[In the summer of 1972, Rick Barry was caught up in another ABA-NBA tug of war. The courts ruled, and Barry was on his way back to the NBA and the Golden State Warriors. His return led to the inevitable question: How does the ABA stack up with the NBA?
In this article, Barry speaks his mind to author Bill Libby. Barry’s opinions are certainly informed, but they are not well nuanced to explain why the ABA sometimes stumbled due to factors beyond its control. And obviously, his opinion—“I don’t believe the ABA can be broken now”—was off the mark. The league was out of gas organizationally in 1975 and kaput the next year. Those mild caveats aside, give this article a read from the magazine Pro Basketball Sports Stars of 1973. Barry spares no opinion to try and tell it like it was.]
The National Basketball Association is better than the American Basketball Association, but it is no longer a great deal better. The outstanding stars in the ABA are about on a level with the NBA now, and some of their top teams have almost caught up to the old circuit’s best. Realignment has strengthened the ABA, and a merger could give it muscles equal to the NBA.
This is the opinion of the much-traveled Rick Barry, who should know. The first NBA superstar to jump to the ABA, he spent the past summer wondering whether he would play again with the New York Nets or return to the West Coast as a member of the Golden State Warriors. He has played with some of the best and against most of the best of both leagues, and he is an outspoken sort of person.
The book I wrote with Rick, Confessions of a Basketball Gypsy, has been praised for its honesty. Rick let even his enemies have their say about his controversial career. He sure had his say, and he had a lot to say about, among other things, the mediocrity of the ABA in its first seasons, which makes his praise of the present easier to accept.
In his book, he said, “I don’t know what I’d expected, but I was very disappointed when I went over to the ABA . . . I really found myself in the bushes . . . Everything was disorganized from the top level on down . . . I’m a terrible businessman, so I know one when I see one . . . I traveled around and met a lot of owners and team officers and found that they were worse than little kids. In some of the cities, the franchises did not even have buildings in which to play, and in others, the buildings were beyond belief. They played before small gatherings of family friends.
“There was a lot of talk about spending big money to buy ballplayers from the NBA and outbid them for the cream of the college crop. But when it came to putting the figures on paper, they used invisible ink. They paid to get me, and I guess they’d have paid for a few others. But a lot of guys who were tempted to jump backed out when they found the owners reneging on their promises. And the business managers of a lot of rookies found the ABA owners unwilling to back up their big talk.
“The owners said they realized they had to spend money in the beginning to make money in the long run, but they didn’t do it. They let attractive rookies like Lew Alcindor and Elvin Hayes and Pete Maravich get away from them because the contracts they offered were not what they said they were going to offer. Then they went around screaming that they’d been jobbed. Hell, some of the guys in the circuit were having to struggle to get their salaries.
“The ABA was fortunate that guys like Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown were barred by the NBA and were available at slave wages. But as soon as Hawkins threatened the NBA with a lawsuit and broke them down and got a bid, the ABA lost him.
“When the ABA owners who were willing to spend money wised up and spent money to land a Spencer Haywood, a Charlie Scott, and a Rick Mount, as well as to get NBA stars like Billy Cunningham and Zelmo Beaty to sign contracts, the ABA finally scared the NBA into merger talk. If they’d acted swifter and surer, they’d have succeeded a lot sooner. And the ABA wound up losing Haywood because his contract wasn’t what it was supposed to be. (And Scott and Jim McDaniels, too.)
“When I first got into the ABA, I knew the level of play wouldn’t compare with that of the NBA, but still I was disappointed. It wasn’t the different rules: there’s a 30-second clock instead of a 24-second clock, and a three-point field goal for shots from outside a 25-foot arc painted on court. These are all right. I thought the red, white, and blue basketball was Mickey Mouse, though I didn’t say it. It’s not just the color—it’s the optical illusion it creates. But if you shoot it straight, it goes in the hole. There just weren’t enough straight-shooters in the league.
“They had a lot of players who shouldn’t have been in pro ball. They had starters who might have been benchwarmers in the NBA. It was obvious they couldn’t round up talent equal to the NBA’s in a year or two or three, but they hadn’t rounded up as much talent as I’d expected. I think they had only two men who would have been stars in the NBA, Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown. And a few others who would’ve been important regulars on the good NBA teams—Mel Daniels, for one. Jimmy Jones, for another.
“There may have been several others. Doug Moe, Larry Jones, Willie Wise, Donnie Freeman, Ira Harge, and Cincy Powell were good players. Charlie Williams, Louis Dampier, Levern Tart, and Darel Carrier were, too. And there were others. But some of the best of these weren’t big enough at their positions to make it big in the NBA, and some had flopped trials in the old league.
“Ira Harge is a good defensive center, but he’s small for an NBA center and doesn’t have good hands. It would be hard to guess how he’d do against a top NBA center, but then not every NBA team has a top center. Mel Daniels is a good all-around center, but not strong enough to overpower anyone.
“Some of the teams were poorly coached, and some of the good players goofed off a lot. The spirit was low on most teams, and team play nonexistent. And the lack of crowd support and newspaper publicity dulled everyone’s edge. It was bad, and I had to help promote it. So, I said it was great, and I’m ashamed of that. But was I supposed to say it was terrible? Hell, anyone with any knowledge of the game could see what it was. So, I said it was good and going to get better. That’s business. You don’t hear the NBA owners telling what they think the expansion teams are really like.
“And I didn’t think it would get better, and it has—and a very fast. Hawkins was lost after the second year, but a lot of others came in who were almost as good. A lot of poor players have been weeded out and replaced by solid players. The teams are getting good coaching, and the spirit has improved. But there’s still a long way to go.
“A lot of noise was made about the Indiana team, which won the ABA title in 1970, being good enough to play the NBA championship New York team. It wouldn’t be close. Indiana was about as good as a good expansion team or the poorer established teams of the NBA. Denver actually had a better team, but couldn’t put it all together at the end. Because of Haywood, Denver would have been the ABA’s best bet against an NBA team, but they’d have had trouble keeping up with the top NBA teams.
“Nor was the 1971 ABA champion Utah team a match for the NBA’s best. However, players such as Charlie Scott, Dan Issel, and Artis Gilmore brought the ABA level way up. Veterans like Joe Caldwell and Zelmo Beaty were a big lift. Some teams may only be a few years away. A big man can make a big difference. A Lew Alcindor might have made an ABA team a power on an NBA level. He’d have made Indiana very strong.”
During the recent offseason, Barry commented, “The loss of Scott and Jim McDaniels hurt the ABA enormously and, if others such as Julius Erving, Issel, or Gilmore go, it will be tough to overcome. The ABA came a tremendously long way this past season and, at times, it had teams which might have competed with the better teams in the NBA.
“Hawkins and Haywood were stars in the ABA, and they swiftly became stars in the NBA. Scott was a sensational rookie in the ABA, and he right away showed he was a sensation in the NBA, too. Players like Beaty and Caldwell, who were great, not dominant in the NBA, went into the ABA and weren’t dominant there either. My statistics are about the same in the ABA as they were or would be in the NBA. There just simply isn’t that much difference between the two leagues anymore.
“I think the ABA had the finest forward in basketball last season. Not Rick Barry. And there was a time I would’ve told you I was the best. But Julius Erving is fast becoming the best, and he is going to become the greatest forward ever to play this game. I’m good, but I can’t compare to him for natural talent. No one in basketball today can, not even Haywood or an aging Hawkins.
“Haywood has tremendous talent. He is super, and he is going to be better. Maybe I am wrong, but I think Erving is going to be better yet. I can do some things he can’t do because I have the experience and know better how to get things done. I’m a better shooter. Erving is not a great outside shooter. But he has the most marvelous control of his body and the ball, the most magnificent moves, the most overpowering raw talent I’ve ever seen.
“George McGinnis is another great forward who is just developing. Like Erving and Haywood, he broke into pro ball when he still should have been in college, so he is ahead of himself. But he is just about the strongest player physically I’ve seen in basketball and one of the most fearless. He simply overpowers people.
“As a rookie pro, Artis Gilmore had to rate in the top four or five centers in all of pro basketball. Maybe a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as Alcindor now is known, or a Chamberlain is superior, but not many others. Gilmore’s good, and he’s going to be great. He has the size, and he has the skill. He Is more of a center than McDaniels was. McDaniels is a Mel Counts-type forward. A super shooter, he may become more of a tough center if he beefs up.
“More than anything else, the ABA lacked the great giants the NBA had. Gilmore narrowed the difference enormously. Now I’d say the ABA more than anything else lacks the big, skilled guards of the NBA, guys like Oscar Robertson, but then Oscar is getting old and suffering from injuries. Scott was such a player, but then the ABA lost him.
“Darnell Hillman and Bob Lackey are other young players who are in the ABA now who are going to be very good, or that I can think of offhand. Bill Melchionni is developing fast. So is Willie Wise. Issel and Ralph Simpson established themselves as superstars equal to the NBA’s best young players in their second seasons. Daniels, Freeman, Jones, and Beaty are still tough. The addition of a quality player like Billy Cunningham, who came in this season, has to boost the ABA.”
Kentucky beat up Virginia, and Utah beat out Indiana in the ABA’s two divisions last season. Only the Lakers’ 69-13 record topped Kentucky’s 68-16 mark in pro basketball. Joe Mullaney, who went from coaching L.A. to coaching Kentucky, said Kentucky was comparable to top NBA teams. Utah, the defending ABA champion, put together a fine 60-24 mark. But the playoffs provided surprises. Barry’s New York team and Indiana upset their way to the finals, with Indiana taking the title.
Barry says, “With Gilmore, Issel, and other good players, Kentucky was a team which might have easily beaten half the NBA teams and would have given the rest trouble. I think the team lacked only good big guards to challenge the contenders. But I think also that Gilmore awed a lot of opponents and helped his team win a lot of games it shouldn’t have won. I wasn’t surprised at the playoff results because I honestly thought Utah and Indiana were tougher. I thought Utah was toughest.
“I don’t know how Indiana beat Utah, except that Utah had some severe injuries, especially one to Beaty which had to hurt them a lot. With Beaty, Wise, and Jones, Utah was almost as tough last season as it was the previous season under Bill Sharman. Virginia, with Erving and Scott, was about as tough, too, until Scott left.
“Indiana had tremendous depth and experience, and that’s what beat the Nets. The team has a great balance with Daniels, Brown, McGinnis, and a lot of talent right through the bench. My team came a long way, and I thought we should have won, but inexperience and injuries hurt us at the finish. I was hurt, and John Roche, who was just coming into his own and is another potential star, was hurt. We made too many mistakes. But the Nets are a team that is just on the rise. With a big man like young Jim Chones, the Nets can be outstanding.
“More than anything else, the ABA has developed team balance. It now has four or five teams that would not be embarrassed in meetings with the NBA’s best and that provide tremendous competition within the ABA.
“Folding the Florida and Pittsburgh franchises helps, because they were weak links and their players spread around the league increase the depth and strength of the other teams. Most of the teams that are left have sound management, good buildings to play in, attract reasonable publicity, and draw well. Except for the money spent beyond reason for rookies, most might be moneymakers now. Because of bonuses, some still are in trouble. But so, too, are some NBA teams.
“A merger, though I hope one without a common draft, would be good business for both leagues. A merger would help the ABA teams come up with the one or two key players each needs to be competitive with the best in the NBA. I hope the NBA doesn’t just stall and try to break the back of the ABA. That would be bad for basketball and the players. And I don’t believe the ABA can be broken now. Franchises like it has in New York, Kentucky, Indiana, and Utah are outstanding.
“I could see Kentucky with Gilmore winning from the New York Knicks’ team that played in the playoff finals without Reed. I could see Utah or Indiana or Virginia or the Nets playing tough with Baltimore or Atlanta, and I can sure see them beating the bottom teams like Buffalo and Cleveland badly.
“The ABA is climbing up to the NBA level,” concluded the wandering star.