Ever since the league started eight years ago with a red, white and blue ball, George Mikan and a lot of whimsy, the Kentucky Colonels have won more American Basketball Association games and dribbled away more playoff opportunities than any other club. They have been the league's premier wait-till-next-year team, always running hard—and sometimes brilliantly—but never making it to a championship. Last week, between dance acts and a fight with the police, the Colonels looked ready to break out. We may not have them to kick around much longer.
The Colonels arrived at the gateway to respectability with three straight victories over the Pacers in the festive finals of the ABA playoffs. In one short week they all but reduced the Cinderellas from Indiana to pumpkin status again. There remained the problem of winning a fourth game, but on the basis of early returns the computers were serene.
The principal architect of the turnabout was Artis Gilmore, the 7'2" center with the malevolent countenance and docile demeanor. In this series Gilmore played rough. On Saturday night, in the key third game in Indianapolis, he scored 41 points and had 28 rebounds. No more Mr. Nice Guy. "He was the dominator tonight," said teammate Louie Dampier.
The Colonels were so fired up by their performance that there was a lot of talk in the locker room afterward of challenging the eventual National Basketball Association playoff winner to a $500,000 series. "The public wants it and television would buy it," said John Y. Brown Jr., who is the league president and husband of the Colonels' chairperson of the board. "I think we're better. Remember, I'm a guy who bet on Baltimore and gave 17 points when they played the Jets in the Super Bowl."
Kentucky and Indiana never have been the friendliest of basketball neighbors, and the series produced a number of emotional hot spots. Fans from both clubs shuttled the 120 miles up and down Interstate 65 to attend the games, many of them bearing inflammatory placards. Each team brought in new sideline dance acts. And one player, Kevin Joyce of Indiana, was almost arrested. A policeman said Joyce swung at him after the second game's wild finish when a half-court shot by teammate Billy Keller was disallowed because time had run out. The Pacers protested the game, but it seemed unlikely that the league's new commissioner, Dave DeBusschere, would upset the ruling. In any case, he was off in Las Vegas playing in a celebrity tennis tournament. It is sort of late in the year for basketball.
With its mania for innovation, the ABA often looks as if it were straining for effect. One team used to have girls in bikinis on the sidelines. The latest fad is that everyone can dance. Several teams have cheerleaders √† go-go, and during their second-round playoff upset of Denver the Pacers unveiled Dancing Harry, an itinerant team mascot. For the opening of the final series in Louisville on Tuesday night Kentucky countered with Colonel Super Fly. Super Fly was 13-year-old Michael J. Tolliver, who made the clothes-conscious Dancing Harry seem shabby by comparison. He showed up in a gleaming white suit, hat, gloves, shoes and cape. Besides that, he had youth on his side, displaying footwork, tumbles and splits that his panting rival could not match. Humbled, Harry slunk around the sidelines and cast baleful gazes at the youngster, trying unsuccessfully to win back the crowd by spinning a basketball on his fingertips.
Indiana Coach Bobby Leonard was not in the mood for dancing, either. The press dubbed him the best seventh-game playoff coach in basketball because he is 6-2 in them. But after Kentucky mauled Indiana 120-96 in the opener Tuesday, Leonard and his team looked to have as much chance of making a comeback as the Nehru jacket. Leonard sealed the locker room doors and let loose with some choice invective. When he played pro ball during the sport's poverty period, even the stars drove used Fords and counted their change. The water boys have imported sports cars now, but Leonard still clings to the old school. His mien is that of a Marine drill instructor. Grumpily, he scheduled a practice for 10 a.m. Wednesday and started holding team meetings every couple of hours.
His biggest problem was Gilmore. The Colonels' looming center had bottled up Indiana's inside game, intimidating Darnell Hillman and rookie Billy Knight. In the series against Denver, Pacer star George McGinnis was able to siphon off the Nuggets' defense and pass to Hill-man or Knight underneath, but Gilmore, in tandem with forward Dan Issel, blunted that tactic.
The big fellow always could play defense, but his offensive moves often resembled a man trying to learn ballroom dancing with his shoes on backward. When Coach Hubie Brown took over the Colonels this season he worked with Artis during fall practice, running him through many of the agility drills used by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when Brown was the Milwaukee Bucks' assistant coach. "All the hard work we did then is paying off now," says Gilmore. He also was complimentary about Brown's meticulous organization, calling the team's playbook "the Book of Knowledge." Brown's assistant, Stan Albeck, keeps charts of every play of every game, and the coaches analyze the material like CPAs looking for tax deductions.
Brown and Albeck had the right answer again for the second game on Thursday night. They set up Gilmore for a short hook shot with two seconds remaining, and he swished it through for a 95-93 victory. The Pacers got the ball in-bounds, and Keller let fly a three-point 46-foot shot that Referee Ed Rush disallowed. "I looked up at the clock and saw zeros just as he started up with the ball," said Rush. The referees were being hurried off the floor by a phalanx of policemen when some shoving ensued. For a time the cops stood guard outside the Indiana locker room, waiting for Joyce to appear and ready to arrest him for hitting an officer, but finally all they demanded was an apology plus a new hat for one of the policemen whose old one had been damaged in the scuffle. "They were going to put me in the slammer," said Joyce, a mite smugly.
The Colonels were also getting a lot of unexpected help from reserve Forward Marv Roberts, which was like finding money in the pocket of an old jacket. A six-point scorer during the regular season, the veteran made 19 and 16 points in the first two games. And on Saturday night he had 11 points in 15 minutes during the first half.
The third game also came down to the final five minutes, and once again Gilmore was superb, scoring nine points in that span. Two of his baskets came on dunks, another on a layup but the fourth was a double pump shot that a player two feet shorter would have been hard pressed to duplicate. Somehow, Brown had taught Gilmore to dance, too.
Assuming they will go on to dispose of the Pacers—and if you can stomach the idea that a series with the NBA Champions might not be over till the Fourth of July—it would be interesting to find out if the Colonels are as good as they think they are. The ABA has been calling the NBA chicken for years. And you know what a Colonel does with chickens. He fries 'em.