the NBA in both steals and assists.
Ten of the 24 players in the 1977 All-Star Game in Milwaukee had played in the ABA, with Erving scoring 30 points and winning the MVP. Denver (50-32) won the Midwest Division as NBA newbies and San Antonio (44-38) crashed the playoff party, too. Plus, the Spurs (115.0 ppg) and Nuggets (112.6) featured the league's highest scoring attacks.
And when Portland and Philadelphia opened the 1977 Finals, half of the 10 starters were ABA exiles.
"At first, the NBA players were very skeptical about us," Denver's Issel told Pluto years later. "We had to prove that we belonged, but we did that. The only thing I wished was that there were more survivors from the ABA, instead of just four teams getting in."
Four teams plus the dispersed dozen.
Actually, Erving was dispersed that summer as well when the Nets -- burdened by $4.8 million in territorial fees owed to the Knicks on top of their $3.2 million NBA entry fee -- moved him for cash. They initially offered him to New York in exchange for dropping the $480,000 annual indemnity charge but the Knicks said no. So Erving's rights were sold to Philadelphia for $3 million.
Erving, 26, went from spectacular in the ABA to sublime in the NBA. He was the 1981 MVP, made it to 11 All-Star Games and was a first- or second-team All-NBA pick seven times. His 30,026 ABA/NBA combined points rank fifth and his 2,272 steals rank seventh. Erving became an ambassador of the game, retired in 1987 and, in his first year of eligibility, went into the Hall of Fame in 1993. He will present Gilmore this summer.
Gilmore was voted in through a new ABA committee that eventually could honor the likes of Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and others. But the line between the leagues has been blurred for a long time -- and the more established side was better off for it.
"During that time in the NBA," Gilmore said, "their stars were beginning to age, their great players. So when the leagues were just about to merge, it was the great young stars in the ABA who were able to dominate and take control."
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