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The 1960s: From Americans to Nets

The franchise makes its debut in the ABA in 1967

The first season in Nets franchise history started with Yogi Berra tossing up a red, white and blue ball at an old armory in New Jersey and ended with a forfeit on Long Island.

Yogi and the basketball were part of the plan. The Teaneck Armory, the forfeited game and a lot of other things that happened in between? Not so much.

The 1967-68 season tipped off a nine-year journey in the ABA before the franchise became one of four teams accepted into the NBA. Over the final few years of the ABA, the New York Nets became one of the league’s most stable franchises, a signature team led by Julius Erving.

But in the first few years in the 1960s, the franchise had the same shifting foundation and uncertain future as the rest of the teams in the upstart league. Over its first three seasons, the franchise had two owners, three home courts and 50 different players.

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The story starts with the home court they never got to play on. Trucking magnate Arthur J. Brown was running an AAU team called the ABC Freighters when the ABA launched. Brown took the New York franchise in the new league, and hired his ABC Freighters coach, former St. John’s and NBA star Max Zaslofsky, as coach. But when a plan to play at Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory fell through, Brown had to take his team — now the New Jersey Americans — to play at the Teaneck Armory.

The inaugural season tipped off on Oct. 23, 1967, with a 110-107 loss to the Pittsburgh Pipers. The roster included former St. John’s stars Tony Jackson and Bob McIntyre and Rutgers’ Bobby Lloyd. Dan Anderson, out of tiny Augsburg College, scored 41 points in the first game. There was also Art Heyman, a former college player of the year at Duke who had lasted a few seasons in the NBA. Levern “Jelly” Tart was a fan favorite who was acquired at midseason and played parts of the first four seasons with the Nets.

“The ABA really started with mostly Eastern League players,” said Herb Turetzky, who has been the team’s official scorer for 50 years, since that very first game. “They were second-chance guys who were thrilled to get a chance to play. They were playing in the Eastern League, $50, $100 a game. Now if they were lucky they might get twice that … if the checks would clear. But they had a chance to play.”

Jackson was the team’s leading scorer in the first season, averaging 19.4 points per game. A two-time All-American at St. John’s out of Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson HS, Jackson’s association with early-60s gambling scandals had kept him out of the NBA, much like ABA stars Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown.

“He could shoot it from as deep as you could do it,” said Turetzky. “His release on his jump shot, he was off the ground about three feet before he let it go. And squared to the basket every time. He wasn’t much of a driver to the basket; he didn’t like getting hit. But Tony could shoot the ball. I’ve seen very few. Ray Allen, and now Steph Curry. Beyond that I’ve never seen anyone who was as good a jump shooter.”

Over that first season, players raced each other to the showers before the hot water ran out, Lloyd and Zaslofsky fought after a game, Turetzky found himself in a mini-controversy when he accidentally shorted the Minnesota Muskies a point that Zaslofsky told him not to correct when he discovered his error, and Heyman once casually paused during a game to flip off spectator Joe Namath, his partner in the Manhattan bar Bachelors III who had come by to heckle him during the game.

“The stands were basically empty,” said Turetzky. “If we got 500 to 1,000 people each night, it was a good crowd. They were sitting on movable chairs and the bleachers they just put up for each game.”

At the end, the Americans finished 36-42 and tied with the Kentucky Colonels for the fourth and final playoff spot. A tie-breaker game was required, but the Teaneck Armory was booked. Brown set up the game at Long Island’s Commack Arena, but upon arrival the court was unplayable, with holes in the floor. Commissioner George Mikan declared the game a forfeit for Kentucky, and the inaugural season concluded.

Naturally, the team moved to Long Island the following season and made Commack Arena its home court. In the process, Brown changed the team’s name to Nets, rhyming with the Mets and Jets that called Queens’ Shea Stadium home. The Nets cycled through 27 players while finishing 17-61.

Before the 1969-70 season, the Nets acquired point guard Bill Melchionni, who had played for the Philadelphia 76ers 1967 NBA championship team. More significantly, Brown sold the team to Roy Boe, who would own the Nets for the rest of their ABA tenure. Boe moved the team to Island Garden and planned to hire St. John’s Lou Carnesecca as coach. Carnesecca wanted to wait a year, however, so York Larese coached the team to a 39-45 record and its first ABA playoff appearance, a first-round loss to Kentucky.

The Nets were into the 1970s, with a new home and new stars on the horizon.

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