Going into its second year the ABA has dramatically improved its chances for survival. Curiously, it has done this without succeeding in the one area that was considered vital to its progress—the signing of big-name college players. In two years the ABA has been able to attract only one NBA first-round choice, and the failure to land Elvin Hayes and Westley Unseld, both of whom played college ball in ABA cities, really stung. The new league cannot begin to approach the NBA in caliber of play or—perhaps more important—in public acceptance until it gets the big new names.
In almost every other respect, though, encouragement can be found. Season-ticket sales are up significantly in most cities. Seven of the 11 teams have TV contracts of some sort, and Commissioner George Mikan has stopped reassuring everyone that a network contract was in the offing. The credibility gap has been reduced, so one can accept the league's estimate that it will draw two million paid this season—as against 1,330,000 announced last year.
Rick Barry, the one big name the ABA did acquire, will at last play for Oakland, and his presence alone will stimulate a large attendance increase. He and Coach Alex Hannum begin their tour about the league this week with possible sellout stops in Indianapolis and 18,800-seat Freedom Hall in Louisville.
The franchises that drew best last year were Indiana and Denver—both over 4,000 per home game—followed by Dallas and Kentucky, the team that lost the least money, about $100,000. New Orleans packed them in for the playoffs, and attendance generally picked up throughout the league the latter part of the season. Some evidence must soon be produced, however, that the game is interesting the big cities as well as the small ones. Fortunately, Oakland, ignored from without and disorganized within last year, is completely restyled under Hannum. With Hannum, Barry and the best club in the league it has a fighting chance.
Both Los Angeles and New York have shifted to more salutary locations. The Stars have left Anaheim—where they were the Amigos—for the downtown L.A. Sports Arena, where the name soon may stand for something more than Hollywood. The Stars have signed an impressive number of rookies. The New York Nets have moved to Long Island, with its "suburban" population of more than four million. They will play in a refurbished, if small, 6,500-seat arena in Commack, but the big move will come in another couple of years when they transfer to Hempstead and a magnificent new 15,000-seat arena that Nassau County is constructing.
One great advantage the ABA has over the NBA is its competitiveness. Oakland, with the worst record last year, should zip to the front this season, having acquired, besides Barry, two ABA All-Stars, Doug Moe and Larry Brown, from New Orleans. Indiana got Mel Daniels from Miami (late of Minnesota). He is the league's best center, and he could improve the Pacers enough for them to edge out the defending champion Pittsburgh Pipers, who are now—hold your hats—Minnesota. This team has MVP Connie Hawkins, a holdout; the league's best guard, Charlie Williams; and Frank Card, a 6'7" Army veteran who could be the sleeper Rookie of the Year. None of the other three Eastern teams appears to be a threat, though Miami must be reassessed if a North Carolina judge awards Lou Hudson of the NBA to the Floridians in a contract dispute.
Los Angeles has the youth in the West, and since Coach Bill Sharman's disciplined ways work best with rookies he may have the Stars in contention in what is now the tougher division. Larry Miller (North Carolina), Ed Johnson (Tennessee A&I), Merv Jackson (Utah) and Edgar Lacy (UCLA) are just a few of the new faces, but holdover Warren Davis probably is the team's best player.
Denver has picked up Billy (The Hill) McGill and will have Lonnie Wright full time, since he gave up football. The team leader and star remains Guard Larry Jones, who could spirit the Rockets into competition with Oakland.
Dallas will need a top rookie season from 7' John Smith to win the last playoff spot from youthful New Orleans and Houston. The Mavericks are brawny underneath, but there is not enough scoring to go with little Willie Somerset. Despite the party line, even the best ABA teams are still a far cut below the worst in the NBA, but the new league has certainly dented its elders' aplomb.