1961: The year pro basketball changed forever

Professional Basketball: 50 years ago

Basketball fans of the 1960s and '70s will remember a battle for professional basketball supremacy between the ABA (American Basketball Association) and the NBA (National Basketball Association.) Lost in the lineage of great players and teams from that period is a solo season from 1961-1962 of the ABL (American Basketball League) that changed professional basketball forever.

Many professional basketball leagues have come and gone over the past three decades. Today there is no shortage of opportunities for men and women to compete at the next level, even if it is for the armpit of professional basketball as depicted in Will Farrell's movie Semi-Pro. Many of these leagues fizzle before they can formulate a consistent product of any quality. The ABL from 50 years ago suffered the same fate, and it may have been forgotten if not for four significant contributions to hardwood history.

American Basketball League (ABL)

Fifty years ago, Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein, wanted to own an NBA team in Los Angeles California. Instead, the Minneapolis Lakers moved to LA. The disgruntled Saperstein created the American Basketball League to promote his LA Jets.

He enlisted the help of George Steinbrenner who brought with him to the new league his AAU champion Cleveland Pipers. The other six teams in the ABL included the Chicago Majors, Hawaii Chiefs, Kansas City Steers, Washington / New York Tapers, San Francisco Saints, and the Pittsburg Rens.

Even though 1961- 62 was the ABL's only full season, it was historic for these four reasons.

1. John McLendon

In many aspects the cultural divide in America was as evident in 1961 as ever before. The venue of professional sports was not without blemish. When George Steinbrenner hired John McLendon to be the Head Coach of the ABL Cleveland Pipers, it was the first time an African-American was named Head Coach of any professional sports team in America. This historic move transcended the sport of basketball and reverberated throughout society.

Prior to this breakthrough in professional sports, McLendon also made history as the first African American coach to win an integrated national collegiate championship in 1957, followed by two more consecutive championships, becoming the first coach to 3-peat as NAIA champions.

Also in 1964 McLendon was the first African-American coach to be appointed to the U.S. Olympic committee.

And in 1966 McLendon became the first black coach at a predominantly white university. He led Cleveland State University to their best record in school history.

John McLendon's groundbreaking coaching career began in 1961 thanks to the ABL.

2. Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins Hall-of-Fame career began in 1961 with the Pittsburg Rens of the ABL.

Hawkins started dunking at the age of eleven and it was evident then, that he was destined for greatness. His HOF career got its unlikely start in the ABL thanks to bizarre circumstances.

While playing college ball for Iowa, a point-shaving scandal erupted during his freshman year. Despite the fact that Hawkins was never arrested and he denied any involvement, he was expelled from Iowa, and barred from the NBA.

Hawkins needed to jumpstart his pro-career so he played for the Pittsburg Rens of the ABL in 1961-62. In 78 games he played more minutes than any other player in the league (3,349). He shot 51% field goal percentage for a season average of 27.5 points per game. His best game was March 14, 1962 when he scored 54 points against Steinbrenner's Cleveland Pipers. In the one-playoff game he played in, he led his team with 41 points in a 4-point loss. Hawkins was selected as the ABL's Most Valuable Player of the regular season.

After the ABL folded, Hawkins played three years with the Harlem Globetrotters.

In an effort to prove he belonged in the NBA he sued the league for $6 million dollars and took his talents to the ABA (American Basketball Association) where he led the Pittsburg Pipers to the 1968 ABA Championship while earning regular and post season MVP awards.

A year later the NBA agreed to a $1.3 million dollar settlement and the Phoenix Suns signed him.

In his first NBA season he averaged 24.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game. In the final game of his NBA rookie season he peaked with 44 points, 20 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 blocks, and 5 steals (a rare 5x5).

The magical run continued in the post season as he led the Suns into battle against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers Big 3: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West. Though the Suns lost the Western Conference series in 7 games, Hawkins averaged 25 ppg, 14 rpg, and 7 apg.

Injuries hampered his seven seasons in the NBA. He averaged 16.5 ppg and 8.0 rpg during that time. We may never have seen the Hawk fly in the NBA if not for the ABL.

3. Coach Bill Sharman

In addition to giving Connie Hawkins his start in pro-basketball, the ABL was the first venue for Bill Sharman's Hall-of-Fame coaching career.

After winning four NBA championships as a player with the Boston Celtics and playing eleven years, Sharman retired in 1961. Aberstein hired him to coach the LA Jets of the ABL.

After the LA Jets team folded, Steinbrenner hired Sharman to replace John McLendon as the Head Coach. Sharman led the Cleveland Pipers to the only ABL championship, in 1962.

In 1971, Sharman coached the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association to the 1971 ABA title.

In 1972, Sharman returned to LA and coached Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and the Lakers to a record setting 33 straight wins and the 1972 NBA championship.

Sharman is one of only three people to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame twice, both as a player and as a coach. (John Wooden, and Lenny Wilkins are the other two people.)

Sharman also has the distinction of winning a championship as a coach in three different professional basketball leagues beginning with ABL.

4. The 3-Point shot

2011 also marks the 50th anniversary of the implementation of the 3-point shot in basketball at any level.

It is ironic that the Harlem Globetrotters have introduced a 4 -point shot this season, fifty years after their founder Abe Saperstein implemented the 3-pointer in the ABL. Their DNA of innovation continues to revolutionize the game of basketball.

The 3-point shot expanded defenses, allowed for a 4-point play (If fouled while making a 3-pointer), and enhanced the flow of the game. Can you imagine the NBA today without a 3-point shot?

After the ABL folded, the Eastern Professional Basketball League used the 3-point line for their one season of existence, 1963-1964.

In 1968 the American Basketball Association (ABA) began using the 3-point shot and slam-dunk to battle the NBA for the most popularity.

The NBA didn't adopt the 3-point line until the 1979-1980 season, 18 years after the ABL.

A legacy not forgotten

Unable to fill the stands with spectators, the ABL suffered financially, which caused its death mid-way into it's second season.

Abe Saperstein and George Steinbrenner may have failed with the ABL, but they certainly found success in sports. The Harlem Globetrotters are celebrating their 85th season as an international basketball sensation. The New York Yankees are an empire unmatched in all of sports. In the footnotes of both of their legacies, is one lone basketball season that made history, 50 years ago.




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Updated Monday, Jan 10, 2011