New Jersey Americans: One Season and Done, 1968

[In the summer of 1967, as the ABA entered its final organizational throes, those long faces gathered around the table finally had a realistic hope that their crazy, red, white, and blue idea just might work. The league had secured a handful of mega-wealthy owners, men (and a woman) who could weather the initial windfall losses of a start-up sports circuit. Numbered among those deep pockets was Arthur Brown, owner of the proposed New York Freighters. Brown had made a fortune running his ABC Freight Forwarding Company, with its maze of subsidiaries and rush of employees, and the money poured into his thriving New York-based headquarters.

But Brown and his mega-fortune joined the ABA with a significant downside: He had little political pull in Manhattan. This lack of patronistic pull was especially true within Manhattan’s sports and entertainment industry, heavily influenced by Madison Square Garden (MSG), Inc. Brown, the freight guy, simply wasn’t one of them, and that made his newfangled New York Freighters a three-alarm threat to the MSG-owned New York Knickerbockers.

Every time Brown and its front-office boys thought they had a Manhattan venue locked in for their home games, most notably the 69th Regiment Armory (where the Knicks once played), everything went crickets. Brown strongly suspected MSG was calling in favors to these older venues to keep him and the ABA out of Manhattan and flailing away outside the local and national media spotlight.

With the maiden ABA season fast approaching, Brown was down to weeks to find a home for his pro basketball team. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Brown settled for an old armory across the George Washington Bridge in Teaneck, New jersey. The relocation precipitated the renaming of the ABA’s anchor franchise. It was now the New Jersey Americans, a.k.a, the Amerks. 

The New Jersey Americans lasted exactly one season, then morphed on Long Island into the New York Nets and more than 50 years of roiling controversy, lately in Brooklyn. The celebrated sports columnist Filip Bondy, then with Bergen County (NJ) Record, took a look back in the early 1980s at Teaneck’s ill-fated finest. Thanks to Bondy for capturing this troubled moment in time, which ran in the March 1982 issue of Basketball Digest.]

Arthur Brown (middle) introduces his New Jersey Americans.

Arthur Brown never wanted to bring his team to Teaneck. The fledgling American Basketball Association didn’t want him to either. The idea, after all, was to have a New York team play in the media center of the universe. In 1967, as now, that Mecca was Manhattan, not Teaneck.

“We tried several places in Manhattan, but everywhere we looked we were somehow blocked,” said Brown, the president of ABC Freight Forwarding, Corp. in New York. “I had my suspicions. Maybe it was the Garden putting pressure on the smaller arenas, I guess I’ll never know.”

So Brown, at the suggestion of and with the help of Teaneck entrepreneur Mark Binstein and Murray Goodman of River Vale, a public relations consultant, contacted officials at the Teaneck Armory. The franchise owner expected an enthusiastic welcome, but was met instead with more problems. The armory’s schedule was largely full, and there were no attractive home dates available.

“I couldn’t believe it, but I had to do something,” Brown said. “I went down to Trenton to see the governor [Richard J. Hughes], and I told him I couldn’t see how New Jersey could sit idly by and allow New York to get all this tremendous New Jersey sports business. In view of the [future] Meadowlands complex, my speech was pretty ironic. Anyway, with the governor’s help, I got back in contact with the armory—I had only 30 days at this point before the start of the season—and we worked something out.

“Then the league heard we were in Teaneck, and boy did they scream.”

In the autumn of 1967, the armory was magically transformed from a National Guard training site into the semblance of a professional basketball arena. Brown poured $100,000 into the armory, $12,000 just for the new court. Binstein, the new club’s president, supervised proceedings.

The court, the regulation 94-feet long, had a big white star in the center, inside concentric circles of red and blue. New Jersey’s first pro basketball team, one year away from becoming the New York Nets, would be called the Americans.

Max Zaslofsky was a star for the Chicago Stags, the New York Knicks, and the Fort Wayne Pistons in a National Basketball Association career that lasted from 1946 to 1955. When it was time to move to another occupation, Zaslofsky didn’t really have anywhere to go. He struggled at several different jobs, but could not find much satisfaction in any of the alternatives.

“Max was a loner, he never asked for anything. But I remember reading an article about how he was getting pushed around by everybody,” Brown said. “I offered him a position in my company, and it improved his bargaining position with everybody. I had him coaching my company’s basketball team, and then when the ABA thing came up, I offered him the coaching job. He was always a quiet guy, but if I still owned the Nets, Max would probably still be my coach.”

Max Zaslofsky during his NBA days

In retrospect, Zaslofsky may not have been the best choice for the job. As one associate recalled, Max missed most training camps as a player because he was a chronic holdout. He apparently had little idea how to run preseason workouts or how to install plays at a professional level. He also may have lacked the sense of humor needed to get through the trials and tribulations of the ABA’s first season.

Even if he were Red Auerbach, Zaslofsky would have had trouble. As coach and general manager of the Americans, Max had to mesh an odd crew of semi-talented individuals that would have to pass as a professional basketball team. ABA players received anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 per year, but nobody on the Americans was in the top salary bracket.

The names on the original roster could not have struck fear in the hearts of too many opponents: Art Heyman, a former All-America at Duke with a playboy reputation; Bobby Lloyd, a former All-America guard at Rutgers who was cut by the Detroit Pistons at the end of their training camp; center Dan Anderson of the Akron Goodyears industrial team; Tony Jackson and Bob McIntyre of St. John’s; Mel Nowell of Ohio State; John Austin of Boston College; Walt Simon, the only American to last more than two seasons as a professional; Bruce Spraggins of Virginia Union; Al Beard of Norfolk State; John Mathis (the player, not the singer), and Dexter Westbrook.

“We were going against a top league in the NBA, and we really had semipro-level players,” Zaslofsky said. “People have to appreciate that fact when they consider our troubles that first year. It was a new venture, and I just had to put together the best team that I could.”

Zaslofsky coached the Americans and Nets for two seasons until Roy Boe bought the team. He admitted he did not get along particularly well with his players on his teams. “They were not the caliber of players in the NBA, but each of them felt like a superstar,” the coach said. “They were all prima donnas.”

Zaslofsky now lives in Wantagh, New York, and is a consultant to several companies in the metropolitan area. He hopes to begin a counseling service for athletes, guiding fringe players into alternative career paths after they retire from sports. He was happy to hear his former boss would have kept him as coach.

“Being coach would appeal to me in a way, although my strength is more in an administrative capacity,” he said.  “I’ll always follow the Nets as a fan. I gave birth to this team, and in a way, I’ll always be a part of it.”

Bobby Lloyd was one of the most-popular players in Rutgers basketball history. He was a natural shooter, although his lack of quickness was a problem. When he became an American, he expected to get a lot of playing time. His fans expected the same. But Lloyd and Zaslofsky did not hit it off, and the coach told Bobby he would have to sit out for a few weeks until he learned the team’s plays. 

“After a couple of games and some practices, I finally noticed something was missing,” Lloyd said. “Nobody was ever holding up fingers or yelling numbers. I went up to Heyman and asked how we were running plays, and he looked at me and said, “What plays?”

The Americans lost their opener at Teaneck, 110-107, to the Pittsburgh Pipers and then continued to lose the majority of their games throughout a stormy season. The struggle between Lloyd and Zaslofsky intensified. The few fans who turned out at the armory repeatedly chanted for Lloyd. Zaslofsky burned on the bench.

“It became comical,” said Lloyd, a vice president of Fila tennis clothing in Los Altos Hills, Calif. “I’d be averaging 24 points for four games, and then the next thing, I was sitting on the bench for entire games without knowing why. Nobody got along that well with Max. He was just a strange person.”

Zaslofsky says he benched Lloyd strictly on the basis of basketball ability. “I got an awful lot of flak from the media and the fans for not playing Bobby, but I just didn’t feel like he belonged out there,” Zaslofsky said. “Bobby and I were always on a different wavelength, but I’m glad to hear he’s doing so well in the business world.”

Lloyd played two seasons with the Americans and the Nets, after the team moved to the Commack Ice Arena on Long Island. He then was offered a one-year contract, which he turned down, and went full time into business. “If they had offered me more years, maybe I would have stayed in the game,” Lloyd said. “But conditions in the ABA were pretty bad.”

In the years since the Nets played in Teaneck, they have had their share of superstars. Rick Barry, Julius Erving, and Bernard King all toiled in red, white, and blue uniforms. Solid players such as Billy Paultz, Larry Kenon, Brian Taylor, and Mike Newlin have dotted the club’s ever-changing lineups. When the Americans took the floor for the first time on October 23, 1967, against the Pipers—Yogi Berra tossed up the first ball—the only Net player who may have been good enough to play in the NBA was Walt Simon.

“Walt was better that a lot ninth or 10th men in the NBA, but he was Black,” said sportscaster Spencer Ross, who did play-by-play radio coverage for all 78 American games that first season. “In those days, guys at the end of the bench in the NBA were named Dave Deutsch.”

Simon, Lloyd, Spraggins, and the rest of the motley Americans finished the season with a record of 36-42, tied for fourth place and the final playoff spot. A one-game showdown against the Kentucky Colonels was scheduled to decide which team would advance to post season competition.

The game never took place. A circus performance was set to play in the armory, and Brown had to look elsewhere. He finally settled on the Commack Arena, but the Colonels took one look at the warped, shredded court and unpadded stanchions beneath the basket and refused to play.

ABA Commissioner George Mikan, faced with a tight playoff schedule and an adamant Colonels team, had no choice. He officially deemed the court unsuitable for play, forfeited the game to Kentucky, and ended the Americans’ hopes for a playoff berth. 

“Louie Dampier was the player representative of Kentucky, and he just wouldn’t budge on the issue,” Lloyd said. “You couldn’t blame him. There was water floating on the surface of the court, and the only way they could dry it was by throwing sawdust all over it. It was a real mess.”

The Americans finished their first season with the third-worst defense in the league and the fourth-worst offense. The next season, when they had moved into the renovated Commack Arena, the New York Nets were last in both departments.

Spencer Ross is something of a romantic. “When I drive past the armory these days, I look at the place and it’s a castle to me,” he said. “I still can’t figure out why people didn’t come out to watch us. I tell my son, ‘That’s where the Nets used to play,’ and he just looks at me like I’m crazy.”

For Ross, who does radio play-by-play for the NFL Jets, the 1967-68 Americans season was his first experience with professional sports, albeit a borderline operation. It is a time in his life he remembers as being filled with aborted schedules, makeshift plans, and lovable characters.

“I remember our center, Anderson. He was a plodding, gentle giant who was probably the most cautious man in the world,” Ross said. “Before he married, he made his wife-to-be get her teeth fixed so that her parents would pay for it and he wouldn’t get stuck with the bill. We called him ‘Mad Dog.’

“Mad Dog went out and scored about 41 points in our first game. He played the game of his life. He never came close to that again.”

The stories flow. There was a night after a game in New Orleans when all flights were fogged in, and the team would not pay for a hotel. The players took turns sleeping in a car at the airport. The Americans arrived back in Teaneck just in time for a game against Kentucky.

“There were pills floating around then, as I’m sure there are now, and the players had to take them just to make it onto the court. They played great for three quarters—they were up by about 14 going into the final period—and then the pills started to wear off. It was like watching a team play in slow motion. Amazingly, they managed to hold on to win by three.”

There was that terrible moment when Ross was interviewing Zaslofsky on the air after a tough loss at the armory. Several fans began to razz the coach about not playing Lloyd. Max charged into the stands for a rumble while Ross cut to a commercial.

“Max finally finished fighting and stormed down to the locker room. Bobby was sitting there, angry at Max for not playing him. Max was there, angry at Bobby about the fight. They looked at each other and started fighting.”

Lloyd once had his uniform stolen. Unable to come up with a replacement shirt, Zaslofsky told his reserve guard that he officially had a sprained ankle and would sit out the game. 

When things became slow, Zaslofsky would make a trade. “There must have been 30 trades in the first two seasons, and each time it would cost the team a little more money,” Ross said. “Max was a strange person. He’d save money by not getting a hotel for the team, and then he’d spend it on new players who weren’t any better than the last ones he had.”

The Americans drew 3,000 fans to their opener, but averaged less than 1,000 for the season. Barney Kremenko, the Americans’ public relations director, said that the beat reporters thought he was exaggerating any time he claimed more than 600 fans were in the armory.

“Nobody came, except for one game on Thanksgiving eve,” Kremenko said. “I can’t explain why, but for that game, everybody and his brother was bothering me for tickets, and we didn’t have any more. That’s the way it always is, I guess.”

Unfortunately, Thanksgiving eve came only once in the Americans’ first season. Brown fought with Teaneck officials about scheduling, about the size of a promotional billboard, about possible plans for the future. On July 16, 1968, the owner gave up and angrily announced he was moving his franchise to Long Island. 

“I wouldn’t come back to the burg if they paid me,” he said at the time. “I liked Teaneck, but Teaneck didn’t like us. They proved to me that Teaneck is a bedroom community—it’s asleep.”

Brown dropped about $1 million in his two seasons with the Nets, then sold them to Boe, a wealthy businessman, for $110,000. Boe kept the team in Commack for another season, then moved it to brand-new Nassau Coliseum. The team stayed there for seven seasons.

“I still think I might own the team if somebody hadn’t come along and made it easy for me to sell the club,” Brown said. “But I really don’t miss it. Reporters would call me in the middle of the night, guys I hardly knew, and they never wanted to talk basketball. All they ever wanted to talk about was how much money I was losing and how long I was going to keep the team afloat.”

Ross remembers Brown fondly as a good-hearted millionaire who suddenly found himself pasting numbers on the backs of armory seats. “I think Arthur knew he was going to take a bath, but for at least one season, he had fun with his toy,” Ross said. “After that, things may have started to get to him.”

Publicist Goodman holds a different opinion of the man. “He was a millionaire who had to have his way and never wanted to listen to anybody else,” Goodman said. “I got away from that situation because I didn’t want to die an early death.”

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