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ABA memories: Don't believe Will Ferrell

by Berry Tramel Modified: August 6, 2014 at 9:25 am •  Published: August 6, 2014
Julius Erving hooks in a shot for the New York Nets against the Spirits of St. Louis in an ABA game from December 1975. (AP Photo)
Julius Erving hooks in a shot for the New York Nets against the Spirits of St. Louis in an ABA game from December 1975. (AP Photo)

For the Wednesday Oklahoman, I wrote about David Vance and the birth of the blocked shot as an official statistic. You can read that column here.

But the occasion gave Vance and I reason to look at all kinds of great memories about the ABA. The American Basketball Association spent nine years as an upstart league before finally merging with the NBA in 1976. Merge is not really accurate. The NBA absorbed four ABA franchises; 10 started that 1975-76 season. Three folded before the year was over, and three didn’t make the cut.

The ABA exited in a shadow world. Virtually no television. As a kid, I never saw an ABA game on TV. Newspaper coverage, especially here in Oklahoma, was limited. My best ABA exposure was through basketball cards; the ABA cards were as prevalent as NBA cards, and I learned all kinds of stuff about the ABA and its players through those cards.

Talking with Vance was a great step back in time. A few of the nuggets:

* Vance walked out of Will Ferrell’s movie, “Semi-Pro,” which loosely was based on the ABA. It was mostly hijinks and no crowds. “The ABA wasn’t like that,” Vance said. “It was the day of the Afro and those big high-rise shoes and fur coats. All that went with the image. Everyone assumed we played street ball. That offended me a little bit.”

* I remember Louie Dampier, the great shooter from the University of Kentucky, who was with Vance’s Kentucky Colonels.

Vance told the story of an exhibition game in Owensboro, Ky., where the 3-point line had to be manually placed on the court, since only the ABA was using the arc at the time. Dampier walked into the arena before the game, still in street clothes, holding his satchel, and walked to the 3-point line. He looked at the basket and said, “It’s off.”

Game officials proceeded to measure the 3-point line. It was an inch off. “That’s a shooter’s mentality,” Vance said.

* Hubie Brown coached the Colonels. Kentucky won the 1975 ABA title. In the 1976 ABA semifinals, the Colonels of Artis Gilmore, Maurice Lucas and Dampier lost to the Denver Nuggets, who featured Dan Issel, Bobby Jones and David Thompson. Those Nuggets were coached by Larry Brown.

Hubie Brown vs. Larry Brown.

By the way, the Nuggets didn’t win the ABA title. The New York Nets did. The Nets had Julius Erving and Swen Nater.

“It was good basketball,” Vance said. “You start with Dr. J and include the Artis Gilmores of the world. Some pretty good talent there.”

The first year of the merger, five of the 10 all-star starters were from the ABA: Thompson, Jones, Issel, Erving and George McGinnis. Off the all-star game bench were Rick Barry, Lucas and Billy Knight, all ABA veterans.

* The Colonels would have made a great addition to the NBA. But owner John Y. Brown chose to take a $3 million buyout, rather than pay a $3 million entry fee into the league. It was a good business decision for Brown; he later bought the Buffalo Braves for $1.5 million and ended up trading that franchise for the Boston Celtics. So Brown in a way purchased the Celtics AND received a $1.5 million bonus, less whatever he lost with his initial Colonels investment.

Good for Brown. But bad for Louisville.

Vance said Brown called and wanted him to join the Celtic front office. But the offer was for less money than what Vance was making in the horse racing industry — Vance had started running horse tracks — and besides, the job with the Celtics really was to daily battle icon Red Auerbach, who quit coaching in 1968 but was still running the organization.

“I elected to stay in horse racing,” Vance said. “Hindsight, I think I did the right thing. But your ego as a young guy in your early 30s, to be able to go to the Boston Celtics, was exciting.”

Vance said he called an attorney, Artis Gilmore’s agent, and received some great advice: “Never let your ego get in the way of good business judgment. I tried to be a smart business guy, I guess.”

* The ABA scrapped and clawed to get ballplayers. When Vance was with the Colonels, starting out in PR and finishing as general manager, he said he became phone friends with David Thompson when Thompson was just a high school senior. Vance would call under the guise of writing an article about him. Sounds a little bit like the college football recruiting cesspool of today.

“That was a fun time,” Vance said of the recruiting efforts of the ABA and potential players. “We would have secret meetings.”

* Vance still takes pride in the success of the Spurs, the Pacers, the Nets and the Nuggets. Only San Antonio has won an NBA title, but it’s not like NBA championships are shared among many franchises.

Vance said the Spurs had a solid franchise even in ABA days. “They did things the right way,” Vance said. “That was pre-(Gregg) Popovich. Red McCombs, he owned part of it then. We tried to do it right. Savvy basketball heads and good talent. Kentucky, that’s basketball country. We would have 16,000, 17,000 several nights a year. The Indiana Pacers were our great rival, of course, next door to us. And that added to it. Great memories.”

* Vance said he still stays in contact with Gilmore, who works at his alma mater, Jacksonville University. Hubie Brown calls on occasion when he comes through OKC doing an NBA game. “If you watch him do a game, he holds that ring up,” Vance said. “That hand, with that Kentucky Colonels championship ring. And I will confess that on occasion, I have done that myself.

“The time of my life. It was fun.”

by Berry Tramel
Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,...
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