In its short nine-year existence, the American Basketball Association featured some of the greatest players ever to grace the hardwood.
Founded in 1967, the ABA was one of the most innovative and exciting professional sports leagues ever created. The ABA was ahead of its time, pioneering the three-point shot and All-Star Slam Dunk Contest while ushering in a freewheeling style of basketball. Long before Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant, the upstart ABA introduced the “preps to pros” concept, allowing high school and college undergrads to move directly into the league.
The ABA began with 11 teams for the 1967-68 season. Comprised of small-market teams playing in inferior arenas, the new league struggled financially from the beginning. Lacking a national television contract, the ABA was down to six franchises by the end of the 1975-76 season. But the flashy, star-studded league and its red-white-and-blue basketball caught the attention of the buttoned-up NBA, forcing a merger with its more established rival in 1976.
The ABA named its All-Time Team August 23, 1997, the 30th anniversary of the founding of the league. The now-defunct circuit announced the team in Indianapolis in conjunction with an ABA reunion. It included the 30 best and most influential players during the league’s decade of existence and nine full seasons of operation.
The All-Time Team was voted on by 50 select panelists. The panel included members of the print and broadcast news media, ten former referees, six former team owners, two former ABA commissioners, select fans and statisticians. Former players, even those who held other positions within the league, were proscribed from voting.
To be eligible for the team, players had to have spent at least some of their careers in the ABA, but later success in the NBA was also taken into consideration. The panel also voted on the ABA’s Most Valuable Player and top head coach.
The roster included three point guards, eight shooting guards, five small forwards, eight power forwards and six centers. Sixteen of the 30 players on the roster landed in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Five players, including Rick Barry, Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, George Gervin, and Moses Malone, were named one year earlier to the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players list.
The great Roger Brown received 50 votes, as did ABA legends Louis Dampier, Mel Daniels, Erving, Gervin and Dan Issel. In all, 98 former ABA players received at least one vote from the panel. Dampier appeared in more ABA games than any player on the list, with 728, and is the league’s all-time leading scorer, with 13,726 points. Daniels, a seven-time ABA All-Star, is the league’s all-time rebounding leader, with 9,494.
David Thompson and Spencer Haywood made the All-Time Team despite playing only one season in the ABA. Thompson was one of the league’s most electrifying players, while Haywood’s lone ABA season was among the best in history. As a rookie in 1969-70, he led the league in scoring with 30 points per game and rebounding at 19.5 boards per game. After leading the Denver Rockets to the Western Division Finals, the 20-year old Haywood was named ABA Rookie of the Year and league MVP.
The Oakland Oaks/Washington Capitals/Virginia Squires franchise was not absorbed in the 1976 merger, but the organization produced 11 players who made the ABA All-Time Team, the most of any club. The Anaheim Amigos/Los Angeles Stars/Utah Stars had eight players named, while seven Indiana Pacers made the squad.
Julius Erving won ABA MVP voting in a landslide. The Doctor garnered 46 of 50 votes, with Mel Daniels receiving two. The underrated Daniels was an ABA gem. The ninth pick of the 1967 NBA draft, he was the first NBA first-round pick to snub the established league and sign with the ABA. The 6’9” power forward was a seven-time All-Star, three-time ABA champion and was twice named league MVP.
Artis Gilmore and Connie Hawkins each received one ABA All-Time MVP vote. A participant in the inaugural Slam Dunk Contest, Gilmore took the ABA by storm. In 1972, the A-Train was named both Rookie of the Year and MVP [over Virginia Squires rookie Julius Erving]. He led the ABA in rebounding in four of his five seasons and twice led the league in field goal percentage and blocks. One of the most gifted players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers, Hawkins was expelled from the University of Iowa and blackballed from the NBA for a fictitious point-shaving scandal he had nothing to do with. With nowhere else to play, The Hawk joined the ABA Pittsburgh Pipers. In his lone season in Pittsburgh, Hawkins led the league in scoring, guided the Pipers to the 1968 championship and was named regular season and ABA Finals MVP.
While seven coaches received votes from at least one of the 50 panelists, Bobby Leonard was the clear winner of the all-time best coach award. Slick, who won 387 games and three ABA titles, received 34 votes. Larry Brown collected six, second-most on the list. Others receiving votes included Hubie Brown, Babe McCarthy, Bill Sharman, Al Bianchi and Bob Bass.
Although not financially solvent, the ABA was one of the most successful professional sports leagues ever assembled. The ABA introduced exciting innovations and practices that are commonplace today. But the lack of a national television contract doomed the league from the beginning. Had the ABA secured a TV deal [like the upstart American Football League did in 1960] from the onset, what might the landscape of professional basketball in America look like today?