ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis

Reggie Harding: ABA Indiana Pacers’ 1st 7-Footer. Part I

Reggie Harding 1Original publish date:  March 12, 2017

The Indiana Pacers are winding down another season and the playoff situation remains uncertain. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s start in the old ABA. It was about this time of year a half century ago that the Pacers signed one of the most infamous names to ever blot the roster. A 7-foot tall high school star from Detroit, Michigan who certainly became more famous for what he did off the court than for we he did on it.
Reggie Harding was the very first high-school basketball player drafted by the NBA. He graduated from Detroit’s Eastern High School in 1960 (re-named Martin Luther King High in 1968). The basketball talent coming out of Detroit in the sixties was astonishing. The Motor City hoops alumni back in the day included Spencer Haywood, John Brisker, Archie Clark, Dave DeBuschere, George Gervin, Ralph Simpson, and Mel Daniels to name but a few. Harding barely scraped by academically, so college was out of the question. He played briefly at a prep school in Nashville followed by two seasons on Midwest League teams in Toledo, Ohio and Holland, Michigan.
Unlike today, 7-footers were rare in sixties, and much prized by NBA teams hoping to clog the lane and blunt the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In 1963, the Pistons desperately needed a big man, so they drafted Reggie in the sixth round with the 48th overall pick, making him the first player ever drafted who hadn’t played in college. Harding made his NBA debut with the Pistons in the 1963-1964 season, joining the team late in the year because of a suspension on gun charges.
He played 39 games that year, averaging 11.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg. The next season, Harding averaged 34.6 minutes in 78 games and scored 12.0 ppg while pulling down 11.6 rpg for a Pistons team that finished fourth in the Western Division. When Harding joined the Pistons as a rookie in 1963, he roomed on the road with veteran 6’9″ power forward Ray Scott. During an 11-year career in the NBA and ABA, Scott played for the Pistons, Baltimore Bullets, and Virginia Squires. Scott coached the Pistons from 1972 to 1976 and in 1974, he was named NBA Coach of the Year, the first African-American to be so honored. Scott was an intellectual who favored books about the Civil Rights struggle in America.
In 1965, Reggie Harding noticed that Scott was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and asked to read it after he finished. Turns out Reggie would have plenty of time to read it since he was suspended for the entire 1965-66 season (most likely due to ongoing gun charges because Reggie was never far from a gun). The book had a profound affect on Reggie and his views on life became more serious and his behavior more demonstrative. It didn’t help his game much though as Reggie averaged only 18.5 minutes per game during the next season, recording 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 points per game. The Pistons traded him to the Chicago Bulls for a third-round draft pick in 1967 where he lasted only 14 games. In four seasons with the Pistons and Chicago Bulls, Harding averaged 9.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
It was common knowledge by all who knew him that Reggie carried a gun in his gym bag wherever he went. He was known for finishing practice and leaving without showering, pausing only to towel the sweat and spin the cylinder on his revolver. Once while playing in Detroit, Harding was said to have shot at teammate (& former Purdue All-American) Terry Dischinger’s feet to make him “dance.” During his brief tenure with the Bulls, Reggie often played one-on-one with Bulls star Flynn Robinson. Flynn would routinely beat him and Reggie would threaten to pistol whip him. Flynn was Reggie’s roommate and recalled once being startled awake in the pitch dark to find Reggie pointing a gun at him. Flynn was averaging 16 points per game, Reggie less than 5, so it isn’t hard to figure out what happened next.
During a West Coast road trip, Harding was called home for his mother’s funeral. For the next 10 days, the Bulls didn’t hear from him. Finally he returned, saying that he had been appointed executor of his mother’s estate and needed the extra time away. A few days later, the Bulls placed Reggie Harding on waivers. Then the Pacers came calling.
During that first ABA season, the Pacers started out well, going 18-7 but started to lose ground to the rest of the league by mid-season. Bob Netolicky, a 6’9″ star from Drake University, was holding down the center spot. Despite his prodigious vertical leaping ability, Neto’s game was better suited for the forward slot and with about 30 games to go, Neto caught the mumps. So the Pacers saw an opportunity when the Bulls handed Harding his walking papers. Pacers GM Mike Storen and team co-founder Dick Tinkham met Harding at the airport at 5 am. The duo was due to board a plane with the team for an away game at 9:30.
Reggie Harding sat down with the Pacers’ duo in an airport coffee shop booth and listened disinterestedly until the subject of money came up. The Pacers reps explained that since there was less than half the season left, the team would pay Reggie $ 10,000 to sign. Reggie scoffed saying that if they signed him the Pacers were guaranteed to win the Championship. Reggie replied, “They can talk about black power and white power. I believe in green power: money, man, money.” Reggie countered with a bottom line figure of $ 15,000. Tinkham, true to his shrewd reputation, offered $ 300 per game adding, that if what Reggie said was true, the Pacers had 30 games left in the season and another 20 in the post season. $ 300 for 50 games adds up to Reggie’s desired number. Reggie signed and dressed for that night’s game. The deal, like Tinkham himself, became a Pacer’s legend,
Harding was a problem from the start beginning with his refusal to wear a suit and tie on the plane to the game. Instead he wore his uniform. From there, Reggie skipped practices, arrived late for team flights and once requested leave from the team saying he had to go to his daughter’s funeral. Problem was, Reggie didn’t have a daughter. Perhaps the most famous Reggie Harding Pacers story comes from Kokomo prep star & I.U. 2-time All-American Jimmy Rayl. While rooming with Reggie on the road one night, Rayl was asleep in the darkened room. He heard the door open and saw the silhouette of his 7-foot roomie walk through the door. Moments later, Reggie clicked the light on, Rayl opened his eyes and found he was staring down the barrel of a gun. Reggie accused Rayl of being a racist, which Jimmy is not, and after a long conversation, Reggie put his gun down. Jimmy Rayl slept in the lobby that night.
The Pacers finished the season 38-40 and played just three postseason games; losing each game by double digits to Connie Hawkins’ eventual ABA champion Pittsburgh Pipers team. Reggie’s game total didn’t really matter because between the fines for missed practices, suspensions and arriving late for flights, Harding ended up owing the Pacers $400. During that abbreviated 1967–68 season with the ABA Pacers, Harding averaged 13.4 points and 13.4 rebounds in 25 games. Obviously, Reggie Harding did have occasional flashes of brilliance. The Pacers’ first triple-double came courtesy of Reggie Harding when he had 30 points and 22 rebounds on March 14 against Mel Daniels and his Minnesota Muskies. Although blocked shot stats were not kept back then, the newspaper account of the game stated Harding “pounded at least 10 shots back at the stunned Muskies.” His capstone for his Pacers career came when, during a television interview, Reggie threatened to shoot Pacers’ general manager, Mike Storen.
Reggie Harding’s once promising pro career was done by the time he was 26. With no other marketable skills, Harding returned to small time cons and petty larceny on the mean streets of Detroit. He quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. The sad after-basketball life of Reggie Harding is perhaps best exemplified by one oft repeated story. Reggie walked into a neighborhood establishment (described variously as either a liquor store or gas station) with a nylon stocking over his head, brandishing a gun and demanding money. The clerk took one look at the 7-footer and reportedly said, “I know that’s you, Reggie,” to which Harding replied, “It ain’t me, man. Shut up and give me the money!” Legend has it that Harding robbed that same gas station in his own Detroit neighborhood a total of three times.
Reggie Harding’s post-basketball career was plagued by a number of personal problems. He spent time in jail and often struggled with drug addictions. But he was turning his life around. He had kicked his heroin addiction, was jogging and playing basketball every day and talking to friends about an NBA comeback. He was scheduled to start a new job in the Fall. Reggie had been raised by foster parents but had recently reconnected with his mother, Lilie Mae Thomas. In August of 1972, Lillie Mae was shot and killed by her husband. Witnesses remembered Reggie standing at his mother’s graveside and telling the preacher how he wanted to be buried.
On September 2, 1972, Harding was standing on the corner of Parkview and Kercheval talking to a couple of girls. A car pulled up and parked nearby. 26-year-old Carl Scott, a former friend of Reggie’s, stepped out, walked up and pointed a gun at the former NBA player. Reggie thought he was joking (he’d just taken Scott to church with him the Sunday previous) and said, “If you shoot me, shoot me in the head. I don’t want to feel no pain.” On his way down to the ground, Reggie cried out, “Why? Why? Man you shot me.” Reggie Harding died on the litter strewn sidewalks he had grown up on. A warrant for First Degree Murder was issued for Carl Scott but the outcome of charges, if ever brought, are unknown.
Reggie Harding was dead at the age of 30, a bullet through his skull and brain. Mike Storen, the Pacers’ General Manager who Reggie had threatened to shoot 4 years before, was one of only three white people to attend the funeral. When the funeral party arrived at the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, it became apparent that the 7-foot tall Harding’s grave, like his life, was too short. The large casket had to be buried at an angle in the plot. Reggie’s body was laid to rest near the burned out shell of the old Eastern High School Building where Reggie gained fame as a prep star. Seems that, even in death, Reggie Harding couldn’t catch a break.
Next week, in part II of this story, Reggie Harding’s other connection to Motown.

ABA-American Basketball Association

Whatever Happened to John Brisker? Part II

john-brisker-part IOriginal publish date:  February 1, 2016

For 3 seasons (1969-71), John Brisker ruled the ABA. He averaged 26.1 pts per game, which is crazy good, but more importantly, he led the league in fights and his intimidation factor was off the charts. In an outlaw league filled with castoffs and misfits, John Brisker topped them all. Executives placated him, coaches hated him, opposing players feared him and even his own teammates refused to guard him during practice. All of which was perfectly fine with John Brisker.
Brisker’s temper showed his dark side, but he was also highly intelligent. He was proud of his African heritage and studied African culture by reading and researching the subject whenever he could. He began to wear a dashiki (a loose, brightly colored African shirt or tunic) as a way of exhibiting his African pride. Although readily accepted today, at the time, it made Brisker a target of inquiry. Some within the establishment pegged him as a black militant.
During his 3 seasons in Pittsburgh under 2 different team names (Pipers & Condors) Brisker also found trouble off the court. In the fall of 1971, he attended a Pirates World Series home game with a girlfriend. After hailing a cab at the end of the game, Brisker got in an argument with a man who claimed that he had reserved the cab ahead of time. Brisker refused to get out of the cab, resulting in a fistfight with the man. Three nearby policemen spotted the brawl and as they investigated, Brisker began fighting the cops too. Two of the three officers were hospitalized and Brisker was arrested for assault and battery, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The handwriting was on the wall for John Brisker.
Brisker decided to cash in his ABA success by signing a lucrative multi-year contract with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. Los Angeles businessmen Sam Schulman, the Sonics owner, was threatening to move his team to the ABA and worse, to move his soon-to-be ABA team to L.A. to compete directly with the Lakers. The Sonics had just signed Brisker’s Detroit neighbor & ABA All-Star Spencer Haywood the season before. Brisker had come in second to Haywood for ABA Rookie-of-the-year honors in 1969-70. So it seemed like a good fit for everyone involved including the fans.
It was a good financial move, but it came at a deeper price for Brisker. The NBA was not as tolerant of Brisker’s Bruising Brawls as the ABA had been and his new teammates, perhaps dubious of the ABA hype, were not as accepting of him. NBA players didn’t scare so easily, and they knew he wasn’t going to risk a suspension, with its fine and loss of pay. Still,old habits die hard and during one Sonic scrimmage, Brisker got in a shoving match with a teammate, knocking out the player’s front teeth. A move that prompted one Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist to induct Brisker into the Seattle Boxing Hall of Fame. So, faced with this new reality, Brisker did his best to fit in. Despite his negative reputation, he became a positive force in the community, always the first to volunteer to attend charity functions during the off season. Brisker also liked to run basketball clinics for underprivileged youth from Seattle’s slums, always at his own expense.
“I want to play here, in this city, for these fans,” Brisker said. Any plans for conformity and NBA normalcy by Brisker were derailed during the 1973-74 season when the Supersonic hired former Boston Celtic great Bill Russell as their new head coach. Brisker quickly found himself at odds with Russell, an old school NBAer who was a believer in strict discipline, practice and a strong defense. Russell’s philosophy did not mesh with the free-spirited offensive minded forward.
Although still a powerful presence both on and off the court, the Sonics demoted Brisker to the CBA’s Eastern Basketball League after only 35 games even though John was averaging a healthy 12.5 points per game. Russell said Brisker “lacked discipline” and he “sent him down to learn to play some defense.” Brisker, obviously thinking a good offense beats a good defense every time, scored 56 in his first CBA outing. The next season saw more of the same with Brisker playing in only 21 games and averaging a career low 7.7 ppg. By the time Brisker collected the third paycheck of his third season he was out of Seattle’s starting line-up.
Sonics owner Sam Schulman claimed that Brisker was sparking “dissension” on the club and released him prior to the 1975-76 season. No other teams showed interest in signing him leading many to believe Brisker had been blackballed by professional basketball. So Brisker gave up on his playing career. The world lost contact with him by the late ’70s. Brisker played six seasons in the ABA and NBA averaging 20.7 points per game for his career (26.1 points per game in the ABA, and 11.9 points per game in the NBA). Brisker’s enigmatic, mercurial life, like his career, was about to take its strangest turn.
In 1978, Brisker boarded a flight to Africa and was never seen again. He told family and friends that he had plans to get into the import-export business in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Other than a occasional long distance phone call or photo from abroad, Brisker’s family lost touch with him forever. His brother “Rapid Ralph” Brisker, himself a former college basketball star, said John had been invited to Uganda as a guest of President Amin, a wild basketball enthusiast. The most often repeated contemporary rumor claims Brisker went to Uganda to fight as a mercenary soldier in the jungles of Africa.
When it came to Brisker’s whereabouts after 1978, John’s family offered similar variations of the same narrative:. “John was into a black separatist thing. Black power. Black business for black people. Black communities with black leaders.” Mark Brisker, a nephew who bounced around the Euro leagues for a few years, told him Uncle John had sent the family a picture from Africa of him on horseback. He signed it, “Have money will travel, John.” Brisker’s last contact came in a phone call came from Kampala, the capital and largest city of Uganda. Then literally, dead silence.
For years more wild rumors began to circulate. Brisker was on the run from the Feds. Brisker was on the run from the mob. Brisker fell in with some shady Liberian grifters. Brisker is alive and well living under an assumed identity in Africa. Brisker made it back to the States and is still alive. Another rumor claimed that Brisker was hired to coach the Ugandan National basketball team, ended up arguing with Amin and ended up as just another of the bloodthirsty tyrant’s many corpses. The wildest rumor claims that Brisker died in the Jonestown massacre orchestrated by cult leader (and former Hoosier) Jim Jones. Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that Brisker, who was living in the Royal Palace at Amin’s invitation, was executed by a firing squad of revolutionaries when the brutal dictator was removed from power in 1979. The State Department and FBI checked out that angle and came up empty-handed.
No official documentation tying him to Amin has ever been located. Officially Brisker was considered missing. That remained his status until 1985, when Seattle’s King County medical examiner finally declared him dead at the age of 38. That declaration paved the way for Brisker’s family to lay claim to his estate, modest as it was. His body was never found and his remains are believed to be buried somewhere in the steamy, impenetrable jungles that surround the Capitol of Uganda. All anyone knows for sure is that this ungentle giant’s light shone all too briefly before flaming out completely in a post-merger age. An age where Brisker should have been an established vet on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Still, there are some who believe that Brisker remains alive and simply does not want to be found, choosing instead to live his life in anonymity wherever that may be. John Brisker exuded the requisite toughness necessary to survive the mean streets of Detroit of the 1960s. “In Detroit, if you’re tough enough,” Brisker once told a reporter, “they name playgrounds for you.” Brisker used to play ball at a playground located between Hamtramck High School and Highland Park. Sure enough, the playground would be named after John Brisker. In a sense, it’s the most fitting epitaph to this enigmatic figure. John Brisker’s disappearance had a spiritual, antithetic quality to it; the adventurer-narrative of a lost soul journeying to a lost land for a lost cause. And then the soul vanishes. The mystery surrounding his fate only adds to the legend of John Brisker and the ABA.

ABA-American Basketball Association

Whatever Happened to John Brisker? Part I

john-brisker-part IIOriginal publish date:  January 25, 2016

I was an ABA fanatic when I was a kid. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was growing up in the greatest basketball state in the nation and the hometown of the American Basketball Association’s greatest team. My parents did not necessarily share my rabid enthusiasm for the Pacers. Oh, they were fans but they simply didn’t feel the need to indulge me by buying tickets to every Pacers home game as I often begged them to do. Instead, they humored me by taking me down to the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum about an hour before Pacers home games. Then they would drop me off near the player’s entrance where I would stand and get autographs of my heroes as they filtered in while they killed time with coffee and pie at the TeePee restaurant until tip-off.
During those years, I think I met every player from every team. Dr. J Julius Erving, Big Mac George McGinnis, The Rocket Rick Mount, The Beast Mel Daniels, Iceman George Gervin, Skywalker David Thompson, The Kangaroo Kid Billy Cunningham, Dr. Dunk Darnell Hillman, The Whopper Billy Paultz, Marvin Bad News Barnes, Little Louie Dampier, and Big Z Zelmo Beaty. They were always quick with a smile, friendly hello and quick autograph for a skinny little buck-toothed kid sporting a Hollywood Burr. Yep, that was me. I still have all of those signed cards and during this frigid Indiana winter, I took a walk through them the other night. My eyes filled with stars just like the old days. I stopped suddenly when I saw one signed card in particular: John Brisker.
John Brisker never played for the Pacers, but he first shot to prominence here as a rookie with the 1969-70 Pipers during a game where he replaced injured veteran Tom Washington in the line-up, scoring 42 points, while grabbing 12 rebounds. Brisker became one of the first true unknown talent discoveries ever made by the ABA. He was one of the Motor City Marauder imports from Detroit that included fellow ABA All-stars Mel Daniels, Spencer Haywood, Ralph Simpson and George Gervin. He too had a nickname: “the heavyweight champion of the ABA.” At 6’5″ and 210, he wasn’t the biggest guy in the league and he was certainly not the strongest, but he was the most feared.
Brisker enjoyed a short but stellar career at the University of Toledo. Well, stellar athletically at least. Brisker joined future NBA star Steve Mix to lead the 23-2 Rockets to the 1966-67 MAC championship. Although on scholarship, he remained academically ineligible for his first 3 years at TU. In the fall of 1966, he joined the Toledo marching band to raise his GPA so he could play basketball. He proved to be an A student and a pretty fair musician mastering the sousaphone, a scaled down tuba that fits around the body like Rambo’s bullet belt.
Brisker was drafted by the ABA Pittsburgh Condors, the league’s first champions. He was built like a linebacker with 40+ inch vertical leap and the shooting touch of a swingman, but played more like a power forward-bruising, tough, and even violent, at times. Brisker averaged 21 points per game as a rookie. By season two, he was up to 29 points a game. Whether it was shooting a 3-pointer or posting his man down low, Brisker could score at will. He could also rebound and defend when he wanted to, but make no mistake, Brisker was there to score. He established himself as a two-time All-Star, one of the best players in the early years of the ABA.
Brisker quickly earned a reputation as one of the most volatile players in the league, ejected from more games for fighting than any other player during those early years. According to his Condors teammate Charlie Williams, “He was an excellent player, but say something wrong to the guy and you had this feeling he would reach into his bag, take out a gun and shoot you.” Rather than shunning his bullying image, the Condors capitalized on Brisker’s reputation as an enforcer. Their 1970-71 media guide featured Brisker in a Mexican sombrero with a pair of six-shooters holstered to his hips. The Condors’ PR man, Fred Cranwell, got the idea based on Brisker’s routine of bringing a loaded gun with him to practice and games.
Brisker’s most infamous incident came during a game on December 5th 1971 against the Denver Rockets. He was ejected two minutes after tip-off for a vicious elbow on the Rockets’ (and former Pacer) Art Becker. Brisker was sent to the showers early but charged back onto the court after Becker three more times. Police finally ushered Brisker to the locker room for good under threat of arrest. After the game rumors swirled league-wide that the Dallas Chaparrals head coach put up a $500 bounty on Brisker. During that 1970-71 season, Brisker was involved in bloody fistfights on the court with Wendell Ladner of the Memphis Pros, Joe Caldwell of the Carolina Cougars, and Ron Boone of the Texas Chaparrals. The latter two fights requiring facial reconstructive surgery due to Brisker’s punishment.
His Pittsburgh teammate and roomie George Thompson once said everyone in the ABA had been terrified of him and Brisker cultivated that image. Brisker once racked up 56 points in a game without shooting a single free-throw. Guys were afraid to guard him, let alone foul him. Around the league, Brisker had a justified reputation for provoking fights and drawing blood. Early during the 1971-72 season, the Utah Stars visited the Condors at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. The Stars’ Willie Wise held Brisker to just four points in the first half. A frustrated Brisker scuffled with several Utah players, and tempers flared before the game was over. Brisker was held in check and thankfully no blood was spilled.
On November 4, 1971, the Condors visited Salt Lake City, and Stars’ management dreamed up “John Brisker Intimidation Night.” The Stars put pro boxer Ron Lyle on the cover (A heavyweight who fought Muhammad Ali for the title and was the only man to ever knock George Foreman down in the ring). The Stars added to the spectacle by lining the courtside with boxing stars both past and present including Lyle, Don and Gene Fullmer, Rex Layne, Tony Doyle and more. The ploy worked and Brisker behaved himself that night.
Even in a league defined by a multi-colored ball, 3-point shots and on court fist fights without suspensions or fines, Brisker’s transgressions stood out. One legend claims that Brisker’s teammates were so worried about guarding him during practice (particularly the day after a loss) that Pittsburgh Execs brought in a brawny ex-football player whose only job was to watch Brisker and flatten him the first time he got out of line. Reportedly, the practice was halted after the football player warned the surly Brisker that he was going to the locker room to get his gun. Brisker said he was fine with that, since that gave him time to go to his locker and get his gun.
Another story claims that immediately after the ABA All-Star game at Greensboro, North Carolina In 1971, Brisker walked up to league commissioner Jack Dolph and demanded his All-Star bonus right then and there. Brisker had scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his team’s win. Knowing the fearsome reputation of the man standing before him, Dolph reached into his own wallet and paid Brisker $ 300 cash on the spot. By the next season, both men were out of the league.

ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis

Breakfast with Neto: The ABA Pension Issue.

Neto Breakfast cropedOriginal publish date:  February 27, 2018

This past year, my iPhone has been busy catching texts from Bob Netolicky. April 20, 2017: We lost Skeeter today. May 8, 2017: We lost Hawkeye today…October 2, 2017: We lost the Hawk today…November 26, 2017: We lost Snapper today… December 7, 2017: We lost Fatty today. No, we haven’t been playing Words With Friends. These are the nicknames of the former ABA players that have died in 2017: Skeeter Swift, George Irvine, Connie Hawkins, Steve Jones, and Roland Taylor. Neto has watched as fellow all-stars, teammates and roomies have slowly passed away. His eye is tuned to the news for a specific reason: Bob Netolicky is on a mission.
The former Drake University All-American, 4-time ABA all-star and 2-time Pacer champion has been working on a pension deal with the NBA. The sad fact is, since Neto started this quest, by his count, 50 former ABA pension eligible league-mates have passed away. No passing has affected Neto more than that of his old roommate, Harley “Skeeter” Swift.
Neto and Skeeter shared a couple ABA milestones during their careers. Both were members of the last Dallas Chaparrals team for the Chap’s final game on March 26. 1973. and both men were starters on the very first San Antonio Spurs team for their inaugural game on October 6, 1973 (a 91-89 exhibition game victory over the their NBA in-state rival Houston Rockets). Most people forget that Neto spent the 1972-73 season in the lone star state before coming back to the Pacers to finish out his career.
“Skeeter” played five seasons in the ABA. Along with the Chaps & Spurs, he played for the New Orleans Buccaneers, Memphis Pros and Pittsburgh Condors, averaging 11.6 points per game during his professional career. Years ago Swift had turned to Netolicky to help chase down his ABA pension. It wasn’t much, but Skeeter was in a desperate situation. He was battling lymphoma and recovering from a stroke. Skeeter had three hip-replacement surgeries and was in need of another. Alzheimer’s had taken hold and the 6’3″ former East Tennessee State Buccaneer standout was a shadow of his former self.
Netolicky put Swift in touch with the San Antonio-based pension administrator, who sent Swift a check for back payments. It came just in the nick of time. On April 14th of 2017, Neto received a voicemail from Skeeter. Swift was in the hospital, literally on the gurney prepping for surgery to repair that busted hip. “Hey Roomie, just wanted to call you before I head in (to the operating room)” Swift says between long pregnant pauses to choke back tears. “I can never repay you for all that you’ve done for me. And uh … I’ll just wait to hear from you. Bye-bye.”
Neto thought he’d have plenty of time to return the call after giving his roomie a few days to recover. He never got the chance. 70-year-old Skeeter Swift died on April 20, six days after leaving that message. Netolicky has played this message for his old Pacers coach, Hall of Famer Slick Leonard (who still calls Neto “Bobby”). He has played it for teammates including Darnell Hillman and George McGinnis. Sometimes, he just plays it for himself as a reminder of what it is that he is fighting for. I have heard it a few times myself, and trust me, it is a tear-jerker.
Most of the ABA alumni are in their seventies now. Some are unhealthy, others are broke. Many are bewildered by the lack of concern by an NBA whose game today more closely resembles that of Dr. J and Connie Hawkins than it does Dave Cowens and Walt Frazier. Today, the average NBA salary is approaching $5 million. ABA players want the NBA, which absorbed their league in 1976, to at least treat them as well as the NBA pre-1965ers. ABA alums can’t help but chuckle at the league’s 2018 slogan: the NBA cares. They watch as the NBA sponsors days of service, visit children’s hospitals and build schools in Mexico City, while legacy ABA players struggle to cover medical bills, keep the lights on or, in some cases, survive while living out of their cars.
Netolicky has managed to shake loose some of that often promised, but seldom delivered, pension money to alleviate the most dire circumstances of his former teammates and rivals. Neto states, “People are dying out here. We found one player living under a bridge, another out of his car. All we’re saying is that legally, maybe the NBA doesn’t have to do this, but it is the right thing to do.”
On April 5th, a couple weeks before Skeeter Swift died, ABA legacy players delivered signed petitions to the NBA and National Basketball Players Association in search of better pensions. The petition quotes from the 1976 ABA-NBA merger agreement that stipulates “pension rights and privileges for ABA players equivalent to that provided NBA players.” As of yet, the NBPA hasn’t responded to the ABA petition and has refused to comment publicly “out of respect for the ABA players.” However, don’t dismiss this petition movement as just another money grab by already overpaid professional athletes. The ABA retirees are just asking for what the NBA promised them.
“We started this thing 9 years ago when most of the guys were turning 63 and reaching retirement age.” says Neto. “Back then we had around 195 eligible guys who played 3 years or more in the league. Now we’re down to 147.” And the number changes almost every week. When asked how easy it has been for the ABAer’s to collect their promised pension from that 1976 merger, Neto replies, “Well, it was supposed to be managed by a group in San Antonio, but the paperwork was never properly administered and a lot of guys fell through the cracks.”
I’m not making excuses for the inflated salaries of athletes, believe me. But today’s athletic salaries are a tiny fraction of those from the 1960-70s era. Keep in mind that an average career length of a pro athlete is 3.3 years for the NFL, 4.8 for the NBA and 5.6 for Major League baseball. Netolicky, along with Byron Beck, Louie Dampier, Gerald Govan, Stew Johnson, and Freddie Lewis, are the only players to play all nine seasons of the ABA, twice the career span of today’s ballers. They, along with the other surviving ABA alums, have been waiting for their promised pensions since the Bicentennial year. Think about that for a minute.
Neto continues, “The NBA player pension has been increased 30 times since 1976 while the ABA pension has remained the same ($60 per month for every year of service minimum 3 years) with no collective bargaining rights and certainly no cost of living increase. All we wre asking is that ABA players receive the same pension ats the pre-1965 NBA guys are getting.” NBA pensions weren’t created until 1965, meaning players before 1965 were shut out. That changed in 2007 when the NBA gave pre-1965 NBA players a pension of $300 per month for every year of service (again, minimum experience: 3 years). In other words, a six-year NBA veteran from the 1950s receives a pension of $1,800 a month while an ABA 6-year vet receives $ 360 a month.
While it is true that many of the ABA vets, Bob Netolicky among them, never played a game in the NBA, the only 2 teams Neto played on were absorbed by the NBA. Not only did the NBA absorb four ABA franchises (the Pacers, Spurs, Nuggets and Nets), they also adopted some of the ABA’s most iconic features: The 3-point shot. The slam-dunk competition. The All-Star Weekend party. The petition also points out that NBA teams sell ABA apparel on line and in their gift shops. The Pacers recently offered replica throwback jerseys for ABA icons Mel Daniels, George McGinnis, Billy Keller, Freddie Lewis and, of course, Netolicky. “I haven’t seen a penny of that,” Netolicky says.
Neto wants to make it clear that his beef is with the NBA, not the Indiana Pacers. “The Pacers have been good to me over the years. I’m proud of the teams we played on and we are still a family a half century later. Playing for the Pacers and being part of the Pacers family has been one of the highlights of my life. I’d like to think that we did our part in contributing to the rich sports tradition Indianapolis enjoys today.” However, in this writer’s opinion, what’s right is right and just like Hoosier sports fans care about their city, they should also care about the players that helped build its sports legacy.
To be fair, it must be noted that the NBA and the player’s association have agreed to allow ABA players access to the NBA Players Legacy Fund. ABA players in need can apply for grants totaling a lifetime maximum of $10,000. But those grants are a one-time benefit reserved for the most hardship cases. Not to mention, this benefit is not widely known among former ABA players. And natural attrition continues to shrink those eligibility numbers every month.
Like many Hoosier kids born in the sixties, I grew up as a fan of the ABA. My allegiance will always be with those great Pacers teams. I can recall with perfect acuity the rotation of that red,white and blue ball, the coolness of those blue suede Adidas sneakers and the loudness of Slick Leonard’s suits. And I can also visualize those star spangled Nets uni’s, the blue-grass jerseys of the rival Colonels and the sparkly silver glitter flecked jerseys of the Spirits of St. Louis. Not to mention the fros, furs and goatees that defined the hoop stars of the ABA. All of these memories make me smile. Bob Netolicky hopes that these same memories will also move the NBA to do what is right and proper by the former ABA players who helped set the style for today’s league.
Fans of the ABA will soon have opportunities to show up and support the league alumni. Bob Netolicky, Robin Miller and former Pacers and league President Dick Tinkham have written a book appropriately called, “We changed the Game.” The official release party and book signing will be held right here in Irvington at the Irving Theatre on Sunday March 18th from 2:00 to 4:00. The trio, along with other former ABA Pacer greats, will be on hand to share stories, answer questions and sign copies of their book for fans. The event is free to the public.
Indianapolis will also play host to the 50th Anniversary of the ABA on Saturday April 7th. ABA Stars and Hall of Famers alike will converge on the Circle City for this once-in-a-lifetime event. The public is invited to come out to historic Hinkle Fieldhouse that Saturday from 11:00 to 3:00 for a memorabilia show and autograph signing. Part of the festivities include a special ring presentation for ABA alumni. Sponsored by the Dropping Dimes foundation, each player will receive an exclusive 50th ABA anniversary alumni ring as a token of appreciation for the players who changed the face of pro basketball. Mark your calendars, stayed tuned for future articles and make plans to attend these landmark events.

ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis

The ABA Comes to Indy this weekend.

ABA Reunion article photo  Original publish date:      April 2, 2018

You have an excellent opportunity to be a part of basketball history this weekend, in fact, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. This Saturday, April 7th (2018) Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Butler University will be the site of the 50th reunion of the American Basketball Association. The ABA holds a special place in the hearts of most Hoosiers. Our hometown team, the Indiana Pacers, was the flagship franchise of this once legendary league. If you are a fan of the NBA too young to remember those heady days of the ABA in the Circle City, then you need to get to Hinkle from 11 AM to 3 PM on Saturday and see these legends in the flesh for yourselves.
The reunion is being hosted by and benefits the Dropping Dimes Foundation (https://droppingdimes.org/) an Indiana not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization. Dropping Dimes’ main focus and concern is for the well-being and betterment of former players of the American Basketball Association and their families, who are experiencing financial or medical difficulties and have encountered significant financial hardship or sickness. Every penny raised from this event will go towards this worthy mission.
Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Spencer Haywood, George Gervin, Dan Issel, George McGinnis, Doug Moe, Larry Brown, Louie Dampier, Artis Gilmore and Bobby “Slick” Leonard are expected to attend. Other confirmed guests include many ABA All-stars and fan favorites from the 9-year history of this fabled league. In all, an estimated 100 alumni players are expected to attend including Hoosier household hoops names like Freddie Lewis, Darnell Hellman, Billy Keller, Don Buse, Jerry Harkness, Billy Knight, Donnie Freeman, Len Elmore and Dave Robisch. Other hardcourt heroes like Mack Calvin, Willie Wise, Darel Carrier, Chuck Williams, Al Smith, Ralph Simpson and Jim Eakins will also visit the scene of past battles on the hardwood.
Starting at 11 AM, each ABA alumni player in attendance will be presented with a special 50th anniversary ring in appreciation of their years of service in the league. Dave “The King” Wilson will act as emcee for the ring presentation ceremony with Senator Joe Donnelly, Mayor Joe Hogsett, Congresswoman Susan Brooks, Rupert Boneham from Survivor and Councillors Mike McQuillen and Vop Osili are scheduled to act as presenters. Butler mascot Blue III will also be on hand to “present” a few of the rings.
As part of the event, there will be a sports memorabilia and card show going on for fans at the same time. The card show is being managed by J & J All-Star sports cards of Indianapolis (www.jjallstarsportscards.com). Local eastside artist Shane Young (aka Fitz) will be painting an original piece of artwork on site to commemorate the occassion. Several local Girl Scout troops will be on hand to assist the ABA veterans. There will be trivia, history, memories and plenty of picture taking opportunities in what is sure to be the last time this collective group of O-G ABA ballers assemble in one place.
Dropping Dimes will have commemorative 50th anniversary pennants and basketballs for sale at the event and there will be an opportunity for the public to get autographs from the players for a nominal fee. The autograph fee benefits dropping dimes and is tax deductible. Admission is $10 at the door. Children aged 14 and under are free.
You may wonder, what is my interest in the 50th anniversary of the ABA? Well, over 20 years ago I co-hosted the 30th anniversary gathering of the ABA at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Along with my friends Bob Netolicky and Dick Tinkham, we hosted around 75 former players over an August weekend in 1997. Nothing like that had ever been attempted before and we really never expected it to be attempted again. Neto and I were surprised some eight weeks ago when we were contacted by the guys at Dropping Dimes to organize this Saturday event at Hinkle.
I have been a fan of the ABA since I was a little kid and when the league folded I knew basketball would never be the same for me. It didn’t hurt that I was growing up in a city where the hometown team was always winning championships. Times were different then and so were the players. It was not uncommon to run into Pacers players in the grocery stores, restaurants and schools. They seemed more like neighbors than stars. The game in the ABA was different, with the red, white and blue ball and a three-point shot, it was way more exciting.
I’ve spoken many times in past columns about how my family would take me down to the state fairgrounds Coliseum and drop me off while they scooted over to the Tee-Pee restaurant for coffee and pie. I never had a ticket but somehow always managed to sneak inside. During those non-PC days the Coliseum allowed ticket holders to smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipes during games. There was always a thick cloud of smoke hanging about 12 to 14 feet above the court. I can still remember when Billy Keller would bring that ball up court as coach Slick Leonard yelled “Go for three Billy, shoot the three.” Keller’s high arcing shot would disappear into that cloud of smoke momentarily only to reappear a little farther down the cloud bank before swishing through the net. I know smoking is bad for you, but you know, that was a thing of beauty.
During that 1997 reunion, I was fortunate enough to witness epic scenes and visit with players that are no longer with us. I remember Marvin “Bad News” Barnes talking to Bob Costas about plane flights and time changes as if it were a time machine that Barnes wanted no part of. I remember Kokomo high school prep star Jim “Goose” Ligon walking around the room with a smile as big as the moon on his face. Goose was being led by the arm because he could barely see. But he insisted on being there for every moment because he knew he would soon be blind. Goose died less than seven years later in 2004.
I remember Gabe Rubin and Connie Hawkins spotting one another from across the room and coming together in a heartfelt embrace that ended with both men sobbing like children. Only the truest of fans with knowledge of the backstory understood the significance of this special moment. During Connie Hawkins’ freshman year at Iowa, he was a victim of the hysteria surrounding a point-shaving scandal that had started in New York City, Despite the fact that Connie was never involved in any conspiracy, he was kicked out of college and banned from the NBA.
By that 1967-68 first year launch of the ABA, Hawkins found himself playing for the Harlem Globetrotters. Rubin signed Hawkins to a two-year, $45,000 contract to play for his Pittsburgh Pipers team. That team went 54-24 and won the ABA championship. The Hawk led the league in scoring that year and won both the ABA’s regular-season and playoff MVP awards. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.
That meeting between these two men over 20 years ago at that 1997 30 year ABA reunion was the first time the two men had seen each other since Connie had left to join the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in 1969. Gabe Rubin died on November 7, 2003. Connie Hawkins died on October 7, 2017. I’m proud to have played a small part in their personal reunion. Other memories from that reunion include 6’11” ABA Carolina Cougars / Kentucky Colonels and NBA player Jim McDaniels walking through the hall as curious onlookers pointed and whispered “Hey there’s Moses Malone” as he passed. McDaniels died on September 6, 2017.
Other notable attendee losses from that reunion include Marvin Barnes, Maurice Lucas, Zelmo Beaty and Mel Daniels, I remember Roger Brown and Walt Simon just barely missed attending that 1997 reunion, passing mere weeks before the event. I make these observations not to be morbid, but rather to illustrate the point that although mortals pass, memories last forever. Don’t miss your opportunity to revisit memories of your childhood, reconnect with heroes from the past and create some moments to remember of your very own. Come out and see us next Saturday. Tell ’em Al sent ya.
Date/Time: Saturday, April 7, 2018 9:00 am – 3:00 pm Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse 510 W. 49th St. Indianapolis, IN 46208
Schedule: 9:00: Doors Open & Trading Card Show Begins. 11:00: ABA Players Arrive 11:00-12:30: Ring Presentation Ceremony
12:30-2:30: Autograph Session. Continue reading “The ABA Comes to Indy this weekend.”