MEMORIES OF ROD MILLER: "It is said that a person never forgets his first love. The object of mine was the 1967-68 ABA Denver Rockets. Imagine the heartbreak of a 12 year old boy suffering through the late season collapse and subsequent first round playoff defeat at the hands of New Orleans. It was all so abrupt.
Season Two was nearly as bad except that I was emotionally prepared.
Season Three was the Spencer Haywood year. The best regular season by an ABA player was wasted in the playoffs against the red hot LA Stars. The final game was on network TV. I hoped against hope that Denver would score on the last play, win, and somehow gain enough momentum to take the series. My outlook was naive, though, as the Stars had obviously peaked at the right point in the season.
Season Four saw Haywood leave for Seattle. No chance after that.
Until Year Six. Warren Jabali arrived. Instant credibility. This guy was enormous. By that time I was attending about 20 games a year. I have a lasting memory of the play that the Rockets always called at the end of a quarter if they had the ball. The ball always went to Jabali near the half court line. Jabali would keep his body (and a menacing look on his face) between the defender and the ball, as he waited for the clock to run down to about 4 seconds. Then he would put the ball on the floor and simply make the play. Led by Jabali, and a developing Ralph Simpson, the Rockets once again had hope. But it was never to be. The Rockets/Nuggets would never win the ABA title in 9 years of play.
Other lasting impressions remain, however. In my opinion, the game of basketball was never played in such an entertaining way. Some of my memories include:
A Denver center named Bill (The Hill) McGill. He had a unique jump-hook shot that he could throw in from 20 feet.
Denver center Julius Keye. A 6-11 defensive specialist. His assignment would be to take the other team's best scorer -- regardless of position. Keye was not a welcome sight if you were the other team's best scoring threat.
Denver guard Ralph Simpson. During one game he took the ball down the lane between 3 defenders and dunked. The best dunk I've ever seen. And I saw it from seats right next to the basket. One of those plays were everybody in the house just looks at each other.
Games at Denver's Auditorium Arena. The Arena had to be the most miserable place for a visiting team to play. Bad calls against the good guys would result in several hundred rolled up hot-dog wrappers on the floor. Some of which came from the very top row, as the overhanging upper deck provided easy access.
Byron Beck giving a vertical head fake to Henry Logan (or maybe it was Warren Armstrong) who jumped straight up into the air. Beck then ducked his shoulder, dug in, and completely flipped Logan over onto his head.
The 1972-73 Carolina Cougars. The best ABA team I ever saw play.
Stew Johnson of the San Diego Conquistadors hitting somewhere near 50 points against Denver. Almost all from the outside. I'd like to see the box score from this one. Seems like he never missed.
During a Rockets vs. Cougars game (above), Carolina's Jim Chones went up for one of those monster slam dunks. He hit the back of the rim with the ball which went about 20 feet straight up into the air. The backboard shattered into a million pieces, but stayed intact. Players ran for cover. Eventually, all the glass came down and spread out over that entire end of the court. After about an hour (in true ABA style) they replaced the backboard with a wooden one and continued the game.
Julius Erving. During his rookie season, my father and I heard about him and came out early to a Rockets vs. Squires game. We had no idea what he looked like. When the Squires came out for warm-ups, we saw a 6-6 guy who looked like he weighed about 160 pounds (most of which was hair). He also had huge hands. From that point on, I don't believe I missed many of Erving's ABA appearances in Denver. I remember one game where he dunked over Byron Beck. During the Doctor's trip back down to earth from his lofty flight, Beck literally caught him under the basket. Beck had one arm through Erving's legs, and the other over Erving's shoulder -- like a professional wrestler about to administer a body slam. And Beck just held Erving there. I'll never forget the sight of Erving being held aloft, as he flailed his arms to protest the charging foul that had just been called against him. I actually saw the high wire act. Jordan was probably better, but Erving was first."
MEMORIES OF SCOTT KNASTER: "Beginning in the 1969-70 season, I figure I went to about 200 Rockets/Nuggets ABA games. In December of 1969 I listened to my first Denver Rockets game on the radio, and it was Joe Belmont's first as coach of the Rockets. Before that they were 9-19 under John McClendon, who was reportedly the first black coach of a major U.S. sports team. Belmont was an old Denver fan favorite from semipro teams and turned the Rockets around. The Rockets featured spectacular rookie Spencer Haywood and went on to win 15 in a row at one point. They eventually captured the Western Division title. Haywood averaged 29.9 points and 19.9 rebounds per game that year, leading the league in both categories. He was the 1969-70 ABA Rookie of the Year, the 1970 All-Star Game MVP, and the overall 1969-70 ABA Most Valuable Player. In the Rockets' last regular season home game against the Los Angeles Stars, he set an ABA record for points in a game (with 59 points, I believe). The excitement at the tiny Denver Auditorium Arena was electric. The Rockets sold out every game down the stretch in the spring of 1970, with more than 7,000 crammed into the aisles of the cozy old building that was built for the 1908 Democratic National Convention. I remember going to every game (except Friday nights) with my parents, having a French Dip for dinner at Reese's Coffee Shop across the street, then going to see the Rockets win from our balcony seats ($4 for adults, $2 for kids). The Rockets that year began an annual tradition by underachieving in the playoffs and losing to the underdog Los Angeles Stars."
MEMORIES OF DAN MOORE: "My father, Ralph W. Moore Jr., was a sports writer for the Denver Post for 33 years. He covered the entire timeline of the Denver Rockets/Nuggets. I was one of eight of his children who lived, breathed and died for the Denver ABA franchise The old Denver Auditorium Area hosted the Rockets and then the Nuggets, and McNichols Sports Arena the Nuggets. I was one of the most popular kids, because we were fortunate enough to have four season tickets to each game.
The ABA made the NBA look as boring as it is today. Next year look for an even worse brand of hoops to develop. Legalize the zone? The ABA ran the fast break, and made people LOVE basketball.
At one game, I witnessed Julius Keye score a 6-point play. He made a three-pointer vs. the Utah Stars, got hacked, and infuriated Utah coach Ladell Anderson. He made the "and one" due to the foul. Then he shot the 2 technicals and made both shots. Absolutely breathtaking! The NBA has been unwatchable in recent years. I vote to go back to the art of hoops, ABA style. Iceman, Dr. J, the Hawk, David "Skywalker" Thompson. Hey the good old days were just that."
MEMORIES OF DAVID HUTCHINSON: "My first memories of Rockets/Nuggets basketball date back to the 1969-70 season. The Rockets started the season with a 9-19 record before coach John McClendon was fired and replaced by Joe Belmont. The Rockets split their first four games under Belmont, and then strung together 15 consecutive wins a streak that still stands as the longest in franchise history.
The 13th game of the winning streak featured an individual feat that remains unequaled in Rockets/Nuggets lore: a buzzer beater by Jeff Congdon (left) that traveled somewhere between 72 and 84 feet. Congdons shot came at the end of the first quarter of the Rockets 135-112 win over the Carolina Cougars on Sunday afternoon, January 18, 1970. An Auditorium Arena sellout of 7,014 witnessed the shot. I listened to Bob Martins call on KOA Radio.
Both of Denvers daily newspapers reported the following day that Congdons shot was 72 feet. Frank Haraway of The Denver Post wrote, "[T]o be brutally honest, [it] was a hope shot to end the quarter." Lynn Howell of the Rocky Mountain News wrote of the 72-footer, "Thats right. Congdons shot traveled nearly the length of the court." Congdons shot may actually have been longer than the reported 72 feet. A basketball court is 94 feet long. So for a 72-footer, Congdon would have had to stand to the center-court side of the opposite-end free-throw line when he released the shot. Neither papers photographer caught Congdons bomb. But after the game, News photographer John Gordon asked Congdon to go back onto the court and take the shot again. Congdon obliged, and the front page of the next days News featured a picture of Congdon heaving the ball from a few feet outside the key and a solid five feet to the baseline side of the opposite-end foul line. The flight of the ball was depicted with a dotted arc. If the post-game re-creation was a reasonable approximation, it was an 84-foot shot. Team management certainly thought so, and marked the spot by painting Congdons footprints on the court in the same location that Congdon stood for the News photograph. Congdons footprints remained until the end of the 1973-74 season.
A couple of footnotes on the Congdon shot. It came on an in-bounds play following a basket by none other than Doug Moe. It inspired me to write a fan letter, to which Congdon replied with an autographed sticker featuring his black-and-white likeness on an orange background. And no, it was not the longest shot in ABA history. Jerry Harkness of the Indiana Pacers was credited with a 92-footer at the final buzzer to beat Dallas by one point in 1968.
My most vivid memory from the 1969-70 season was the Rockets double-overtime win over the New Orleans Bucs on a Sunday afternoon in March. Spencer Haywood scored 46 points. I watched from a $2 seat in the end balcony as memorable a birthday present as any 8-year-old has ever had. It was my first trip to the Auditorium Arena, and I loved everything about the place from the corner marquees at the 13th Street entrances, to the smell of popcorn and fermented beer, to the wooden seats, to the way the balcony lights were dimmed moments before tipoff. And of course, the crowd was on top of the action in a way that cannot be duplicated in arenas that accommodate hockey. Although I have enjoyed many great games at McNichols Arena, it always struck me as a sterile venue.
Haywoods departure from the team in October 1970 marked the beginning of a relatively flat four years. I still followed the team religiously, mostly through the play-by-play work of Bob Rubin and Larry Zimmer. Although the Rockets mixed in 46- and 47-win seasons with a couple of losing years, they had no one who captured the towns attention as Haywood had done. Players like Ralph Simpson, Byron Beck, Dave Robisch, Al Smith, Warren Jabali and Willie Long were appreciated only by the hard-core fans."
MEMORIES OF MICHAEL E. JONES: "I was the ballboy for the Denver Rockets during the second year of the ABA, 1968-69. My father and I were diehard fans and always will be. My father, I believe, attended 90% of all games played by the Rockets. If he or I couldn't attend, we were by the radio, cursing the refs, or rooting for Larry Jones or Spencer Haywood or Byron Beck to make it happen. We had some exciting teams!
During 1968-69, I saw the great scoring streak by guard Larry Jones. He scored 30 or more points for around 23 games in a row. Has anyone else ever done that in the ABA or NBA? I think not. I remember Lonnie Wright talking to me in his loose, cool manner. He had thighs on him that were bigger than basketballs and he could move and jump so effortlessly. Lonnie and Larry Jones used to hang out - Larry, a quiet, private and dignified man, would listen and smile and Lonnie would chatter away. Walt Piatkowski, the great outside gunner, was sort of in his own world (devoted as he was to learning to drop the three-point bomb on target). These days, Walt has a "son of a gunner" who plays for the mighty LA Clippers. :-) And the skittering Jeff Congdon - no one could keep up with him, and if they tried, he'd toss in 30 footers when they backed off of him... I remember Dr. Lloyd Williams, the team doctor, who gave me the job after I wrote him and told him how big of a Rockets fan I was. He supervised us and even took us to Dallas one time on a road trip. I remember being the bench boy for the dreaded Oakland Oaks and not knowing when to give towels out to the Oaks players. I watched Doug Moe drip sweat all over the floor, so stoked to murder the Rockets that he didn't care that I didn't give him a drop of water... Oh, how I remember the BIG afros of Warren Armstrong/Jabali and Steve Jones. They had hair as wide as their shoulders and they looked even more imposing as a result. Jeez, could Jabali leap without effort! Gasp! And Steve Jones would shoot the lights when he played the Rockets. In 1969 the Rockets hosted the Russian Olympic Team, and the Russians awarded me a Soviet medal with the emblem of Lenin on it (I still have it)...
Finally, how could anyone forget the Auditorium Arena? It is the greatest arena in history! If you were there, you were in the game yourself - right on top of it. Everyone hooted and hollered and none louder than my Dad. The officiating was new, too, to accommodate the fast, new style of the ABA. The fans let them know what they needed to learn -- quickly! Many of those refs went over to the NBA and became great officials."
MEMORIES OF LEE MEADE: "Bill Ringsby, the owner of the Rockets, was a great guy, but very stubborn. When Bill was selling out every game early on at the Denver Auditorium Arena, he was doing no promoting. He was a friend since I had been Sports Editor of The Denver Post when the ABA began. I told him he should be promoting the most when he was selling out, so that he could stay on top of the cycle. He said he didn't need to promote, that people were beating his doors down to get in. Of course, the day came when they quit beating and, eventually, the franchise struggled. A few times, I flew on the Rockets' team plane, the "Gulfstream." We went to the first league game in Oakland. The folks at the airport put the wrong kind of fuel into the plane for the trip back to Denver and we almost burned up the engines flying over the Rockies."
MEMORIES OF GUY M. BLASI: "I lived in a small town called Walsenburg, Colorado and I loved to see an occasional ABA game with my dad. Every year until about 1973, the Denver Rockets would host an ABA doubleheader at the old Auditorium Arena in downtown Denver (which has since been renovated to become the state-of-the-art Temple Buell Performing Arts Theatre). I still have a purple ticket stub and game program from the doubleheader on December 28, 1971. The Dallas Chaparrals played the Memphis Pros in the first game and the Denver Rockets played the Utah Stars in the second game. We had prime seats on the first level. The Auditorium Arena was intimate. It held only about 6,000 fans and every angle was a great seat. I was in junior high school at the time and I brought along my best friend from school. During the first game we went looking for autographs of players from the Stars and Rockets who were to play in the second game. I went up to a player who I thought was Denver rookie Dave Robisch. It turned out instead to be Utah's Glen Combs. He signed his name over Robisch's picture in my program and then realized he made a mistake and laughed. I also got Denver's Ralph Simpson to sign the cover of my program, right over his picture. We also got Denver Coach Alex Hannum, Utah's Zelmo Beaty and Denver's Frank Card. As we watched the first game between Dallas and Memphis, we were amazed to see Memphis rookie Johnny Neumann hog the ball and shoot almost every time he touched the ball. I also remember the second game between Utah and Denver. My seat was perpendicular to one of the foul lines and I remember Utah's Zelmo Beaty "toeing" just over the line on free throws, and not getting called for it. The Denver crowd loved screaming "three seconds!" and "he's over the line!" all night long."
MEMORIES OF KEVIN CLARK: "In the late 1960's my Dad would take me to Rocket games all the time. One particular night he convinced me to stand under the basket during warm-ups and ask for autographs, which I couldn't imagine being allowed to do these days! Spencer Haywood was my favorite player and I stood there being shy trying to work up the nerve to say something. I finally started asking "Mr. Haywood" for an autograph when a bunch of kids who were older than I started teasing me for calling him "Mr. Haywood". After a couple of minutes of this taunting, Spencer came over, put his arm around me, signed my Rockets program, and loudly chastised the group for not having manners and therefore not getting any autographs! He also thanked me for being polite and to always be that way. I have never forgotten that moment and I still have the signed program. Thanks Spencer!"
MEMORIES OF DON BAKER: "During the 71-72 ABA season, my father and I visited Denver to attend a doubleheader involving the Chaps, Pros, Pacers and Rockets. The doubleheader was played at the Auditorium Arena in downtown Denver (at 13th & Champa). I remember how this building seemed an unlikely setting for a pro basketball game. Except for the marquee, the place reminded me of an old warehouse or train depot. Once inside, the place took on the atmosphere of a theater. I always remember the thrill of walking through the big black curtain entrance onto the court from the outer lobby (you can get a sense for this in the HBO documentary when you see Spencer Haywood & Company walking through the crowd and stepping onto the playing court). Once seated, and the game underway, one couldn't help but describe the experience as both dark and loud."
MEMORIES OF STEPHEN BITTEL: "I have an unforgettable memory from an ABA preseason game that was played in Pueblo, Colorado in October 1972. I was there to see the Rockets play the Virginia Squires. Jim Eakins of Virginia and Warren Jabali of the Rockets were jockeying for rebounding position. Jabali became agitated (if this is the right word to describe Warren) and slapped/punched Eakins into the third row of fans. It took 10 minutes to revive poor Jumbo Jim. Jabali made Albert Belle or Bryan Cox look mild."
MEMORIES OF GUY BLASI: "I was a kid in junior high school and the New York Nets were playing the Denver Rockets in the old Auditorium Arena. Rick Barry was the Nets' star player. The Auditorium Arena was very dark, yet very intimate as everything was close. There was a man in a cowboy hat at courtside who was standing up and heckling Barry every time he went up and down the floor. My uncle was a Denver businessman and we were two or three rows behind this guy. One time going down the floor, Barry tells this guy, "The referee is going to kick you out, so shut up you (expletive)." A foul then occurred and there's Rick Barry whispering to Earl Strom, one of the officials. Next time down the floor, Strom stops the game and signals over to the police to take the guy out of the arena. And the Denver cops did! You wouldn't see that in the NBA!"