Will Ferrell’s new movie, Semi-Pro, is almost certain to generate plenty of media attention and stories that look back on the history of the American Basketball Association. It’s also likely to rekindle interest in ABA-related collectibles.
For anyone who doesn’t remember the ABA, it was the birthplace of the three-point field goal and slam dunk contest, the first to introduce the concept of the multi-colored basketball and the original home of four current NBA franchises – the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and New Jersey (then known as the New York) Nets. Among the NBA greats who once called the ABA home were Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Dan Issel and Larry Brown (who was an ABA player and then won an ABA title as a coach). Well-known sportscaster Bob Costas was the first radio broadcaster for the Spirts of St. Louis franchise.
Occasionally, ESPN Classic or NBA TV will air some ABA broadcasts. The two I’ve seen most often are the 1976 slam dunk contest and the final game in league history, the sixth game of the 1976 ABA championship series between the Nuggets and Nets. These are fun to watch, not only because of the wide-open style of the games, but also to look back on the wild fashions of the era (seeing Brown coaching while wearing bell bottoms and a leisure suit with the mega-sized lapels is a hoot).
I have some memories of the ABA when I was a kid. The league’s games were rarely televised, but when one did show up, we watched it because it was so different from an NBA game. Watching the multi-colored ball on TV was mesmerizing, and to show how “hip” us 11-year-olds were, we bought a red-white-and-blue ball for games we played on our outdoor hoop. When the ABA merged with the NBA, I tried to make sure to see all of the “new” teams the first time they made a road trip to Milwaukee to play the Bucks.
I also remember when the Topps Basketball sets in the early 1970s included cards of NBA and ABA players. Those cards had the team nicknames printed in big letters across the front, and I remember how strange it was to see nicknames such as “Tams,” “Cougars” and “Conquistadors.”
Beyond the Topps cards, there was a board game called Oscar Robertson’s Fast Break Pro Basketball that I had as a kid, and one I wish I could find again. You could play games featuring NBA or ABA rosters, so it was always fun to match teams from the rival leagues against each other.
As is the case with defunct leagues like the AFL and USFL, there is a group of very avid collectors of memorabilia related to the ABA (see Kevin Glew’s article in the March 14 issue of SCD). In my mind, the neat thing about collecting items from any of those leagues is the fact that nobody ever hoarded programs, ticket stubs, uniforms or any other memorabilia from those old leagues purely with the notion that they’d be worth money someday. People saved them because they wanted to, and the simple laws of supply and demand have taken hold decades later to make some of those items reasonably valuable.
The only bad thing is that more items didn’t survive for those who genuinely would like to have a piece of sports history. But those items that have survived are truly cherished by ABA collectors, and not just for their market value. And that kind of appreciation is what sports collecting is all about.