Lew Alcindor quickly found out about the realities of married life. He agreed to go to Houston's Astrodome last Friday for the NBA-ABA supergame even though he had another date that same day—to marry Janice Brown in Washington. Apparently he figured that the nuptials would be performed in the morning, the newlyweds would hop a jet to Texas and he would go out with the guys that night. So much for men's lib.
No sooner did the former Miss Brown become Mrs. Alcindor than the groom found his schedule changed. His bride informed him she did not care for a busman's honeymoon, or at least that is what Lew told Oscar Robertson on the phone three hours before tip-off time. It was a thumping victory for young love, and it made the supergame considerably less super.
Which is not to say that the affair in Houston did not have its spectacular aspects. Considering that the game was announced only 17 days before the playing date, it was astounding that an independent producer, who paid about $180,000 for television rights, lined up enough sponsors and 197 stations to guarantee that it would have the largest audience ever to watch basketball. Equally unexpected was the solidarity demonstrated by the two players associations. Although some franchise owners threatened the players with an assortment of injunctions, fines and suspensions, only one of the stars, other than the absent bridegroom, failed to appear. Kentucky's Dan Issel was apparently henpecked off the ABA team by the Colonels' management.
The game itself was not a triumph of artistry, largely because many players—such as the NBA's Nate Thurmond and John Havlicek—had not touched a ball for two months prior to the brief practice session on the day preceding the game. But it was exciting enough to be at least semisuper. The play was much more aggressive, particularly in the second half, than is usually the case in All-Star Games, and the score was close throughout. In losing 125-120, the ABA proved that its top players match the NBA's better than any but its most irrational fans had foreseen. Alcindor's honeymoon enhanced the game's competitiveness. The NBA certainly would have won much more easily had he made it to the Dome on time.
June 6, 1971
Lew was not the only absentee. Astrodome officials had predicted a crowd of at least 25,000; only 16,364 purchased tickets, a good number for basketball, particularly out of season, but not up to the Dome's standards. A month ago, for example, 18,459 came to see that good old Texas pastime, a lacrosse match, between those two Lone Star favorites, Johns Hopkins and Navy. One reason for the smallish crowd is that the Dome remains the world's worst basketball arena. Center court rests approximately on second base, and the nearest box seats, priced at $10, are a smartly hit fungo away. The distance muffles the cheering and seems to dampen the enthusiasm, if there is any for the pros in Houston. In the past two years the city has sent an ABA franchise off to friendlier territory in North Carolina and killed off an NBA expansion team before it could even hire its first player.
Larry Fleisher, the attorney for the NBA Players Association, who had been investigating the possibility of an inter-league All-Star Game for a year, explained the choice of Houston: "Originally, we thought about playing it in Mexico City because our association's convention was held in Acapulco this spring. But we decided against that because we thought it would look like the players were running away. Also we didn't want to antagonize anyone by putting it in a city with a pro franchise."
When Robertson, the president of the NBA Players Association, announced the game, he called it a charity affair—the Whitney Young Foundation received about $25,000 from the gate receipts after the Astrodome took its 17.5% and the players associations took their expenses off the top. But the players turned out to be the main beneficiaries. The income from television was split three ways, among the participants in the game and the two players groups.
Robertson also insisted that the main purpose of the game would be to prove that the leagues could compete on the court without a merger, which NBA players oppose. Nothing could have been farther from the minds of ABA players, most of whom favor the merger. Until the game began, the ABA seemed to occupy the same position in the promotion as the stooge teams that travel around with the Harlem Globetrotters. The pregame moods, and stature, of the two teams were clearly reflected by their coaches at a luncheon the preceding day. NBA Coach Bill Russell, whose many extraordinary achievements include three seasons as coach of the champion Celtics, said, "You have to be a genius to coach this team. I am, so I will. I'll tell the guys they gotta make one pass each in the game. Otherwise, they're on their own." Russell was then shown an open letter of challenge from the ABA players which had taken up a full page in a Houston newspaper. He was urged to hang it on the locker-room wall, to get his team up. "It wouldn't make any difference," he said. "None of my guys can read. They've all been on scholarship since the third grade."
Opposing Russell was Larry Brown, the 5'9" guard of the Denver Rockets. Brown's coaching experience totals two years with the University of North Carolina freshmen. "I just hope we don't embarrass ourselves," he said.
The owners' moods were similarly diverse. Some vigorously opposed the game, agreeing with Kentucky President Mike Storen, who said, "Any club with a star doesn't want to call him in and tell him not to go down there, but if the owners are going to take a firm stand, they've got to do just that. They must remind the player that he's being paid thousands of dollars and he has a contract to live up to." The standard contracts of both leagues contain a clause that forbids participation in exhibition games without the written permission of the player's team. Even Storen admits the weakness of the owners' position, however, because they have never invoked the clause in the past. For years players have performed in formal summer leagues in New York and Philadelphia and in the Maurice Stokes benefit game without asking for permission. None was ever disciplined.
Without Alcindor to control the middle, the NBA found itself weakest in the position where it was supposed to have been strongest. The ABA's Mel Daniels and Zelmo Beaty outscored Nate Thurmond and Elvin Hayes 25-20 and outrebounded them 21-19. The score was tied at the end of the first period, and the NBA led by a basket at the half, but the players from the older league appeared sluggish, rarely running effective breaks and defending loosely.
Midway in the third period, after the ABA had built a seven-point lead, the NBA showed by its increased aggressiveness that it finally realized the other league's team was stronger than anticipated. The NBA's bigger forwards, particularly Dave DeBusschere, took control of the rebounds. At guard, Earl Monroe, Robertson, Dave Bing and Walt Frazier started to penetrate, as the ABA's Charlie Scott did throughout the game. Frazier, who was the high scorer with 26 points and who had several steals, worked clear for jump shots, hitting 11 of 16. The other three backcourt men, none of whom the ABA was able to guard without fouling, wheeled into the middle. They scored only eight field goals among them but shot 26 free throws in the second half. In all, the NBA took 70 foul shots and missed 30—an indication of how rusty some of the players had become. "I know one thing, I'll never come to a game like this again without being in shape," said Thurmond, who was 1 for 5 from the field and 1 for 6 from the foul line. "I figured I'd only play about 12 minutes and let Lew do the rest."
The NBA's noticeable increase in combativeness helped build a 10-point lead by the middle of the fourth quarter. But the ABA, proving it could compete even when everyone was clearly playing hard, cut the edge to one point in the final minute. With the ABA's rules and ball being used in the second half, the new league's All-Stars still had a chance to tie the game on a three-point field goal with 0:32 remaining. But Frazier forced a turnover on the inbounds pass to protect his team's lead.
In their locker room later, the NBA players quietly praised some of the ABA's stars—Scott, Daniels and Willie Wise, who shot, rebounded and defended well—and agreed that Rick Barry, who once had led them in scoring, had not suffered from competing in the other league. Russell, who also had warmed to the contest in the second half, gave perhaps the final indication of acceptance when he asked an ABA visitor, "Hey, where do I get one of those red, white and blue balls?"