By Jim McCarthy Mar 14, 2011 0 comments

The ABA: Failing to Greatness

Who remembers the American Basketball Association?

I do, hazily.  It folded when the highlight of my week was still Count Chocula in front of Saturday cartoons, but I have vague memories, or maybe just memories of evidence of the existence of the ABA:  a cover of an old Sports Illustrated or a red, white and blue basketball with Dr. J’s signature on it.  Not his real one, of course.  A genuine replica.

But the ABA was the NBA before the NBA was the NBA.  The ABA was an upstart league that was trying every crazy trick its owners could think of to get the NBA’s attention.  The real draw, I’ve read, for ABA potential owners was that one day, they’d parlay their small investment in an ABA team into a huge payday because the NBA would be bringing them into the fold as part of the older, more established league.

So what did they do?  They created a little gimmick called the ‘3 point line.’  They came up with the idea of a Slam Dunk contest.  They made the ball red, white and blue.  They put franchises in places where people love basketball, but where the NBA thought they couldn’t make a market (like the South and the West.)

They amped up the showmanship.  They focused on scoring rather than defense.  They threw dizzying amounts of money at players like Julius Erving and at the NBA’s best referees.

Put differently, the NBA was starting to feel like the picture on the left, while the ABA was more like the picture on the right:

Ok, I exaggerate.  The NBA had evolved past the peach basket quite a bit by the time of the ABA, and it’s true also that the ABA folded in 1976 while the NBA survived, so obviously people didn’t embrace the ABA enough.   The NBA, though, had huge advantages of money, and the best players and TV contracts and the big cities and the storied franchises.  It was too much for the ABA to overcome, but something had happened.  People had glimpsed something they liked.  They’d glimpsed the future of professional basketball.

So the ABA failed, with only four teams going to the NBA after the merger.  From the point of view of the people who pinned their hopes on the ABA’s success, it was a bitter disappointment.  The ABA wanted to become part of the NBA, and they mostly didn’t.

On the other hand, you could make a strong argument that the NBA, all of it, became the ABA.

The specific innovations of the ABA were not only adopted by the NBA (except the red, white and blue basketball), but the spirit of the ABA became the thing that ultimately saved the league in the 80s.  Would there have been an Air Jordan without Dr. J and that giant afro flying through the air?

As late as 1980, NBA finals games weren’t even always broadcast live.  The league was in big trouble.  But with the emergence of young new stars and the addition of the ABA’s sense of experimentation and fun, it made an enormous comeback.  The NBA became an enormous worldwide success, and a generation later, it’s basically working in the same model.

Imagine if, rather than embrace what the ABA was doing, it had done a victory lap on the upstart league’s corpse, confident that it had been right not to change?  Where would it be today?

And that makes me think we should constantly be asking ourselves where the sources of inspiration are for ‘failures to greatness’ today.  Who’s doing something that might not be working for reasons that have nothing to do with their insight into something brilliant, like the need for more fun and showmanship in basketball?

BTW, you’ve got to watch this tribute that Nike did with some modern players to the spirit of the ABA in this commercial from a few years ago.  Great fun:

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