The most recent dunk contest was one of the best of all time, with Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon putting on a performance for the ages. Today, we think of the dunk contest as perfectly normal, but 40 years ago there was a league that dared to be different, entertaining and fun: the American Basketball Association, also known as the ABA. The first dunk contest came about 40 years ago, when the ABA proposed the idea as a way to excite fans into watching more of their games. The league was losing money at a rapid pace due to low attendance and hardly any television coverage. It was not to be, as the ABA merged with the NBA at the end of the 1976 season, but for the nine years of its existence, it was supremely entertaining and boldly stylistic.
The ABA had many things going for it that the NBA did not understand or try to duplicate. It allowed underclassmen and high school players to be drafted into the league, such as Moses Malone. It instituted the three-point line as a way to generate more scoring. It had that gorgeous red, white and blue ball. But the biggest draw, for fans and players alike, was the high flying, electrifying dunks, which were illegal in the NBA. All of these things managed to draw some of the best players of the era, such as George Gervin, Artis Gilmore and, most importantly, Julius Erving. Doctor J was the most appealing player in the league because of his vicious dunks, ability to win regularly and, of course, his afro. The Doctor won two championships with the then-New York Nets as well as an MVP award and multiple scoring titles. He was the poster boy for the league, and everyone loved him.
By the 1975-1976 season, the ABA was hemorrhaging money and saw multiple teams fold. The Virginia Squires, Utah Stars and San Diego Sails all folded that year, to name a few. Teams could not sustain economic success and turned to the NBA as a solution. Four teams — the Spurs, the Pacers, the Nuggets and the Nets — struck a deal that allowed them into the NBA. These players made an immediate impact; 10 of the 24 All-Stars that year were from the ABA. The biggest blow of all came to the Nets, who were forced to sell The Doctor to the Sixers in order to pay their entrance fees. The Sixers would go on to the NBA Finals that season, led by Doctor J, but would ultimately lose to the Portland Trailblazers. After years of questions about whether he could ever win in the NBA, Doctor J finally got his third championship and first NBA ring in 1983.
The ABA was the epitome of cool. The style and grace of its players were elements that we still see shades of today. Zach Lavine’s free-throw line dunks were something to be admired, but would have never come to pass had it not been for the ABA, the cool league with the red, white and blue ball.