The Celtics' Red Auerbach doesn't agree with Williams. He says, "If those teams outbid us fair and square for those players, we can't expect them to give them up to us in any merger situation." This is sweet talk indeed from an NBA stalwart never adverse to demeaning the quality of ABA players and coaches. Auerbach's current spat is with Indiana Pacer Coach Bob Leonard who, he says, was a bad coach when he was with the Baltimore Bullets of the NBA and must be a dog now, too. Leonard, in turn, points out that when K. C. Jones, one of Auerbach's prot�g�s, coached San Diego of the ABA, he was 0-11 against Leonard's Pacers. That year Jones' team had a record of 30-54 and finished next to last. Last season Jones' NBA Washington Bullets were 60-22 and finished first in their division. Petty arguments aside, the few examples of players or coaches who have operated on both sides are not especially indicative of the comparative worth of the two leagues.
More revealing, although the NBA scorns the interpretation, are the results of exhibition play between the leagues. During the first two years they met in the preseason the NBA overwhelmed the new boys 42-17. But things have changed. Over the last three seasons the ABA has steadily pulled ahead to 15-10, 16-7 and, this past fall, 31-17. In that span Kentucky, Denver and New York of the ABA built up a 33-14 record against NBA clubs. Overall, the ABA now leads in the rivalry, 79-76.
Advocates of the older league say these figures represent "mere exhibitions," "meaningless practice sessions" and the like. NBA players and coaches pass the games off as ones in which they were "just looking at a lot of people" or "weren't trying" or "hardly going all out."
But the question then is—was the NBA "just practicing" the first two years? Have Tom Heinsohn's Celtics not been trying while losing to Larry Brown's ABA teams five straight times? Was Boston's Dave Cowens not going all out when he injured his foot last year chasing a Denver player on a meaningless fast break? Was George McGinnis not trying while the 76ers went into two overtimes to beat his former Indiana team? How about Rick Barry? How great an effort was he making when he scored 49 points to Julius Erving's 43 in a Golden State victory over the Nets? Or when he almost came to fisticuffs over the tough defense of Wil Jones in a loss to the Colonels?
Pete Newell, the Lakers' GM, knows there are no excuses. "We can't cop a plea," he says. "If we play the ABA, we give up the psychological edge, and we have to get ourselves up or get beat." So the Lakers don't play any ABA teams. Another facet of this argument by some NBA owners is that they are under no compulsion to help the other league by competing against it.
What, in fact, has been going on is parity—or very near parity—any way you want to cut it. Jim Fox, the journeyman center for the Milwaukee Bucks, says, "The way you really notice how far the ABA has advanced is this: You used to see a guy get waived out of the NBA and catch on big in the other league. No more. Even Happy Hairston hasn't caught on this year."
The Warriors' Jeff Mullins says Denver runs the break "better than any team I've seen in the NBA." The Lakers' Lucius Allen says, "You want to know about good players over there? How about George Gervin? Most of us here wish we could play with George Gervin."
Tom Nissalke, late of Utah, who has bounced back and forth between the leagues like some berserk loose ball, says that before a Utah- Milwaukee game he told his old boss, Larry Costello, that there were several key Bucks who wouldn't make Utah's team. Then he went out and beat Costello without the injured Moses Malone.
"I say it now and I'd say it if I were president of Madison Square Garden," insists Nissalke, "there is no difference between the leagues anymore. The only thing the ABA lacks is exposure, and that means TV. The greatest shame of this is a guy like Bobby Jones. Here is the very best all-round young player in the game, and three-fourths of the country doesn't even know whether he's white or black."
Ultimately a realigned 24-team league would display more running, wide-open offenses with somewhat less physical defenses. More fun and laughs and less of that pick-and-roll, cut-and-screen, push-and-hold technical stuff. A much-needed variety of individual styles all around. The American Conference could retain the crowd-pleasing three-point basket, which a number of present NBA coaches already admire. The fate of the circus ball would be a tossup.