Red, white, but not blue about Spurs

June 18, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Maybe it was no big deal to you when George Gervin tossed up a ceremonial red, white and blue ball before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, but it was a big deal to me and everyone else who honed their Basketball Jones on the American Basketball Association years ago.

What can I say? I hardly paid attention to the NBA back then. The wild, infectious, unforgettable league of Billy Keller, Levern Tart and Gerald "Go-Go" Govan was my league.

It's been 23 years since the sad day it folded, and now, finally, one of the four franchises that joined the NBA has reached the Finals. The San Antonio Spurs look like they're going to win, too, after routing the Knicks in Game 1.

That's what I'm cheering for, unashamedly, in honor of Louie Dampier, John Brisker and every other ABA legend. It's easy to root against the Knicks, but the fact that they're playing an ABA team makes it a cause on sentimental grounds. Long live the Anaheim Amigos!

A lot of fans around the country are feeling the same tug, no doubt, particularly in places where ABA teams played. If you remember the Pittsburgh Condors and Memphis Tams, or the Kentucky Colonels and Dallas Chaparrals, congratulations, you're part of the cult.

There was a team in Baltimore ever so briefly, a team that played a couple of exhibition games in 1975 and promptly folded.

The highlight occurred when fans were asked to help with the nickname and some voted for Hookers -- after the shot, supposedly, not the girls of The Block. The Claws, as they ultimately were called, never had a chance.

My team was the Chaparrals, who showed up in my town dribbling red, white and blue balls when the ABA opened in 1967. The center was a 7-footer named Richard Peek who moonlighted as a fireman. Cliff Hagan, an aging star who'd played in the NBA, was the player/coach. The forwards were Cincy Powell and John Beasley, long ago forgotten by all but a few.

So started the franchise now drawing 40,000 a game in San Antonio.

Plenty of seats were always available, but not because the games didn't sizzle. The whole idea of the ABA, remember, was to offer an alternative to the staid NBA. An up-tempo pace wasn't written into the league charter, but it seemed so. A hail of fast breaks, three-pointers and hot-dogging fell every night. A guy named Les Selvage attempted 26 three-pointers in a game and no one even blinked.

My bleacher seat cost $2, a bargain. One night, I watched an Indiana guard named Jerry Harkness fling a 92-foot shot through the basket to win a game at the buzzer, although both teams huddled up for overtime before remembering the shot was worth three points, not two. The stuffed shirts in the NBA waited years before adding the trey.

Indiana's Roger Brown, Kentucky's Bob Netolicky and Indiana's Mel Daniels were among the first stars, as was Brisker, a brutal forward who shattered a backboard years ahead of his time. One team made the playoffs when a tie-breaking game was forfeited because of unscrewed bolts in the floor. The Condors, led by Connie Hawkins, beat New Orleans in the first finals. The score in the clincher was 122-113. An average night.

The league was always out of money and near collapse in the coming years, but the signings of Artis Gilmore, George McGinnis and Julius Erving sustained interest and improved play. Dr. J packed the gym with his array of spins, flips, drives and windmill dunks -- basketball's version of Neil Armstrong's moonwalk. We oohed and aahed like cavemen seeing fire for the first time.

The Chaparrals were like the Chicago Cubs, doomed to fail. They never reached the championship series and never really caught on despite having such players as Donnie Freeman, a guard who could have lit up the NBA; Steve Jones, now the NBC announcer; and Maurice "Toothpick" McHartley, who played with a toothpick in his mouth (true story).

The franchise moved to San Antonio in 1973, breaking my heart, and blossomed into a winner when it added Gervin, maybe the most inventive shot-maker ever. The NBA and ABA merged three years later, with the Spurs, Pacers, Nuggets and Nets joining the NBA.

Those of us who'd lived with the ABA had spent the league's nine-year existence obsessed with measuring ourselves against the NBA, desperate to prove we could play the game, too. Our chances of proving the point after the merger were severely damaged when Erving and McGinnis were dealt to Philadelphia, an NBA team. Talk about a personal foul.

Now, finally, the Spurs are coming through. Tim Duncan was still in diapers when the ABA folded, but who cares? The Knicks are a member of the NBA's old guard, and the Spurs trashed them in Game 1. Another big win in Game 2 tonight could signal the start of a sweep.

It's almost enough to make a guy step outside and shoot some 30-footers, just for old time's sake. Alas, like a fool, I sold my red, white and blue ball in a yard sale a few years ago.

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