TRYOUTS AND DREAMS
“Every guy that played high school ball showed up and some others who thought they could play,” says Slick [Leonard] with a belly laugh. “One guy showed up with cutoff bib overalls and I took a liking to him because he could shoot it pretty good. But we had to figure out a way to make some decisions so I said, ‘Let’s make two lines to start with and have them run layups.’ If they missed a layup, they were cut. Then we started running baselines and guys were gagging, throwing up and falling down. The next morning only seven guys showed up, so we couldn’t even scrimmage.”
[Jerry] Harkness remembers boot camp vividly. “I had to try out and I was out of shape. I threw up after wind sprints and Larry Staverman said he saw some good things in me, but I had to get in shape. He said we’re going to have camp in Renssealear, Indiana, and he wanted me to show up there and give it my best. Man, I worked out every day at the YMCA on Senate Avenue and got in great shape. When I made the final cut in September and they gave me a uniform, I cried like a baby.”
Then [Dick] Tinkham handed [Reggie] Harding a napkin and told him to write down what he thought he’d be worth rest of the season and the playoffs. “He looked at me like I was crazy and said something like ‘Are you sure about this?’ and then he sat for what seemed like an eternity before finally writing down a figure. I was getting panicked,” Tinkham admits, “so I divided the number of regular season games left with 21 playoff games and it came out to $220 a game. I handed it to him expecting immediate rejection and laughter but then he extended his hand and nearly broke mine in his paralyzing grip and said, ‘You are my kind of guy.’”
“SLICK” LEONARD THE FAMILY MAD MAN
It’s doubtful if any coach or manager of any professional franchise ever had the relationship and the fun that Bobby Leonard did with his players in their ABA days. He drank with them, cussed at them, inspired them, played poker with them, showed them how to bet horses, and shaped them into winners.
“Roger and Neto were just plain lazy and I had to ride their ass all the time,” Slick says. “So I left Roger home on a road trip and that really got to him. It scared him. He saw I wasn’t going to baby him and it changed his whole attitude. We became good friends and he became an unstoppable force. But as a group they needed some discipline, and I gave it to them.”
Brown says “Slick scared the hell out of me at first and left me home [once], but that was probably what I needed back then. What I liked most about his very first speech to us was that there weren’t any colors on this team, just players, and he treated us all equal. He meant it and that’s how he operated.”
“Slick told us to get our asses in the locker room and shut up,” Neto recalls. “He said this team is going to be a family, there wasn’t going to be any of this honky or nigger shit because he was color-blind and he didn’t care if we were yellow, orange, or purple, he only cared that we played hard and as a team. And that pretty much set the tone. To this day, almost fifty years later, we still feel that way about each other.”
“[Slick] said that we were getting away from being a tight-knit family, and if we were on the road on a Sunday, we will all go to church as a team because it would do us good,” recalls Neto. “Then Slick said, ‘And starting tonight we are going to say a team prayer before every game.’ We were all looking around at each other wondering where all this came from when he said, ‘Okay, now bow your motherfucking heads.’”
WILD WEST IN TENNIS SHOES
Players always had revolving roomies in the ABA, and Rayl drew the short straw on a trip to New Orleans. “I was sitting in bed and I looked over and [Harding] was pointing the gun at me,” says [Rayl], the former Indiana University standout. “I was startled, obviously, and asked him, ‘Please don’t point it at me,’ and he said, ‘What’s the matter Tweety Bird, are you scared of guns?’ I don’t think he knew my name so he called me Tweety Bird. So I got up, got dressed, went down to get something to eat and see if I could get another room. But they didn’t have any so I go back up and he’s still playing with that gun. I said, ‘Let me see it,’ and I emptied all the bullets and gave it back to him. I told him I’d give him back the bullets in the morning after I finally got some sleep — but when I looked over he had a box of shells and was re-loading.
“It was great, we never had any problems [at Neto’s in the Meadows] except the night Roger burst through the front door and yelled ‘Draw, Neto’ and pulled out his gun and everyone in the place dove to the floor. He was an honorary deputy sheriff, and he and Mel were always drawing on each other, and I think we were lucky they never shot each other.”
“In late summer 1971, there was this newly signed rookie sensation named George McGinnis and he wandered into [Neto’s at the Meadows] and he wasn’t even old enough to legally drink yet but he sat down. I asked him if he wanted a drink, he said: ‘Give me a Zombie.’ I asked him, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’ He nodded his head so we gave him a Zombie. Now I know George had no clue what a Zombie was, he had probably heard the name at a party or on TV. The way my bartender mixed up a Zombie it was like drinking rocket fuel. A bunch of us had to carry him out to a car and drive him home.”
FROM $6,000 TO A MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY
Many small market teams like the Pacers lose money ($10 million in 2015-16, according to Forbes) but the franchise that got started on $6,000 is now thought to be worth $880 million (24th in the NBA). “Let’s face it,” says Leonard, who today is the color analyst for the Pacers at the age of eighty-five, “the NBA needed our players, but even after the merger the game was somewhat in trouble and they got lucky with Larry (Bird), Magic (Johnson) and Michael. But don’t even kid yourself. We played just as good a brand of basketball in the ABA as the NBA did, and our game was a helluva lot more exciting. And now I feel like I’m watching an old ABA game almost every night.”
The ABA introduced professional basketball to current NBA markets Miami, Memphis, Houston, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Charlotte, and New Orleans. They introduced the extremely popular slam dunk contest featuring such exciting, high-flying players as Julius Erving, David Thompson, and Darnell Hillman. The ABA made the All-Star Game more than just a game—a weekend filled with slam dunk contests, performances by top entertainers, and events to allow the fans to see the game’s best players up close.
When one looks back to the influence of the ABA on the game of professional basketball, it is clear that they allowed the players to be themselves and play the game with much more flair and excitement to highlight their great athletic skills. However, in addition to the changes happening on the court, the front office personnel were opening the door to a whole new fan experience and enjoyment.