By DAN PATTISON
INDIANAPOLIS -- Time was, in this country, when pro basketball meant New York Knicks-Los Angeles Lakers. Or Celtics-Lakers.
Then, the big game of the year always centered around Bill Russell-Wilt Chamberlain. That was the NBA -- the National "Brown-Ball" Association.
However, at the same time, between 1967-76, the brown-ball league wasn't doing its job. It was failing to sign some of the top players in the country.
They were getting away to what the NBA referred to as the "Beach Ball League" -- the American Basketball Association. And its red, white, and blue symbolic, patriotic ball.
Enter Zelmo Beaty, Julius Erving, George Gervin, Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, James Silas, Rick Barry, George McGinnis, Dan Issel, David Thompson, Mel Daniels, Spencer Haywood, Charlie Scott, Willie Wise, Artis Gilmore, Ron Boone, Moses Malone, Jimmy Jones, Bob Netolicky, Billy Cunningham, Warren Jabali, Billy Paultz, Marvin Barnes, Donnie Freeman, Louie Dampier, Darrel Carrier, Maurice Lucas, Doug Moe, and Freddie Lewis.
The ABA had the dash.
It was like the point guards, were waiting in their cars outside a bank, waiting for the forwards, and centers, to speed away with the heist.
The league had the three-point play, the 30-second clock, and the run-and-gun offenses. Without the big lumbering centers, who actually stopped their offenses, like in the NBA, the ABA showcased its players' skills, allowing them the opportunity to freelance, and turned basketball into an artistic venture.
It was playground basketball at its best.
Sometimes in the ABA, a basketball game was not just a basketball game. Sometimes, it was a window deep into your soul.
It was a league, where a playground star, like "Dr. J" Erving, could hone his skills, and leave a legend.
It was a time, however, that the league was created long before the cable TV rage, with ESPN, the FOX Sports Networks, CNNSI, etc. For the ABA, the smaller TV markets were their symposiums. This was a time long before Michael Jordan had his own line of shoes. The ABA players didn't know their market values. There wasn't any market for them.
You can feel sorry for the ABA. This would make you a kind, sympathetic guy who also probably cries at Meg Ryan movies.
But don't. The ABA was simply a league of its own.
On the other hand, if you're a young NBA fan, or player, you probably don't have any idea what I'm talking about.
But the former ABA players and their fans do.
They showed up in late August to embrace their time well spent at the ABA's 30-Year Reunion at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and the RCA Dome. It was a time where the players, referees, writers, and officials could recreate some of those more cherished memories. And, oh my, what great memories.
What a sight. There was enough ABA memorabilia to fill the floor of the RCA Dome, where the NFL Indianapolis Colts play. You see, the ABA was special. Almost magical. Its history won't die.
"One of the things that distinguishes the ABA from professional sports interests today is there was a genuine camaraderie that existed between all the people that were involved," said former ABA Commissioner, Indiana and Kentucky GM, Mike Storen. "It was the owners, the general managers, the coaches, the players, the beat writers on newspapers, the broadcasters, the arena managers . . .everyone."
It took all the pieces to keep the ABA afloat in its constant war for talent with the established NBA.
"The instinct everyone had for survival allowed everyone to put the good of the whole ahead of the good of the individual," said Storen. "As a result, we were able to survive and create a very entertaining product that in time was proven to be as good as we said it was."
There was a good chance that the former ABA stars, like Beaty, saw read, white, and blue balls in their sleep that weekend. That's if they slept at all.
They must have signed hundreds of those red, white, and blue balls at an autograph session that weekend.
"It was fun," said Beaty (at right), better known as the "Big Z", while playing for the old Utah Stars. "It was almost overwhelming. It really meant a lot to me. The ABA might have died. But not its memories. They're something that I've always cherished."
"Dr. J." is a busy man, with a new position with the NBA Orlando Magic. But when it came time to see his old ABA family, he found time.
Rick Barry didn't. He was the only player who asked for money to be there. The ABA Reunion committee told him to "forget it."
"Coming back was important to me," said Erving. "You have to turn the clock back to days when things were a little more innocent." Erving was named the ABA's all-time most valuable player. But he was willing to sign autographs in the afternoon, and participate in the black-tie reception honoring him, the ABA's all-time coach, former Pacer coach Bobby "Slick" Leonard, and of course, the ABA players.
"I could have been in a lot of different places this week. There's a lot of demand for this time. But I said, 'this time is taken. I'm going to the ABA reunion," said Erving, who played five years in the ABA, with Virginia, and the New York Nets, before ending his career with the NBA Philadelphia 76ers.
"Everybody I competed against in the ABA helped me be the type of player I was and the type of person I am today," added Erving. A humbling thought.
Barry's absence didn't affect the party.
The former ABA referees indulged in a bit of revenge at the reunion. They announced an all-time ABA "crying team." Topping the list on this less-than-prestigious team was none other than Barry. "Oh, that guy cried about everything even if it didn't involve him," said former ABA ref Joe Bavetta, whose brother, Dick, is an NBA offical. "If he didn't feel like playing that night, he would start crying from the tip-off so he could get kicked out of the game. He was terrible."
Beaty readily admits that the landscape of professional basketball has changed since his playing days. And, he adds, in most respects the changes have been improvements.
"Just their mode of transportation has changed and, believe me, for the better," said Beaty, breaking out with a huge laugh, and smile. "Can you remember those airlines, like Piedmont? Sometimes, I was worried that they wouldn't even get off the ground. But we fought for those changes," added Big Z, who was the ABA's Players Association's President.
And he also said that if it weren't for the Utah Stars, there might not be any Utah Jazz today.
"What makes me really happy is that the Jazz has had so much success there. In a way, I still feel a part of that, because the fans supported the Stars so well," said Beaty. "I've always thought the fans in Utah deserved a pro basketball team.
"I know the stuggles that the Jazz had when they first went to Salt Lake City. But I have only admiration for the way their owner stepped up and saved the franchise. Now, they're one of the NBA franchises. But you have to have a class adminstration to have a class franchise. That's what Salt Lake City deserves."
The first thing you notice about these former ABA greats is the lack of tattoos.
If tattoos are intended to draw attention and make a statement, the current NBA players succeeded. Those tattoos are also the current shock-your-parents fad of teenagers.
That's not to say these former ABA stars weren't into any shock treatments for the 1970s. These stars were into Afros. . .gigantic Afros.
And the white players were into making their own statements with stylishly straight, long hair, a Prince Valiant effect. And how about those mutton-chop sideburns? Signs of the times.
They were the baby boomers. They questioned everything from the Vietnam War to sexual behavior to pop music.
They were the so-called rebels who defied the NBA establishment and created a league of their own. They never asked "Why?" but "Why not?"
The ABA mystique refuses to die.
Terry Pluto's 1990 best-selling book, "Loose Balls," shed a long overdue light on the ABA. This spring, an HBO special attracted a new generation of fans.
The ABA reunion may prolong the memories. The Classic Sports Network filmed a special around the reunion. A Indianapolis company, the 19th Star, is doing a documentary.
But some of the "real" memories were relived on that faithful summer weekend at the Crowne Plaza, and the RCA Dome. Those are the memories the ABA players, officials, and beat writers shared with each other. Some can be spoken. Some can be sealed and locked in a vault and forgotten.
As the dust settles, and ashes are poured on some of the future graves of the ABA greats, their best memories won't ever be forgotten.
Note: DAN PATTISON was an ABA columnist for Basketball Weekly, The Sporting News, and The Deseret News. Dan was also the vice-president of the ABA Sports Writer's Association for two years.
Dan passed away in June 2001 after a brave battle with bone marrow cancer. He will always be remembered for his longtime support of his "magnificent obsession": the ABA.