How greed, short sightedness, and bad bounces buried the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis and Kentucky Colonels at the last second
It is quite often that when you read long-winded history lessons about the NBA like this one, many events and statistics have the NBA/ABA merger as their starting point. As the years go by and we look back more and more fondly on the good old days, the 1976 merger between the National Basketball Association and the fledgling rival American Basketball Association gains more significance with the league that we see today. While many rival leagues and companies are quick to be buried by the parent league that eventually consumes them, fans and league officials alike are more than ready to share reverence for the carefree, high-scoring, risk-taking nature of the ABA. You will see that first hand Tuesday night on ESPN when they release their latest 30 for 30 installment “Free Spirits.”
The ABA was in many ways the renegade basketball operation, giving fans a slice of whatever treats the uptight NBA refused to dole out to its audience. The free-wheeling style of play encouraged acrobatic improvisation like dunking, which turned players like David Thompson and Julius Erving into street legends. The red, white, and blue ball was so awkwardly wonderful to look at on TV that it was mesmerizing at times. While players out of high school and underclassmen had to wait their turn to go to the NBA, the ABA welcomed talented youngsters like Connie Hawkins, Moses Malone, and Spencer Haywood. The league was also the first to implement the three-point-line, years ahead of the NBA and light years ahead of the college game. If you want a brilliant oral history of the league, do yourself a favor and read Terry Pluto’s book “Loose Balls.” The teams were regionally tied without a built-in fan base, much ad revenue, or a national television contract to fall back on. Although the league lasted nine seasons and cultivated revolutionary concepts, the ABA’s ability to compete with its abysmal attendance figures were ultimately doomed and the merger in 1976 handed over all usage of the league’s trademarks, including their teams and players.
When the ABA and its seventh and final commissioner Dave DeBusschure negotiated with the NBA to compromise a deal, there were only six teams that had weathered the many financial storms that did in one makeshift team after the next. Out of all the teams that were in the ABA, only two of them never relocated or went under throughout the league’s history: The Kentucky Colonels and the Indiana Pacers. The list of teams and cities that had ABA teams is so comical, it’s no wonder Will Ferrell made a movie about it. Long before they received teams in the early 2000’s, there were the New Orleans Buccaneers, which moved to Memphis and changed their name three times (The Pros, the Tams, and the Sounds) before moving to Baltimore and folding in 1975. Dallas had a team called the Chaparrals before leaving in 1973 to become the San Antonio Spurs. A good decade before The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh hit theaters, there were the Pittsburgh Pipers, who won the first ever ABA title in 1968 behind the great Connie Hawkins. Long before the Miami Heat, there were the Miami Floridians, which went bye-bye in 1972. By the time we got through the 1975-76 season, the San Diego Sails, Baltimore Claws, Virginia Squires (which originally drafted two Hall of Famers in Julius Erving and George Gervin), and the highly successful Utah Stars had all closed their doors.
The last six standing when the NBA and ABA got to the negotiating table were the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets, Kentucky Colonels, and fancily named Spirits of St. Louis. The St. Louis franchise originally began, in all irony, as the Houston Mavericks before they were sold to new owners in 1969 and became the Carolina Cougars. The Charlotte soon-to-be Hornets still wear the Cougars uniforms for throwback games today. The Cougars became the first ever coaching job for future Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and his longtime teammate Doug Moe. Their remarkable 57-27 record in the 1972-73 season was a sign of things to come for Brown, but they lost to the Colonels in a seven-game series in the second round. After losing again to Kentucky the following season, the team moved again, this time to St. Louis, MO, for the final two seasons of the league’s existence. With a ‘70’s style orango logo that looked like something straight out of “Schoolhouse Rock,” you would have thought just by the name that the Spirits were a gang that couldn’t shoot straight, which they lived up to more often than not.
Gone were Cougar members like Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham and Mack Calvin. The Spirits had two head coaches in its last seasons: Current NBA President of Basketball Operations Rod Thorn (a.k.a. the man who drafted Michael Jordan), and Providence coaching legend Joe Mullaney. But even the brightest of minds would have had trouble figuring out how to handle this bunch. The new players in tow were young guys like Moses Malone, the late Maurice Lucas, Gus Gerard (who was hampered by drug problems), a forward named “Goo” Kennedy, and a famous street balling guard out of Austin Peay named “Fly” Williams. M.L. Carr and Don Chaney were no slouches, either. They even had a young guard out of Marshall named Mike D’Antoni, and he couldn’t play defense back then, either. There was also some veteran presence like Steve “Snapper” Jones, Joe Caldwell, Ron Boone (who played in more than 1,000 games in a row), and former Pacer great Freddie Lewis.
But the star of the team, show-stealer, and human enigma at the end of a question mark was another Providence great named Marvin Barnes. His nickname was “Bad News” for his brash, trouble-making ways. During his senior year in high school, he and a gang tried to steal a bus. He was quickly identified by witnesses because he was wearing a letter jacket with his name on it during the crime. In his Providence days, he fought a teammate with a tire iron, to which he eventually plead guilty. When the team’s plane passed time zones on a flight from Louisville to St. Louis, Barnes infamously objected, “I ain’t getting on no time machine,” and rented a car instead. He admitted recently that while he had a seven-year, $2.1 million contract with the Spirits, he was making more money in St. Louis trafficking Colombian marijuana for a local kingpin. Drugs eventually were the undoing of Barnes’ career once the ABA closed down, winding up homeless at one point in the 1980’s, but the talent was unquestioned. When Bill Walton was selected #1 in the 1974 draft by the Portland Trail Blazers, Barnes went #2 to the Philadelphia 76ers even though he never played for them. One night in Virginia, he came late to the game in a cashmere coat eating a hamburger and French fries. He was benched in the first quarter, then went on to score 53 points in the final three quarters.
Although Barnes was capable of great accomplishments even when the focus was clearly lacking, the Spirits were seen by many as an eyesore, the misfit toys of a misfit league. As a young Bob Costas cut his teeth as the lead announcer, the Spirits of St. Louis had a 32-52 record to low attendance. But given the receding number of teams, the Spirits still made the playoffs and shocked many by upsetting the defending champion New York Nets thanks in large part to the performances from Barnes (30.8 PPG, 14.1 RPG) and Lucas (16.3 PPG, 14.7 RPG). But the team’s final season in 1976 did not prove as lucky at the end, as they finished 35-49 and missed the playoffs. What ensued behind closed doors once the ABA came to a close was one of the most cunning and, in many ways, foolish business dealings in professional sports history. During the 1975-76 season, the Spirits team picked up Malone and many other players from the Utah Stars team that had folded earlier that year. By season’s end, talks were well underway to relocate the team back to Salt Lake City and call them the Utah Rockies (I imagine if you ignore the Jazz name, the logo would have looked something like this). Even if the Rockies survived the merger, the Spirits of St. Louis were already dead.
But when the Kentucky Colonels were disbanded at the behest of the NBA and owner John Y. Brown received $3 million as a reward for doing so, the two brothers from the polyester industry who owned the Spirits team, Ozzie and Dan Silna, saw prosperity. The Silna’s quickly made a deal with the NBA to shut down the future Utah Rockies, eliminating the team in exchange for 1/7 of television revenue from the four remaining ABA teams (Indiana, San Antonio, Denver, and now Brooklyn) in perpetuity, as in forever. David Stern has bashed his head on his desk for many years since this deal was shrewdly agreed to by the NBA brass at the time, as the Silna’s have become two of the most financially successful owners in NBA history ($255 million since 2012) without ever having to put a single team on an NBA court in their lives. Every time you watch a Spurs or Nets game, these guys are making money off of it because of this 1976 agreement. Even though throwing a potential NBA franchise down the river is pretty cold-blooded, you cannot blame the Silna brothers for making what turned out to be the cash-in of a lifetime. Their continuous gain in NBA finances began with the Spirits’ demise.
If the Spirits of St. Louis were the NBA franchise that never was going be, then the Kentucky Colonels were the NBA franchise that really should have been. Not only were they one of the only two teams to never leave their city, but they only had one losing season (their inaugural 1967-68 season) out of the nine that their history. They went to the ABA Finals three times, losing the first two times to the Stars in ’71 and the Pacers in ’73, both in seven games. Playing their games at Louisville Convention Center and Freedom Hall, where the Louisville Cardinals also played college ball, the Colonels were sixth in attendance for pro basketball, NBA included. The team had a powerhouse on their hands by 1971 when they signed Wildcat big man Dan Issel and Jacksonville center (and afro master) Artis Gilmore to go with sharpshooters Louie Dampier and Darel Carrier. While the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers making history in the NBA with a 69-13 record, the Colonels were right behind them in the ABA with a 68-16 record before losing in the playoffs to Rick Barry’s New York Nets. The team went from Joe Mullaney to Babe McCarthy to an up-and-coming assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks named Hubie Brown. In his first season as a head coach, Brown got the Colonels over that hump and beat the rival Pacers 4-1 to win the second-to-last ABA title in history (The last one was won by the Nets after beating the Nuggets). After winning the ’75 title, owner John Y. Brown offered to pay $1 million if the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors would play the Colonels. The NBA declined, but in an exhibition game at Freedom Hall later that year, the Colonels beat the Warriors 93-90.
Brown is beloved in the Bluegrass State for being the man who bought Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Sanders and turned it into a national restaurant chain. When the Colonels were on the verge of being moved to Cincinnati in 1973, it was Brown who swooped in and bought total interest in the team to keep the team in Louisville. But his heroism started to wear thin after he traded the ever-popular Issel to the Nuggets as a cost-cutting measure. Then came the stab in the back when during the 1976 merger negotiations, Brown made a deal with the NBA to disband the Colonels for $3.3 million and sold the rights to Gilmore to the Chicago Bulls for $1.1 million. Brown eventually used that money to become the owner of the Buffalo Braves and Boston Celtics later that decade. While the remaining ABA teams integrated into the NBA had to sell off their best players (specifically the Nets trading Erving to the Sixers for $3 million) in order to pay the $3.2 million expansion fee, the Colonels and Spirits suffered the indignity of watching all of their players cherry picked throughout the NBA in a dispersal draft. Once the 1976-77 season kicked off, the first in nearly a decade without the ABA rivaling them, the Kentucky Colonels were merely a figment of the NBA fan’s imagination.
I am somewhat biased as a diehard Kentucky basketball fan, but I have always felt that there was something inherently unfortunate about the fate of the Colonels, more so than the permanently shaky nature of the Spirits of St. Louis. While John Y. Brown eventually got out of the basketball business and became the governor of Kentucky and managed to marry former Miss America Phyllis George and wear this ugly ass suit during the 1983 NCAA Tournament game between Kentucky and Louisville. The waters that Brown heated up in the Kentucky circles for disbanding the Colonels are clearly under the bridge as we have witnessed decades of NBA action along the Southern belt that the ABA had already thought up years earlier. The college teams coached by Rick Pitino and John Calipari are about as semi-pro as you can get in the post-modern college era anyway, but as I look around at the cities down South that have lucked their way into NBA franchises, including my own hometown of New Orleans, it always felt like the hoops-frenzied city of Louisville or Lexington unfairly got the shaft.
It might be wishful thinking, but if the basketball gods had a do-over, the Kentucky Colonels’ name would have never gotten scratched off that list in 1976. Maybe it would have been the Colonels, not the Spurs in 1999, who would have become the first ABA franchise to win an NBA Championship. I have always found irony in the fact that Louisville’s newest beautiful arena, an arena perfectly fit for an NBA franchise let alone a college team, is called the KFC Yum! Center. The irony might sound tasty depending on how much you like KFC, but for the old time fans in Louisville and St. Louis who never got their shot at NBA glory, the taste has to be bittersweet.