Pro basketball exhibition games used to have a towering lack of class. Their gate appeal was so low that teams gleefully split the ticket receipts (if any) with the local Order of the Eastern Star for allowing two clubs to play during halftime of the weekly mah-jongg and crocheting bee down at the Masonic Temple. The same fabulous deal was open to any CYO that could find a church basement where a bingo game was not in progress or to a farmers' co-op with an empty grain elevator.
But never again. With the two pro leagues, the NBA and ABA, fitfully edging toward a merger, the owners have at last found something that makes airing out the big arenas, sweeping the floor and printing up tickets worthwhile. It is called the Inter-League Exhibition Game. Remember that title.
The ILEG phenomenon made its debut last week when two of the NBA's best teams, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Baltimore Bullets, visited five ABA cities. As promised, they drew sizable, enthusiastic crowds. As promised, there was new hoopla—splashes of color right down to some action with the ABA's red, white and blue basketball. But, surprisingly, it was the members of the older league who came out of the week looking as if they might be better off back at the ladies' sewing circle.
When anyone in the NBA last bothered to check, they reported back to their bosses that the ABA was stocked with players too small and untalented to so much as loosen the sneakers of the boys from the real league. But now, it appears, a different kind of lacing may soon be going on. While still not the equal of the NBA, the ABA is zooming toward parity far faster than expected.
It is the Kentucky Colonels, with their $2 million baby, 7'2" rookie Center Artis Gilmore, who are leading the way. Against the Bullets, Gilmore put on a performance that surely left some NBA folks longing for the good old days before the ABA began stirring up trouble, paying seven-figure bonuses and—worst of all—beating the older league in basketball games. Gilmore led Kentucky, last season's runner-up in the ABA playoffs, to a thumping 111-85 victory over the 1971 NBA runner-up Bullets.
Granted, it was merely an exhibition game, an early one at that (a total of 24 such games are scheduled before the regular season, when interleague play will cease). Yet, among the five played last week, all of which turned out to be embarrassments of sorts for the NBA, the decisive Kentucky win put the most noticeable dent in the older league's self-proclaimed invincibility.
The trouble for the NBA started on Tuesday night at Dallas in what looked like one of the monster mismatches of all time. The Milwaukee Bucks, champions of the Universe and beyond, came to play the Dallas Chaparrals, who are out of this world in quite another way. It was to be a big night for the Bucks, who lost only 18 of 106 exhibition, regular-season and playoff games last year. For one thing, they were introducing an old center with a new title. Kareem Abdul Jabbar started in the post, replacing Lew Alcindor. Otherwise, he was the same old No. 33, crashing for rebounds and scoring 32 points. Jabbar—the name is a manifestation of his Islamic beliefs—received little support from his teammates, and Milwaukee trailed in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter before McCoy McLemore's jump shot and a pair of free throws by Lucius Allen pulled out a 106-103 Buck win.
The Bucks undoubtedly went into the game planning to take it easy on Dallas Coach Tom Nissalke, who was the Milwaukee assistant the past three years. Besides, Oscar Robertson was not in the lineup. Robertson's absence helped destroy that NBA dictum: a reasonably good team from the older league could crunch any ABA club, and of course a weak one like the Chaps, even when its starters were off testifying in Washington against the merger.
Jabbar, for one, was thoroughly impressed by the Chaparrals. "I wasn't displeased with my game or the team's," he said. " Dallas has as fine a guard corps as there is, and I was surprised at how good their forwards are. If they had the big center they would really be tough. I think that's about the only difference between the two leagues right now. The ABA does not have as many big, tough centers."
It was in Louisville the next night that Baltimore ran into one of the few ABA teams with a big, tough center. Gus Johnson had remained at home, working his way back into shape after off-season surgery on both knees. Had he played, Johnson could have applied his considerable defensive talents against the game's high scorer (24 points), Dan Issel. After leading the ABA in scoring last year as a center, Issel has moved to forward this season to make room for Gilmore, a shift that gives the Colonels a front line any NBA team would envy. Earl Monroe, who worked his special magic brilliantly the night before in the Bullets' preseason opener against the Knickerbockers, was out, too, having been sent home with a sudden flareup of bursitis in his right knee.