Semi-Pro: Remembering The ABA

From 1967 to 1976, the American Basketball Association was a renegade basketball league that nipped at the heels of the NBA. Despite contributing some impressive innovations to the game and a style of play that emphasized flair and showmanship, the ABA was ultimately absorbed by its well-established competitor. Four of the ABA's most successful teams remained intact following the merger - the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and Indiana Pacers.

Semi-Pro is the comedic story of the Flint Tropics, a fictitious ABA team that didn't quite make it. The Tropics bear similarities to some of the defunct teams of the ABA - the Kentucky Colonels, the Anaheim Amigos and the Spirits of St. Louis. Though these teams are no longer in existence, they have a brief cinematic reprieve in Semi-Pro, as their logos and uniforms were painstakingly reproduced for the film's game sequences.

Perhaps the most famous player in the ABA was Julius Erving, better known as "Dr. J," who played for the Virginia Squires and the New York Nets. Other famous ABA players who went on to NBA glory include Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and James Silas (Erving and Gervin went on to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame).

Though four of the ABA's teams were adopted by the NBA, the leagues were very different. "There were a number of things that were different," says Artis Gilmore, who played for the Kentucky Colonels. "Probably one of the most unusual was the basketball, the colors of the basketball itself." The ABA basketball was red, white and blue, and it was a bit smaller than the NBA regulation-size ball. The three-point shot, now a mainstay of NBA games, was also an invention of the ABA.

"Then, of course, the environment that we had to play in," adds Gilmore. Depending on the size of a team, ABA franchises would often share a court with a local high school or college. The huge stadium arena was not part of the ABA's identity.

"There were a number of franchises that were not totally established," says James Silas. "The San Diego Conquistadors, for instance, played at San Diego State. There were a number of other teams you played a game with one day and then a few weeks later you might find out they'd disbanded. That happened with the Floridians during the year that I was drafted. Stability was certainly a challenge."

The players supplemented their stability with ingenuity and creativity. George Gervin, whose nickname is "Ice," remembers: "We used to have marketing ploys. When I would travel into different cities, the opposing team would have try and 'hold' Ice Gervin under thirty points. If they were successful, everybody would get free McDonalds or free Kentucky Fried Chicken" Needless to say, they were never successful at holding Gervin down. "My goal was to go in there and get 40 points and walk out of there saying, "Nobody's eating on Ice!'"

Some of these unusual marketing strategies are manifested in Semi-Pro via Jackie Moon's trademark flair. Moon's soul hit, "Love Me Sexy," has its own parallel in the real ABA world: singer Pat Boone owned the ABA team the Oakland Oaks.

Woody Harrelson, who plays Tropics teammate Monix, remembers his childhood experiences watching the ABA. "I remember watching the ABA when I was younger and really liking Dr. J, of course. He was the guy who really made the ABA explode. There were other big players but Dr. J was the one for me at the time. At the time I didn't know the difference between the ABA and the NBA, but I've learned a lot since."

"The NBA was really where everybody wanted to be," George Gervin recalls. "That was the best basketball in the world, but we felt that we could compete against them with our talent. We couldn't compete with them as far as sponsorship and marketing, but we felt we had some very talented basketball players in the ABA."

"We had our own style," Gervin concludes. "We were a community, like a family. We went out to eat together, we played cards together. It was a family atmosphere. Once we had our chance to merge with the NBA, we took that same community and friendship with us."

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