ABA vs. NBA (basketball)

Was the ABA objectively worse, in terms of quality of basketball, than the NBA when both leagues coexisted? While the former had fewer teams, the actual players in the league (say, the top 10) seem like they would have competed well with the top 10 NBA players of that period.

And also, would the ABA champions of each year have competed well with the corresponding NBA champion?

I look at it this way – when the ABA folded, and four ABA teams merged into the NBA for the '76-‘77 season, the Nuggets won their division in their first year in the NBA, and the Spurs also made the playoffs. However, the Nets, which had won the final ABA title, finished with the worst record in the NBA that season (they had to pay a fee to the NBA for entering the league in the Knicks’ market, and paid that fee by selling Julius Erving’s contract to the 76ers).

So, at least at that point, the better ABA teams were certainly on a par with the better NBA teams.

Thanks. While looking into this, I’ve also become curious as to the racial demographics of ABA players and NBA players of that era. To the extent that others will chime in here, I also want to see if folks had any of that data. I feel like google is becoming more and more useless.

Even the lowly Spirits of St. Louis, who were one of the two teams the NBA didn’t want, had players like Joe Caldwell, Maurice Lucas, Marvin Barnes, Ron Boone, and Moses Malone, all of whom went on to successful NBA careers. The Kentucky Colonels (the other cast-off) had Artis Gilmore and Dan Issell, to name a couple.

Of course, no matter how unsuccessful the team was, the Spirits owners made what was possibly the greatest deal in the history of sports, when they agreed to take a buyout from the NBA instead of merging.

With the help of lawyer Donald Schupak, the Silna brothers hammered out a two-part deal with NBA owners. First, they collected $2.2 million for Spirits of St. Louis players taken by NBA teams in a dispersal draft. In addition, they insisted on a share of the money from the NBA’s national TV rights, taking one-seventh of each of the four ex-ABA teams’ shares.

When brothers Ozzie and Daniel Silna negotiated their buyout with the NBA to shut down the Spirits of St. Louis, their lawyer insisted on a clause that specified that the deal would continue in perpetuity.

The owners made roughly $800 million off the deal over the next decades despite neveragain being involved in professional basketball.

There’s a good book called “Loose Balls” that may interest you.

I heard that once in a Phoenix airport bathroom, but the context was slightly different.

They definitely would have competed; in fact, they did compete. There was a pretty extensive competitive exhibition series between the two leagues, and most teams from each league participated, so sometimes the matchups included league champ vs. league champ. Year over year, the ABA won more games than it lost, and the ABA’s advantage was growing as of the time of the merger.

There were not-insignificant rule differences between the two leagues, so there is a little bit of weirdness in that sense, and you also have to account for the ABA being the “minor” league from a motivation standpoint and from an overall depth standpoint. The worst teams in the ABA were at risk of being defunct before the next game on the schedule, so they hemorrhaged talent at times. And some of that may also have been that the games were all in the ABA arenas, but my rebuttal to that would be that the games were in the ABA arenas because NBA owners knew that it was bad for business to let their fans come see them get run out of the gym by better teams. But I don’t think anybody could make a credible argument that the ABA was not in a general sense on a par with the NBA by the time they merged.

As of the time the league started (1967), the ABA was predominantly black and the NBA was decidedly not. The ABA was also what you might call much (muuuch) blacker culturally; players with Afros, much more of a playground influence in gameplay than, er, Hoosiers-style basketball (they had Connie Hawkins, David Thompson, Dr. J, Roger Brown who the NBA wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, George Gervin…)

I don’t have data but I remember a minor scandal recently about how former ABA players weren’t getting NBA pensions, and a lot of those stories noted how the vast majority of the surviving players are black. I did find this estimate by a former ABA player in a pretty poorly written article about it:

“The NBA before 1965 had an unwritten law; maximum two Black players per team. Our guys are 85-to-90 percent Black,” Netolicky said. “When the ABA came along in 1967, there was no prejudice. It was basketball. It wasn’t about race or anything like that.”

That reminds me of Sam Simon, who only worked on the Simpsons television show for 4 years, but negotiated a producer credit on every episode, leading to tens of millions of dollars a year for the rest of his life. Which turned him into a philanthropist.

Thanks! This is all quite fascinating to me. Are you aware of any interesting documentaries or other media on this topic?


If you can deal with some of the talking heads trying to be “personalities,” there is an ESPN 30 for 30 about the aforementioned Spirits of St. Louis which is really good. It hits some of the same points as Loose Balls, and I think features the author at times.

It might be helpful for others to know that about 80% of the wonderful Loose Balls is former ABA coaches, players, execs, and media folks in their own words. The author did a great job interviewing and compiling these stories.

(Similar to the also wonderful book I Want My MTV.)

No, but I thought their appearance on SNL was rather cringeworthy.