Basketball Culture 101: The revolution was not televised

[Editor's Note: Jared Wade is the one of the founders of the ESPN TrueHoop Blog 8 Points, 9 Seconds, as well as the proprietor of the witty Both Teams Played Hard and a contributor to Hardwood Paroxysm. Often the future writes history, in that we don't know what things means until their consequences are laid bare. For a rebel and ultimately doomed league, the prospect of defining pro basketball for the next half century must have seemed distant indeed. Here, Wade describes how the soul of today's NBA was influenced by if not inherited from the innovations and ethos of the ABA, as captured by Terry Pluto in Loose Balls.--Beckley]

It’s appropriate that we are discussing Loose Balls right after the All-Star break. Terry Pluto’s classic work is the definitive record of the ABA, a short-lived league known as much for its flair, charisma and innovation as its champions and legends. And at no time is the legacy of history’s greatest alt-hoops movement more apparent than during NBA All-Star Weekend.

First off, the ABA invented the dunk contest as a mainstream event. Dr. J’s free-throw-line dunk was a frozen moment for the ages that ushered in a new era of creativity and imagination for a sport that, just two decades prior, had been defined by George Mikan post moves and Bob Cousy high dribbles. It wasn’t just an athletic feat; it was the real-life imprint of a dream that became etched into the consciousness of every kid with a pair of Converses. It was man extending the limits of the possible. With an afro.

In terms of Xs and Os, the three-point shot was an even more important innovation. The ABA did not coin the new rule (that was the ABL), but it did popularize it. And perhaps more than anything else, the three-pointer represented what the league was all about. “For a coach, the 3-point play is a form of mental gymnastics,” says Hubie Brown in Loose Balls. “All your life, you’ve been trained that a basket is worth two points. That was how you always played the game, how the game was always played … The 3-point play forced coaches to be more creative and to give their players more freedom.”

Most iconic of all is the red, white and blue ball. There is a reason it is still used in the NBA’s three-point shootout — and there is a reason that sinking the “money ball” is worth more points than makes using its bland, orange sister sphere. It’s not just a ball. It’s a symbolic preservation of the flamboyance and rebelliousness of the league from which it was spawned. It is the emblem of a very specific period in time, both for basketball and for a burgeoning social progress of this country.

Like the extended, black-glove-covered fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the Olympic podium in Mexico City in 1968 or the defiant, cocky scowl of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, in 1965, the image of the red, white and blue ball represents an African-American-led cultural phenomenon that mainstream America was not ready for. Given its relative obscurity as a professional sports league, there is no doubt that the ABA contributed much more to revolutionizing the game of basketball than to altering the landscape of racial relations in America. Let’s not overstate the league’s significance in that regard. But given the overall standing of African-Americans in this country when the league was formed in 1967 and the general suppression of the expression of black culture throughout the other major sports leagues at the time, there is no doubt that the ABA made significant strides in both realms.

Some of the excitement and individuality was intended and encouraged from the outset. But, like everything related to the ABA, much of this was not planned. Loose Balls clearly shows how the impulsive, ad hoc management of the ABA — both by the top leadership and by the owners of the individual teams — led to a precarious business model, which never allowed for the development a rigid structure like those of the other sports leagues of the 1960s. This, in turn, created the foundation for what truly was a players’ league. The ABA of course had white stars from Rick Barry and Larry Brown to Billy Cunningham and Dan Issel, but the league was a place where the urban style of play and black basketball culture could flourish. As the owners, coaches and general atmosphere further encouraged a game based on high-flying athleticism, wide-open play, individual expression and entertainment-above-all thinking, the league began to portray the ideals of The City Game that the NBA had never embraced.

It is apropos, then, that Loose Balls is far from a traditional book. The most exhaustive account of the ABA is essentially a first-hand oral record from those who played for, coached and ran the teams. Since so few of the games have been preserved on video and so few other accounts of the league exist, this is the perfect format.

How else could we get so many stories in so few pages? How else could we be fed amazing tales such as this one from ABA ref John Vanak about the athletic feats of a no-name like Charlie “Helicopter” Heinz? “The Helicopter went up for a slam and just tore the rim right off … The first time it happened — yes, I said the first time — was late in the first half and they held up the game for an hour, but eventually found another rim and backboard. But in the second half, the same damn thing happened again … Where were we going to find another backboard? It was about 11 at night. [Cougars GM] Carl Scheer wanted to call off the game and then replay it with a big promotion—Broken Backboard Night or some such thing. Jack McMahon was coaching Pittsburgh and he said he didn’t care if we had to wait until 3 A.M., we were going to finish the game. They brought in a wooden backboard from a local high school and we did finish, probably around 3 A.M.”

How else could we hear candid admissions like this one from DC lawyer and Washington Caps owner Earl Foreman? “I had never seen an ABA game before I bought the Caps. We didn’t have a big crowd for our opener and I remember sitting there saying to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”

Where else could you get so many poetic perspectives on exactly how the rebel league impacted the spirit of the sport, including this one from player agent Ron Grinker: “The standard of excellence in the NBA was the Boston Celtics, who were the masters of fundamental basketball. Those guys would pick-and-roll you to death. They played right out of the textbook. The ABA was Julius Erving, it was glitzy, get the ball out and let’s run and jump and play above the rim and we’ll make things up as we go along. The NBA was a symphony, it was scripted; the ABA was jazz. People weren’t sure exactly what they did even after they did it. They felt something and they tried it.”

And nowhere other than Loose Balls can you have the ABA’s largest legend sum up the whole alt-hoops movement better than Dr. J does here: “In some ways we were a maverick league, but so what? What was wrong with the red, white and blue ball? What was wrong with the 3-point shot or creating a faster tempo so that the little man would have an opportunity to play? What’s wrong with a little experimentation and encouraging an individual to excel in a team sport? … Listen, the ABA gave the NBA a wakeup call. We were the first league that really knew how to promote its teams and its stars. What the NBA does now with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the ABA was doing with players such as George McGinnis, George Gervin and myself. In my mind, the NBA has just become a bigger version of the ABA. ”

Even during the league’s heyday, few ever got to see the on-court exploits of the ABA’s most exciting players. The league was not televised and it was sparsely covered in newsprint outside of the cities that had teams. But even though it occurred out of view, it was not out of mind. Its influence on the sport and those who played it was tremendous. Both technically and in terms of the open expression it encouraged, the league helped change the way men played professional basketball.

As we see even in 2011, the NBA is still struggling to balance individual expression with conformity. A few years ago, the NBA implemented a dress code to ensure its players were publicly perceived in a league-approved manner. Back in the day, the ABA let Larry Brown coach in overalls. The NBA implemented a “respect for the game” violation that gives technical fouls for any player who becomes overly emotional after a bad call by a ref, largely so fans will not think the league is full of miscreants. Back in the day, the ABA embraced NBA pariah Connie Hawkins and watched him lead the Pittsburgh Pipers to the league’s first championship.

Still, there is no doubt that professional basketball has progressed monumentally since the ABA was born in 1967. Players now have more power than ever, something best illustrated by the LeBron/Wade/Bosh-conceived Voltron squad now bulldozing the NBA, Carmelo putting the Nuggets in limbo for six months in and effort to join buddy superstar Amar’e Stoudemire in New York.

For some, particularly those who consider themselves “basketball purists,” this may represent a negative path for the league to go down. But today, when you look around the league and see Blake Griffin’s awe-inspiring exploits, John Wall’s Dougie-inspired celebrations and Chris Anderson’s peacock-esque uniqueness, it would seem that the NBA now more closely resembles the ABA than it ever has before.

I suppose the only thing fans should hope for is that the similarity doesn’t extend to the league’s business model as well — but I guess we’ll see about that this summer when they negotiate a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

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Check out more of HoopSpeak’s Basketball Culture 101

This HoopSpeak project is based on the University of Michigan course Basketball Cultures. Click to read the enlightening thoughts of course’s professor, Dr. Yago Colás

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