[Here’s the great Doug Moe on his most-memorable pro game. Hint: It was in the ABA and prominently features Warren Armstrong (Jabali). Moe’s recollection ran in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest. Enjoy!]
I’ll never forget the old American Basketball Association. The ABA was a lot of fun. It had a relaxed atmosphere, the people were friendly, and it was great playing in that league.
When it started in 1967, no one knew what to expect of the ABA. A lot of people were skeptical, thinking the league would be very weak financially. I came in at the beginning. Larry Brown, who went to the University of North Carolina like I had, and I signed together with the New Orleans franchise. Before we agreed to terms, Marty Blake, the NBA superscout, told us that ABA would never make it—that we would never get a dime.
The New Orleans team gave each of us $5,000 just to sign. Larry and I quickly ran to the bank to see if the checks would bounce. But they were as good as gold. So, we figured that if they were going to give away money that easily, they must be pretty serious about the league.
Not only was the money good, but the signing was a real first-class production. We were very impressed. Others, however, still were apprehensive. They told us that if the league lasted one year, we would be lucky . . .
With all that background, it’s not surprising that the most-memorable game of my pro career occurred in the ABA. It took place during my second year in the league, 1968-69. After spending the first year with New Orleans, a team that had won the Western Division championship and had reached the playoff final before losing to Pittsburgh in seven games, I was traded, along with Larry Brown, to Oakland, the team that had finished with the worst record [22-56] in the ABA in 1967-68.
In addition to Larry and myself, Oakland had several new players, including Rick Barry, Warren Armstrong [who later changed his last name to Jabali], Ira Harge, Jim Eakins, and Henry Logan.
With Barry, who already had starred in the NBA, we were supposed to be a pretty good team. But Rick suffered a knee injury after the first 35 games and never played the rest of the season. When he got hurt, Barry was leading the league with a 34-point scoring average. Without him, we had to play more as a team—and we did, posting a 60-18 record, the best in the ABA.
In the Western Division semifinal playoffs, we outlasted Denver in seven games. Then in the West final, we swept New Orleans in four games. That put us into the league championship series against Indiana, the East Division winner during the regular season and the playoffs.
The first two games of the best-of-seven series were in Oakland. With Gary Bradds scoring 40 points and Armstrong getting 29, we won the opener, 123-114. But Indiana killed us in the second game, 150-122, when the Pacers had three players—Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, and Bob Netolicky—with 35 points or more.
Game 3 was at Indianapolis on May 3—and it proved to be the turning point of the whole series and my most memorable game. Through the first three periods, the teams exchanged the lead frequently and, by midway of the fourth quarter, we were ahead 105-99. But then, with the help of six points by Lewis, the Pacers reeled off 10 in a row and led 109-105. With five seconds to play, Indiana still was in front, 117-115, and Roger Brown was going to the foul line with three chances to make two.
Two successful free throws by Roger would give the Pacers an insurmountable four-point advantage. But he made only one, and we grabbed the rebound and called timeout with four seconds to go.
I am sure that with Indiana leading 118-115, Pacers coach Bobby Leonard told his players during the timeout to foul us as soon as we brought the ball inbounds and not to let us get off a three-point field-goal attempt.
When play resumed, Larry Brown took the ball out of bounds. Armstrong stood next to him, with his hands outstretched . . . His feet in balance, but his hands hanging out of bounds . . . some 28 feet from the basket and 45 degrees from the baseline on the left side.
Larry just gave him the ball. Armstrong took it, and in the same motion, turned and threw up a desperation shot before Tom Thacker, who was guarding him, could foul him. The ball went cleanly through the net, and with one second to play, the score was tied.
A shot like that would tend to demoralize any team—and Indiana was demoralized. In the overtime period, we outscored the Pacers 16-8 and beat them, 134-126. That victory, made possible by that amazing shot by Armstrong, was the first of three in a row for us, and we won the series four games to one. It was the only time Oakland ever won the ABA championship and ranks as my most-memorable game.
[How about a replay? Here’s an amalgam of game coverage drawn from newspapers in Oakland, Indianapolis, and Kokomo replaying Armstrong’s one-in-a-million shot.]
Warren Armstrong, the Wichita strongman, last night rescued Oakland from defeat to a 134-136 overtime victory and a 2-1 lead over Indiana in the ABA Championships.
It should have never happened. The Pacers had things locked up with 36 seconds remaining, and Roger Brown on the free-throw line with three chances to make two. Two free throws would have locked the gates, but Roger missed the first, hit the second, and then bobbled the third.
The Oaks got the rebound and called a timeout to set up their last desperation shot. On the other end of the Coliseum floor, Bobby Leonard was telling the Pacers just one thing: “Foul ‘em as soon as they get the ball in. Don’t let ‘em get off a three-point shot.”
“When he got the rebound,” said Oakland coach Alex Hannum, “I called for a driving play—I forgot about the three-point basket.
“All 10 players reminded me in unison. Doug [Moe[ said he wanted to take the shot, but I chose Warren because he has the power to shoot from that range.”
When play resumed, Larry Brown flipped the ball to Warren Armstrong, 28 feet from the basket and 45 degrees from the baseline on the left side. Tom Thacker was guarding Armstrong. When the ball came to his man, Thacker turned to him and hesitated. That’s all it took.
Armstrong jumped, arched a shot that touched nothing but net at the end of its journey. Tie game, 1 second left.
It was a bad night for everybody, including officials Ron Rakel and Andy Hershock. Irate fans attacked the two on the way out, and both of took undue physical harassment from the mob. Rakel suffered a cut lip, and Hershock caught a roundhouse. Rumors have it that Rakel intended to press charges for the lack of police protection.