As I'm sure most who read this blog are well aware, Indiana loves its basketball. Many times the local high school's basketball gym was the biggest structure in town (or at least held the most people in one place). Entire towns would shut down during basketball games. My town was like that. And the team was usually the talk of the town, for good or bad. Thankfully, during my four years, it was mostly good. Purdue and IU have been basketball powers, although I'm thoroughly convinced Purdue is cursed in the NCAA tournament.
I can tell you from going back and looking at the records, the high school state tournament was an even bigger deal when it was single class. The spreads in the then Indianapolis News were the most elaborate pages I saw in all my research trying to track down the stories I will be presenting,* rivaled only by the Indianapolis 500.
*This changed once the paper changed to the Indianapolis Star, but I'm assuming technology had something to do with that.
So, yes, it was a big deal with professional basketball came to Indianapolis again. Indianapolis had the Olympians for a few years in the BAA and NBA, but the team didn't last during those early days of the league. People were excited at the prospect of having a pro team in their backyard and being able to watch all the great Indiana players, whether they had stuck around at Purdue and IU or the great players that filled the rosters of other great college teams, continue their careers back home.
The problem was, nobody really knew what to make of this new league. It wasn't said at the time, but the idea of the league from the start was to eventually fold into the NBA. If you watched ESPN's 30 for 30, and Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? in particular, you will recognize the argument as how Donald Trump viewed that upstart football league. It was much cheaper to get an ABA franchise than getting the NBA to grant you an expansion team, and then watch the investment grow exponentially once the team is merged into the NBA.
The merger is fit for a book on its own, but we'll cover that a different day. We're talking about the founding here. The first one we have here talks about the meeting in New York where the league was established (though it wouldn't be formally announced until the next day). It got a pretty big story, but not exactly a full spread. I'm sure the biggest part of the problem was as this time, Indianapolis wasn't exactly sure if it was getting a team or not. It was said Indiana would be joining, playing in the Eastern Division of the league, but the paper didn't know of any group putting down any money, nor had it heard of any Indiana group going to the meeting at this point. And don't be fooled by the picture, that's from the Indiana State-Evansville game. Just as with the Colts, click for a larger version.
After the initial confusion, the News ran a story giving more shape (and a name) to the ABA. Still, the bigger stories on the page were golf and the Butler-Wabash game that was to be played that night. Here is the ABA article, tucked neatly by the inside margin.
The story opens up letting us know there is about to be a bidding war for talent. We'll cover that with the next story, but that definitely came to pass. The bigger stories here are the initial teams being announced, and that Indiana did indeed have representatives there.
The ABA started off with ten teams split up into two divisions or conferences. The naming hadn't quite been decided on at this point. In the East, there would be teams in Indianapolis, New York, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, and New Orleans. Out West, there would be teams in Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Oakland, and Anaheim.
This changed before the first season could even start. As seen here, the results of that first season were as follows.
1. Pittsburgh Pipers 54-24 1. New Orleans Buccaneers 48-30
2. Minnesota Muskies 50-28 2. Dallas Chaparrals 46-32
3. Indiana Pacers 38-40 3. Denver Rockets 45-33
4. Kentucky Colonels 36-42 4. Houston Mavericks 29-49
5. New Jersey Americans 36-42 5. Anaheim Amigos 25-53
6. Oakland Oaks 22-56
I did find the Texas teams' naming amusing, but the Pipers would beat the Buccaneers in seven games for the first ABA championship. The next year, you would have been forgiven if you thought you were looking at a different league. Minnesota moved to Miami to become the Floridians. Pittsburgh moved to Minnesota, but kept their name. They would move back to Pittsburgh the following year, but become the Condors. The New Jersey Americans became the New York Nets. The West would be more stable. The Anaheim Amigos became the LA Stars, but that was the only change.
Now, as was said earlier, the ABA meant that players had a decision which league to join. The ABA won many of the early battles, paying (likely greatly overpaying) players for their name and recognition, and thus legitimacy, for the league. There were also NBA stars that wanted to jump ship, Rick Barry being the most notable. In Indiana, though, the hope would be for stars to come home. The biggest prize among those Indiana pros would be Oscar Robertson. As far as I can tell, Robertson never had any serious thoughts about switching to the ABA, but his Curt Flood-like lawsuit did prevent a planned ABA-NBA Merger in 1970. The leagues wouldn't merge until the lawsuit was complete in 1976.
That'll do it for today. Tomorrow, we'll look at the "hoopla" surrounding those three ABA championship teams that caused the Pacers to be the face of the league.