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The evening was billed as a reunion; Andy Johnson was coming home to Allentown. True, he would be in town as coach of the Camden Bullets, but who can forget those seven beautiful years he put in as a player with the Allentown Jets? Who can forget 1965, when Andy—then captain of the team—carried the Jets into the playoffs with a sizzling 28 points and a tightfisted defense that limited Paul Arizin to a mere three field goals? Who can forget those thrilling days?
Well, quite a few of us, as it turns out. Most of us remember Johnson and Arizin—if we remember them at all—as Philadelphia Warriors. So perhaps it was hardly surprising that only 931 paying customers got the message and made it to Allentown's Rockne Hall, which seats 3,500. The place bristled with indifference. It was one of those nights you could tell everything was going to go wrong. The preliminary—a contest involving two teams of girls that pounded up and down court like stampeding heifers—ran overtime. And downstairs in the locker room the Jets sat staring into space as Bob Raskin, last year's coach of the year, paced the floor.
Raskin was nervous. He had just been fired—"resigned for the betterment of the team" was the way the morning paper had put it—but the new coach, York Larese, a 1960 All-America from North Carolina, wouldn't be around to take over the reins until the next night. It put Raskin, who had agreed to handle the team against Camden, in a weird position. "I feel a little like I'm presiding at my own funeral," he said.
Raskin gave the Jets their final instructions: watch out for the double pick they set for Ben Warley; box out under the boards; look for the open man. The players nodded. They stood up and put their hands together. Let's win this one, someone said. Everyone nodded. They wanted the game badly. Camden, an expansion team with a 2-8 record, was in last place. The Jets were 4-4, in third. Here was a chance to make up some ground. And here was a chance to give Raskin something pleasant to remember them by, down here in pro basketball's nether regions, the Eastern Basketball Association.
At a time when the Maraviches and Alcindors of the world are pulling down multimillion-dollar contracts, the average EBA franchise—in places like Allentown, Camden and Wilkes-Barre—is laying out such munificent sums as $50 a game to rookies and not too much more to the veterans. In the EBA the arenas are drafty, largely vacant and frequently dirty. Still, the games are freewheeling enough, with scores like 130-129 the rule rather than the exception. And the salaries are no indicator of talent in the league; many EBA graduates are now making it in the NBA and ABA.
Walt Simon, Laverne Tart, Larry Jones, Art Heyman and Sonny Dove are a few ABA standouts who played for a while in the EBA. Bob Love and Bob Weiss of the Chicago Bulls came up via the EBA. So did Mike Riordan, who put in a year with the Allentown Jets before joining the Knicks, and so did two of Riordan's current rookie teammates, Eddie Mast and Milt Williams, who last year averaged 20 and 17 points, respectively, at Allentown.
The grinding routine and poverty of life in the EBA does not necessarily disillusion the alumni. Almost without exception, they praise the league's brand of ball. "The team we had last year could have given any of the NBA expansion clubs a run for its money," said Mast recently, "and we could have beaten a lot of ABA teams." Still, he adds, the playing conditions are awful. Sun-bury wins Mast's prize for the worst arena. "You feel like you're playing in a box when you're there. It's so small, they've had to put half-court lines at the keyholes of the opposite ends. To make things worse, there's a stage at one end and a wall at the other. When you go in for a layup at Sunbury, you have to go in vertically."
What Mike Riordan remembers best about his year at Allentown was the league's three-point rule, similar to the ABA's. "We had a beautiful three-on-one going one time," he says. "All of a sudden the lead guy pulls up short and guns a 25-footer. He misses, gets the rebound and dribbles out behind the line for another shot. I couldn't figure out what he was doing till I remembered he was in a race for the scoring title."
The league has other rough spots, including a constantly changing cast. In one game early this year Allentown trotted out a squad that included Bad News Barnes, a 1964 All-America with six NBA years behind him; Johnny Jones, a onetime Boston Celtic, Milwaukee Buck and Kentucky Colonel; and Ray Hodge, a Knick draft choice who was the 13th man on New York's training camp roster last fall. A few nights later all were gone; Barnes had been shipped off to Trenton, Jones and Hodge relegated to the inactive roster. And Joe Hammond, a 21-year-old tiger who is everyone's choice to make it big in the majors, was burning up the EBA before he ran into trouble with the Allentown management. Now he, too, is languishing on the Jets' inactive list.
The EBA owners and officials are well aware of these shortcomings, but in a decade or so this season may well be singled out as the one in which the league finally turned the corner and entered the 20th century. After 25 years of life as the Eastern Professional Basketball League, the owners switched over to the EBA name, got themselves a new franchise in Camden and acquired new leadership. Bill Montzman, formerly general manager of Allentown, has taken over as commissioner. And, most important, new draft procedures and working arrangements with the major basketball leagues have been established.