SI Vault
Dave DeBusschere
October 25, 1976
The ABA's last commissioner, who starred in the NBA himself, says his players have some qualities the older league's do not
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 25, 1976

Younger, Faster, Slicker

The ABA's last commissioner, who starred in the NBA himself, says his players have some qualities the older league's do not

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Economic imperatives may have brought it about, but the pro basketball merger makes just as much sense on the court as it does in the ledger books. I expect the four absorbed ABA teams—Denver, the New York Nets, San Antonio and Indiana—to fit into the NBA very nicely, just as Artis Gilmore, Mack Calvin and others from the three disbanded ABA franchises will fit in on an individual basis. Actually, the ex-ABAers will more than merely fit in; they will add some quickness and excitement the older league needs.

It will be different for the newcomers—and not just because of the obvious things. No more three-point play? I happen to think the ABA's three-point rule forced defenses to be more honest and often enlivened the game's closing minutes, and I hope it will be adopted eventually by the NBA. But abandoning it won't make any decisive difference. The red-white-and-blue ball is gone, too, but probably few people realize that the significant difference between the NBA and ABA balls was not their color but in the way they were made. Like the ball used in college, the ABA ball had a slicker surface and was a little harder to handle, especially with sweaty hands. The NBA ball has deeper seams, and most ABA transplants find it easier to get a grip on—and easier to shoot.

The former ABAers will have to adjust to all those big unfamiliar arenas (a new one every night, for a while) filled with skeptical, even hostile, NBA die-hards. But they will play better before an audience of 12,000 in Portland than they did for some of those crowds of 1,800 we had last season in St. Louis. And every one of the ex-ABA players will be going all out to prove they belong in the NBA. When I was traded to the Knicks in 1968, I desperately wanted to show the Pistons they were wrong in getting rid of me. The ex-ABA players are now going to get the same lift. And they may have a little edge by being generally unknown. While ABA players are familiar with John Havlicek or Rick Barry from TV and by reputation, the NBA's premerger awareness of the ABA pretty much began and ended with Dr. J and David Thompson.

What will affect the ABA players most is having to adjust to a different style of play. The NBA has always played a physical game, with pattern offenses designed to work the ball into the low post and defenses that try to create traffic jams in the middle. The ABA, by contrast, relied on speed and finesse. The NBA could play that way because it had a virtual monopoly on big, dominating centers; but the league was more physical at other positions, too. The ABA tended toward smaller backcourt men, while the classic NBA guards—the Robertsons, the Wests and the Fraziers—were around 6'4" and strong inside. The difference was also true at forward, where most of the ABA stars—Erving, Thompson, George Gervin and Billy Knight—were to be found. Unlike the Paul Silas-type bruisers who abound in the NBA, these were mostly less physical players whose strong suits were mobility and ball handling.

The distinctions will be magnified by the fact that the ABA's two most formidable centers—Artis Gilmore and Caldwell Jones—have wound up with established NBA clubs, Chicago and Philadelphia. The others, e.g., the Spurs' Billy Paultz and Denver's Dan Issel, will now face not only Gilmore and Jones again but, night after night, a succession of tough, big men—Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, Bill Waltons and Bob Laniers. On offense, where ABA players once went to the hoop without hesitation, the presence of shot blockers like Abdul-Jabbar, Clifford Ray and Elvin Hayes will impress upon them the wisdom of pulling up for 12-foot jumpers.

The adjustment ABA players must make extends also to officiating. While ABA referees allowed looser play, even if it meant winking at occasional traveling violations, things will be different in the NBA, which allows freer use of hands inside.

The problem for the former ABA teams will be to get the ball upcourt ahead of all of those long arms and sharp elbows they will encounter. To do this they must first get the rebounds. Erving, Gervin, Thompson, Indiana's Darnell Hillman and Denver's Bobby Jones are all leapers, but they must avoid getting themselves ground down under the backboards.

I think the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs will win their share of games even though the terms of the merger stacked the deck against them: the established NBA clubs had access to the college draft, while the four ABA teams did not. But it will all even out. I predict a banner year for pro basketball, maybe the best ever. But don't bother calling me for one of those ABA basketballs as a keepsake. Souvenir hunters snapped them all up months ago.