The last great experiment in American professional sports ended 20 years ago this basketball season.
It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, almost-anything-new-goes league that featured some of the sport's greatest big men (one as commissioner and the other as pseudo-coach), teams in places that had never seen live pro sports before (like Louisville, Ky.), innovative rules (like a three-point basket) and certainly the most colorful ball ever used in American professional sports, the red, white and blue stripes of the American Basketball Association.
It also featured a team that won the hearts and loyalty of its fans like few others.
The late sometimes great ABA gave San Antonio the Spurs.
"San Antonio had a love affair with the Spurs," said Terry Stembridge, the original radio voice of the team who now has an oil exploration company in Kilgore.
"We had incredible support from the fans we had here," said George Gervin, the most famous of all Spurs. "I came here from Virginia, where the support had been honorable, but it was nothing like it was in San Antonio. These people were really behind the Spurs. Nobody in the league liked to come here to play."
Gervin, who came to the Spurs as a skinny kid in 1975 and went on to dominate the team record book, said the combination of the fans and the Spurs' up-tempo, ABA style of play made a trip to San Antonio less than pleasant.
"We were blessed to play in the Arena because of its closeness. The fans being so close made it more exciting," said Gervin, who works in the Spurs' community relations department. "Our fans were like a sixth man on the floor, with guys like Big George (Valle) and the Baseline Bums.
"People were scared to come in here and play us during the ABA days. If Big George and the Baseline Bums didn't get 'em, we'd run 'em to death on the floor. I've never seen anything like it."
Neither had people in San Antonio. When the team came here from Dallas in 1973, "on loan" for two years from an indifferent market, the fans didn't quite know what to make of the game.
"In the first years, I don't think the fans here knew much about pro ball," said Bernie LaReau, who was the team's trainer, business manager and equipment manager.
"It was a real struggle at first to get people interested. I can remember some nights when there couldn't have been more than 1,000 people."
Maury Holden, who served as treasurer for the team for a number of years, has vivid memories of those games.
"I can remember one night, Pat Tallman (the Spurs' public-address announcer) said it might be easier to introduce the people in the crowd than the starting lineups," he said.
But as stars like Gervin, James Silas and Larry Kenon developed, so did interest. The key might have been the firing of Tom Nissalke as coach and the hiring of Bob Bass. Nissalke favored the slow-down, defensive-oriented style then popular in the NBA. Bass turned the Spurs loose to run the floor and make things happen the popular style in the ABA . He also moved Gervin to guard, getting him away from bigger, stronger players and freeing him to make some of the most amazing, graceful and gravity-defying shots in the history of the game.
"The NBA people believed you won games with defense, but nobody ever won with defense," Gervin said. "You won by putting the ball into the net more than the other guys."
Gervin has fond memories of those days, when he started in the shadow of James Silas and finished as a scoring legend.
"Those were the good days good basketball, good competitive basketball," Gervin said. "Youth was a major factor in keeping that league going, too. We had so many small-market franchises in the ABA that it gave young guys such as myself a chance to play.
"The ABA had a lot of good young players who were looking to establish themselves, to show the NBA people that we were as good as they were."
That feeling permeated the league. ABA teams always played extra-hard when they met NBA teams in exhibitions. Front-office people and players from the ABA teams all knew each other. It was Us against Them.
"There was a feeling of family in the league," said Wayne Witt, who was the Spurs' public relations director for 17 years. "We'd battle like crazy on the floor, but we would always stick up for each other off the floor."
Gervin said on road trips, the home team's players sometimes would have the visitors over to their homes for dinner. Larry Brown and Doug Moe, two of the league's most-successful coaches, had played together in college and the ABA , then co-coached a team in the league.
The ABA teetered on the brink of disaster throughout much of its history, with one new effort after another to attract fans and stay afloat. The first commissioner was George Mikan, a dominant player in pro basketball during the 1950s, who made the league have its headquarters in Minneapolis so he wouldn't have to move. The San Diego franchise, the Conquistadors, hired Wilt Chamberlain as its coach. His assistant, Stan Albeck (who later coached the Spurs), ran the team; Wilt was there because he also was a big name.
The ABA went into places that had never seen pro basketball before, like San Antonio and Miami and Louisville, succeeding in some and struggling in others.
Money just about always was tight, making for some small staffs.
"The first summer I got here (1974), we did not have a general manager," said Witt, who now is public relations director for the Miami Heat. "In fact, there were only four of us in the front office with any authority at all."
Once or twice a month, Witt, LaReau, Stembridge and sales manager John Begzos would meet in LaReau's kitchen with Angelo Drossos, the team's managing partner, and make plans for the team.
Promotions often were based on the upcoming opponents; Witt recalls a big buildup for a game against George McGinnis and the Indiana Pacers.
"We made him out to be a real tough guy, and of course, he was one of the nicest guys in the league. That was just part of the effort."
Depending on your perspective, those efforts paid off following the 1975-76 season, when four members of the ABA were invited to join the NBA. It was the end of an era and the beginning of another. It was an era that saw the NBA learn from the ABA experience and go from a stodgy game with its championship series shown on a tape-delayed basis to a multimillion-dollar global enterprise.
"I had been there from the beginning," Stembridge said. "I broadcast the first exhibition game in the ABA and the first exhibition game between the ABA and the NBA. For us, there was a sense of loss and nostalgia."
For others, a sense of accomplishment.
"Angelo always said it was a merger between the leagues," LaReau said of the man given a big part of the credit for the ABA 's marriage with the NBA. "Never that we were absorbed or the league was dissolved. It was always that we merged with them."
And for others, a sense of history.
"A lot of these young guys coming up don't know what we did for them," Gervin said. "They're downright disrespectful. We built things up for them; we did all the work. And I know they don't appreciate the things we did in the ABA ."
This article Copyright © David King and the San Antonio Express-News and used with permission