Roger brown died of liver cancer last week at age 54. If the name means anything to you, then you're probably one of us. We're a select—which is to say, small; O.K., cultish—group of hoop aficionados who loved the American Basketball Association, which died 21 years ago at age nine. The official cause of death was neglect. Brown played in the ABA, but he wasn't just another ABA player. He was the ultimate ABA player.
And when the obit writers summed up Brown's life, they might have said he was the best player never to play in the NBA. But if they did, they missed the essence of his career. He was of the ABA, by the ABA and certainly for the ABA. Here's the difference between the leagues: When the NBA celebrates its 50th anniversary and trots out its 50 greatest players, the event is brought to you by McDonald's or Nike or one of the other Michael Jordan subsidiaries; if the ABA had had a sponsor, it would have been Joe's Bail Bondsman.
The ABA was an outlaw league in a time when outlaws were considered romantic. If you liked Ali, if you liked Namath, if you liked Dennis Hopper careening to his (cinematic) death on a motorcycle, you could love the ABA. The league's first important act was one of outright thievery, stealing Rick Barry from the NBA after hiring Barry's father-in-law. Bruce Hale, to coach the Oakland Oaks.
The second big move was declaring amnesty for the guys who had been banned by the NBA after the college gambling scandals of the early 1960s. That meant Connie Hawkins. That meant Doug Moe. That meant Roger Brown, a stylish 6'5" forward who displayed astonishing quickness to the basket and an accurate long-range shooting touch, perfect for a league that showcased the three-point shot
The NBA had banned Brown and Hawkins, both Brooklyn schoolboy legends, for their association with gambler Jack Molinas. Neither was ever charged, much less convicted, of a crime, but the NBA wasn't concerned with such details.
On the other hand, the ABA had no concerns whatsoever. It took Julius Erving out of Massachusetts after his junior season, when the NBA wasn't crazy about drafting underclassmen. It found George Gervin on the playgrounds of Detroit a year after he had punched out an opponent in an NCAA college division semifinal game. It signed Moses Malone out of high school.
What the ABA cared about was entertainment, from the red, white and blue ball to the first dunk contest. (Erving beat David Thompson.) Hardly anyone saw the ABA. The games were rarely on TV. And the teams tended to be in towns like Greensboro and Louisville and Memphis and Norfolk.
But it was fun, meaning nobody played Cleveland Cavaliers basketball. It was hyperbasketball. And if you never saw Dr. J in warmups—yes, in the dunkathon warmups—all I can say is, I'm sorry.
This was Roger Brown's league. He was the first player signed by the Indiana Pacers. Oscar Robertson had recommended Brown, who was 25 and not sure whether he should leave his job at a General Motors plant in Dayton for the upstart league. Finally, for a $ 17,000 salary and a $2,000 signing bonus, he agreed to play.
Here's what the Pacers got for their money: Over eight seasons, including a 39-game stint with the Utah Stars, Brown averaged 17.4 points and Indiana won three league titles. He was one of the ABA's top-10 alltime scorers and the Pacer most likely to take—and hit—a shot when Indiana needed it most. Slick Leonard, his former coach, remembers Brown and Barry going one-on-one in the 1972 ABA finals. "It's hard to say who won the duel," Leonard says, "but we won the series. Now Rick's in the Hall of Fame, and nobody remembers Roger."