An Early ABA Preseason Game Was Marred by a Monumentally Embarrassing Oversight

When the American Basketball Association launched in 1967, it was a maverick operation from the start. One of the distinctive differences between the ABA and the established NBA was the ball itself. The ABA ball was red, white, and blue. It was the brainchild of the first commissioner, Hall of Famer George Mikan. But every new venture has its startup hiccups. The ABA was no exception. And their first major problem was an embarrassing one.

The other key difference was a rule the ABA lifted from another rival league that launched in the early 1960s. The American Basketball League had high-profile owners such as George Steinbrenner. But that didn’t prevent the ABL from folding during its second season. But the 3-point line endures as the short-lived league’s legacy. The ABA is most remembered for its distinctive basketball.

Why the ABA opted for the red-white-and-blue basketball

Mikan was one of the first stars in the NBA, a dominant center whose imposing size led to a rule change. His strong low-post play prompted the NBA to expand the free-throw lane from six to 12 feet. Mikan’s influence also led to the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954.

But Mikan was also extremely near-sighted. The brown ball used at all levels of basketball in the 1960s could be difficult for him to see in the relatively poorly lit arenas of the day. Mikan explained his reasoning behind the colored ball in Terry Pluto’s narrative history of the ABA, Loose Balls.

“The owners acted like I wanted to burn the flag when I said, ‘Forget the brown ball.’” Mikan said. “I had to prove to them that there was nothing sacred about the brown ball. I did a lot of research and showed them that there were over 50 different shades of brown used over the years in college and pro.

“Hell, the original NBA ball was the color of cowhide; it was off-white. And there was nothing ‘natural’ about the color, as some owners said — it was dyed brown. I said let’s be creative and dye the damn thing red, white, and blue.”

Mikan wasn’t commissioner for long. A monumental mistake demolished his credibility.

Hall of Fame coach Alex Hannum famously quipped that the ball “belonged on the nose of a seal.” But when he later coached in the ABA, he changed his tune.

“When I went to Oakland and then Denver and had a chance to coach with it, I liked the ball,” Hannum said. “It was a good ball to teach shooting with because it made it easy to see the rotation.”

But when teams began to play preseason games, a problem arose.

A preseason game had no red-white-and-blue balls

The lack of an official ABA basketball marred an early preseason game before the maverick league's first season.
The lack of an official ABA basketball marred an early preseason game before the maverick league’s first season. | Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The Denver Rockets opened their preseason schedule in Tucson, Arizona. There were plenty of conventional basketballs available, but no one thought to ensure an official ABA game ball was available.

It was an embarrassing oversight. The solution was less than ideal, according to Denver coach Bob Bass:

“We couldn’t play with a brown ball, because this was the first game in the history of the Denver franchise, even if it was an exhibition. So some genius got the idea of taking a brown ball and spray-painting it red, white, and blue.”

Bob Bass, coach of the Denver Rockets

In the early days of the ABA, players were already complaining loudly about the new ball. Some said it was too slick, others claimed it was too big. There were also factions claiming the rock was too small, too heavy, too light, and too sticky. There was a complaint for everyone, it seemed.

Bass recalled the spray-painted ball was problematic.

“Let’s just say [the spray paint] made the ball a little slick,” Bass said. “There were 44 turnovers — just in the first half.”

The complaints eventually stopped, even though one of the problems cited in the early days was legitimate.

The new ABA basketballs were slick in the early days of the league

Members of the original New Jersey Americans show off an ABA basketball outside the Teaneck Armory. The franchise is now known as the Brooklyn Nets.
Members of the original New Jersey Americans show off an ABA basketball outside the Teaneck Armory. The franchise is now known as the Brooklyn Nets. Bill Meurer/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Even the ABA basketballs that weren’t covered in spray paint had a slippery feel. But it was a problem that decreased over time.

Steve Jones played in the ABA for the first eight of its nine-season run. Jones began his ABA career with the Oakland Oaks and played for six different teams in the league. He came up with a perfectly viable reason why the basketballs were slick in the beginning.

 “When the league began, the ABA balls were far more slippery than the kind we were used to, for a very obvious reason — they were new,” Jones said. “All new balls, regardless of the color, are slippery. That’s why in games they use balls that have been in practice for a while. But since there never was a red, white, and blue ball before, you couldn’t have any used ones.”

He recalled a preseason game the Oaks played in Phoenix. The arena had no air conditioning and (spoiler alert) deserts are hot.

“We had the new ABA balls — which were slippery — and they went off our sweaty hand,” Jones said. “It was awful. Guys were swearing at the ball, blaming the colors. But once the balls were used for a few months, they weren’t slippery anymore.”

Hey, at least Oakland had an official ball for a preseason game. Even slippery new leather seems like Velcro when compared to a spray-painted basketball.

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