The NBA’s growth spurt in the 1980s happened because of the influence of the old American Basketball Association. The league absorbing four ABA franchises in 1976 was not coincidental from the boom the NBA enjoyed. The maverick circuit contributed on and off the floor to what the established league has become. But for many of the players, now older men, they are being forgotten in the worst way imaginable.
The ABA operated for nine high-flying seasons from 1967–76 before it simply ran out of money. The league’s history overflows with franchise moves, controversial players, and wholesale raids on college and NBA players alike. While the ABA lost the battle, one look at an NBA court shows it won the war. But there is one egregious oversight the NBA must address.
The ABA forced the NBA to change how it did business
When it debuted in 1967, the ABA aggressively pursued talent not just from the fringes. The upstarts went after established NBA stars. Rick Barry was the biggest name to jump leagues. Still, other luminaries such as Billy Cunningham, Joe Caldwell, Zelmo Beaty, and Don Chaney also switched sides during the ABA’s nine-year run.
The league with the red-white-and-blue basketball also spawned the Hall of Fame careers of Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, George McGinnis, George Gervin, Dan Issel, David Thompson, and Bobby Jones. In the first NBA All-Star Game after the merger in 1977, 10 of the 22 players selected had ABA ties.
And some NBA basics from today came from the ABA. The Slam Dunk Contest? Erving won the first one, held at halftime of the last ABA All-Star Game in 1976. The 3-point line didn’t originate in the ABA, but it was present throughout its run. The NBA adopted it in 1979, three years after taking in the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, and San Antonio Spurs.
Perhaps the most revolutionary concept to come from the rival league was the concept of marketing. Marketing in the 1960s NBA began and ended with putting a sign in front of the arena that read “Game Today.” The ABA marketed players, not teams. Barry and Erving were headliners for the mavericks.
The forgotten contributors to the wealth of today’s NBA
Not everyone who played in the ABA was a star. And with the surviving players from the ABA now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, many have fallen on hard times.
The NBA created its pension plan in 1965. But in 1988, it awarded pensions retroactively to surviving players from the league’s origin period (1946–65), awarding full pension benefits to players with at least five years’ service whose careers ended before the birth of the pension.
The ABA players didn’t get a cut then. They still aren’t, to the heartbreak of many. When former ABA All-Star George Carter died in November 2020, he was on the verge of being evicted. His burial would be in an unmarked grave in Las Vegas.
Per ESPN, Dropping Dimes — founded by a former ABA ball boy in Dr. John Abrams and Indianapolis attorney Scott Tarver — has bridged some gaps. But when the ABA disbanded, it left its former players without a retirement safety net.
Under terms of the expansion agreement in 1976 (a merger was off the table after players sued under antitrust law to block one), the ABA would provide pension benefits to players who qualified. After the ABA legally dissolved in 1978, that promise dissolved along with it.
The NBA could save the remaining ABA veterans for less than a rookie minimum salary
Dropping Dimes has proposed that the NBA grandfather former ABA players with at least three seasons of service into the pension plan. Like the pre-1965 pioneers, the proposal calls for players to receive pensions of $400 per month for each season played.
Depending on the qualification line, 100 to 143 players are affected. Estimates say that between $20 million and $28 million would cover the players for the rest of their lives.
At the highest level ($28 million), the total is equivalent to $933,333 per team. For less than one rookie minimum contract, the NBA has the power to do the right thing.
These players may not have been NBA players, but they played a significant role in creating a lucrative market for those who do so today.
As the NBA owes a massive debt to the old ABA for what it is today, it also owes the ABA pioneers who made it all possible.