The American Basketball Association was as an upstart professional league which lasted 9 years before eventually merging with the NBA in 1976. Well, 4 teams were absorbed into the NBA – the other 2 teams were left to die (a well-compensated death) and 4 other ABA teams had already folded.
Loose Balls is an oral history of the ABA, the crazy stories, and the impact it ultimately had on the NBA. It’s remarkable that the ABA survived 9 years with almost no television exposure and very scant newspaper coverage. The lack of a strong written or video record meant that Pluto wisely chose to write an oral history detailing the often contradictory but always entertaining memories of the key characters in the ABA story.
The ABA’s formation seemed to have been quite haphazard. In many ways it came into existence because of one man, Dennis Murphy’s, determination to set up a sports league. Key decisions such as the use of a red-white-and-blue ball and the introduction of a 3 point shot were made on whim rather than being part of a grand design.
The book is exceptionally funny because the characters involved and the shenanigans they got up to funny, bizarre and entertaining. The story is a wild ride of crazy characters, marketing stunts and, importantly, some very good basketball players. The business side of the story is also fascinating as teams scrambled to survive and to try and pressure the NBA into a merger.
All of those interviewed by Pluto share the view that the ABA fundamentally changed professional basketball. These changes included the move to a faster paced game, the 3 point shot, the drafting of younger players and the overall focus on entertainment. It’s also remarkable just how successful many of the ex-ABA players were after crossing over to the NBA.
There is something I find incredibly interesting about attempts to create a new sports league rivaling a well-established league. It seems like a crazy idea doomed to fail. Jeff Pearlman’s recent Football for a Buck brilliantly told the crazy story of the failed United States Football League. And Vince McMahon’s determination to bring back the XFL in 2020 shows there will always be dreamers willing to risk big bucks to break the monopoly of major sports leagues.
Loose Balls covers all 9 seasons, all 10 teams and most of the major players involved in the ABA. It’s the definitive history of the ABA told by those who lived and loved it. It is a classic sports book that deserves its place on the list of the all time greats.
As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits which interviews many of those who spoke to Pluto, as well as Pluto himself. It focuses on the Spirit of St. Louis team who lasted only two years, had a crazy cast of characters and whose owners secured the best financial deal in sports history when being denied a place in the NBA.