Four decades after NBA merger, ABA’s spirit stronger than ever

Julius Erving and the New York Nets were among the ABA powerhouses that survived to reach the modern-day NBA.

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On the eve of yet another victory parade through the Alamo City, it’s a fitting time for another of those semi-regular reminders that the San Antonio Spurs, the league’s winningest franchise for the last 15 years and with now five titles to their name, were actually born in direct opposition to the NBA.

And once again, after beating the Miami Heat in five games, the Spurs are the toast of a league they were once created to fight.

It was 38 years ago on June 17 that four of the seven remaining teams in the upstart American Basketball Association agreed to move to the NBA. Three of those teams — the Spurs, the Indiana Pacers, and the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets — made the playoffs this season, with the Denver Nuggets missing out for the first time since 2003. All in all, a pretty solid representation for the rag-tag coalition of teams that once popularized gimmicks like the red-white-and-blue ball and three-point line.

The ABA was billed as a different brand of basketball, one that was more open and free-flowing. The 24-second shot clock was upped to 30, but that didn’t hinder scoring so much as it allowed offenses to be more creative. (During the league’s final season, all but one team averaged more than 106 points per game.) The three-point line, introduced during the ABA’s inaugural season, instantly gave more importance to long-range jumpers, even as players like Artis Gilmore and Julius Erving basically invented the art of the slam dunk, like Old Masters given a blank canvas. As America approached its bicentennial and faced the reality of its own growing age, the red-white-and-blue game ball supplied a youthful jolt to a sport ready for a refresh.

Sadly, that ball couldn’t survive to July 4, 1976, as the merger killed off the ABA not three weeks shy of that day, but the Spurs, somehow, have remained the truest embodiment we still have of the old ABA. The most diverse team in the league, playing a hyper-stylized system based on passing and teamwork, San Antonio remains, in some sense, a band of modern-day outcasts in today’s NBA. Eschewing the idea of any one superstar for the benefit of the many, the Spurs’ unique style of hoops quasi-utilitarianism has long been labeled "boring," but only if witnessing basketball genius makes you want to yawn.

It’s easy to remember this all for yourself. Go fall down an ABA-themed YouTube rabbit hole. There’s Gilmore putting on a show for the Kentucky Colonels, as he so often did for five seasons. There’s Dr. J dominating for 31 points and 19 rebounds in the ABA’s final game. It was all a closer representation of today’s NBA than the actual NBA was back then, as if time travel were truly possible.

There was never any question that the ABA could compete with the NBA. They played two exhibition games against each other, one in 1971 at the Astrodome and then again the following year at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. They were dubbed Supergame I and II, the inspiration for the naming convention not so subtly disguised.

The first year the NBA — boasting nine Hall of Famers on a roster of 10 — won, 125-120. In the rematch, the NBA (now with seven Hall of Famers) came away with a 106-104 victory. The footage is sight to behold:

So when we celebrate the Spurs and their accomplishments, let’s remember that it all officially started into motion 38 years ago today, when the best of two different worlds finally came together in the spirit of basketball. We, the fans, have been justly rewarded every season since.

You can follow Erik Malinowski — who only shoots hoops with the red, white, and blue — on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at

At 7-foot-2 and 240 pounds, future Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore of the Kentucky Colonels was as good as any NBA center — a fact he proved during a 1972 exhibition game.