By Joe Dynlacht
The 50th anniversary of the American Basketball Association (ABA) was celebrated during a reunion that was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, March 6-7. Billed as the “Last Dance,” the reunion was organized by the Dropping Dimes Foundation.
The Dropping Dimes Foundation was created in 2015 by Dr. John Abrams and Scott Tarter. They recognized that many former ABA players, team and league personnel, and their families required financial assistance for day-to-day needs such as food, shelter and healthcare. The mission of the Dropping Dimes Foundation is to raise funds to provide support to members of the ABA family who have experienced financial hardship.
Abrams, a former ball boy for the ABA Pacers who now serves as the team ophthalmologist for the NBA Pacers, is the chairman of the board and Tarter is the CEO. Several players and coaches who played at least part of their careers in the ABA currently serve on the board of directors, including Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers Louie Dampier, George “The Iceman” Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Spencer Haywood, Dan Issel, Bobby “Slick” Leonard, George McGinnis, as well as sportscaster Bob Costas and writer Peter Vescey.
The ABA lasted nine years (1967-1976), with only the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets being absorbed by the National Basketball Association (NBA) after the ABA-NBA merger. This resulted in many ABA players either never playing in the NBA or not playing long enough to qualify for pension benefits from the NBA.
The reunion kicked off on April 6 with a private, informal gathering for the former ABA players and coaches, their families, and a few title sponsors. The Dropping Dimes Foundation, together with other sponsors, flew in players to Indianapolis who couldn’t afford to come on their own. Title sponsors were Pacers Sports and Entertainment and CNO Financial Group. Other major sponsors included Paul and Cindy Simon-Scott, the Daniel Silna family, and the Red McCombs Foundation.
The event, held at Emmis Communications headquarters on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis, was a highlight for Abrams. Abrams noted that the fundamental goal was to bring the former ABA players and others associated with the league together to renew acquaintances.
“Players came up to me and said they hadn’t seen so-and-so for 40 years. It was just a great way for them to reconnect,” Abrams said.
The next morning, activities moved to Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University, and included a sports card and memorabilia show as well as an opportunity to meet and obtain autographs from players and coaches from the ABA. The activities were held in the practice gym, just steps from the court that was used to film parts of the movie “Hoosiers.” Half of the gym was devoted to the sports card and memorabilia show, which was organized by J&J Allstar Sportscards Shows of Indianapolis. All money collected from table rentals went directly to the Dropping Dimes Foundation.
The autograph session was preceded by a short ceremony, after which each former ABA player, coach, or other ex-ABA employee was called up to receive a special 50th anniversary ring. During this time, a number of ABA players made the rounds collecting autographs from teammates and former foes, now friends.
To accommodate the multitude of autograph guests, dozens of tables were arranged, end to end, in the shape of four large rectangles. All of the autograph guests were positioned on the inside of the rectangles, and the autograph-seeking crowd of fans was split up into four different lines that would snake their way around each of the rectangles. This allowed fans to pursue autographs from all of the signers in attendance, or to accumulate as many or as few autographs as they wanted.
Upon entering Hinkle Fieldhouse, fans had the opportunity to purchase a special commemorative pennant for $149.75, or a red, white and blue commemorative basketball for $229.75 on which they could acquire autographs of all players in attendance. Single autographs could be obtained on personal items for $24.75 each. All proceeds beyond expenses went to the Dropping Dimes Foundation.
Attendance figures for the autograph session were not available, but Abrams confirmed that 90 players and coaches were in attendance.
“We are in the process of being recognized by Guinness for setting a world record for the number of signers at a single event,” Abrams noted.
The autograph session lasted for three hours, and this afforded enough time for the fans who wished to collect an autograph from everyone to do so. Fans were able to say hello to their heroes and many took photographs as they moved through the lines. Several of the ABA’s greatest players and coaches attended the autograph session including seven HOFers. Some of the more high-profile signers included Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers Louis Dampier and Dan Issel (the No. 1 and No. 2 ABA career scoring leaders, respectively), George “The Iceman” Gervin, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore, and Rick Barry. Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George McGinnis, a newly minted Hall of Famer himself (having been elected by the Veterans Committee last year), could not attend the autograph session due to other commitments, but attended the gala later that evening.
The number of signers wasn’t the only thing that distinguished this autograph session from other autograph sessions. Every autograph guest that I met was smiling. From the beginning to the end, every autograph guest, even the few that had a reputation of being a bit surly, seemed to be genuinely enjoying the experience of connecting with the fans.
Prior to the public being admitted into the autograph area, I roamed around the tables as many of the players and coaches were taking their seats. I stopped in front of Rick Barry. Barry’s basketball career began and ended in the NBA, playing for the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, respectively, but he also played for the ABA’s Oakland Oaks, Washington Capitols and New York Nets. Known for perfecting the “granny style” method of free throw shooting, his career free throw shooting percentage was just a hair below .900. In fact, he later told fans attending the gala that he would gladly accept a wager from anyone that believed he couldn’t hit 80 percent of his free throws even now, at age 74. He is the only person to have led the NCAA, NBA and ABA in scoring. He won championships in both the ABA (in 1969 with the Oaks) and NBA (Warriors).
Barry was kind enough to chat with me for a few minutes. He still looks great, and he told me that he stayed in shape by working out and eating healthy. I asked him if he had collected any cards or kept any of his memorabilia. Barry said that he collected his own cards, but that, “People keep sending me cards I’ve never seen before. I still have some things, but my ex-wife got rid of a lot of my memorabilia. It’s a shame, since they’d be worth a lot of money now.”
Toward the end of the autograph session, I briefly took off my “SCD reporter hat” and put on my “fan hat.” I had brought with me a few cards and some full ABA tickets for games that some of the attendees had played in. I made my way back to Barry. Having already interviewed him, I felt bad that he had lost a great deal of his own memorabilia, so I produced for him one of his Topps cards along with a full ticket to one of his games as a New York Net. I asked him to sign whichever item he liked, and told him that he could keep whichever item he did not sign. Barry kindly declined my offer, and even though I had only paid for one item to be signed by him, he offered to sign both of my items, personalizing the card and adding “Best Swishes.”
I then searched for Doug Moe. Moe played five seasons in the ABA (with the New Orleans Buccaneers, Oakland Oaks, Carolina Cougars, and Virginia Squires). He then was an assistant coach for the Cougars and Nuggets, and eventually served as a coach for three NBA teams including the Spurs and 76ers.
He is best known for his coaching stint with the Nuggets, which lasted from 1980 to 1990. During this time, he led the Nuggets to the playoffs nine straight years, winning two Midwest Division titles and reaching the conference finals once. He was named NBA Coach of the Year for the 1987-88 season.
I was in college in Colorado for much of the time that Moe was coaching the Nuggets, and I told him that of all of the people I hoped to meet at the ABA reunion, he was at the top of my list.
“You must have something wrong with you,” he joked.
But I then explained that I always thought he gave honest, but very colorful interviews. Interestingly, Moe doesn’t follow basketball as much anymore, but confided that he keeps busy these days with fantasy baseball.
“I follow fantasy baseball all day long during the baseball season,” he admitted.
The festivities concluded later that day with a gala at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis. Here fans enjoyed cocktails, shared dinner tables with the greats of the game, and listened to stories during a Q&A session moderated by Costas, who also served as the emcee for the gala.
At the mixer prior to the dinner, players, coaches and fans had the opportunity to chat and reminisce. Upon entering the venue, with my “SCD reporter hat” back on my head, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Costas, who had just finished filming an interview with a local news station. Costas made his full-time broadcasting debut at age 22 as a commentator for the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis. He was the radio voice of the team during the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons.
I asked Costas if he had saved any memorabilia from his days in the ABA. With a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face, Costas replied, “As a matter of fact, I do. I have a team schedule that used to hang on a wall in the arena in St. Louis. Of course, the team had that great logo with the Lindbergh airplane. I have it framed and hanging on the wall in my house. I also have a Spirits of St. Louis warm-up jacket that was worn by Mike Barr. But I wouldn’t say that I have a huge collection. I just collect what I like…what interests me.”
I also had the opportunity to chat with Mack Calvin. Calvin was a five-time all-star and ranks second all-time in the ABA for career assists. He is a member of the ABA’s All-Time Team (as determined during the 30th ABA reunion), but curiously, despite an exceptionally strong case in his favor, he has yet to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
He was kind enough to give this middle-aged weekend warrior tips on how to play defense against someone that is several inches taller. I asked whom he considered to be the toughest person to guard, and he named two players: Donnie Freeman and James Silas.
Asked whom he hated to have guarding him, his answer, without hesitation, was Brian Taylor.
Dr. J emerged from one of the tunnels, but was kept out of view from the crowd so he could sign several red, white and blue commemorative basketballs. Abrams told me that the balls that he was signing before dinner had been signed by all of the Hall of Famers in attendance, and would probably end up being distributed by the foundation in exchange for a donation. He indicated that 5 to 10 of them might be distributed over time, and that the others would be used as thank-you gifts for sponsors.
“If someone really wants one and wants to pay enough money, they can reach out to our foundation, but otherwise, they will probably be offered through an eBay auction eventually, to increase the exposure, but we haven’t definitively decided what to do yet,” Abrams said.
According to Abrams, approximately 750 people attended the gala, including 100 former players and coaches, and nine HOFers.
After the players were introduced to the crowd, they were seated at tables with eight guests. Most of the funds raised from the event resulted from the sale of tables to corporations ($2,500 or $5,000 per table). One table was purchased by the NBA, which sent a representative and also allowed the foundation to use footage and photos during the event. The National Basketball Retired Players Association also purchased a table.
Seated at one table was Dan Silna, the lone former ABA team owner. Silna, who, with his brother, owned the Spirits of St. Louis franchise, paid for the rings that were given to each former player and coach in attendance. Another former owner, Red McCombs (San Antonio Spurs), could not attend the festivities, but as mentioned above, was a key financial contributor.
Costas took the stage in his role as the master of ceremonies. Costas spoke about being part of the “fraternity” of the ABA, and its mystique and impact on the NBA.
“The ABA had a quality of legend about it, because now, everything of major consequence is on television somewhere, is seen immediately from six different angles, maybe more, all of it immediately archived,” he said. “Some of what happened in the ABA is legendary, because most of it was not nationally televised. So a lot of it is storytelling; a lot of it is word of mouth. …That’s what a legend is. It may not be 100 percent true, it may be embellished; it’s a matter of my perspective or your perspective, the ABA has that mystique and that quality of legend, but it also had an ongoing impact.The first year after the merger, 1976-77, 10 of the 24 players in that year’s NBA all-star game had played in the ABA; half of the 10 starters in that year’s NBA Finals between the 76ers and Trailblazers had played in the ABA.”
Costas then handed the microphone to Abrams and Tarter. Abrams spoke about the motivation for starting the Dropping Dimes Foundation.
“When Scott and I started this non-profit over four years ago, we had a simple mission and goal, which was to help former ABA players and their families in need, and give them assistance,” Abrams said. “We also wanted to keep the history and the memory of the ABA alive for decades to come. When we started the Dropping Dimes Foundation, the first dime we dropped was simply providing a former Indiana Pacer with a suit so he could go to church. We then took a trip to Louisville with a few Pacers, met up with some rival Colonels, and spent an afternoon visiting with a former Kentucky Colonel in a nursing home. Scott and I both hated the Colonels. We hated you, Dan Issel. We hated you, Louis Dampier. We hated Artis Gilmore. But the camaraderie of the day was priceless, the clothes we provided were needed, and now we both love the Colonels.”
Abrams also told the crowd about how the foundation arranged for some much needed oral surgery for a former Miami Floridian, and how they helped a former New Orleans Buccaneer whose home had been vandalized.
Tarter took a moment to remember the late HOFer Mel Daniels, who he referred to as “their biggest champion and motivator,” by establishing the Mel Daniels Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship recognizes a deserving student athlete from Pershing High School (Daniels’ alma mater) who exhibits not only leadership and strength in the classroom, and in athletics, but also true strength of character and his or her compassion and empathy for others.
Spencer Haywood, chairman of the board of directors for the National Basketball Retired Players Association, announced that he would be able to get the ex-ABA players (about 197 players), access to the same health insurance that the NBA’s retired players receive, and promised that “we’re going to do some wonderful things for our great ABA legends.”
Vescey was invited to the stage, where he chronicled the ABA from its earliest days. Vescey lamented about, but also highlighted the impact of the ABA-NBA merger.
“I think of so many truly great players whose career either ended or were near the end when the merger finally happened,” Vescey said. “And so much of America never knew how great Willie Wise was, or Mack Calvin, or James Silas…a lot of these guys never got to show what they could do, but when the four teams were taken in, the ABA players didn’t just hold their own, they excelled.”
Vescey also spoke about how the NBA had disrespected the ABA.
“For nine seasons, the ABA was snubbed, slighted, ignored, demeaned, devalued, unacknowledged by fans, media, and NBA hierarchy, but you know, it made the underdogs meaner and more determined to gain equality, to make names and careers for themselves, and it bonded the players and the coaches and the trainers and yes, even the writers, like no other sports league,” Vescey said. “We were in it together. We were a cult. Of course, we bonded. We had nothing else to do but bond.”
Vescey noted that the Hall of Fame only allows one ABA player per class, while numerous NBA grads get in (5 in 2018).
“Meanwhile, Willie Wise, James Jones, Bobby Jones, Mack Calvin, Ron Boone, Larry Kenon…they have to wait in line,” he said. “The red, white and blue fight for recognition, equality and justice, and pension continues. So we celebrate the over 100 players that are here, and the 200 players that have died, and as Eminem wrote, they may be gone, but they are not forgotten.”
During dinner, attendees were treated to music from the ’70s while ABA highlights lit up the big screen in the front of the room.
Five lots were auctioned off live during dinner. Highlights included:
• Three lithographs by artist C. Michael Dudash from oil paintings that had been commissioned by Converse and were never available for purchase by the public. The lithographs included players Dr. J., Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and were signed by each. The winning bid was $3,000.
• An ABA fan package including a 50th anniversary reunion ring inscribed with the name of the winning bidder and identical to the rings given out exclusively to the ABA players in attendance, a 50th anniversary reunion ABA basketball signed by all of the Hall of Famers in attendance, and a framed and signed poem by the late Hall of Famer Mel Daniels went for $6,500.
After dinner, Costas took to the stage again and moderated a Q & A session featuring some of the more recognizable faces from the ABA’s past. George McGinness, Spencer Haywood, Doug Moe, Julius Erving, Rick Barry, George Gervin, and Dan Issel were the participants. The following is a sample of the general banter during the Q & A session:
Costas: “What did the ABA mean to the history and evolution of pro basketball?”
Issel: The ABA didn’t have any rules….The best thing about the ABA, and the thing that enabled the ABA to survive the nine years it did, are the guys that are on this stage right now, because …the NBA had a rule that your college class had to graduate before they would draft you. And we got all of the great young talent because George (McGinnis) came out early, Spencer came out early, Julius came out early, George (Gervin) came out early.
Barry: “There are a lot of guys sitting up here and a lot of guys that are out in the audience who would have never had the opportunity to be professional basketball players had it not been for the ABA, and it created so many jobs in so many different areas, for coaching and front office people that really did revolutionize the game….the ABA was definitely an up-tempo game until guys like Artis and other centers came along….the ABA was more of a guard and forward oriented game, and that’s the way it was played. It was great, but don’t think that it was all wonderful. There are some great stories, there’s some heartaches. It took a lot of courage. I played a game in Houston one time, and there were more people sitting on the bench and at the scorer’s table than there were in the stands.”
Costas: “There were times when we couldn’t make payroll. There were times when we checked into the hotel and they said we can’t give you the room keys because you didn’t pay the bills from the last time… Teams did not travel in chartered luxury like they do in the modern NBA. It was commercial flights, often connecting flights, often commuter flights….the Spirits played a game in Kentucky against the Colonels. And Louisville is on Eastern Time. But it’s just about the same driving distance from St. Louis to Louisville, maybe a little longer than St. Louis to Indianapolis, maybe an hour time difference. And so they pass out the itinerary the next morning at the airport in Louisville, and Marvin Barnes comes walking up to me, drapes an arm over my shoulder, looks down at me from more than a foot above me and brandishes the itinerary that says ‘TWA Flight 305, depart Louisville 8 AM, arrive St. Louis 7:56.’ He goes ‘Bro, you seen this? Well I don’t’ know about you, but as for me, I am not getting on any time machine.’ I think Marvin knew he was saying something funny. Marvin was crazy but he wasn’t dumb.”
Erving then pointed out that some teams, like the Virginia Squires, had four home courts, and often had to fly to their home games. Barry recalled having to go on a 30-day road trip.
Dan Issel told a story about the early days of scouting.
Issel: “I was playing for Doug (Moe) when Doug was the assistant coach and Larry Brown was the head coach. The league had just started scouting other teams, so Larry sent Doug over to Utah to scout the Jazz, and Larry was really excited because we never had a scouting report before. And he called Doug up and he said ‘OK Doug, it’s time for the scouting report.’ And Doug gets up and says ‘If you can’t beat these stiffs, you ought to give up basketball.’ And that was his scouting report.”
Barry: “The Indiana Pacers for the ABA were like what the Yankees were for baseball. Without the support and the greatness of basketball in this particular state I don’t know how successful the ABA might have been and whether or not a merger ever would have taken place. And then of course Denver was another great one and they started to draw (fans), and certainly the Colonels down in Kentucky, and so that really is what saved everything….and so you people (in Indiana) deserve a lot of credit, and my hat goes off to all of the founders of the Dropping Dimes Foundation for what you are doing for all of these players. We’re going to do everything we can to help the players.”
McGinnis: “I was really fortunate to come to a veteran team in Indiana that had won a championship previous to my rookie year. Mel, Roger, Neto, Freddie Lewis were the leaders of the team, and that made a huge difference to guys like myself and Darnell Hillman who came in as rookies; they kind of taught us the ropes. We had a good coach in Bobby Leonard, who … made us play poker, took our money and gave it back to us so we could eat on the road. But it was a lot of good times and a lot of good memories, and I’m so glad that we were able to have this (reunion) back here in Indianapolis, because this team and this organization is where it all started; we had great early success, three championships in the years that the ABA existed. And the other thing is our Foundation. It’s really a shame that the money that’s being paid to basketball players today…that we’ve got players in our era who don’t even have insurance, and that should not be, so I hope that out of all of this, we can get a few more benefits for our old retired players, because it’s certainly needed.”
Costas noted that to take care of the surviving ABA players, “some of whom have hit on hard times, to do right by everybody would really only require the salary of one middling level NBA player, one eighth guy on the team, third guy off the bench, just one year’s salary from that guy in the modern NBA.”
Barry spoke about the toughest players he ever matched up with, but then paid homage to his peers.
“Two of the toughest guys I ever played against were Doug Moe—he was slow but he was a heck of a defensive player—and a guy named Willie Wise,” Barry said. “He was a great basketball player. All of you, I have such great respect for what you did, it was fun to be a part of the ABA, and I’m just thrilled to be a part of this. I think we are going to raise a lot of money for this foundation and help a lot of you guys out.”
Issel touched upon the limits put on ABA players getting into the Hall of Fame: “There are many deserving players out there.”
After the event concluded, I asked Abrams to recall his most memorable moments.
“Without a doubt, and I could interchange the name of the player with probably 40 or 50 guys, it was when the players came up and gave me a hug, and said that it was by far the best weekend they had, and it was so important and memorable to them, that it will be with them forever,” Abrams said. “The thank yous that we got from so many guys…guys that only played one year in the league, how important this was, and the fact that we gave them a ring that they will have forever, as a reminder of the importance of the ABA and their having been a part of it, was probably the most memorable thing. But having dinner with Julius Erving was kind of fun, too.”
Joe Dynlacht is a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, but he enjoys being an occasional freelance contributor to SCD. Dr. Dynlacht may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.