A Salute to the ABA!

Over the weekend, it dawned on me that all four of the basketball teams from the American Basketball Association back in 1976 were in the NBA’s first round playoffs this year.

The ABA’s Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, and the San Antonio Spurs all made it into the 2019 NBA playoffs.

This marks just the sixth season (out of 42 seasons since the NBA/ABA merger) that all four of the ABA’s surviving teams have made it into the NBA playoffs in the same year (1994, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2013). 

San Antonio has made it into the NBA playoffs for a record 22 straight seasons (winning five NBA championships during that time).  None of the other three ABA teams have won an NBA championship yet.

So, with the ABA quartet into the first round of the NBA playoffs, my ancient basketball brain took an enjoyable nostalgia trip back into the 1970’s to look at the always fun and suspenseful drama on the nine-year history of the ABA.

In the late 1960’s, it became clear that football’s American Football League was going to “make it” and join the established National Football League. 

The next great sports idea was to do it again – this time with a competing basketball league!

At the time the American Basketball Association was born in 1967, there were only ten NBA teams (there are now 30!). 

The ABA and began play in eleven cities.  Below is a list of the original teams and nicknames:

Indiana (Indianapolis) Pacers (as in the pace car at the Indy 500)

New York/New Jersey Americans (later changed nickname to “Nets”)

Denver Rockets (later changed nickname to “Nuggets”)

Dallas Chapparals (moved to San Antonio six years later and became the Spurs)

Kentucky (Louisville) Colonels (yes, as in “KFC”)

Houston Mavericks

Minnesota (Minneapolis) Muskies (a freshwater fish in northern states)

New Orleans Buccaneers

Oakland Oaks

Pittsburgh Pipers

Anaheim Amigos

Only the top four teams above ended- up coming into the NBA nine years later in 1976.  However, only the Indiana Pacers and the Kentucky Colonels stayed in the same city for all nine years of the ABA’s existence and never changed nicknames. 

The Denver Rockets officially changed their nickname in 1974 to “Nuggets” after the NBA moved the San Diego Rockets to Houston (a city which had failed miserably in the ABA).  By 1974, Denver was hopeful that their ABA team would be accepted into the NBA. Even if the league folded, the city felt comfortable that it would likely receive an NBA expansion team soon thereafter.

The Houston Mavericks’ ABA franchise was moved twice.  After two seasons in Houston playing to sparse crowds, the team moved to North Carolina and became the Carolina Cougars as it played home games in the cities of Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem. 

Five years later, the team was moved again to St. Louis and became “The Spirits of St. Louis” for two seasons before the league was dissolved.  The team played to crowds in St. Louis of less than 1,000 per home game.

The owners in St. Louis had been left out of the NBA/ABA merger, but they demanded to receive a percentage “cut” of the future television revenues associated with the ABA franchises in perpetuity.   In the merger year of 1976, the NBA and ABA television revenues were relatively insignificant (a few million dollars per season). 

However, by the year 2012, reports claimed that the owners of the defunct St. Louis ABA franchise had received an estimated $255 million in television revenues since the league’s 1976 merger with the NBA.  In the past few years, the NBA negotiated a buy-out and renegotiated to award the ABA’s St. Louis owners over $500 million in cash and a much smaller future TV royalty percentage.

Meanwhile, other ABA franchises simply wandered from city to city and ultimately folded.

The Minnesota Muskies became the Miami Floridians after just one year in 1968.  Like the team in Carolina, the “Floridians” then traveled around the state with Miami, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Jacksonville, and West Palm Beach hosting “home” games for four years until the team folded in 1972.

The New Orleans Buccaneers swashbuckled their way to the first ABA championship back in 1968.  By 1970, the team moved to Memphis (nicknames ranged from Pros, Sounds, and TAM’s (Tennessee-Arkansas-Mississippi – GENIUS, eh?). 

In 1975, the team moved to Baltimore and renamed the “Hustlers”.  After public protests prior to their first game, the team changed names to “Claws”.  They folded during the Preseason in Baltimore in 1975! 

The Oakland Oaks survived for two seasons before moving to Washington (Capitals) in 1969.  After only one season, the team relocated to Virginia and, like Carolina and Miami, traveled from city to city (Norfolk, Hampton, Richmond, and Roanoke) for their home games for the next six seasons before the team folded just one month prior to the ABA/NBA deal in 1976.

The Pittsburgh Pipers played one year in the Steel City and then, despite solid attendance (by ABA standards, that is), moved to Minneapolis for its second season.  Lack of attendance in Minnesota in 1968 forced the team to move back to Pittsburgh in 1969. 

The team came back to Pittsburgh but the fans weren’t happy that the Pipers “played them” (pun intended).  So, management opted for a “Name the Team” contest. 

The winning entry was the Pittsburgh Pioneers.   A local college already had the Pioneer moniker and threatened to sue!  Thus, the team became known at the Pittsburgh Condors for three seasons before the team folded in 1972 (four years before the NBA/ABA merger).

The original Anaheim Amigos became the Los Angeles Stars in 1968 after just one season.  After two lackluster years in the big city, the Stars relocated to Salt Lake City and became the Utah Stars.  

The Utah Stars drew great crowds (8,500 per game), but the owner apparently wasn’t very good at managing the team’s expenses. The team folded in 1975 after the owner missed the team’s payroll.   

Eventually, Utah’s fans were rewarded and Salt Lake City eventually received an NBA team in 1979 when the New Orleans Jazz NBA franchise owner relocated his team there (and, oddly enough, didn’t change the team’s nickname).  The Utah Jazz still play in today’s NBA.

The American Basketball Association brought the red, white, and blue basketball (which I still love), the three-point shot (which the NBA finally adopted in 1969), and added a significant increase of player talent such as future Hall-of-Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Moses Malone, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, and my personal favorite, sharpshooting guard, Louie Dampier

The ABA’s teams and talented players gave the NBA some much needed energy and innovation at a time when professional basketball was struggling to find its niche.

SwampSwami salutes and will forever treasure his memories of the ABA! 

Beware of Toxic Divas

At all levels of the game of basketball, the championship teams are usually comprised of players who are fully committed to the team’s goals and enthusiastically give each game their very best efforts. 

At each higher level of competition, it is increasingly rare that that a team dominated by the personality of one or two key basketball players will secure a team championship.

On both the East and West coasts, legendary NBA teams in Boston and Los Angeles are both currently floundering due to bad chemistry associated with the addition of toxic player personalities who may believe that that the team’s other players (and, perhaps, coach) should follow their lead in order to succeed. 

The Boston Celtics finished second in the NBA Eastern Conference last season and made it to the Conference finals without having their “star” player (Kyrie Irving) available due to injury.

This season, the team was expected to contend for the top position in the East as Irving and former Utah Jazz leading scorer Gordon Hayward rejoined the team.  On paper, this year’s Celtics were loaded with talent. 

With having healthy starters, the Boston Celtics have now lost seven of their last ten games and have dropped into fifth place in the NBA East.  As mentioned in previous articles on this site, the Celtics have won a higher percentage of games when Kyrie Irving is not on the floor for the team.    

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles Lakers management figured the team would be a virtual lock to return to the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2013 by adding LeBron James to their squad this season.  Though James was injured for a few weeks last month, he is now back on the floor, but his Lakers (like the Boston Celtics) are a pitiful 3-7 in their last ten games coming down the final month of the NBA’s regular season.   

The Lakers are floundering with a team record of 30-34 as of today and are mired in tenth place in the NBA Western Conference.  The team is currently 5 ½ games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.

The Lakers’ playoff chances are fading fast and will require a miraculous finish. 

By comparison, last year’s young Lakers (without LeBron James) finished in 11th place in the NBA Western Conference.  Adding one of the NBA’s legendary individual talents has not translated into a significant increase in wins this season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As in politics, the media certainly doesn’t help the situation, either.  In Los Angeles and Boston, the media floated all sorts of rumors and a frenzy of hype relating to possible trade scenarios for each team as the Lakers and Celtics try to acquire the services of New Orleans Pelicans talented big man, Anthony Davis

Rumors flew that the Lakers were willing to trade multiple current players at mid-season in a trade for Davis.  In Boston, the media lit the fires and let it be known that New Orleans prefers one or more of the Celtics young talented players if Boston hopes to make a deal to acquire Davis this summer. 

It’s bad enough in LA and Boston to have a self-centered diva in your locker room.  The Anthony Davis trade talks, though, have likely had a more negative influence on the other players’ focus and motivation as players wonder who might be getting shipped to New Orleans in mere months.   (Note – Personally, I’d rather live in New Orleans anyway!)

Meanwhile, some NBA teams which do not feature a household name basketball star are doing just fine this season. 

The Indiana Pacers are currently in third place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.  The Pacers recently lost their best-known player, Victor Oladipo, a month ago due to injury, but his teammates have continued to rally and keep Indiana in the third playoff spot in the East.

Though losing a twenty points-per-game scorer is a big loss to the Pacers, having enough foresight and financial resources to stock your bench with able teammates and a talented leader in Coach Nate McMillian has made a big difference, too. 

In the NBA Western Conference, the quiet irony in “The City of Angels” has been the resurgence of the currently star-less Los Angeles Clippers.  Under the guiding hand of “Special Consultant” 80-year old advisor, Jerry West, and veteran coach, Doc Rivers, the Clippers jettisoned three of their former “stars” (guard Chris Paul – to Houston, forward Blake Griffin – to Detroit, and center DeAndre Jordan – to Dallas) and have quickly rebuilt themselves into a hungry playoff contender without a big name player on the roster. 

The Los Angeles Clippers beat the crosstown rival Lakers last night 113-105.  The team has won three games in a row and seven of their last ten. 

The Clippers currently occupy the seventh playoff spot in the NBA Western Conference with 16 games left to play while LeBron’s Lakers are fading quickly out of the playoff picture.  The LA Clippers are playing well together as a team. 

The moral of the story is that basketball was, is, and will remain a team sport. 

Just by having one or two exceptional players on your roster doesn’t guarantee a thing.  Like Golden State Warriors have shown, star talent only makes a significant difference if the entire roster is dedicated to giving their all to win a team championship.

If the stars have a different personal agenda than the coach and the rest of the team, then the team’s chemistry sometimes bursts into flames regardless of how the glorious the personal statistics may have seemed on paper.

Team chemistry matters when it comes to winning team championships. 

From NBA Coach of the Year to the Unemployment line?

A week ago, I wrote about how the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James had the number of the Toronto Raptors.  Not a guy to gloat (cough), I was correct when saying that Toronto desperately needed group counseling as they had lost all confidence when playing Cleveland in the playoffs.

After concluding yet another playoff sweep this week, Toronto’s losing streak to Cleveland is now ten in a row covering the last three seasons.

As a result, Masai Ujiri, team president of the Toronto Raptors, just fired the most successful coach in the team’s history, Dwane Casey.

In a poll of NBA coaches released earlier this week, Dwane Casey garnered the most votes from his fellow NBA coaches for the coveted Coach of the Year award.  Casey took the Raptors to the #1 seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with a team record 59 wins.

Since coming to the Raptors seven years ago, the 61-year old Casey has led Toronto’s hoops team to the most victories by any coach since the team came into The Association in 1995.  The team has won over 50 games per year for three seasons in a row and has competed in the NBA playoffs for five consecutive seasons under this coach.

So, what gives?

  1.  It isn’t money.  Toronto doesn’t have a problem in selling tickets for Raptors’ home games.  The city of Toronto is crazy about this team.
  2.  It isn’t about winning.  Casey turned around a losing franchise into a perennial contender.  He is obviously a top tier coach in the NBA.
  3.  It is likely all about a team whose ownership who has been embarrassed for the final time by a player named LeBron James.

Match-ups mean something in basketball.  That’s why the Indiana Pacers, the fifth place team in the East, took Cleveland to seven games before losing the final game in Round 1.  The Pacers defense clamped down on the non-LeBron players for most of the series.  Only a superlative series of games by James saved Cleveland from a first round exit.

Coaches don’t shoot the ball, rebound, hustle, and play defense.  Coaches aren’t on the court to contest the league’s designated freight train when he is allowed to handle the ball from one end of the court to the other.  LeBron James, with a wink and a nod, knew that Toronto’s key players doubted their own ability to win in this series.

Not that Coach Casey didn’t choke at key times, either.  In Game 3 in Cleveland, Toronto tied the game with eight seconds left.  Even my lovely wife knew who the Cavs would get the ball to.  Yep, #23 was allowed to receive the inbounds pass.  LeBron James was not double-teamed, dribbled the length of the court, and connected on a 15-footer to scorch the Raptors – again.

Toronto’s team president, Masai Ujiri, couldn’t find the right words to explain why he just sent one of the NBA’s top coaches to the unemployment line.

“There’s nothing in particular that coach Casey did wrong, but I think it was time for this to happen,” Ujiri said.

I realize that this probably won’t happen (mostly for tax purposes), but I could envision Toronto making LeBron James (a free agent after the NBA playoffs end) an offer he can’t refuse.

According to one source, the Toronto Raptors are worth about $1.4 Billion.  Perhaps Toronto might offer LeBron a piece of the franchise ownership (let’s say 10%) in return for James becoming a player/coach for the Raptors beginning next season.  Once LeBron retires, he could then become the General Manager for the team.

If you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em, right?

Ladies and Gentlemen…introducing your LeBronto Raptors!