Pro basketball exhibition games used to have a towering lack of class. Their gate appeal was so low that teams gleefully split the ticket receipts (if any) with the local Order of the Eastern Star for allowing two clubs to play during halftime of the weekly mah-jongg and crocheting bee down at the Masonic Temple. The same fabulous deal was open to any CYO that could find a church basement where a bingo game was not in progress or to a farmers' co-op with an empty grain elevator.
But never again. With the two pro leagues, the NBA and ABA, fitfully edging toward a merger, the owners have at last found something that makes airing out the big arenas, sweeping the floor and printing up tickets worthwhile. It is called the Inter-League Exhibition Game. Remember that title.
The ILEG phenomenon made its debut last week when two of the NBA's best teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Baltimore Bullets, visited five ABA cities. As promised, they drew sizable, enthusiastic crowds. As promised, there was new hoopla—splashes of color right down to some action with the ABA's red, white and blue basketball. But, surprisingly, it was the members of the older league who came out of the week looking as if they might be better off back at the ladies' sewing circle.
When anyone in the NBA last bothered to check, they reported back to their bosses that the ABA was stocked with players too small and untalented to so much as loosen the sneakers of the boys from the real league. But now, it appears, a different kind of lacing may soon be going on. While still not the equal of the NBA, the ABA is zooming toward parity far faster than expected.
October 3, 1971
It is the Kentucky Colonels, with their $2 million baby, 7'2" rookie Center Artis Gilmore, who are leading the way. Against the Bullets, Gilmore put on a performance that surely left some NBA folks longing for the good old days before the ABA began stirring up trouble, paying seven-figure bonuses and—worst of all—beating the older league in basketball games. Gilmore led Kentucky, last season's runner-up in the ABA playoffs, to a thumping 111-85 victory over the 1971 NBA runner-up Bullets.
Granted, it was merely an exhibition game, an early one at that (a total of 24 such games are scheduled before the regular season, when interleague play will cease). Yet, among the five played last week, all of which turned out to be embarrassments of sorts for the NBA, the decisive Kentucky win put the most noticeable dent in the older league's self-proclaimed invincibility.
The trouble for the NBA started on Tuesday night at Dallas in what looked like one of the monster mismatches of all time. The Milwaukee Bucks, champions of the Universe and beyond, came to play the Dallas Chaparrals, who are out of this world in quite another way. It was to be a big night for the Bucks, who lost only 18 of 106 exhibition, regular-season and playoff games last year. For one thing, they were introducing an old center with a new title. Kareem Abdul Jabbar started in the post, replacing Lew Alcindor. Otherwise, he was the same old No. 33, crashing for rebounds and scoring 32 points. Jabbar—the name is a manifestation of his Islamic beliefs—received little support from his teammates, and Milwaukee trailed in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter before McCoy McLemore's jump shot and a pair of free throws by Lucius Allen pulled out a 106-103 Buck win.
The Bucks undoubtedly went into the game planning to take it easy on Dallas Coach Tom Nissalke, who was the Milwaukee assistant the past three years. Besides, Oscar Robertson was not in the lineup. Robertson's absence helped destroy that NBA dictum: a reasonably good team from the older league could crunch any ABA club, and of course a weak one like the Chaps, even when its starters were off testifying in Washington against the merger.
Jabbar, for one, was thoroughly impressed by the Chaparrals. "I wasn't displeased with my game or the team's," he said. "Dallas has as fine a guard corps as there is, and I was surprised at how good their forwards are. If they had the big center they would really be tough. I think that's about the only difference between the two leagues right now. The ABA does not have as many big, tough centers."
It was in Louisville the next night that Baltimore ran into one of the few ABA teams with a big, tough center. Gus Johnson had remained at home, working his way back into shape after off-season surgery on both knees. Had he played, Johnson could have applied his considerable defensive talents against the game's high scorer (24 points), Dan Issel. After leading the ABA in scoring last year as a center, Issel has moved to forward this season to make room for Gilmore, a shift that gives the Colonels a front line any NBA team would envy. Earl Monroe, who worked his special magic brilliantly the night before in the Bullets' preseason opener against the Knickerbockers, was out, too, having been sent home with a sudden flareup of bursitis in his right knee.
But the saddest knee case belonged to Wes Unseld, the Baltimore center. He played far below full strength, suffering the lingering effects of a recent cartilage operation on his left knee. Unseld came to the Bullets from Louisville's Seneca High School and the University of Louisville. At both he achieved a reputation for athletic excellence and personal integrity that made him one of the most popular players in Kentucky history, and his presence was partly responsible for attracting 13,821 fans to Freedom Hall. Unseld had been caught up in the first of the violent bidding skirmishes between the NBA and ABA to sign top college stars. Some insensitive ABA tactics embittered Unseld and drove him away from his home town. He signed with the Bullets for $400,000, even though the then owners of the Colonels offered him more money.
In addition to injuries, the Bullets encountered the psychological problem that is likely to bother all NBA teams in the interleague games ahead. "I hear these guys are really up for this one. I'll tell you I'm really ready for it, too," laughed Baltimore's Jack Marin before the Kentucky game. "I mean I understand all that stuff about pride, but it shouldn't get outta hand. I gotta worry about getting in shape for the 82 games we've got to play and all the ones after that we hope to play. I want to be in shape for them because they mean something. If they want this game that bad, they'll kill us."
The Colonels wanted it bad. The day before the game, new Kentucky Coach Joe Mullaney, who hugely enjoys Gilmore's mobility after two years of coaching stationary Wilt Chamberlain in Los Angeles, hustled a scout off to the Bullet-Knick game in Virginia, an unheard-of move in the exhibition season.
"This is something we've been looking forward to for four years," said Louie Dampier, the 6', sharpshooting and ballhandling Kentucky guard whose size and talents made him the epitome of the ABA's image in the league's early seasons. "They say we're weaker and I'd like to prove we aren't. I won't say I'll play harder because I always play as hard as I can. But when they leave here tonight I want to make sure they won't be looking down on us anymore."
The Bullets did not exactly look up when they took the floor at Freedom Hall for a pregame practice session with the ABA's red, white and blue ball. "What's this thing for, trained seals?" asked Mad Dog Fred Carter as he took a ball and attempted—unsuccessfully—to spin it on the end of his nose. Marin, the long-range gun in Baltimore's offense, saw the three-point goal arc taped on the floor and announced, "I'm not just a star in this league, I'm a superstar." He promptly missed four of five practice tries from behind the line.
The Bullet shooting was barely more accurate in the game. Kentucky built a 14-point lead in the second period and was never seriously threatened thereafter. Without injuries and with the incentive of regular-season play, the Bullets assuredly would be at least a match for the Colonels. Yet Gilmore's performance, even though marred occasionally by the inevitable rookie errors, showed such promise that it may not be long before the Colonels surpass the Bullets and have to be talked about in terms of Milwaukee's Bucks.
On offense, Gilmore demonstrated far better mobility and a surer shooting touch than was expected after his career at Jacksonville University, where he rarely shot from anywhere other than directly under the basket. And his rebounding and defense are already excellent. On Kentucky's most spectacular offensive thrust of the game, Gilmore crashed high between two beefier Bullets for a defensive rebound and hurled to the speeding Issel a full-court pass reminiscent of Bill Russell. The resulting collision under the Kentucky basket indicated something of Issel's power and the toughness of Baltimore's 6'9" rookie Forward Stan Love, a first-round draft choice from Oregon who led his team with 19 points. Issel caught Gilmore's pass on the run, drove to the basket and scored, plowing over Love on the way. Issel's knee slammed the Baltimore player on the chest, knocked him cold and left him gagging. After the trainers from both teams had their fingers bitten reaching into Love's mouth to make sure he had not swallowed his tongue, the rookie, who had come within seconds of suffocating, took a one-minute rest and returned to the game.
On defense Gilmore blocked six shots and clearly intimidated the Bullets on four others. Again, his style reflected glimmers of Russell. On each of his blocks he waited patiently, ignoring the shooter's fakes, leaping only after the ball had been released and tipping it away before it had reached the apex of its trajectory.
"I know it sounds like hindsight, but there were some scouts last year who said they didn't like Gilmore," said Bullet Kevin Loughery, who is in his 10th NBA season. "I knew they had to be wrong. This game is all rebounding and defense. All you have to do is look at the kid to see that's what he likes best. Right now I'd say he's one of the five most important players in the pros."
Baltimore's embarrassment did not end in Kentucky. The next night at Miami the Bullets met the Floridians, one of the ABA's poorest teams, and lost again, 96-88, as little Mack Calvin scored 33 points. In two weekend games against the improved Carolina Cougars, who have a 7' rookie of their own, Jim McDaniels, the Bullets barely won one, 106-104, and then lost again, 108-98.
So interleague exhibition games are here, but the next step, an NBA-ABA merger, remains in doubt. Hearings on legislation to permit such a merger began in the Senate on the same day the Bucks and Chaps played the first exhibition game. The owners of both leagues and most of the ABA players support the merger, but it is opposed by the well-organized NBA Players Association. The anti-merger forces seemed to win the first round before the Senate's Antitrust and Monopoly Legislation Subcommittee, which is chaired by Sam Ervin (D., N.C.). Ervin clearly favored the NBA player position. He raised the dreaded specter of federal regulation, called the present condition of pro athletes under reserve and option clauses "peonage," and ended by expanding a second round of hearings in November to include an investigation of all professional sports operations.
Senator Ervin's position could result in sweeping changes in the business aspects of sports franchises, but for the fans the best hope is that a rapid solution can be reached regardless of who wins the legislative battle. Otherwise, games between teams like the Bullets and Colonels may continue to be mere exhibitions. Last week's action proved they are too good for that sort of status—no matter what color the basketball.