The ABA is Dead, Long Live the ABA

IMG_0097I first wrote this post in December, 2010, before I even had a syllabus for the first version of my Cultures of Basketball course at Michigan, let alone the experience of teaching it.  This coming Monday, in my fourth version of that course, we will be doing our lesson on the old ABA.  Between that, and the NBA All-Star Game Insanaganza (which in today’s form is a direct genetic descendant of its disgracefully unacknowledged, mocked parent: the old ABA), it seemed fitting this morning to reprise this, which was my first stab at coming to terms with my crazy sick love of the ABA.  I’ve kept it in the present tense, though I wrote it more than two years ago, because even the ways in which it is now obsolete (noted here and there throughout, and in a Postscript at the end of the piece), are part of what I love about the ABA.

“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” – William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

December 11, 2010

What I remember best about it is the blur as I lay on my back in bed, shooting it straight up into the air with perfect back spin: red, white, and blue giving way to the vaguely perceived promise of purple, even lavender. I was not yet ten, and my dad had brought it back from a business trip to Texas: a genuine ABA basketball autographed by the San Antonio Spurs.

I was thinking about that ball this morning because no sooner had I submitted to the Facebook status gods my wish that there be a pro hoops franchise in Saint Louis (less for the games than for the gear) than I discovered that there is one: the St. Louis Pioneers [Note: don’t bother clicking that link because the page will say:  “Sorry but the requested file does not exist on this server.”;  but that such things really are part of the story, so go ahead, click the link!]. All life should be so easy. But wait, there’s more. Not only is there a pro team in St. Louis, but they play in — wait for it — the American Basketball Association. That’s right the ABA [Remember what I just said a second ago about that last link?  Yeah, pretty much the same thing.] It’s not your daddy’s ABA, but it wants badly to be. It even licensed the name from the NBA which apparently owns it (of course, it owns everything related to basketball).

But never mind all that: St. Louis basketball is back. That’s the story, the narrative arc: there is this thing that is One, and it is called St. Louis Basketball. Like God, or the Word, it was made flesh. That flesh was called, first, the Hawks (Pettit), then the Spirits (Barnes, Malone) and now the Pioneers (um, Erving? the ABA).On the Pioneers web page, the first image you see is the towering afro of Julius Erving, decked out in his Nets uniform and a thin, gold choker. Then the image morphs to side by side images of players that actually have something to do with St. Louis: Marvin Barnes of the old ABA Spirits of St. Louis and Bob Pettit of the old NBA St. Louis Hawks, and then finally Barnes shifts over to the left hand side of the image and Moses Malone takes over the right hand side, dressed in his Spirits of St. Louis # 13 jersey. It’s a chaotic little montage, historically speaking, tying together three icons of the scintillating blackness of the 70s ABA with Pettit, the icon of an era when St. Louis resisted the innovations in the game represented by Erving, Barnes, Malone and the whole ABA, not to mention stubbornly refused to integrate its roster and was the worst place in the NBA for visiting African-American players.

Right, if it seems a bit thin as a narrative, in my mind that’s just part of what stamps its authenticity as the heir of the old ABA. That old ABA, you remember it from Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls, the Fish that Saved Pittsburgh or, today’s versions, Chapter 3 of Free Darko’s new basketball history and Will Farrell’s Semi-Pro. The best thing about the old ABA, for me is its resistance to narrative. As FreeDarko asks there in Chapter 3: “What the Hell was the ABA?” Even the canonical history of the ABA — Pluto’s Loose Balls — is really just a garbage can full of awesome quotations from participants, arranged in chronological order, and prefaced with a dizzying table that chronicles the emergence and disappearance of franchises like so many bubbles on the surface of a pot of boiling water.

What story can you tell about a pot of boiling water? “It wasn’t boiling, I heated it up, it boiled. Now it’s boiling.”? Not much of A Story there, though lots of stories: like when none other than the Spirits’ Marvin Barnes once refused to get on a plane home from Louisville (Eastern Time) because it would arrive in St Louis (Central Time) before it had left: “I ain’t goin’ on no time machine.” Oh yes you are, sooner or later. Now the St. Louis Pioneers have given him a middle seat on theirs. But I’m down with the Pioneers’ weird historical montage because it’s weird and ultimately contradictory, incoherent, and unpolished (when I friended the Pioneers on Facebook I got a message from them with a dead link).

When the old ABA merged into the NBA, not only did the NBA get some dazzling players, a handful of viable franchises, and the rights to the name, it exercised its irresistible Story-Making power to fold the ABA’s own non-narrative existence into the NBA’s larger story of global domination. It’s the titanic chapter of the dialectic of the NBA where individual creativity and entertainment were sublimated by the Association into what would become the racial harmony of the Bird-Magic era + the awesome marketing extravaganza that is Michael Jordan. And it’s not that that’s wrong or untrue. The nine-years of ABA basketball are part of the NBA’s history and it’s right to tell it that way. But as always happens with time machines of this sort, possibilities get left behind. Possibility gets left behind.

IMG_0098On the “authentic” Julius Erving ABA New York Nets throwback I just purchased, everything is perfect.  Everything just as I remember.  Everything that is, except for  the logo of the NBA that is stitched into the fabric of Dr. J’s jerseys, right above my heart.

But a watched pot, they say never boils, and the part of the ABA that is unwatched, roiling craziness, unwitnessed by just about everyone: that’s also part of what should be registered of its existence, then and now.

I don’t know how to tell that without selling that: maybe a poem, maybe a Nietzschean aphorism, maybe just a physical spasm.

But I know it when I see it: the St. Louis Pioneers, whose home games are played at St. Louis Community College and whose roster includes nobody I have ever heard of. The ABA is dead. Long live the ABA. At first I felt like a fool for having not known (or forgotten) about the new ABA (which began in 2000). But then as I clicked around some more I realized that this league takes the old ABA’s resistance to narrative and intensifies it exponentially. It’s hyperlink madness. The same hyperlink madness that led me to find a photo of a genuine ABA ball signed by the San Antonio Spurs just one year after I got mine.

In fact, my wife Claire just discovered the fine print on the bottom of this page, where the publishers of the online sports media outlet — dedicated to “major league coverage of independent and minor league sports” — throw in the towel: “Our SportsCentral no longer actively covers the American Basketball Association (ABA) as a professional league due in part to its inability to publish and play a schedule and the transitory nature of many of its teams.” You can get an ABA franchise for around $10K (AI’s mom did, back in 2008) and that will make your squad one of the 50 or so that float and sink in a given ABA season.

That ball my dad brought me back from San Antonio was one of two gifts from his business trips that I will never forget. The other was a genuine St. Louis Cardinals football helmet. So everything seems to come together, or at least it does when you begin to tell stories about it. The ball bore the autographs of (in order of recognition by me at the time):

  1. Swen Nater (Bill Walton’s back-up at UCLA);
  2. George Gervin (I mean no judgment in saying so, but it is a measure of the as yet unamended whiteness of my early childhood that I knew Swen Nater better than the Ice-Man);
  3. George Karl
  4. Bob Warren
  5. Stan Love.

I imagine their head coach, Tom Nissalke, also signed it since he was our neighbor who lived up the street from us in Madison, Wisconsin (I don’t know, don’t ask) and was probably the reason my dad got into the Spurs locker room after the game.

[Addendum from my father via e-mail, demonstrating how every history can be improved through surprising complication:

“Sorry to disappoint you. Cannot remember the year of the meeting at San Antonio. I can tell you that it was not Nissalke who was instrumental in getting me the autographed ball but the representative of one of the laboratory companies that had a stand at the scientific meeting and when he learned that I planned to attend a game of the Spurs he said he was going too and he would get me the autographed ball. I shall continue digging into my records and hope to find some document (program, abstract, etc.) which might allow me to identify for certain which year was the meeting.”

My dad’s research proved fruitful, determining that he was attending a conference in San Antonio from March 19 to 21 of 1975. That means he had caught the Spurs playing the Virginia Squires at home on March 21 (136-115 Spurs victory), just back from a road trip to — you guessed it — the Spirits of St. Louis.]

For many years that ball remained pristine. I saved it — now displaying, now storing it in a bedroom closet — long after the ABA merged into the NBA. When I moved out for college it stayed behind in the bedroom. At some point, I came home — probably from graduate school, maybe later — and wanted to shoot some hoops. Usually we kept a ball (a regular orange one) in a box in the garage. But for some reason, there wasn’t one this time. So, without a second thought I retrieved the old ABA souvenir and used it to shoot away in the driveway, every meaningless dribble wearing away forever a bit of myth made mine. I still am unsure how I could have done that. The truth is, I think that I probably found it in the equipment box, already worn a bit as though someone else had taken a few shots with it. I’m going home in a week or so and I want to see if that ball is still there. If it is, even if it is flat and ordinary, the markings of ordinary time erasing the markings of legend that it once bore, I’m going to bring it back home with me to St. Louis and protect it. Maybe I’ll even take it to a Pioneers game and get some autographs. Better yet: maybe I’ll bring it with me to a tryout.

Postscript,  February 15, 2013:  I did bring the ball back, and Claire got me a little stand on which I display it along with a few other tokens of my brushes with the basketball heavens, a few ticket stubs, my copy of Fab Five , personally dedicated to me by Jimmy King.

200px-StLouisPhoenixAnd there is this:  checking up on my Pioneers, I discover the following item:  “On October 14, 2011, it was announced that the St. Louis Pioneers were also leaving the BA to joint he Professional Basketball League (PBL), changing their name to the St. Louis Phoenix.”  It’s on a Wikipedia page.  There’s a reference link to the PBL press release announcing the move and name change.  The link is dead.  But I’m not worried, because, after all, in the universe of the ABA everything dead returns to life, like God’s own Point Guard, like the Phoenix.

Shouldn’t every ABA franchise — past, present and future, through all eternity — be christened “the Phoenix”?

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