(contributed by Ron Harris)
Well, Julius Erving has been named as the ABA's All Time Most Valuable Player, Slick Leonard is the All Time Coach, and Erving and 29 other players have been designated as the ABA's All Time 30 best but, what about the best team? What ABA unit stood out above the rest? Which one was the cream of the crop, the best ever? Here is one man's opinion.
The ABA's first champions were the 1968 Pittsburgh Pipers (54-24). The Pipers were led by league MVP Connie Hawkins. Hawkins led the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists. He was complimented by an excellent backcourt of Charlie Williams and Chico Vaughn, who both averaged over 20ppg. Tom Washington was a dependable rebounding center and forward Art Heyman, who was acquired in midseason only added to the mix.
This team has a special place in ABA lore because they were the first champions and they were well coached by Vince Cazzetta but, they don't compare to later ABA editions because of a lack of real talent throughout the league. A team that rates very high on the list is the 1969 champion Oakland Oaks. The Oaks were coached by Alex Hannum and fortified by the additions of Rick Barry from the NBA's San Francisco Warriors along with Doug Moe and Larry Brown (acquired from the 1968 Eastern Division champion New Orleans Buccaneers for Steve "Snapper" Jones). The Oaks were the epitome of run and gun. They averaged 126ppg and had 7 double figure scorers. The roster also boasted Rookie of the Year Warren Armstrong (later Jabali), and steady performers Gary Bradds, Steve Logan, Ira Harge, and Jim Eakins. This team was so talented that even though Barry (who was averaging 34ppg) sustained a season ending injury, they still managed to win 60 regular season games and lost very few playoff games on their way to the title.
Coach Hubie Brown's Kentucky Colonels of 1975 (58-26) were a championship team but, they weren't even the best Colonels team. The 1972 squad won an ABA record 68 regular season games but, were upset in the playoffs by the New York Nets. The 75' Colonels won 22 of their last 25 games and had a frontline that included Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel. Defensive specialist Teddy "Hound Dog" McClain and sharpshooter Louie Dampier rounded out an excellent backcourt. The only mark on this team's run for ultimate ABA glory was the paving of the way to the championship by the surprise upset of the Julius Erving led New York Nets by the Spirits of St. Louis in the 1975 playoffs. The Colonels made short work of St. Louis in 5 games before defeating Indiana in 5 more games for the championship.
The 1971 Utah Stars (57-27) were a special team. They were an example of the right players, playing for the right coach, in the right city. Coach Bill Sharman's Stars had reached the ABA finals in the previous season while playing in Los Angeles but, fan support was lacking. So the team was moved to Salt Lake City and played for a town of rabid fans. The addition of center Zelmo Beaty from the NBA didn't hurt. In fact, after losing in the 70' finals, Sharman predicted the team would win the '71 title with Beaty. The Stars had forwards Willie Wise and Red Robbins along with guards Mike Butler, Merv Jackson, and Glen Combs. Mack Calvin, a member of the 70' team was traded for Donnie Freeman, who in turn was traded to Dallas for Ron Boone. Boone was known as Superman. He never got sick, hurt, or missed a game.
This beautiful marriage of players, coach, and fans brought Utah a championship but, it wasn't easy. Utah had to defeat both Indiana and Kentucky in 7 game series to secure the top prize. In 1974 with Julius Erving in tow, the New York Nets became as coach Kevin Loughery called them "a monster". Erving, (who was by far the ABA's most talented player) teaming up with a cast that easily outdistanced his teams in Virginia meant that a title was a foregone conclusion. The Nets were young, big, and athletic with Erving, Billy "The Whopper" Paultz, steady guard Brian Taylor, and rookies Larry Kenon and Super John Williamson. All 5 players averaged double figures in scoring led by Erving's 27ppg. The Nets won 55 regular season games and lost only 2 playoff games as they easily defeated the Utah Stars in the finals.
While all of these teams were excellent units, my pick for the ABA's best team is the 1972 ABA champion Indiana Pacers (47-37). Many of the teams previously mentioned won more regular season games but, this was a true team of diverse talents and togetherness. The top 6 players on this Pacer team averaged double figures in scoring but, not one averaged over 20ppg. The inside was handled by center Mel Daniels who led the team in scoring and rebounding with 19 and 16 respectively. He was helped by the strong and athletic rookie George McGinnis who scored 17ppg and gathered 9 rebounds a contest. On the perimeter, the great Roger Brown pumped in 18ppg, along with Freddie Lewis' 15ppg and the 3 point shooting of Billy Keller. Forward Bob Netolicky contributed 15ppg and another 9 boards.
The heart of this team was proven in their 7th game victory over their division rival and defending champion Utah Stars (60-24). This indeed was a true team, a functioning unit of easily defined roles; yet, they still had the freedom to display their individual talents under the camaraderie preached by Coach Bob "Slick" Leonard. This is evidenced by the fact that more than half of their made shots were made off the dribble instead of a pass (only 48% of the Pacers' shots were made off an assist). Their fans loved them as well. They were the ABA's model franchise by far. They defeated Rick Barry's New York Nets in the 72' finals to win their second of 3 championships.
In my opinion, the 1972 Indiana Pacers were the perfect basketball machine. Individualistic but, together. Separate but, cohesive. The ABA's All Time Team.
Ron "Da Guru" Harris
This article is Copyright © Ron Harris and is used with permission.