What Would Happen If the ABA Was Still Around?

Richard JTContributor IIIAugust 8, 2010

First off, for those of you who don't know about the history of ABA, let me tell y'all.

The ABA was founded because the NBA didn't want to expand from 10 teams, and charged potential owners too much to join the league in franchise admissions fees. So the ABA was formed and the leadership reinforced the idea that it was a good deal by saying they would eventually merge, and since values of franchises were estimated to only be half of NBA-franchise values, at the merger time the value of the team would double, so owners had a sweet deal if they got into the ABA in 1967. Add to that the commissioner of the league (George Mikan) and there's a good incentive to join, so the ABA ended up with plenty of teams.

Mikan introduced the red, white and blue ball, but more significantly the three-point line. Prior to this (and until 1979-80 in the NBA) all field goals were two-pointers even from the halfcourt line and beyond. Later, Dave DeBusschere (another former NBA player, with the Knicks) introduced the slam dunk contest in the 1975-76 season, at the 1976 ABA All-Star game. The three-point line led to higher scores, the slam-dunk's precedence as an attack form led to more fast breaks and the pace was faster. When the NBA incorporated ABA rules after the merger, it was as significant of a game changer as the 1954-55 advent of the shotclock in terms of speeding up the game.

Rick Barry. and 'Dr. J' Julius Erivng joined the ABA because the NBA had age limitations. Additionally, the competition between the leagues led to the players having the ability to command more money and so they would often play the teams and leagues against eachother. (This is part of why Barry moved.) This also led to a delay in the merger because the NBA Players Association sued on antitrust grounds (this is known as the Oscar Robertson Lawsuit) and it delayed it a couple years even though the NBA owners voted in 1970 to merge (13-4).

So anyway, 1976 the merger happens. The urgency factor went up because the ABA's financial situation (due to lack of a major TV contract) had started to worsen, and six solvent, good teams were left in the ABA - this would have been seven, but the Virginia Squires had basically sold away their good players to remain financially solvent longer and this had basically backfired so they folded. The six teams were the Dallas Chapparals (soon to be San Antonio Spurs), Indiana Pacers, New York Nets (soon to be New Jersey Nets), Denver Nuggets, Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis. The first four got in to the NBA, the last two didn't.

The reason for that is because the NBA said only four teams could join, and Kentucky star Artis Gilmore's NBA rights were owned by the Chicago Bulls, who lobbied that Kentucky wouldn't get in so that their players would be dispersed to the NBA teams (including whichever four did get in). So the ownership of Kentucky took $3 million from the NBA to fold and sold Gilmore to the Bulls for $1.1 million. 

Meanwhile, the Spirits had a rough final year and ended up negotiating a deal they had thought up for the Virginia Squires' ownership before that team folded, only for themselves, in which they'd take $2.2 million from the NBA and 1/7 of the TV revenues from whichever four teams got in - forever. So while Kentucky took $4.1 million (including the Gilmore deal) up front and the Spirits took only $2.2 million, they've gotten 1/7 of the TV revenues for the Spurs, Nets, Pacers and Nuggets for 33 years (so far). They've made more than 100 million dollars so far from that.

Imagine if the ABA from the 70s had success and is still around. Do you think they would take over the NBA as the No. 1 professional basketball league in the world?



C - Artis Gilmore/Moses Malone/Dan Issell
PF - Connie Hawkins/Billy Cunningham 
SF - Julius Erving/Rick Barry
SG - David Thompson/George Gervin
PG - Louie Dampier/James Silas/Mack Calvin


C - Wilt Chamberlain/Bill Russell/Kareem Abdul Jabbar
PF - Tim Duncan/Charles Barkley
SF - Larry Bird/Elgin Baylor
SG - Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant
PG - Magic Johnson/Oscar Robertson/Bob Cousy

ABA should not be underestimated. Everyone knows the NBA names, either from seeing them play or watching highlights on ESPN of a lot of those guys. For the ABA guys, very little footage exists of those games and we only see occasional highlights of ABA games on TV these days. Ninety-five percent of casual basketball fans have no idea how good those ABA guys were.

But Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar are easily the three greatest centers of all time, and all three have an argument to be called the greatest player ever (no, Hakeem Olajuwon wasn't close to those guys, no matter how many times they show that move against David Robinson on ESPN).

Larry Bird was the greatest forward (power or shooting) who ever played the game. Tim Duncan is the best power forward ever.

Jordan, Johnson and Robertson are the three best guards to ever play the game.

I think the NBA team just has overpowering talent, and every one of those guys was also a team player (yes, including Chamberlain). 

There are eight guys who have a legitimate argument to be called the best/most dominant player ever. Seven of them are on your NBA team (Shaq is the eighth). On the ABA team, Malone and Erving are both easily Top 15 of all time. Duncan (NBA) is probably a Top 10 player of all-time. Cousy is probably Top 15 of all time, as are West and Baylor.

So the NBA team probably has about 11 of the Top 15 players of all time. The ABA team has two (Malone and Ervng). 

Although the ABA had some great and underrated players, I honestly don't see them winning a game in this series. I used to watch the New York Nets during Erving's time on the team. I got to see him on TV a lot, although most of the country, unfortunately, did not see much of him until he arrived in Philadelphia after the ABA folded.

Maybe, just maybe, if the ABA was still around, we would see the winner of the ABA faces the winner of the NBA for the right of "World Champions."