The ABA: A Basketball League with a Short Life but a Lasting Impact

On October 13, 1967, there was a professional basketball game between the Anaheim Amigos and the Oakland Oaks. Never heard of these teams? That’s likely because they are from a league that no longer exists. The game between the Amigos and the Oaks was the inaugural game of the American Basketball Association (ABA). The ABA was not the same as the NBA we know, nor was it meant to be. The main idea behind the ABA was to have a league that was more fun to watch than the NBA, which had become relatively stagnant in the years prior.

1967 was the first year in the previous nine that the NBA champion was NOT The Boston Celtics. Before that eight year run of dominance for the Celtics, the NBA was dominated by a different team, the Minneapolis Lakers, who had won five championships in six years. The dominance of the Lakers and Celtics caused the popularity of the NBA to dip, creating an opportunity for the ABA to challenge them.

The ABA wanted to rival the NBA, and at the forefront of ABA ideals was location. Team’s home cities were strategically placed, with only three of the 11 teams placed in current NBA markets: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Other cities were chosen because they were either former NBA markets or because they were major cities that professional basketball had never been located.

On top of that the league decided to constantly relocate teams, noticing that there were many major cities throughout the country that professional basketball had yet to capitalize on. All in all, 22 cities hosted ABA teams during its existence. 14 of those cities are current homes to an NBA team, accounting for nearly half of the league.

Although it seemed that the ABA had figured out where to play, they struggled to sign a national TV deal like the NBA had. Ticket sales were the main revenue source for the new league. In order to sell tickets, the ABA made basketball more entertainment than sport. The ball itself was taken from its boring brown design and turned into a patriotically colored masterpiece. The speed of the game also changed. The pace was faster in the ABA, meaning more shots were taken and more points were scored. Fans started to take notice.

It was hard for fans not to keep focus when players themselves began to change. Afros and groomed mustaches became commonplace. Nicknames increased the popularity of people like Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George “The Iceman” Gervin and Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. With sellable stars, the ABA had the platform for monetizing basketball.

The cherry on top of these changes was the spectacle known as the slam dunk contest. The ABA created this event to host their biggest names performing the most exciting play in basketball. 

With all these changes came an adjustment period. Only one month into its first season, in November of 1967, the ABA’s Indiana Pacers were down just two points to the Dallas Chaparrals. Only one second remained in the fourth and final quarter. The Pacers had possession of the ball and had a chance at one final shot, but it would have to come from the opposite end of the court from which they were scoring, a mere 92 feet away. The point guard for the Pacers received the inbounds pass and heaved the ball before the clock struck zero. The ball crashed into the backboard and ricocheted directly into the net below. 

The Pacers huddled around their head coach, preparing for overtime. Everyone involved in the game, fans included, thought that the full court shot had tied the game. The shot was clearly behind the three point line which was, and still is, 23 feet and nine inches from the basket at its furthest point. So why didn’t the Pacers celebrate? The reason is that pretty much everyone in the ABA came from the NBA and was used to the NBA’s rules, which didn’t include a three point line. An Active.com article explains this story and how the three point line started and evolved over time. In the NBA, every made field goal (shot) was worth two points, aside from a one point free throw. A three point line allowed for shots of any distance beyond it to worth three points. The ABA took a risk and put a three point line on all eleven ABA courts and hoped it would catapult their league past their NBA counterpart.

The three point line is an afterthought nowadays, as an average of nearly 34 long range shots were attempted per contest through the first two weeks of the 2019 NBA season. In comparison, only five three point attempts were taken per game during the ABAs inaugural season, and the player who took and made the most three-pointers that year, Lester Selvage, wasn’t even an all-star. That would be the same as Steph Curry not being an all-star in 2018. Still, the three point shot proved to be a difference maker very quickly in the ABA. According to basketball-reference.com, the Pittsburgh Pipers won the first ABA championship, while leading the league in three point attempts (3PA), three point makes (3PM), three point percentage (3P%), opponent 3PA and opponent 3P%. In just one year, the ABA had shown how the three point line can effectively shift the play style so much as to impact how to win a championship, as six different teams won during the ABA’s nine year existence.

Even with three point shots and new champions every year, the ABA struggled financially. The leaders of the league knew that the best chance of a long lasting impact was to merge their league with the NBA. In the summer of 1976, the two leagues agreed to partner, terms heavily favoring the side with the money to make the merger feasible. The ABA had 10 teams in its final season, but only six successfully made deals to join the NBA. Four teams directly joined the NBA: the Pacers, Nuggets, Nets and Spurs. The two other teams, the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis, agreed to end their existence altogether while their players entered the dispersal draft, where they would be selected by NBA teams before the upcoming season.

Following the merger, the ABA’s mark on the NBA was quickly noticed. In just the first season after the merger, 75% of the players from the ABA were on an NBA roster and 10 of the 24 NBA all-stars were from the ABA, including the game’s MVP. Also, four ABA players were on either the All-NBA first or second team (basically meaning they were in the top 10 players in the league). The players made the transition quickly and quite smoothly, as 16 players from the ABA were eventually inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. 

For having a relatively unknown existence, the ABA exhibits a clear influence on the modern NBA. It is quite obvious the impact the three point line has had on basketball, as most starters and nearly all bench players often require a proficiency in shooting or defending threes, if not both. The ABA had the guts to challenge the status quo, and we can only imagine what the sport might look like had that not been the case. Although the NBA never adopted the colored basketball in regulation games, they did take on the project of the Slam Dunk Contest, turning it into All-star Weekend. Subtle credit was given to the ABA for this event, as the colored ball was added to the three-point contest and was given a double point value. On its own, the ABA might not have succeeded, and it might have lost its name in the merger with the NBA, but their significance towards the game of basketball is undeniable.

*historical statistics were collected from basketball-reference.com

Continue Reading