On October 13, 1967, the Anaheim Amigos lose to the Oakland Oaks, 134-129, in the inaugural game of the American Basketball Association. In its first season, the ABA included 11 teams: the Pittsburgh Pipers, Minnesota Muskies, Indiana Pacers, Kentucky Colonels and New Jersey Americans played in the Eastern Division, and the New Orleans Buccaneers, Dallas Chaparrals, Denver Rockets, Houston Mavericks, Anaheim Amigos and Oakland Oaks played in the Western. Until it folded in 1976, the league offered players and fans a freewheeling alternative to the stodgy NBA. “It was a looser atmosphere,” one fan remembered. “We could do a lot of things [the NBA] won’t let us do”; these days, basketball games are “supposed to be family entertainment.”
The ABA was a much flashier league than the NBA. In place of the traditional orange basketball it used a garish red, white and blue ball that, Celtics coach Red Auerbach frequently said, belonged on the nose of a circus seal. Its cheerleaders wore bikinis. Many of its players grew outlandishly large Afros. Trash-talking and fights on the court were the norm. And the league had its own rules: It had a 30-second shot clock instead of the NBA’s 24-second timer, and it introduced the three-point shot, which the NBA scorned at first but then adopted. Its players had nicknames like Bad News, Jelly, Magnolia Mouth and Mr. Excitement; two of its coaches were affectionately known as Slick and Babe. ABA teams played playground basketball: showy and pure, with lots of running. (By contrast, one player recalled, “the NBA was kind of like a half-court game. The only team that ran was the Boston Celtics.”)
Even though the NBA did its best to dismiss its rivals as a bunch of no-talent upstarts, the ABA’s best players were hard to ignore. David Thompson and Connie Hawkins got their start in the ABA, and of course, so did Julius “Dr. J” Erving. But the league didn’t have a national television contract and many of its teams had trouble selling enough tickets to stay afloat. By 1976, the league was down to just nine teams: the Pacers, the Colonels, the New York Nets, the Denver Nuggets, the Spirits of St. Louis, the Virginia Squires, the San Antonio Spurs, the San Diego Sail, and the Utah Stars. The Sails and the Stars folded before the season was over; a 10th team, the Baltimore Claws, ran out of money before it even began. That year’s All-Star game featured the world’s first slam-dunk contest, probably the most influential ABA event of them all. Dr. J won easily, taking off at the free-throw line and sailing through the air to the basket.
As the ABA was practically insolvent by the end of that season, it made the decision to merge with the NBA. Four ABA teams remained intact: the Americans (who later became the New Jersey Nets), the Spurs, the Nuggets and the Pacers. The others disintegrated, their players absorbed into other teams as free agents.
In 2003, for the first time, two ABA teams competed in the NBA finals. The Spurs defeated the Nets in six games.