“Cool, I own a semi-pro basketball team! Oh wait, nevermind…”
~ABA Team Owner
The American Basketball Association, or ABA, was a major professional league that competed against the NBA until the two leagues merged in 1976. The American Basketball Association, or ABA, is also a semi-pro basketball minor league founded in the year 2000 that is, just, lol.
These are very different leagues. Now, yes, the new ABA was co-founded by Richard Tinkham, one of the co-founders of the original American Basketball Association, and sure, they pay players to play basketball, but otherwise, the similarities stop there. Since its founding, the new and not-really-improved ABA has weathered an NBA lawsuit and the folding of over 350 teams, which is a success rate that you’d expect more from open heart surgery in the 19th century than from viable semi-professional sport franchises.
But this weird, unique, American Basketball Association, for all its nuances, is truly America at its finest. It’s democratic, letting just about any asshole buy their own basketball team…which they often do.
But this one is going to take a bit longer to unpack. Four articles, in fact. One to tell you about the league. One to tell you about the teams. And two to tell you about the comically ridiculous teams that tried, and failed, to become successful franchises in the ABA. Because, oh boy, there are a lot of those. A lot. Let’s dive in to the most insane basketball league ever invented.
A Brief, Incomplete History of the American Basketball Association (No, The OTHER ABA): Part 1- The League
The original ABA was founded in 1967, and largely influenced the entire history of professional basketball. In its nine years of existence, it helped introduce the 3-point shot to the NBA and seven current NBA teams can claim to have once been a part of the ABA. They showcased players such as Rick Barry, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and George Gervin. They were a historically relevant league that brought true change to modern day basketball.
The new ABA, however, is a different story.
In 1999 Richard Tinkham, the founder of the Pacers, teamed up with Joe Newman, a former advertising executive from Indianapolis, to start a semi-professional league using the ABA’s name and brand, primarily consisting of the iconic red, white and blue balls used by the former league.
With Newman largely operating the league from his home, the original plan was to focus on larger markets, with eight teams beginning in 2000 in cities such as Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In the first season, the Detroit Dogs beat the Chicago Skyliners, despite Chicago having the best record in the league.
Teams played 41 regular season games followed by a three-game single-elimination playoff tournament. The following season, the league was down to seven teams, and in 2002 the league took the year off to regather and regroup.
When the league kicked off again, they did so with many changes. Gone was the large market focus. Instead, they wanted as many teams as possible, in both large and small markets.
To do this, they lowered the franchise fee from $50,000 to $10,000, which led to 37 teams playing in the 2004-2005 season…and many of them crashing and burning, because if $40,000 dollars is the financial difference between you owning a team and not being able to afford it, your team is likely to fail once you realize how much things like “travel” and “renting out a stadium” and “paying people” can be.
The fee was raised to $20,000 in 2006, though that’s rarely enforced, and teams still usually pay about $10,000 for their franchising rights. In fact, on the official ABA webpage, there is an actual section where you, regular old you, can reserve your own ABA market.
The League had its ups and downs. In the 2004-2005 season, Dennis Rodman joined the league, helping the Long Beach Jam win a championship in their inaugural season. In 2006, it was reported that Joe Newman was voted out of his position as league CEO, only for him to remain in charge as he forced two board members out in a settlement.
That same season, the defending champions the Rochester Razorsharks left the league rather than forfeit a scheduled game they could not attend due to weather related issues. Most players do not get paid, most teams are not profitable, and teams constantly don’t show up to games because they can’t afford to travel.
And it was reported that Joe Newman resigned his position with the league in 2013…in direct response to the New York Times calling him to comment on the league’s lack of organization for an article they were writing. We cannot stress this enough, the New York Times called the head of the ABA to ask, “hey, your league is pretty crazy, any comments on it?” and his response was, “WELL I FUCKING QUIT THEN BYE.” Everything about the ABA is a beautiful mess.
How can a league that formed in 2000 have a homepage that looks like it was made in 1997?
So yes, there have been over 350 teams to fail in this league, and most seasons tend to have somewhere between 40 and 60 teams, most of which are full of unpaid former high school and college stars who are active in the community.
There is practically no oversight—when players get injured, they have to pay for their health care out of pocket, and when, say, a coach pushes a referee, there’s no real entity to suspend him, so he can apologize and coach the next day. Oh, and teams are supposed to self-report their league stats, which no one does, so there’s no concise record of who leads the league in any stat at any given point.
They also tend to have comically high scoring games, which is helped by the…let’s say, unique rules of the league. These rules encourage faster pace (you have 7 seconds to clear the backcourt instead of 8 for the NBA), half-court shots being worth 4 points, and a 3D light that activates after a foul or turnover and gives you an extra point if you score while it is on.
This league is just a silly, silly mess, but that’s what makes it kind of beautifully American. Just like in America, you can do anything, but there are many things you should not do, and you have to be smart enough to know what category something belongs in.
That’s no different than the ABA. You can scrounge up $10,000 to start a basketball league in your hometown, but probably shouldn’t unless you have a lot of money and resources and maybe a bus to drive players to games.
And we’re not done saluting those crazy American who think they can. Yup, we’re going to devote three more articles to this league. Now that you know what it’s like, we’re going to tell you the kind of teams that play for it. Those basketball playing beacons of Democracy.