Where does the Lively League stand, as it enters its third year of existence? The most succinct summary of its status was provided last June 10 in a preliminary stock prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by the Pittsburgh (then Minnesota) Pipers. The SEC is interested only in the facts, and the Pipers declared: "The future of the company is entirely dependent upon significant public acceptance of the American Basketball Association which is itself heavily dependent upon its ability to attract and retain the best college basketball players. To date, the American Basketball Association has not enjoyed significant public acceptance nor has it been successful in attracting the best college players."
A lot has transpired since June 10, but not nearly enough to alter significantly that self-appraisal. The best team in the ABA would still finish in the NBA cellar, and though that is a judgment impossible of proof, there are definitive criteria demonstrating that the ABA is not yet major league. No league in these times can pretend to enjoy "significant public acceptance" unless it has a national network television contract and until it is a popular success in New York and in Los Angeles or the Bay Area of California. There is as yet no evidence that the ABA is anywhere near achieving these goals.
Between seasons a number of major events affecting the ABA took place. Those favorable to the ABA include:
•a change in league management, James Gardner becoming acting commissioner
•the signing of three NBA stars, Bill Cunningham, Dave Bing and Zelmo Beaty, for future delivery
•the signing of Olympic hero (and college undergraduate) Spencer Haywood to a '69-'70 contract with Denver
•the signing of four NBA referees
•the shifting of two franchises—moving Oakland out of Oakland and moving Houston to Carolina
Those events unfavorable to the ABA include:
•moving Oakland to a rundown arena in a poor location in Washington
•breaking off the merger talks
•failing to acquire network TV
•losing Connie Hawkins and Alex Hannum
•failing to sign 14 of the 15 NBA first-round draft choices
Only Larry Cannon chose the ABA's Miami over the NBA's Chicago, and the Italian professional league did about as well as the ABA in this competition. After three years of sound and fury and allegedly open checkbooks, the ABA has now signed 4.8% of the NBA's first-round choices. It is difficult to see how this qualifies as catching up.
One area in which the ABA can match the NBA is in the closeness of in intraleague competition. Oakland, now Washington, was much too good for the rest of the league last year, even with Rick Barry lost because of an injury before the season was half over. But the battle for the other seven playoff spots was stimulating. This year, having lost Forwards Gary Bradds (who retired) and Doug Moe (who joins other former Carolina college players on the Cougars) as well as Coach Hannum, the Oaks/Caps should not be as strong.
Because the turnover of talent is so constant, however, it is not easy—or safe—to make long-range judgments about the ABA race. Only Solomon Grundy moved faster than many ABA players do—drafted on Monday, Cougar Tuesday, Rocket Wednesday, Chap Thursday, Cap Friday, Net Saturday, free agent Sunday. Last year New York employed 23 players, Houston 22.
It is noteworthy that the Oaks won with the most stable roster in the league. Even more telling is the fact that they and the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern champion, had the best front lines in the league. Strong, mobile big men who can shoot and rebound have always been scarce, and now just about all of them are in the NBA. The ABA tries to favor the little man, anyway—baskets made from beyond an arc about 25 feel from the basket count three points. This thrilling innovation has not necessarily opened a pathway to success, however Last year Oakland tried the three-pointer fewer times than anyone—making only 29 in 78 games. Obviously, with a good, big team, you should go for the old-fashioned percentages.
Haywood enters the ABA as no worse than second-best center, after Indiana's MVP, Mel Daniels, so his Rockets must be considered a threat to the Caps. So must Bill Sharman's young L.A. Stars, especially if Simmie Hill plays up to his potential, and if the team is not discouraged by empty seats; most of the Stars' games are scheduled when the Lakers are in town.
Indiana is the prize franchise in the ABA, the only one to make a profit. Ii averaged larger crowds than all but five NBA clubs and has a good radio-TV package to go with a big team that should repeat in the East, if only because no one else is much improved. Kentucky, Carolina and New York failed to sign any of their first five picks. Miami still needs help in the corners, so the biggest challenge may come from the Pipers, back in Pittsburgh minus Hawkins and three-quarters of a million dollars, but with a highly touted young coach, John Clark, and some good rookies.