By Joe Dynlacht
For most basketball fans of a certain age, any discussion of the American Basketball Association (ABA) conjures thoughts of that trademark red, white and blue basketball, the three-point shot and a flashier up-tempo style of play.
However, the ABA lasted just nine full seasons, from 1967-76. Four teams from the league (the N.Y. Nets, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers) were absorbed by the NBA, while the rest of the teams ceased operations.
ABA players not affiliated with the Nets, Nuggets, Spurs or Pacers were chosen from a draft pool by other NBA teams. While ABA talent could hardly be considered inferior to NBA talent, several ABA players, for various reasons, never played in the NBA or did not play in the NBA long enough to be eligible for pension benefits. Since the ABA itself did not maintain a pension plan, many of its players have therefore experienced significant economical hardships in their lives after basketball. Enter Dr. John Abrams, Scott Tarter and the Dropping Dimes Foundation.
Establishing connections: The birth of the Dropping Dimes Foundation
Abrams and Tarter recognized that nearly 40 years after the league ceased to exist, some of its players, team and league personnel, and their families, required financial assistance for day-to-day needs such as health care, food and shelter. They created the Dropping Dimes Foundation (DDF) to provide support to these individuals who might have suffered financial hardship due to sickness, accidents or other unforeseen difficulties. Abrams is the chairman of the board and Tarter is the president. I asked both of them about their connection to the ABA, to gain a better sense of their motivation for establishing the foundation.
Abrams was just a teenager when the ABA was reaching its height in popularity, but the chance of a lifetime put him in line to meet many of the leagues’ players, some of whom became good friends.
“I was officially a full-time ball boy for the Pacers from 1974-76, the last years of the ABA,” Abrams said. “Prior to the 1974 season, I helped Davy Craig, the Pacers trainer, at some practices and games. I just filled in as needed. It was the best job you could have as a teenager growing up in Indiana. We got to hang out with the players, go out to eat after games with players from both teams, etc.” Abrams then went off to college, earned his M.D. degree and returned to the Pacers in 1987 as their ophthalmologist.
Unlike Abrams, Tarter never knew any of the ABA Pacers personally until fairly recently, when he started supporting documentary filmmaker Ted Green (a local filmmaker) a few years ago when Green was working on his Emmy Award-winning documentary Undefeated: The Roger Brown Story. Tarter explained, “I was actually introduced to Ted by my law partner Steve DeVoe, whose brothers, John and Chuck, were among the very first owners of the ABA Pacers in 1967. Ted and I struck up a friendship, and I was soon introduced to John as a fellow patron and supporter of Ted’s work on the Roger Brown film. John and I shared a passion for the ABA and basketball history, and we also quickly became great friends. I soon got to know the local ABA Indiana Pacers during fundraisers and in helping with the Roger Brown film.”
As Tarter also recalled, “Me and my entire family loved following the Pacers. I grew up loving the red, white and blue ball, the ABA championships won by the Pacers and hating the Kentucky Colonels and Utah Stars. I was really struck by the stories I kept hearing about the former ABA players in need. John and I went through that process together and learned that many of our childhood heroes (and in some cases, childhood villains!) had died under terrible conditions, or were now living in heartbreaking situations.
“So we started researching the extent of the problem and exploring ways we could help. The point of no return on that for me was when Slick Leonard’s wife Nancy leaned over to me during a memorial for Pacers co-founder Chuck DeVoe and whispered, ‘Please take care of those boys.’ I was very pleasantly surprised to be invited by the Leonard family to attend Slick’s HOF induction ceremony with them last summer because of my involvement with Ted’s films, including his next Emmy Award-winning documentary Slick Leonard: Heart of a Hoosier. I’m so fortunate to be able to be part of the amazing Leonard/ABA Pacer family, and I’ll be forever grateful for it. But the idea for the ABA charity was simmering for a while before Slick’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year.”
DDF tip-off event and highlights of the first major fundraiser
The foundation held its Tip Off Event and Fundraiser on July 19, 2015, at the Arthur M. Glick JCC in Indianapolis. The site of the event itself was special in that it served as the former practice facility for the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. Several key members of the ABA Pacers championship teams were present to tell stories, sign autographs and raise money for the foundation.
The event began with a Patrons Reception, during which attendees were able to mingle with celebrity guests. Green (who is also a member of the DDF Board of Operations) then proved to be a capable emcee when he summoned the former coach, trainer and many of the players from the ABA Pacers squad to the stage in an adjacent auditorium for a Q&A/storytelling session. Former players Billy Keller, Darnell (Dr. Dunk) Hillman, Bob Netolicky, Mel Daniels and George McGinnis, along with Leonard, the former head coach, and David Craig, the former team trainer, often had the crowd in stitches as they told one funny story after another about what it was like to play in the upstart league. (Editor’s note: Mel Daniels passed away on Oct. 30 at the age of 71.)
Attendees in the audience were encouraged to write questions Green would then pose to the celebrity guests. Daniels and Leonard were elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and, of course, Reggie Miller was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012; however, when asked by Green to speak about their former teammate Roger Brown, the group expressed the sentiment that Brown was the greatest player in Indiana Pacers history. Brown, who had been elected to the All-Time ABA Team in 1997, was inducted posthumously to the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Green then asked the group to tell the crowd why the Dropping Dimes Foundation and its cause are important to them. Speaking for the group, Daniels spoke from the heart. “Back in the day,” Daniels explained, “we didn’t make a lot of money. To see some of the ballplayers go through financial problems is kind of depressing, and we try to do as much about their situation as possible. We’ve been blessed . . . all we are trying to do is pass our love for one another to the ballplayers that made the American Basketball Association what it was and what it did to enhance professional basketball.
“So by seeing these guys . . . we are going to try to do the best that we can to help them as much as we can, as a team. Not just the Pacers, not just the Kentucky Colonels, not just the Denver Nuggets, but as a team, a family, and I think that’s very important to us.”
Netolicky went on to say that he knew of many former ABA players who died penniless or homeless. He reminded attendees that most people think that ABA players made millions of dollars, but that Connie Hawkins (an eventual HOFer) made $7,500 for his annual salary, in his rookie year.
“Most of these guys got out of basketball, some of them didn’t have good jobs, so they had no social security check, but they have medical bills. So a monthly pension would help them just like any other basketball player. There are four or five guys right now that I know are in nursing homes, or won’t even come out of their house because they don’t have a phone, they don’t have a television, they are just living day to day. It’s a darn shame, because these guys are proud. They not going to go out and beg for money. This thing (the DDF) is going to be really nice, and the guys have really come forward, and I think it will get momentum.”
Perhaps the most emotional highlight of the evening occurred when Roger Brown’s original Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame jacket was presented to his family. According to the Indianapolis Star, Gayle Brown-Mayes and her half-brother, Roger Jr., accepted the jacket for their father at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony; Brown-Mayes gave the jacket to Roger Jr., who then gave it to a different half sister, who then sold it (along with several other pieces of her father’s memorabilia) to an auction house (Worthridge Auctions), which subsequently put the jacket on the auction block. The sale of the jacket to the auction house was not condoned by Brown-Mayes. However, Brown’s ex-wife Jeannie, Brown-Mayes and a consortium of several members of the DDF, Pacers Sports and Entertainment and the ABA community pooled their resources to bid on the jacket and ended up as the winning bidder. The final price, including the buyer’s premium, was $2,371. The jacket was presented to Brown-Mayes, Brown’s grandson Hudson Mayes and Jeannie Brown by his former teammates. The family will allow the DDF to display the jacket, along with other memorabilia, next season in a legacy showcase at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the current home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers.
Abrams then told the crowd how the DDF got its name and about the people who had agreed to throw their support behind the organization.
“The name came about on the way back from Slick’s Hall of Fame induction when Scott and I were on our way to the airport. The original name was ‘Fans Giving Back,’ but Mel Daniels vehemently disagreed with the name choice because of the connotation that the fans owe the players something.”
Abrams further explained they adopted Dropping Dimes after realizing that “dropping dimes” in basketball is associated with players making great passes, and that “Rockefeller during the depression used to give out shiny dimes to people in New York who needed money for food, so he was making a ‘financial assist’ to these people. And we thought that this was the right name for this (foundation) because we want to assist these guys across the country, whether it’s financial or other needs. We put together a great advisory board, including Hall of Famers. Basically everyone accepted.”
The advisory board consists of Bob Costas, Peter Vecsey and a host of former ABA players and personnel including the Pacers’ Netolicky, McGinnis, Daniels, Bobby and Nancy Leonard and Craig, as well as Dan Issel (Kentucky Colonels, Denver Nuggets), George Gervin (Virginia Squires, San Antonio Spurs), Brian Taylor (N.Y. Nets), Mack Calvin (L.A. Stars, Floridians, Carolina Cougars, Nuggets, Squires), Roland “Fatty” Taylor (Squires, Nuggets), Artis Gilmore (Colonels) and Spencer Haywood (Denver Rockets).
“Hopefully we can grow this into a great organization that will be able to help a lot of guys,” Abrams said.
How You Can Help
The Dropping Dimes Foundation has been granted 501(c)(3) status as a charitable organization recognized by the IRS, so donations are tax deductible.
Tarter and Abrams encourage people to visit the Dropping Dimes Foundation website at www.droppingdimes.org to learn more about the foundation and ways they can donate to help the cause. You can help support the foundation by making a tax-exempt donation online directly through the foundation website.
Alternatively, people may send their donations via check to:
Dropping Dimes Foundation
Attention: Scott Tarter
111 Monument Circle #2700
Indianapolis, IN 46204.
Tarter described the struggles experienced by former ABA Pacer Charlie Jordan, who has had great difficulties with health issues resulting from a mugging several years ago. He has also had difficulty finding clothing in his size. As Tarter explained, “The needs he has are so simple. But there are a lot of things that people raise money for these days. There are an awful lot of good causes out there. But we are struck not by the amount of their needs, but by the simplicity of their needs. A lot of times, these are guys that just want to be remembered. They might need some medical care because they don’t have coverage. They might have Medicaid, but it doesn’t cover the type of rehabilitative care that they really need. They simply might want to get a visit from one of their ABA brothers.”
Tarter closed the session by saying, “We are going to do a lot of good things with the help of the fans in this city and the other ABA markets, and we going to help out a lot of people who need the dignity and respect that they earned.”
Attendees then had the opportunity to purchase pictures of each of the celebrity guests, which they could then get autographed during a meet-and-greet session for the general public. In addition, attendees could also obtain autographs on the items of their choice for a modest suggested donation.
While the ABA’s Pacers were well-known for their pugilistic skills as well as their basketball skills on the court, I can attest that you will probably never encounter a friendlier and more accommodating group of former professional basketball players and personnel. Several attendees brought basketballs to be autographed, and guests took their time to ensure that their signatures were neat and legible, often chatting and shaking hands before or after signing.
Opportunities for autographs, memorabilia and a museum
In addition to making a donation through the foundation’s website, the DDF is exploring other fundraising opportunities to enable people to contribute.
“We plan to have more meet-and-greet opportunities with the players, and we have plans to work with other former ABA markets like Denver, San Antonio, New York and Louisville, to include players from those teams,” Tarter said.
He encourages ABA fans and supporters to keep an eye on their website for updates, and follow them on Twitter at @droppingdimes67 and on Facebook. Tarter also confirmed that “autographs will always be a part of what we do, and the players still love to spend time with the fans, sign autographs and memorabilia, and tell stories. We’d like for people to consider making donations and getting their items autographed. Just contact us and let us know what you have in mind. One hundred percent of all proceeds will go to the Dropping Dimes Foundation. We also plan to hold silent auctions at our events and will be selling items on eBay, again with 100 percent of all proceeds going directly to the Foundation.”
Some of the items will be unique. For example, Tarter stated that he has a few limited-edition Naismith Hall of Fame basketballs that he had engraved during Slick Leonard’s HOF induction ceremony last summer in Springfield. Each basketball has the name of each of the three ABA Pacer HOFers (Mel Daniels, Slick Leonard and Roger Brown), and has been autographed by Mel and Slick.
As noted above, Roger Brown’s family donated several items for display at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a “Roger Brown Legacy” exhibit that Abrams and Tarter helped organize. However, the DDF also has tentative plans to open a museum in Indianapolis, devoted to the ABA, with proceeds going to the foundation. According to Tarter, he and Abrams are currently looking for space.
Items to be exhibited would consist mostly of material from their personal collections, which are extensive and include several rare pieces. For example, when I asked about their most coveted pieces of ABA-related memorabilia, Tarter responded that “it is probably a program from the very first ABA game (Anaheim Amigos vs. Oakland Oaks, on October 13, 1967), because of the history it represents. But I also have a red, white and blue ball signed by the original ABA Pacers in 1967 that is pretty special to me.”
Abrams responded “That is a very tough question. It’s a tie between my 1973 Pacers championship ring from their third and last championship, and Roger Brown’s 10,000 point trophy that has the game ball he used to make the historic 10,000th point.”
In regard to accumulating memorabilia for potential display in the museum, as well as items for inclusion in upcoming auctions, Abrams said “We will gladly accept any items as donations, and have been given some things already. Scott and I (will also be) donating to the cause. We are confident that former ABA players will donate signatures to help us help others. We believe we will be given items for display when we get our museum concept up and running.”
Given that Indianapolis was the home of arguably the ABA’s only dynasty (the Pacers were ABA champs in 1970, 1972, and 1973), the city would seem to be a wonderful place for an ABA museum that would preserve the history of the league, honor its players and personnel and connect and educate generations of fans. And all of the proceeds would go to a worthy cause.
By day, Joe Dynlacht is an Associate Professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, but he enjoys being an occasional freelance contributor to SCD. Dr. Dynlacht may be contacted at email@example.com.