Bob Gorrell, an oldtimer who moved from Boston to Ogden, Utah a few years back, took with him—as New Englanders characteristically do—a set of firm loyalties. Even 2,400 miles away he remained a Celtics fan. For a while, this wasn't too difficult—out there in the Utah hills, who else would you cheer for? But when the Los Angeles Stars moved to Salt Lake City at the end of the 1969-70 season, Bob Gorrell found himself caught up in a war—NBA vs. ABA—and his old loyalties under heavy fire. Eventually they dissolved, and he went over to the Stars and the ABA. Even so, he couldn't get away from the NBA completely, for when the ABA playoff finals began two weeks ago he ended up yelling for one old Boston Celtic, Bill Sharman, who is now coach of the Stars, and against another, Kentucky Colonels Coach Frank Ramsey.
If the two pro leagues have forced Bob Gorrell into excruciating agonies of choice, at least they have taken steps in the past two weeks to prevent him from committing any more heresies. While the Stars and Colonels bulled at each other for six games (during which 355 fouls were called, a player suffered a bloody gash over his right eye from a smart jab delivered in the fifth round, er, game, and Kentucky fans staged a Trash-in at Freedom Hall by pelting the refs with crushed paper cups) the owners of the two leagues got together and—in a rare moment of sanity—agreed to merge.
The Colonels, who finished the regular season 11 games behind Virginia, the Eastern Division winner, had been expected to bow out quickly against Utah, much as the Baltimore Bullets had against the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA finals. Instead, Kentucky finally seemed to master the old Celtics offense which Ramsey installed in midyear, and worked its way into a 3-3 standoff with the Stars at the end of last week. The Colonels may have been helped by the fact that their opponent's patterns seemed more than a little familiar. The meticulous Sharman, not surprisingly, has his team using the old Celtics attack, too.
Unfortunately, any resemblance between Utah, Kentucky and the old Celtics ends there, and the first six games of the series plainly showed that the ABA's best clubs are not yet a match for the NBA's finest (see ratings on page 73), particularly on defense. But the ABA Coach of the Year, Al Bianchi of Virginia, explained where his league lags behind: "The difference is simply the big people—Alcindor, Reed, Unseld, Chamberlain, Thurmond and Hayes. They're all in the NBA."
Those tall men impose a different tempo on the NBA game because they control huge chunks of defensive territory all by themselves; only Indiana's Mel Daniels among ABA pivotmen is able to do the same. But while the absence of big centers deprives the newer league of an atmosphere of total professionalism, it does make the ABA's style less defense-oriented, the play livelier and the scoring higher.
And one place where the ABA did not suffer in comparison during the finals was at the gate. The first six games of the Kentucky-Utah series drew an average of 12,085 fans—700 more per game than watched Baltimore and Milwaukee. Part of that disparity can be blamed on the smallness of the Bucks' arena. Still, the figures do reveal dramatic one-year growth for two of the younger league's teams. Last season, in Los Angeles, the Stars averaged 1,500 people a game for the regular season and 4,500 for the playoffs. This year they were the most successful first-season franchise ever, with a 6,246 attendance average, and their last six playoff games in the 12,224-seat Salt Palace drew standing-room crowds. Kentucky more than doubled its regular-season attendance this year, finishing with a 7,500 average.
Another thing the ABA has is six or seven extraordinary players who are virtually unknown to NBA fans. Utah has the finest of these hidden talents in 6'6" Forward Willie Wise, who joined the Stars as a free agent two years ago after graduating from Drake. Wise may be the best all-round new forward in the pros. At least he will be until next season when Kentucky's Dan Issel switches to that position. Even though he has the natural qualities of a pro cornerman, Issel was forced to play center for the Colonels this year and ended up leading the ABA in scoring. The move raises an obvious question—who besides the Milwaukee Bucks will be able to stop the Colonels next year when Issel shifts outside to make room for the Alcindor-tall Artis Gilmore in the pivot?
The NBA-ABA merger is much more a return of the prodigal than a marriage between the Hatfields and the McCoys. All but four of the young league's franchises have either NBA-trained leadership in the front office or a coach with NBA background—or both—and three of those four are perhaps the weakest ABA operations. Utah and Kentucky, both among the league's best-run organizations, typify the NBA presence in the ABA. Stars' President Vince Boryla is a former player, coach and general manager of the New York Knickerbockers; Sharman not only starred for the Celtics but also coached the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA playoff finals four seasons ago; Mike Storen, the Colonels' president, worked in management positions with Baltimore and Cincinnati before joining the ABA; and Ramsey, after his playing career in Boston, turned down an offer to coach the Celtics in order to remain close to his business interests back home in Madisonville, Ky.
The day after the leagues agreed to pursue the congressional antitrust waiver needed to conclude the merger, Storen was already looking to the future: "Now we have to turn to what is really the chief concern of basketball, professionalizing the operations on all levels. If our game is going to become as prosperous as everyone seems to think it can, we'll have to begin to meaningfully merchandise our product. Both leagues are crummy at doing that now."
The 18 months of fitful negotiation, recrimination and obstinacy preceding the merger seemed to prove that if basketball is to attain its goals a leadership void in the sport must be filled. Unlike the pro football merger five years ago, the basketball agreement is more a product of erosion than the result of decisive action of decisive men. In recent months some of the most powerful management men in both leagues have quietly acknowledged that neither of the present commissioners, the NBA's Walter Kennedy or the ABA's Jack Dolph, is likely to direct the new, combined league.