PistonPowered Book Club: 'Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association' by Terry Pluto

Back in 2007, I was working at the Flint Journal, located right downtown Flint, Michigan. The city was abuzz because a movie crew had taken over the downtown, thrown piles of dirt everywhere that were being spray painted white to simulate snow and real life stars like Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson and Andre Benjamin were hanging out in a city that typically only gets national attention when our local insane people get murderous or start torching buildings in record numbers.

The filming of Semi Pro, which chronicled the life of a fake ABA team, the Flint Tropics, gave Flint a chance to show outsiders that we actually do have some cool things going on, a unique history, fine eateries, etc. It’s too bad the movie was horrible.

And I don’t say that to be a snob. I’m not too good to laugh at a low-brow Ferrell film. The problem was just that the real ABA was so damned interesting, full of crazy stories, that any attempt to do a parody of it in a over-the-top movie doesn’t do the league actual justice.

Terry Pluto’s Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association is a basically an oral history of the short-lived but impactful ABA. It was also comically poorly organized, filled with some of the craziest people imaginable who made decisions so strange that its a wonder the league lasted as long as it did. Here is a small sampling that stood out to me:

• The Pittsburgh Pipers, led by Connie Hawkins, won the inaugural ABA championship. Attendance was a problem for many ABA franchises, but the Pipers, bolstered by Hawkins’ star power, drew a respectable 3,000 or so fans per game in that first season. Then they moved to Minnesota. Why? Because the Minnesota Muskies, who played their inaugural season in Minnesota, decided to move to Miami because of poor attendance that first year. The Pipers suffered a similar fate — Hawkins had injury problems, the team didn’t repeat its first year success and they didn’t draw well in Minnesota. The solution? They moved back to Pittsburgh. Only without Connie Hawkins. Predictably, the team didn’t draw well that season. Then, to be extra confusing? They changed their name to the Pittsburgh Condors for two seasons before folding.

Oh, and why was it so important to have a team in Minnesota anyway? Because that’s where commissioner George Mikan wanted the league office. Why Minnesota and not New York? Because Mikan lived in Minnesota, had his personal business there and didn’t want to move to New York. All of it made perfect sense.

• Former player Charlie Williams recounted a story about going to Memphis owner Charlie Finley’s office to discuss a new contract. Finley, like many owners in the league, seemed to both exaggerate his actual wealth and combined that with being cheap. Finley invited Williams to have lunch with him to discuss the contract. Williams arrived and instead of going to a restaurant, Finley had a hot plate in his office and heated up two cans of soup on it to give the impression that he couldn’t afford to pay Williams what he wanted. The method worked and Williams agreed to less money than he was asking for.

• After playing in the All-Star game, John Brisker (a Detroit native), who had a reputation as one of the meanest, scariest players in the league, wanted his $300 bonus for playing in the game. He wanted it immediately and didn’t want to wait for a check, as any normal person would. After the game, he confronted the terrified commissioner, Jack Dolph, and asked for his money. Rather than explain to him he’d have to wait for a check like everyone else, Dolph took $300 out of his wallet and handed it to Brisker.

Those stories pop up throughout the book, and obviously they stand out. But the other theme is just how revolutionary the league really was. The 3-point shot? Created in the ABA. The dunk contest? ABA. Drafting and signing college underclassmen? ABA. It truly put immense pressure on the NBA to raise player salaries, it ushered in a more athletic, above-the-rim style of basketball and it featured some incredible basketball talent that helped revolutionize the game.

But, as a Pistons fan, the key person I kept following throughout the book was Larry Brown. Brown’s relationship with point guards has been a constant talking point following him during his NBA coaching career. It was particularly prevalent when he was coaching the Pistons and Chauncey Billups, under Brown’s tutelage, was becoming one of the league’s top point guards. Brown’s fixation on the position actually comes from a pretty simple place: he was a great point guard in his own right. He still holds the ABA record for assists in a game with 23 and when he retired as a player, he was the league’s all-time leader in assists (he’s now seventh in ABA history).

Brown never got an opportunity to play in the NBA. NBA teams felt he was too small. He earned a spot in the ABA and became an All-Star player. But, another frequent LB-ism, is his love for “teaching the game.” He retired early as a player (many still thought he was a solid player) to get into coaching and became the head coach of the Carolina Cougars in 1972. Brown’s ABA tenure was interesting. We know him as a slow-the-ball-down, strictly halfcourt offense coach who preached intense defense, and he was certainly that guy in the ABA, at least defensively. But his good friend and assistant coach in Carolina was Doug Moe, who 1980s NBA fans will remember for his high scoring, no-defense Denver teams. Much of the discussion of Brown as a coach in the ABA centers on his relationship with Moe, who served to, at times, reel Brown in when he got too demanding. It was interesting, and it makes me wonder if maybe Brown needed a guy like that on his staff recently in Charlotte, where players tuned him out reportedly because of his constant negativity.

Anyway, a couple key elements of early Brown stood out to me. The first was his defensive innovation:

“No one used the run-and-jump defense in the pros,” Brown said. “When I told people that that was the defense I planned to play, they told me that I would get killed. But I was convinced that if you had a quick team, you could make up for your lack of size with this defense. And using that kind of pressure meant that you had to play a lot of guys, which was good for team morale, since more guys were involved.”

When the Pistons were in the midst of a coaching search, one of the pipe-dream candidates some nostalgic Pistons fans hoped the team would consider was Brown. I’m doubtful Brown was ever even seriously mentioned by the team as a candidate, but with the Pistons glut of limited guards, maybe the team could’ve channeled 1972 Brown, who handled a similar guard situation well with a Carolina team that ended up being really good (ABA executive Carl Scheer is talking in the quote below):

One day Larry came to me and said, “I’ve got four good guards, but I don’t think any of them can play 40 minutes.”

I waited for what he would say next. I didn’t know if he wanted to trade someone or what. Then Larry said, “I’m going to play all four of them equal time.”

I said, “You’ll never get away with it.”

Larry said, “Wait and see.”

He started the game with Mack (Calvin) and (Steve) Jones. That was his offensive unit. Mack was a great penetrator, streaky shooter and emotional leader. He pushed the ball up and down the court, he went to the basket, got fouled and made the foul shots …

Then Larry would take them out for (Teddy) McClain and (Gene) Littles, and those guys just pressed people off the floor. You couldn’t dribble the ball up against Gene or Teddy. They would just take it away from you. You put all that backcourt together and we were a bitch.

Now, first of all, the way he used Littles and McClain sounds an awful lot like how he used Lindsey Hunter and Mike James in 2004. Who knows if today’s LB would be patient enough to deal with the limitations of the players in the Pistons’ current backcourt (he might demand that they all be traded for Steve Francis or something) while using them in ways that maximize each of their individual talents, but his use of four good but flawed players on that Carolina team shows that with good, innovative coaching, roster deficiencies like what the Pistons are faced with can be masked some by a great system.

Loose Balls is kind of an all over the place book since it’s basically Pluto putting together an oral history of a league that is largely forgotten. But it’s extremely valuable as a tool to understand how the NBA became what it is today, how entertainment and showmanship became a part of basketball, and it’s also a good way to learn about fantastic players who never got much of a shot in the NBA (like Detroit Pershing great Mel Daniels, for example). And you also get to learn about the time Rick Barry told Sports Illustrated that basically everyone in the state of Virginia is a redneck so that the Squires would be forced to trade him.

Pluto’s research for the book was exhaustive. He talks to hundreds of people, including stars and basketball minds like Julius Erving, George Mikan, Brown, Dan Issel, Bill Sharman and many more. As many of the people state throughout the book, without the ABA’s influence, the NBA that we know and love today would be much different and probably more boring.

Next up: Fab Five by Mitch Albom

Previously:

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