Jamie Vaught: Remembering the good old days of the colorful, innovative American Basketball Association

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If you have followed my sports column over the years, you may have read some of the stories about the old American Basketball Association.

I was a huge fan of ABA which included the Louisville-based Kentucky Colonels.  The colorful league had featured a couple of radical innovations – a three-point field goal (which at the time did not exist in the NBA or college basketball) and the red-white-blue “beach” ball. The Colonels were my favorite pro basketball team. And I loved them even before two UK stars — Dan Issel and Mike Pratt — joined the franchise in 1970.  I didn’t like the well-established NBA very well with that ugly black-looking ball on a black-and-white TV set.

My interest in the Colonels and ABA began when I was in the sixth or seventh grade. Ex-Wildcat Louie Dampier starred with the Colonels during the pre-Issel era, pumping those long three-point jumpers. While Issel was reaping All-American honors during his senior year at UK, my parents, my friend and I traveled to Louisville — a three-hour trip one way — to see the Colonels, who were hosting the Miami Floridians at the 6,000-seat Convention Center.  I remember that 1969 game well because it was the first time I had seen the Colonels play in person. Before a crowd of 3,000, Kentucky defeated the Floridians 115-111 behind 6-9 forward Gene Moore’s 28 points and 22 rebounds with Dampier getting 24 points.

Jamie Vaught with Jim O’Brien in 2017 at PNC Parkm(Photo courtesy of ABC)

After that matchup, my friend and I had my parents waiting in the car in the downtown arena’s parking lot for about an hour while we obtained autographs from several Colonels players, including Wayne Chapman, whose two-year-old baby, Rex, would be a future UK and NBA star. I could tell that my mom and dad weren’t too thrilled about it. Fortunately, they didn’t fuss about it on the way home.

As you can tell, I was really crazy about the Colonels.

Since then, we made two or three trips to Louisville from our rural hometown of Science Hill in Pulaski County to watch the Kentucky Colonels every season during my high school years. Occasionally, I even sneaked to the hardwood floor a couple of times with my cheap Kodak camera (with basic print film) and sat with other photojournalists to take pictures of my beloved Colonels. Each time though, after sitting for around 10 minutes or so on the floor, a media relations official from the team or a security guard would catch me, forcing me to return to my seat since I didn’t have a proper photo or media credential.

The photos, of course, were very poor quality and dark, but I managed to get decent shots of 7-2 star Artis Gilmore of Kentucky and San Diego coach K.C. Jones of the Boston Celtics fame.

Sadly, our annual trips eventually stopped when the struggling ABA folded in 1976 and sent four of its teams — Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, and New York Nets (now Brooklyn Nets) — to the NBA.

However, ABA thankfully still hasn’t been forgotten ever since.  Occasionally, there have been books (such as “Loose Balls” by Terry Pluto, first published in 1990) and numerous newspaper articles written about its former players and the visionary league.  In addition, there is a popular website about the former league – RememberTheABA.com – that is filled with photos, fascinating stories, facts and team logos.

That’s not all. Even after its death over 40 years ago, the ABA memories remain alive with a couple of recently-published books.

Remember veteran journalist and Pittsburgh native Jim O’Brien who wrote a weekly ABA column in The Sporting News, a national publication?  He was called by some as the “Mr. ABA” as he covered the league for seven years.  I visited with him at PNC Park in Pittsburgh last summer when the Pirates played the Milwaukee Brewers and he told me about his new hoops book that was coming out soon.

Now published about three months ago, his basketball memoir titled, “Looking Up: From the ABA to the NBA, the WNBA to the NCAA” (James O’Brien Publishing, $28), is loaded with many ABA stories and tidbits. In addition to profiles on well-known ABA personalities such as Bill Sharman, Connie Hawkins, John Brisker, Julius Erving, Dan Issel, and Lou Carnesecca, he also includes chapters on UK coach John Calipari, Jerry West, “Bad Night in Louisville,” Press and Pete Maravich, Charlie Scott, among others.

I have read most of the 480-page paperback and it’s an enjoyable read. I love it.

“The ABA was the most transparent sports league of them all. Writers were welcomed. People wanted to talk to you,” O’Brien told this columnist several years ago. “The league had a lot of colorful owners, coaches and players and they were available to interview.  The league needed recognition and it was a sportswriter’s dream.

“The Kentucky Colonels and Indiana Pacers were my favorite teams to cover. They were first class from top to bottom.  I loved coming to Freedom Hall and staying at The Executive Inn nearby. (Kentucky coach) Babe McCarthy once said of Wendell Ladner, ‘He doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear…as well as a lot of other words.’ (I) had a lot of fun.”

If you’re interested, you can order an autographed copy of the book via O’Brien’s website at JimObrienSportsAuthor.com.

There is another remarkable volume titled “Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis” (Halfcourt Press, $29.95) that discusses the story of the birth and first two seasons of the Indiana Pacers, who became one of ABA’s few solid franchises.

Veteran sportswriter Mark Montieth is certainly the right person to write a book about the Pacers’ early days as he grew up in Indianapolis and attended some of their games during the club’s first two years, and later covered the Pacers as a writer for the Indianapolis Star for 12 years. In addition to tons of research he compiled over the years, the author interviewed nearly every player from the first Pacers squad in 1967-68. (Many years ago, Montieth also wrote a book, titled “Passion Play,” which covered coach Gene Keady and his 1987-88 Big Ten champion Purdue Boilermakers.)

As you may recall, the Colonels and the Pacers – separated by 1.5 hours on I-65 — were big ABA rivalries and their intense games drew large crowds.

Former Wildcats like Cliff Hagan (who was a player-coach for the Dallas Chaparrals) and Louie Dampier are mentioned several times in the “Reborn” hardcover, which has over 400 pages, including around 50 photos, many of which have not been published before. If you are an Indiana Pacers or ABA fan, you wouldn’t be disappointed.
More information about the book can be found on author’s website at MarkMontieth.com and you probably could ask about getting a signed copy.

It’s sure an awesome feeling to know that ABA is still alive in memory. Those were the good old days.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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