The ABA-NBA Merger: The Death of the Old School NBA

The NBA in the 1970s is a far cry from the NBA in 2010. It was a slow plodding half court game only sped up by a 24 second clock. However, if you were watching the ABA, which one rarely could, its fast paced style much resembled the NBA game of the 1980s and 1990s. What changed? In 1976, the NBA merged with the ABA (American Basketball Association). With the merger the NBA brought along several elements of the ABA style of play, most importantly, its players.

Before the merger, the NBA consisted of 18 teams in two nine team conferences. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the most recognizable star. The league had just come off a thrilling championship between the Celtics and the Suns and what some historians consider the greatest NBA game ever, game five. The ABA struggled as a league in the 1975-1976 season. It started out with ten franchises but ended with only six. The New York Nets, led by Julius Erving, won the championship but would barely make it through the merger financially.

What the ABA had were stars. Julius Erving, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, David Thompson, and Dan Issel all were major talents who would thrive in the new NBA. The ABA also had other elements that would make their way into the NBA. For over nine years, the ABA had thrilled crowds with great talent. In exhibition games with their NBA brethren, the ABA would win the majority of games.

The merger was nothing new. In fact, it took over six years for the merger to take place. Talks began as early as 1970 but were held up by an anti-trust lawsuit (Robertson v. National Basketball Association) led by the big O, Oscar Robertson. Robertson and his attorney argued that the ABA was good for the players as the bidding wars over players between the two leagues drove up salaries. So if the ABA had the stars and a more fan friendly game, why would it want to merge. The answer to that is TV. The ABA lacked the coverage of TV and the revenue it could bring. One thing you must remember is the ABA only lasted nine years. Unlike the NBA, which had been around since the late 1940s, the ABA was still mighty young when talks of a merger began.

At the end of the 1976 season, the ABA was down to six teams. Robertson’s suit was settled and negotiations began in earnest.  When it was all said and done, four teams would enter: the Indiana Pacers, the San Antonio Spurs, the New York Nets, and the Denver Nuggets. The Kentucky Colonels and Spirits of St. Louis would not join. The Colonels were blocked from joining by the Chicago Bulls who held the rights to the Colonels center, Artis Gilmore. The Spirits knew that only an even number of teams could join. In return for folding, the remaining  players were played in a dispersal draft and the owners received lucrative deals. The Colonels received $3 million while the Spirits owners received a 4/7 of one TV share in perpetuity; in other words, forever. To date, that has totaled $168 million as of this post.

So just how did the merger signal the end of the ABA? By 1981, the NBA as it used to exist – a plodding half court game was gone. The game flowed up and down the court. Dribbling down and dishing it in to the center was over. No longer would a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or a Wilt Chamberlain or a Bill Russell be the only dominant forces, rather the game came to encompass all players regardless of position.

The 3 pointer revolutionized the NBA game but had been a part of the ABA game. Larry Bird would take it to new heights in the 80s. The Slam Dunk Contest of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game made its way to the NBA in 1984. By 1984 and the arrival of David Stern as commissioner, the game took off even further as the NBA began to market its stars including a young arrival out of North Carolina in 1985 named Michael Jeffery Jordan.

I bet if you ask any kid who they wanted to be like in the mid 1970s, it was not going to be an NBA player. Julius Erving wannabes ruled the Kingdom of Nerf in my house along with David Thompson. George Gervin’s finger rolls were a thing of beauty to behold. The only player any one wanted to be before the merger was Pistol Pete Maravich. The ABA had style, it had flash, it had the players. After the merger, the NBA died and was reborn in the ABA style of play. And it had the coolest basketball ever…


  1. Just for the record, the league consisted of seven times at the time of the merger. You forgot Virginia, which did finish the season

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