A Magnificent Obsession:
The 1973 ABA All-Star Game

By Dan Pattison
(written in February 1993)

We keep hearing romance is dying, a victim of too few places to stop and smell the roses.

Maybe it's true.

It seems the last people on earth with a soft sentimental side are the Hallmark greeting-card writers. Or those sensitive lyrics sung by country music singers.

I'm not sure. But I think sentimentality is healthy.

For example whenever someone broaches the subject of the old American Basketball Association, I get like some people carrying on like melancholy tavern stragglers at last call.

Don't smirk.

Still, no one drops floral bouquets on my desk reminding me of certain anniversaries associated with the ABA. Champagne corks don't pop. Toasts are not raised.

But Indiana fans know. Carolina, Kentucky, and Utah … they know.

New York, Dallas, Denver, Virginia, Memphis, and San Diego know.

They were all American Basketball Association teams and they had a league of their own.

"Big Z," "Dr. J," "The Whopper," Daniels, the "Kangaroo Kid," McGinnis, Wise, Issel…

Oh my, those names rekindle past glory to their ABA organizations two decades ago.

For two days in 1973 (February 5th and 6th) -- the ABA, the league they called the beachball league because of its red-white, and blue ball -- was magnificent.

The ABA held its sixth annual All-Star Game at Salt Lake City's Salt Palace, February 5-6, 1973.

Comedian Bill Cosby made it a tasteful and an amusing event. And the ABA players definitely made it a unique experience.

For those two days, the ABA fans cured their appetites by focusing on Salt Lake City, which was covered by a cold blanket of fog, prompting Cosby, appearing as a special guest, to quiz in his best fog voice, "Did you know this city has this big thing hanging over it?"

The ABA All-Star Game host Utah Stars put on the ritz. The Salt Palace was dressed in all its red-white and blue splendor like a stately Presidential Inaugural Ball.

For those two days, nothing mattered. Driving was treacherous, not only from a visibility standpoint, but also from the slippery black ice blanketing the streets and highways.

The world seemed to stop. No one wallowed in the Watergate scandal. No one worried about President Richard Nixon's clouded world.

At the Salt Palace, there weren't any T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, caps, or videos sold to commemorate the event. Only a few empty cups of beer, programs, scraps of melancholy, and vague memories linger to remind people of Salt Lake City's unique venture.

Remember this was 1973, hardly the era of Reebok, Nike, LA Gear, etc…. But the romantic sentimental journey is indelible. And the memory never fades away.

Ironically, twenty years later, Salt Lake City hosts another All-Star Game, the annual NBA All-Star Game -- Feb 21, 1993. The game, however, will be played at the new Delta Center.

The blanket of fog, which covered Salt Lake City, was so thick and visibility was so poor that Cosby's plane had to land 40-miles south at the Provo Airport. He had to be driven to Salt Lake City in a limousine. He kept the sold out arena audience waiting. But he was worth the wait.

Cosby chose some of his favorite subjects of boyhood and growing up -- like Fat Albert -- to entertain the Salt Palace audience the Tuesday night before the game.

"The only car Fat Albert had was just the steering wheel, no engine," quipped Cosby. "I had a friend who built a modest car from a Cessna airplane motor. Girls had to make reservations to get into that car."

That wasn't Cosby's only problem. "My father beat me a lot. After I turned 12, he changed his philosophy to: 'I'm gonna knock you out!'"

The focus, however, returned to basketball and the ABA's Eastern All-Stars attempted to deliver a first half knockout blow the next night, leading, 65-52.

Virginia's Julius (Dr. J.) Erving, Carolina's Billy (The Kangaroo Kid) Cunningham, and Kentucky's Dan Issel combined for 31 first half points in leading the Eastern All-Stars.

Kentucky's 7-foot-2 giant Artis Gilmore, who finished with 16 rebounds, dominated the boards as the East also compiled a solid margin, 33-20, at the half.

The East made it look simple. They ran. They looked for the open man. Their midget guards -- Carolina's 5-foot-9 Mack Calvin and Kentucky's 5-10 Louie Dampier -- made the West's guards look like foot soldiers with their speed and quickness.

Erving and Cunningham were the starting East forwards, with Gilmore at center, and Memphis' George Thompson, and Calvin at guards. The East reserves were: New York's Billy (The Whopper) Paultz, and Bill Melchionni, Carolina's Joe Caldwell, and Kentucky's Dampier, and Issel.

The West countered with Indiana's George McGinnis, and Mel Daniels, Utah's James Jones, and Willie Wise, and Denver's Ralph Simpson. Reserves were: Utah's center Zelmo Beaty, San Diego's forward Stew Johnson and guard Chuck Williams, Denver's guard Warren Jabali, and Dallas' forward Rich Jones.

Johnson, a 6-8 forward, was an ABA original. But it was his first ABA All-Star game appearance. Big Stew was a great outside shooter. But he never met a rebound that he liked.

Was it Déjà vu for Utah Stars Coach Ladell Andersen?

Andersen, the coach of the Western All-Stars, had witnessed his West forces take a sound thrashing, 142-115, at the hands of the East in Louisville, Ky., in 1972.


The scene changed in the second half.

"We started to get back better on defense," said Wise. "The boards played a tremendous part. We decided at the half to let Mel and George hit the boards in a two-man setup and the rest of us get back to stop the East's break.

"We also started hitting and that slowed down their break. When you're hitting, they're not able to get the ball off the boards to get down on the break."

In the third quarter, Jabali pumped in 12 points as the West cut a 19-point margin, 71-52, at 11:04 to eight points, 92-84, at the end of the period.

Jabali drove the lane to knot the score in the fourth quarter, 92-92, at 9:47, and was fouled by Paultz. He cashed in on the charity toss.

From that point, Wise Daniels, and McGinnis dominated the game. The West outscored the East, 39-19, in the fourth quarter.

For his efforts, Jabali, who scored 16 points, tossed out seven assists, and grabbed four rebounds, was voted the Most Valuable Player of the game (left), which drew a sprinkle of boos from the 12,556 partisans, who thought their local hero, Wise, should have been named.

The MVP award was an all-expense paid two-week summer trip to Europe for Jabali and his wife, Haiba.

Jabali quipped, "As far as going to Europe, I would rather have the money. I don't know anyone in Europe. I've heard the water is bad. I can't swim. I don't know what I'm going to do over there."

It's not known whether Jabali ever took the trip to Europe.

Wise led all scorers with 26 points. He finished with six rebounds, and four assists.

In his ABA career, the 6-foot-6 Wise was considered the best two-way performer in the game.

By the time, however, Wise played in the NBA, with the Denver Nuggets, he knees were hurting badly. NBA fans didn't see the vintage Willie Wise.

The West actually cut into the East's rebound advantage the second half. McGinnis pulled down 15 rebounds and scored 23 points. His teammate Daniels, who also had 25 points, finished with 11.

Like with Wise, although McGinnis had a few good years with Philadelphia, and Denver, NBA fans didn't see the vintage 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward's play.

McGinnis was a dominant player in the ABA. In 1973, he was second in the league in scoring, with a 27.6 average, and pulled down 12.4 rebounds per outing. In 1974-75, McGinnis sizzled, scoring 29.8 points per game.

"Slick," Indiana coach Bobby Leonard, was able to always get the best out of him. "Slick" gave him the freedom to do it. He massaged and funneled McGinnis' ego into being the Pacers' "go-to" guy. The big guy had to feel he was the number one. He didn't get the same freedom or treatment with either the 76ers or the Nuggets.

"I thought the wrong person got the MVP Award," said Cunningham, who finished with 18 points, that night. "They should have given the award to Norm Drucker (the ABA's supervisor of officials).

"We've been friends for years and I told him so. What hurt us was the fact that there were just too many players. Everyone had to play. And our bench, which helped us in the first half, hindered us the second half."

Cunningham played only 20 minutes. He was whistled to the bench, with his sixth foul, at 9:16 of the fourth quarter.

It was Larry Brown's first year of coaching. His Carolina Cougars were leading the Eastern Division by 4 1/2 games over Kentucky, with a 42-17 record at the all-star break. However, the Cougars lost, 4-3 in the Eastern Division championship playoff best-of-seven series.

Brown, who played in three ABA All-Star games and was the MVP of the first year game (1967-68), substituted the Eastern All-Stars like his Cougars, giving everyone an ample opportunity to play. They were fresh. But, like Cunningham hinted, they were out of sync the second half.

Gilmore, who led the ABA in rebounding, 17.5 that year, logged the most minutes for the East with 31. Erving, playing his last year with Virginia before going to the New York Nets in 1974, played 30 minutes and had 22 points.

Dr. J was intense. His focus was like a laser beam. The good "Doctor" paid enough housecalls to lead the league in scoring with a 31.9 average. With his scoring championship (1973), his basketball legacy started.

But his high wire act was never full-blown until he went to New York in 1974, and the Nets defeated Utah, 4-1, in the ABA Championship Series.

Erving was named the ABA MVP the next three years. He went on to become the third-leading scorer in pro basketball history, with 30,026 points.

In 1973 Brown started one of pro basketball's greatest vagabond coaching careers. The current L.A. Clipper coach, of course, has coached at Denver, New Jersey, and San Antonio, in the NBA. He coached Kansas to the NCAA Championship (1988) and UCLA finished second (1980).

Andersen, who would later become Utah State's Athletic Director, and BYU's coach, got his sweet all-star revenge.

The West's victory snapped a two-game losing streak and evened the series at 3-3.

Andersen played it smart by allowing his Stars' center Beaty only 15 minutes playing time. He wanted to keep his franchise player's aging legs fresh for the rest of the season. He allowed Daniels to play 33 minutes.

His Stars did win the ABA Western Division championship. But they lost to Indiana in the ABA Western Division championship playoff series, 4-2. Leonard's Pacers won the ABA championship series, defeating Kentucky, 4-3.

During the ABA All-Star break it was announced by the league trustees that the Dallas Chaparrals were purchased by New Jersey Meadowland Professional Sports, Inc.

In making the announcement, ABA Commissioner Robert Carlson said Dallas would move to New Jersey three days after the 1973 season.


The move didn't take place.

Dallas was later purchased by a group headed by Red McCombs and Angelo Drossos from San Antonio, and moved the franchise to the Alamo City the following year.

Ironically, New Jersey would later get its team. The New York Nets, one of the original ABA franchises known as the New Jersey Americans, would move back to New Jersey after being sold by owner Roy Boe.

Boe, who was also owner of the NHL New York Islanders, got into financial trouble and would also eventually sell Dr. J to the 76ers for six million dollars. Erving became known as the "Six-Million Dollar Man." And from that, "Dr. J" even wore the number "6" with the Sixers.

Following the 1973 ABA All-Star game, fans, coaches, players, and officials convened to the Exhibition Hall at the Salt Palace for dancing and entertainment. A local group -- "The Sound Column" -- performed.

The Salt Lake City crowd also warmed up to K.C. Jones, then the San Diego Conquistadors coach, who sang his version of "Sonny." Jones, of course, went on to coach the Boston Celtics to two NBA crowns, 1984 and 1986.

Despite the blanket of fog surrounding Salt Lake City for those two days, it shined brightly on the ABA All-Stars.

An on February 21, 1993, it will do the same for the NBA All-Stars.

Maybe this time, being someone who suffers from chronic compulsion for memorabilia, I will purchase a T-shirt or a cap. A sentimental keepsake.

I think it's wholesome and sweet that fans want to hold on to a relic emblematic of a historic event.

But still, it won't be the same for me. For me, the old ABA is like a sacred icon. Nothing can offer a romantic journey like the ABA. It has been like being at a dance where the music has lasted forever.

After all, it was like having a league of my own. A magnificent obsession.

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