The dapper little Jewish man, 85 years old, a golden Fort Lauderdale suntan across his face, looked up expectantly every time another giant of the game-brushed against him. Thirty years ago Gabe Rubin was the owner of a charter team, the Pittsburgh Pipers, in a new, funkadelic league, the American Basketball Association. Saturday night he was in Indianapolis at an ABA reunion honoring a league that valued big hair, flashy dunks and second chances.
The ABA royalty, most of it anyway, was there, in a charmless banquet hall in the Indianapolis Convention Center. There was Julius Erving, gray at the edges, his posture perfect, signing the league's trademark red-white-and-blue basketball for his admirers. There was Spencer Haywood, smelling good and looking rich, telling a little group how Shaquille O'Neal knows nothing, nothing, of his accomplishments in the game. There was Artis Gil-more, 7'2", extending a bony-fingered hand to onetime teammates from the Kentucky Colonels. But Gabe Rubin wasn't looking for those guys.
There was a dinner, of course. While 300 people ate filet mignon. seared with Dijon mustard and topped with herb breadcrumbs, they watched ABA highlights culled from grainy film shot in dark, leaky arenas. They saw David Thompson—the Rookie of the Year in 1975-76, the ABA's ninth and final season—consider two or three shots while flying through the air. They saw Rick Barry shooting free throws from between his knees. They saw Louie Dampier drain 30-footers for treys, in the days when the stuffy senior circuit, the NBA, said it had no interest in the three-pointer, none whatsoever.
The celebrants thumbed through a program, a page of which commemorated the ABA's deceased: Wendell Ladner, who died in a plane crash; Sonny Dove, a New York cabbie who skidded off a drawbridge in Brooklyn; John Brisker, killed in a coup in Uganda; Julius Keye, who fell off a ladder. In the center of the page was Roger Brown, one of 30 players named to an alltime ABA All-Star team chosen for the occasion, who died of cancer in March at age 54.
Bob Costas, formerly the radio voice of the Spirits of St. Louis, drew chortles when he remembered the great Afros of the ABA—so roomy, Costas said, they "slept six." Darnell Hillman, who played for the Indiana Pacers when they were an ABA team, was presented with a plaque for having sported the league's most luxuriant Afro and said with mock solemnity, "This I will cherish dearly."
Gabe Rubin's purpose was more earnest. He carried in the right pocket of his suit jacket a yellowing newspaper photograph, now 30 years old, showing Rubin and the player he had just signed to the Pipers, Connie Hawkins. Nobody wanted young Hawkins in those days. In 1961 he had been implicated in a game-fixing scandal as a freshman at Iowa and was banished from the NBA. Later Hawkins was exonerated, the ban was lifted, and now he is enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame. When Rubin finally spotted Hawkins, the old man's face lit up, and he pulled out the clipping.
"Look how handsome you were then!" Rubin said.
Hawkins looked at the picture, then at his old boss. "What do you mean, then? How 'bout now?"
The two ABA alums laughed and laughed. They were remembering the old days, the times of their lives.