How The ABA Changed Basketball, Then Sold Out And Died
Left: the red, white and blue ABA basketball. Right: Artis Gilmore #53 of the Kentucky Colonels passes to a teammate around a player from the Indiana Pacers. Sources: Smithsonian; Focus on Sport via Getty Images
On October 13, 1967, the Oakland Oaks defeated the Anaheim Amigos in the debut game of the revolutionary American Basketball Association. Although short-lived, the ABA influenced basketball by making the sport more exciting than ever before with original elements that the NBA would eventually adopt. While basketball was newer than the other Big Four major leagues, the world of athletics embraced a whole new form of hoops-entertainment with the ABA.
The ABA Brought Basketball To Cities Lacking Athletic Experience
The ABA formed in the late ‘60s with just eleven teams split between the Eastern Division (Pittsburgh Pipers, Minnesota Muskies, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels, and The New Jersey Americans) and the Western Division (New Orleans Buccaneers, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Nuggets, Houston Mavericks, Anaheim Amigos, and Oakland Oaks). This league brought teams to cities that had never been involved in professional basketball (Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, etc.), but would eventually become known as basketball havens with the help of the league. Relocation was a common theme for the ABA as teams were constantly switching cities causing the ABA to reach even farther to areas such as Salt Lake City, Miami, and Memphis. The only teams that remained true to their cities during the entire run of the ABA were The Kentucky Colonels, The Dallas Chaparrals, and The Indiana Pacers.
The ABA Entertains Fans With A New Kind Of Showmanship
The main ingredients that separated the ABA from their rival NBA was the ABA’s flair and flashiness. The ABA was the rebellious free-spirit league in comparison to the conservative, well-behaved NBA. Audiences appreciated the fast-paced, looser atmosphere of the newer league that placed no limitations on the players or fans. Cheerleaders wore bikinis, trash-talking and fights were acceptable, players and coaches were called by nicknames (you might hear “Bad News,” “Magnolia Mouth” or “Mr. Excitement”) and most notable was the ABA’s distinct red-white-and-blue ball instead of the traditional orange.
A sideshow atmosphere was par for the course with the ABA, and one of the most momorable moments was when the Kentucky Colonels signed the young Penny Anne Early to play for one minute in a game against The Los Angeles Stars. Thus, Early became the first and only woman ever to play in a men’s major league sports game.
The ABA was also different from its more established counterpart through a few of their own rules. ABA players were given more time to shoot with a thirty-second shot clock, unlike the NBA’s 24-seconds. This league also utilized an element that would change major league basketball forever -- the three-point line. The NBA initially mocked the idea of extra points for a longer shot, but eventually adopted the line at 23 feet and nine inches from the center of the basket in 1979. The much-loved “slam dunk contest” was also initiated by the ABA when they brought in their top players for the first dunk competition at the All-Star game of their final season. In modern times, basketball fans look forward to being blown away by the NBA’s yearly slam dunk contest which was pioneered by the ABA.
The ABA also introduced the Spencer Haywood Hardship Rule, allowing new players to be drafted into the league if they were financially disadvantaged. The NBA's rule required players to complete four years of college -- playing without pay, all the while risking injury. Haywood left the University of Detroit for the Denver Rockets, where he led the team in scoring with 30 points per game as a rookie. The NBA saw that they'd lose a lot of young star players to the ABA if they didn't amend their own rules -- which they did in short order.
The ABA Ended When It Merged With The NBA
While the concept of the ABA’s portrayal of showmanship seemed like it would take off, the league struggled financially in their battle against the NBA. The ABA could never secure a national television contract and found it difficult to sell enough tickets to survive as the NBA was drawing better players, more sponsors, and more money. However, the ABA still consisted of some impressive players who deserved more recognition at the time including David Thompson, Connie Hawkins, and Julius "Dr. J." Erving. After their final season in 1976, the ABA made the wise decision to merge with the NBA. In fact, some sports historians claim that this was the strategy all along -- that ABA franchise owners didn't want to go on endlessly as an upstart league but were actually trying get just popular enough to be absorbed by the more-profitable NBA. The four most successful ABA teams joined the bigger league -- the New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, and Denver Nuggets. Thus, the best of the ABA from their nationally recognized teams to their all-star players were able to continue forward in basketball history.
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