Willie Davis came.
If anything summarizes the success and meaning of the 50th ABA Reunion, that should do it.
You probably haven't heard of Davis. Why would you? Davis played in eight games for the Texas Chaparrals during the 1970-71 season, scoring 18 points before history tossed him into the dust bin, a forgettable career ended.
As far as Davis and all the people who attended the reunion were concerned however, he might as well have been Julius Erving. Time is the greatest equalizer, and with each passing year health and memory become greater assets than vertical jumps and shooting touches. Nobody compares stats or won-loss records at reunions.
Well, almost nobody.
The Willie Davises of the ABA mixed freely with the Julius Ervings during the reunion activities sponsored by the Dropping Dimes Foundation over the weekend. There was a private event for former players and their families at the Emmis Communications headquarters on the Circle, an autograph and memorabilia show at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon, and a banquet at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that evening.
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The afternoon session drew an estimated 2,000 fans and the banquet about 800. It was an occasion for fans to put their money where their hearts were, and many did, coming from all corners of the country. Players did, too. One, Stew Johnson, flew in from Sweden.
Figures haven't been tallied but a substantial amount of money should be left for the Foundation, which helps former ABA players with financial needs.
"It's going to be an outstanding fund-raising success, there's no doubt about that," said Scott Tarter, one of the event's organizers. "It will be our greatest fund-raising success to date by far."
One of the beneficiaries of the event's success was a student from Pershing High School in Detroit, who was presented $2,000 as the first winner of the Mel Daniels Scholarship for achievement in athletics, academics and citizenship. Daniels is an alum of that school, as is another former ABA star, Spencer Haywood.
Bob Costas lent star power as the emcee for the banquet, but also served as an example of the humble nature of the ABA. He recorded a lengthy interview with Charlie Clifford of WISH-TV beforehand, but then asked to do it over again because he thought he could express himself better. Clifford obliged him.
Costas also had an unintended humbling moment while introducing a video greeting from Pacers center Myles Turner, a member of the Dropping Dimes board of directors. Costas mistakenly referred to Turner as a member of the "Patriots," before quickly catching himself.
"Of all the verbal slips to make and all the places to make it!" he said. "Now I'm the one who feels deflated."
The banquet's focal point was the Costas-led panel discussion with Naismith Hall of Famers George McGinnis, Haywood, Doug Moe, Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin and Dan Issel, all of whom began their careers in the ABA.
Costas pointed out the mythical quality of the ABA, particularly the early seasons when games were rarely televised. Most of the film of those games has been lost or discarded, leaving minimal evidence of the quality of play. That creates the opportunity for embellishment, but also adds to the dramatic effect. Some ABA players and moments, Costas said, are like the careers of Babe Ruth or Satchel Paige – more written about than seen, and somewhat mysterious.
Memories flowed freely during the conversation. Erving, easily the star attraction of the evening based on the requests for autographs and photos, recalled the sparsely attended home games during his rookie season with the Virginia Squires in 1971-72.
"We didn't play for the approval of the crowd," said Erving, who joined the NBA after two seasons at the University of Massachusetts. "As far as I was concerned, I was playing for the good of the team, trying to get the win. (I thought) we don't have 18,000 people here, but those 800 are going to get a good show."
The Squires divided their home games between four cities that season: Norfolk, Hampton, Richmond and Roanoke. Half of the games were played in Norfolk, Another 15 or so in Richmond, and the rest in Hampton and Roanoke. The team was based in Norfolk and could drive to the games in Hampton and Richmond, but had to fly to its home games in Roanoke on the puddle-jumping airplanes of Piedmont Airlines. Even worse, no direct flights were available, so it had to make connections in other cities to get there.
"The other team had a hard time getting there, too," Erving said. "But that brought about the solidarity. One for all, all for one. We weren't ego-tripping. We just got on the plane and did it."
McGinnis, who was the co-MVP of the ABA with Erving in 1975, recalled more enjoyable flights while playing for the Pacers, featuring card games with coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard.
"He made us play and took our money then he gave it back to us, so we could eat on the road," McGinnis said.
Issel, a member of the Kentucky Colonels, is an example of the flexible nature that enabled the ABA to compete more seriously with the NBA by bending rules when necessary. Issel recalled being drafted by the Dallas Chaparrals out of the University of Kentucky in 1970, but telling the Chaps officer who called him to inform him of the pick that Kentucky was the only ABA franchise he would consider joining.
One week later, his rights mysteriously transferred to the Colonels, who lost to the Pacers in the ABA finals in 1973 but defeated the Pacers for the championship in 1975.
Issel completed his career in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. His head coach for awhile was Larry Brown, whose lead assistant was Doug Moe – both of whom had starred in the ABA. Teams were just beginning to scout upcoming opponents at the time, so Brown sent Moe to scout Utah.
"Larry was really excited because we had never had a scouting report before," Issel recalled. "He called Doug up and said, 'OK Doug, it's time for the scouting report.' And (Doug) said, 'If you can't beat these stiffs, you ought to give up basketball.'"
Barry was one of the ABA's early pillars, jumping to the new league after leading the NBA in scoring (35.6) in the 1976-77 season. Barry had to sit out a season under a court order but was the ABA's leading attraction for its first few seasons. The Pacers, however, defeated his New York Nets team for the championship in 1972.
"The Indiana Pacers were to the ABA what the Yankees were for baseball or the Celtics were to the NBA," Barry said. "Without the support and greatness of basketball in this particular state I don't know how successful the ABA would have been, or if the merger would have taken place.
"You people deserve a lot of credit."
There was trash talk, too, most notably from Gervin, who began his career with Erving in Virginia then went on to play for the San Antonio Spurs in both the ABA and NBA.
"You guys I got 30 on, I ain't sorry; I loved it," Gervin said. "But it's good to see you all again. And I still think I can get 30 on you."
Some moments were appropriate for the chaotic, seat-of-the-pants nature of the ABA.
Tarter was supposed to pick up Costas at the hotel at 3:45 and take him to the fieldhouse for a rehearsal of the banquet activities. He had to stay late at the Hinkle event, though, and was sitting at home, exhausted and eating a ham sandwich, when Costas called asking where he was.
Tarter, sweaty and disheveled, threw on a suit and picked up Costas 30 minutes late.
During the banquet, Tarter had to perform a Heimlich maneuver on a woman who was choking on her dinner. He gave three compressions while 911 was being called. The fourth brought out a wad of food, a few minutes before EMT personnel showed up.
And then there was the case of the stolen rings. For awhile on Saturday, it appeared 12 of the rings that were given to all the former ABA players, coaches and integral personnel had been stolen. The ring that was formally presented to Costas at the banquet actually belonged to former Pacers trainer David Craig. During the event, however, one of the organizers, Al Hunter, called and said some of the rings had fallen out of their boxes and had been found on the floor of his car.
What was stolen was a case of red, white and blue ABA balls. The organizers had ordered 500 from China but four cases were stolen in the Los Angeles airport. A federal investigation is underway to locate the thieves.
"We ran this thing like the ABA, that's all I can say," Tarter said.
More than 100 players attended, but a few had to cancel. One was Steve Chubin, a former Pacer who developed an infection after receiving a shot and was being treated with antibiotics. He had to stay in Denver, but Tarter will deliver a ball, ring and program to him in a couple of weeks.
The highlight for most of those in attendance was the opportunity to mingle and renew acquaintances. Barry talked of seeing former Oakland Oaks teammate Henry Logan for the first time in 50 years. Erving talked of getting to see Virginia teammate Roland "Fatty" Taylor. And, many lesser-known players saw other lesser-known players who were friends and meaningful to their careers.
"Oh, man," Jerry Harkness said after the group photo had been taken in the fieldhouse pavilion following the banquet. "Just to meet all these guys you hadn't seen in years … the camaraderie is just fantastic. I can't say enough."
Harkness, a member of the first two Pacers teams, was thrilled to run into Mel Nowell, who played only in the ABA's first season. They had played against one another in college, Harkness for Loyola of Chicago and Nowell for Ohio State, and still recognized one another.
"You're Mel Nowell!" Harkness declared at the private gathering on Friday.
"Yes! And you're Jerry Harkness!" Nowell said.
As Harkness recalled that moment following the banquet, Davis stopped by to say goodbye before heading out the fieldhouse doors.
"I got the light on, man," he said. "And I'm not turning it off until you show up."
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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