Aug 24,2001

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BASKETBALL

ABA 2000

Do the new ABA and other upstart sports leagues have a chance in today's market?




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by Neil deMause

When a small group of entrepreneurs announced last year that they would be creating a new basketball league in the spirit of the American Basketball Association, somehow I don't think this is what they had in mind.

Remember the ABA

The original ABA, you'll recall, introduced such innovations as the three-point shot (later adopted by the NBA), Julius Erving (ditto), and the red, white, and blue ball (not so much) during its ten years of existence from 1967-76. With high-scoring games and an eagerness to tweak the relatively staid culture of the NBA (the short-lived Floridians -- that was their entire moniker -- notoriously featured bikini-clad ballgirls), the ABA did well enough to force an eventual merger with the NBA, though only four teams survived to make the switch -- the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, and New York Nets.

Even as it was establishing cred by signing future stars like George Gervin, Moses Malone, and the Doctor, the ABA was undergoing a comedy of errors possibly unmatched by any other sports league in history. The Pittsburgh Pipers, the first ABA champions, were uprooted to Minnesota because league president George Mikan insisted on having his office there. The improbably named San Diego Conquistadors, even more improbably abbreviated the "Q's", featured Wilt Chamberlain as a "coach" whose duties only occasionally required him to actually show up on the sideline during games. The New Jersey Americans had to forfeit a playoff game when their home court wasn't available on the scheduled day, and their backup choice, Long Island's Commack Arena, was determined to be in unplayable condition. Logically enough, the Americans moved to Commack for good the next season, and became the Nets.

The pinnacle of the ABA's circus of confusion, though, was the Baltimore Claws, a relocated version of the league's Memphis franchise that took the court for the ABA's final season of 1975-76. "Took the court" is a euphemism. The Claws made it as far as training camp, where the team stumbled through three road losses in hand-me-down Memphis uniforms, while waiting for paychecks that never came. The Claws folded five days before the season started.

What's old is new again

The new ABA -- named, in the spirit of Battlestar Galactica, the "ABA 2000" -- was first announced in July 1999. The founding group included ex-ABA exec Dick Tinkham, who had managed to hang onto several old league trademarks, including the tricolor sphere that he referred to as "our sacred ball."

ABA innovations like the three-point field goal had long since been adopted by the basketball mainstream, but the ABA 2000 promised plenty of wacky new rules, such as a bonus point for baskets scored off backcourt turnovers. "In many ways," Tinkham told reporters, "this is going to be similar to the old league."

Little did he know. Since the league's official launch, the ABA 2000 has had its original January 2000 premiere date pushed back to December, seen two franchises fold immediately after the league's inaugural player draft, merged with the fledgling International Basketball League, and then promptly unmerged with the IBL three days before the scheduled season opener last Friday.

The ABA 2000 now plans to debut on December 26, though its eight teams are still scrambling to fill out their rosters. The IBL, meanwhile, folded two of its teams in advance of the merger -- it should come as no surprise to old ABA fans that those two were San Diego and Baltimore.

Upstarts

Entertaining as all this melodrama may be, it also raises an interesting question: What's the deal with all these sports leagues all of a sudden? A short decade ago, minor-league sports were considered moribund, and starting rival leagues was thought to be a pastime for madmen like Donald Trump. Now, minor-league hockey is thriving in such NHL strongholds as Chicago and Detroit, and independent baseball leagues are springing up like crabgrass in every corner of the country. Even the Arena Football League has its own minor league -- arenafootball2. (Apparently minor-league arena footballers can't afford capital letters. Or spaces.)

But no sport has spawned more competing leagues of late than basketball, which now offers, in addition to the NBA and the WNBA, the ten-team Continental Basketball Association, the ten-team summer United States Basketball League, the second-year IBL, and the first-year ABA 2000; and the NBA is set to unveil its proposed National Developmental Basketball League next year. So just how many leagues can one country support, anyway?

Next page: Alphabet soup



Respond: sjeditor@sportsjones.com

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