Much like the NFL’s Super Bowl, the NBA once faced off with a rival upstart pro basketball league in a series of intense NBA vs. ABA battles.
Before the Lady Gaga halftime shows, before the corporate sponsorships, before the million-dollar commercials, the Super Bowl was a battle between two rival professional football leagues: the National Football League and the American Football League.
The first Super Bowl was played in January 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. The game, part of the NFL-AFL merger agreement in 1966, saw the NFL’s Green Bay Packers emerge victorious 35-10.
The two leagues would split Super Bowl victories (2-2) until 1970 when the leagues would finally merge together. Gone was the National Football League vs. American Football League, instead replaced by the newly-formed National Football Conference (NFC) and American Football Conference (AFC).
But enough about football. Let’s talk hoops.
The NBA found itself in a familiar spot as the NFL was years prior battling a rival “American” professional basketball league, in this case, the flashy and flamboyant dynamo known as the American Basketball Association (ABA).
Boasted by marketable stars like Julius Erving, exciting play including the advent of a 3-point shot, Slam Dunk contests and more, the ABA carved out a niche over their eight years of existence. However, the end goal of the entire league was to challenge and eventually merge with the NBA.
In June 1970 — just three years into the ABA’s life — NBA owners overwhelmingly voted to work toward a merger with the ABA.
Seattle SuperSonics owner Sam Schulman — owner of the fledgling Seattle SuperSonics franchise — was so adamant that the league merge with the ABA that he threatened to move his new team to the upstart league.
Several team owners in both leagues were so sure the merger was coming they held off on scheduling games or booking venues. Famed Basketball magazine Basketball Weekly spoke it into existence stating, “the war is over. The Armistice will be signed soon.”
Like the NFL years before, the NBA decided to hold showcase games between themselves and teams from their soon-to-be merged brethren in the ABA. While the NBA vs. ABA games didn’t have the same stakes as pro football’s Super Bowl, they were supremely competitive games, albeit exhibition ones.
Who played in the NBA’s version of the Super Bowl?
In the first official NBA vs. ABA game (Sep. 21, 1971), the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar battled the ABA’s Texas Chaparrals — who finished the season a paltry 30-54. While they still made the ABA playoffs (long story), the plucky team from Texas in the little brother league should have been no match for the NBA’s world champion.
Not so fast.
Led by John Beasley, Donnie Freeman and Steve Jones, the Chaparrals stunned the Milwaukee Bucks who just barely squeaked by 106-103. Len Elmore‘s jumper with 11 seconds left in the game ultimately gave Milwaukee the victory.
A day later, the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels defeated the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets 111-85. Baltimore would then lose by eight to the Miami Floridians on Sep. 23 then drop ANOTHER game to an ABA team: this time the Carolina Cougars.
On September 27, the NBA finally got back in the winning column when the Detroit Pistons defeated the Denver Rockets 123-119.
The NBA would ride that momentum to two more victories on Sep. 28 as the Seattle SuperSonics defeated the Indiana Pacers 117-93 led by Bob Rule‘s 27 points. The New York Knicks would follow that up with a victory over the Utah Stars thanks to a great performance from Walt Frazier.
Over the next few weeks, the NBA and ABA would continue to wage a war with the NBA winning nine of the next 16 games. While they came out ahead, the ABA’s competitiveness throughout was certainly a surprise to onlookers and the NBA alike.
The most prominent game of this first run took place Oct. 8, 1971, in Salt Lake City, Utah as the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks faced off with the ABA’s defending champion Utah Stars.
Dubbed the official “Super Bowl of Basketball”, the game was competitive until the very end with the Bucks ultimately emerging victorious 122-114. Abdul-Jabbar scored 36 points while running mate Oscar Robertson added 24 points of his own. Utah was rallied by Willie Wise and Zelmo Beaty who poured in 33 and 29 points respectively.
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The NBA accepted the challenge of the ABA and faced it head-on but now without some apprehension. Very few of the games were played in NBA arenas as the NBA wanted to avoid legitimizing this startup they were about to absorb.
“When some exhibition games were arranged in the 1970s to make some money and we (the ABA) beat them, the NBA said they weren’t up for the games. Come on. When I coached Carolina, we played the Knicks after they won a championship. I looked at their guys shooting around and I looked at my guys and I didn’t want my players to take off their warm-ups because they looked so scrawny next to the Knicks—and we went out and beat New York. We also played the Celtics a couple of times and beat them. (Celtics coach) Tommy Heinsohn would say that he wasn’t playing to win, but I’d check the box score and see that Tommy played his regulars 35 to 40 minutes, so what does that tell you?” –Carolina Cougars head coach Larry Brown (Loose Balls)
Game results were not highly publicized and most were only recently were uncovered and documented.
Though exhibition in nature, the games were intense battles between the rival leagues with numerous eliminations, fights and technicals. Nobody told these two leagues they were about to be partners. It was still a war.
“When those exhibition games began, the view in the NBA was, ‘Now we’ll show those guys.’ But then you know what happened—the ABA teams won nearly as often as the NBA did …. Those NBA–ABA games were intense” –Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan (Loose Balls)
Merger talks stalled as the NBA battled anti-trust lawsuits — most notably the Oscar Robertson suit — but the exhibition games continue. After losing the inaugural season series, the ABA would dominate in the years that followed: 15-10 (in 1973), 16-7 (in 1974), and 31-17 (in 1975).
In 1971 and 1972, players from the NBA and ABA played in a charity All-Star Game dubbed “Supergames.” Before the May 25, 1972 game, the NBA threatened fines and suspensions for any player who participated in these unsanctioned games. Several NBA players suited up anyway and the game came down to the wire with the NBA just barely winning 106-104.
In 1976, CBS — which had just lost Super Bowl XI’s broadcasting rights to rival NBC — sought to take advantage of the ongoing rivalry between the NBA and ABA:
“…CBS hopes to begin negotiations with both the Natoinal Basketball Association and its upstart rival, the American Basketball Association, for a postseason playoff between the ABA and NBA champions.” CBS’s Super Ball / New York Magazine (May 3, 1976)
Finally, in 1976 the rivalry came to an end and the two leagues merged, well, kind of. The new ABA teams were treated quite literally like second-class as the incoming ABA teams were treated as expansion teams rather than merged teams including paying expansion fees, territorial rival fees, draft lockouts and more. The new teams were dispersed throughout the league ending any ability for NBA vs. ABA playoff battles or any other “Super Bowls of Basketball.”
To date, only a handful of NBA Finals have featured a former ABA team vs. an NBA team with most coming due to the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty of the late 1990s-2000s, the Indiana Pacers’ surprising run to the 2000 NBA Finals and back-to-back NBA Finals runs by the New Jersey Nets.