We are family
These unbreakable bonds connecting most ABA players were renewed and strengthened throughout the "ABA Ol' School Reunion," which took place in Denver during All-Star Weekend. The Reunion was organized by Fatty Taylor, who played seven years in the ABA, and his longtime friend James Render.
"I got the idea for the Reunion because the NBA All-Star Game was coming to Denver, Colorado, which is an ABA city," Taylor said. "So it is only fitting to have a Reunion for all the ABA guys. I just decided to get all the guys together in a spirit of fellowship. We figured that it is a chance just to see each other again. There is no telling when your day will come. It started off as a big party, but it turned into more than I thought it would."
The ABA Reunion is not an "official" NBA All-Star Weekend event and this does not bother Taylor at all.
"I just thought that it was something that I really wanted to do – getting in touch with guys who I haven't seen in years. They were happy and wanted to see each other. See, the ABA players are a little different from the NBA players. We had a close-knit league. The NBA tried to destroy us and never wanted to see us make it. We played hard and we tried hard (to not let that happen)."
Taylor would like to make the ABA Reunion an annual event.
"This is something that could be for us every year at the All-Star Game – an ABA Reunion, having different festivities. Everybody likes each other and we are happy to see each other. When we played against each other, we went out there and played hard, but after the game we would go out and party and have a good time. We just want to relive some of those good times."
The festivities began on Thursday, February 17 when several ABA players – including Rick Darnell, Mike Davis, Willie Davis, Joe Hamilton, Eugene "Goo" Kennedy, Warren Jabali and James Silas – gathered at Denver's East High School to sign autographs and reminisce. Riding in a yellow Hummer stretch limo to the school, the players regaled each other with stories. Not surprisingly, Julius Erving featured prominently in several of them – both for his ABA exploits and for his summer-league displays.
Joe Hamilton described a Dr. J move that was so otherworldly that Hamilton fell off of the bench in amazement and was fined by his coach for not keeping his mind on the game. Several players mentioned the Doctor destroying Sidney Wicks in a summer-league game after Wicks had proclaimed that he was going to shut down Erving. Asked about this later, Erving remembered the incident, saying that it happened at the Willie Naulls game in Los Angeles.
Mike Davis described a Rucker League encounter when Connie Hawkins blocked Wilt Chamberlain's patented fadeaway jumper, except that he was not satisfied to just block it – he wiped the ball all over the backboard before sweeping in the rebound. After that, Chamberlain discarded the fade away for that evening and proceeded to dunk on everybody in sight.
Davis, who lives in New York, got up at 4 am and had to take a flight with a Las Vegas connection to arrive in Denver. When the pilot said that the plane was flying over Colorado, Davis felt like saying, "Hey, drop me off here!" He was tired and hungry during the drive to East High School, but would not have missed the ABA Reunion for the world.
Signing autographs and interacting with fans has a special meaning to Davis, who explained that he'll never forget meeting a professional basketball player for the first time when Carl Braun, the New York Knicks star guard in the 1950s, spoke at the Boys and Girls Club that Davis went to as a child.
Many of the fans at the East High School event had not even been born when the ABA existed, but others had vivid memories of the league. One older gentleman brought with him a program from the 1984 NBA All-Star Game, which was held in McNichols Arena in Denver and featured several ex-ABA players. When he seemed a bit reticent about asking for autographs, Darnell came over, talked with him, asked him which players he was looking for and made sure that he got the signatures he wanted.
Warren Jabali is a very interesting figure. When it is suggested to him that it is amazing that one year he averaged 10 rpg as a 6-2 guard/forward going against much taller players, he says simply, "They couldn't jump." There is no pretense to his comments and no extra words – he gets straight to the point. Most of the ABA players are quick with a joke or a comment, but Jabali is more reticent. Perhaps because he feels that he has been misquoted and misrepresented previously. He has a Jim Brown-like presence – quiet, but strong and confident.
After the appearance at East High School, which was covered by the local Fox television affiliate in Denver, the players headed back to the Doubletree Hotel for the Welcome Reception. While a DJ spun songs from the 1970s, the ABA players renewed acquaintances and interacted with fans who bought tickets for the event.
That night Hamilton told me about playing on the 1974-75 Kentucky Colonels team that won the ABA Championship. He recalls that when Coach Hubie Brown arrived, things changed.
"We're like, 'Hubie, come on, we're veterans.' We practiced like it was the first day. It could be February the 15th and we've played 60 games. We're still practicing like it's the first day, but that's Hubie. Hubie knew every nook and cranny of this game. Any situation that would come up, Hubie Brown had something for it. His knowledge of the game was just so amazing."
Hamilton indicated that Brown's encyclopedic understanding of basketball mirrors the football wizardry of the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick. Hamilton knows something about football. He used to work as the Athletic Director for Louisville's youth programs and his son Joey III is an assistant coach at Male High School in Louisville, winners of three state football championships under the direction of Bob Redman (father of NFL quarterback Chris Redman).
On Friday, the players did more autograph signings. During the Reunion weekend, Lelands.com donated its expertise to coordinate in person signings by over 20 ABA players – including Hall of Famers Julius Erving, George Gervin and Moses Malone – of 300 basketballs and will sell the limited edition balls over the next year, with some of the proceeds benefiting the Colorado Hawks, Taylor's AAU team for fourth through twelfth graders.
Friday night's "Ol' School ABA Reunion Party" at Invesco Field featured a performance by India.Arie, daughter of five-time ABA All-Star Ralph Simpson. She performed several of her hits, including "Video" and "Talk to Her," plus material from her new CD. Throughout the evening, video screens showed montages of ABA highlights, which were provided by Arthur Hundhausen, webmaster of the Remember the ABA website.
ABA players frequently point out that at the time of the merger, the NBA needed what the ABA had: the best young players – like Erving, Gervin, Malone, David Thompson and Artis Gilmore – and an exciting, free-flowing game. Hundhausen's videos provided evidence of this, showcasing a fun, fast-moving game featuring ball and player movement, good shooting, dramatic dunks and devastating blocked shots.
It is amazing that Gilmore, one of the great all-around centers in the history of the game, is not in the Hall of Fame and is not even among this year's finalists for the honor. Gilmore is stoic and resigned about the mystifying snub, although he poignantly notes that induction would have meant more to him if he had received it before the passing of his mother within the last year.
Saturday was an open day for the players to rest and unwind. On Sunday morning, hundreds of retired NBA and ABA players attended the NBA Retired Players Association's annual brunch at the Hyatt Regency/Denver Tech Center. Cedric the Entertainer served as emcee and several ABA players and coaches received awards – including Byron Beck (Original Denver Nugget), Larry Brown (Coach of the Year; he was unable to attend the ceremony), Spencer Haywood (Legend Award), Dan Issel (Founder Award), Doug Moe (Humanitarian Award) and David Thompson (Mr. Denver Nugget Award). Lafayette "Fat" Lever (Community Service Award) and Kiki Vandeweghe (Basketball Executive Award), who both played for the Nuggets in the NBA, were also recognized.
The ABA Reunion concluded Sunday evening with a gathering at the Seawell Ballroom in the Denver Center of Performing Arts, just a few blocks from the Pepsi Center. The ABA players joined fans to watch the NBA All-Star Game on big screen TVs. After the game ended, the party was just beginning, as the screens switched to Hundhausen's ABA highlight video montages. The After Party lasted until past 1 am. Some retired NBA players stopped by as well, including current Hall of Fame finalist Adrian Dantley.
Four-time All-ABA guard Mack Calvin put the whole weekend into perspective: "I think that what is important and special about this is that the ABA players – Doc and Gervin and all the guys – have always been a unit. A lot of guys can think about doing their own thing, but those guys have always been team guys. There has always been some camaraderie. I think that this exemplifies the overall attitude for over 30 years. The ABA guys are like a family. We had to stick together in order to survive. It's all about seeing these guys and talking about the old days."
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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