From an ABA launch in 1967 as the Denver Rockets to the Nuggets in ’74 to one series away from an NBA title
Much was made this week of the Denver Nuggets who finally advanced to the NBA Finals.
- The league began in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America. It was Madison Square Garden that established the New York Knickerbockers and the management of the Boston Garden that gave birth to the Celtics. Therein are the true roots of what is now The League. The Knicks and C’s are the only two teams who have retained their chartered membership since day one. They’ve lived prominently in the same two cities where they were born and with the same nicknames.
- In 1949, the National Basketball League, and the Basketball Association of America merged to create the National Basketball Association.
- The Nuggets have a thick and cumbersome history, including and odd isolated season in the old National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949. It was in 1967 that the Nuggets were born again, formally in Kansas City but moved to Denver before the American Basketball Association tipped off if the fall. The red, white and blue ball differentiated the ABA from the NBA, not to mention unhealthy economics and inferior players.
- The ABA wobbled and faltered from 1967-76, the period of the league’s life. Teams also failed in midseason. Only the strong and mighty survived. The two pro leagues merged in 1976 but only four ABAers survived. In 1976, the Nuggets, Spurs, Pacers and Nets were accepted by the NBA. Since then, of these four, only the Nuggets have never advanced to the NBA title series. Until now!
- Timing was everything. When the ABA was formed in 1967, it would face a growing challenge. Cable TV was in its nascence and streaming was generations away. The big national TV money was decades away. It was also struggling against the NBA. You could imagine what it was like for the fledgling ABA. Early franchises included nicknames like the Anaheim Amigos, Dallas Chaparrals, New Orleans Buccaneers and the Oakland Oaks. It was more a story of failure than success.
- When Denver launched pro hoops in 1967, they were known as the Rockets. The team changed their nickname to Nuggets in 1974 while the club was still in the ABA. Bryon Beck and Spencer Haywood were early stars of the Denver franchise. But the ABA died a slow death in 1976.
- In Denver, Al Albert was prominent. He had called the Nets and Islanders from 1972-74. He then moved out West where he was quite visible. He was the voice of the club while they were in the ABA and NBA, 21 seasons and beloved. Al also did lots of boxing nationally and won the Sam Taub Award, emblematic of blow-by-blow excellence.
- By 1976, the ABA was essentially unsustainable. Only four teams survived. The San Antonio Spurs who started as the Dallas Chaparrals is now a multi-champ; the Indiana Pacers challenged the Lakers in 2000 for the title series but lost. The Nets were in the title series twice but won neither, not in 2002 or 2003 against the Lakers and Spurs respectively.
- In New York, AM Radio was changing. More news and some personalities. Music was beginning to migrate to FM. The Mets who galvanized New York with Tom Seaver were on a weak signal. In 1967, the New Jersey Americans of the fresh ABA were born and in need of publicity. In Brooklyn where I was raised I would listen to Spencer Ross, 27, call the games. He was recommended to coach Max Zaslofsky by Marty Glickman and got the gig. He was wonderful. It was also Marv Albert’s first year with the Knicks.
- The Nets made the playoffs that first season but couldn’t play because but The Teaneck Armory was flooded. Spencer did a studio show and young fans called to protest vehemently.
- Talking of Marty, Mets TV director Jack Simon hired him to do a Nets series on Sunday nights. Glickman was the first voice of the Knicks.
- When the ABA would get an occasional game on CBS in early years, Don Criqui called them.
- Bob Costas as a young sportscaster in St. Louis did the Spirits’ games on TV and radio.
- Winningest ABA coaches included Slick Leonard, Pacers won 2 of the 9 titles and they participated in two others.
A couple of tidbits. One is that Pat Summerall did color with Criqui on CBS’s national telecasts, and CBS Sports did some interesting things in those days–the ABA, the NHL, soccer, etc.
Another is that Doug Harvey, the greatest umpire I ever saw, also officiated in the ABA, and has some great stories in his autobiography.