Nuggets become the last former ABA team to reach The Finals

Though Game Four was a bit of a nail biter, the Denver Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers two nights ago to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. In doing so, the Nuggets have now become the last former ABA team to reach the finals. Four teams were absorbed into the NBA in 1976 when the two leagues agreed to a merger. The NBA took in the Nuggets, the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs.

The terms of the merger were harsh and three additional teams, the Kentucky Colonels (who were actually one of the ABA’s more successful teams), the Virginia Squires and the Spirits of St. Louis, were not included in the merger. However, players from those three teams were allowed to be selected in a special dispersal draft.

In 1976, the Silna Brothers – Ozzie and Daniel – negotiated a deal where they would receive shares of TV revenue generated by the NBA and the former ABA clubs. That agreement ran out in 2014 and the Silnas received a one time buyout of $500 million.

The American Basketball Association was founded in 1967. Among the league’s co-founders were sports entrepreneurs Dennis Murphy and Gary Davidson (would later go on to found the World Hockey Association and the ill-fated World Football League). The league’s first commissioner was former De Paul University and Minneapolis (now Los Angeles) Lakers star George Mikan. Among the ABA’s original teams were: the Minnesota Muskies, the Pittsburgh Pipers, the Anaheim Amigos, the New Jersey Americans (now the Brooklyn Nets), the Indiana Pacers, the Kentucky Colonels, the Dallas Chaparrals (now the San Antonio Spurs), the Houston Mavericks (later to become the Sprits of St, Louis), the Denver Lark (now the Denver Nuggets), the New Orleans Buccaneers (owned by legendary talk show loudmouth Sean Morton Downey, Jr.) and the Oakland Oaks (later to become the Virginia Squires).

From the outset, the league’s goal was to force a merger with the older and more established NBA. The upstart league did have some unique features. Among them were referees wearing red striped shirts instead of the more traditional black, the three point arc (which the NBA would introduce in 1979) and the Slam Dunk Contest, which debuted at halftime of the 1976 ABA All-Star Game at McNichols Arena in Denver. The inaugural winner was Julius Irving of the New York Nets. Despite these innovations, life in the early days of the ABA was not always easy. Attendance lagged far behind the NBA, teams sometimes had to play in high school gyms, the floor on one team’s home court was lopsided, which caused the ball to take strange bounces and before the start of a game, the home court of the New York Nets (who had moved from New Jersey in 1968) was a dual purpose arena in Commack, Long Island and the ice underneath caused the court to freeze. Another early problem was that players had trouble adjusting to, arguably, the league’s most unique feature – the trademark red, white and blue basketball.

After a while, the league started to catch on. It developed a more wide open style of play and fans started to find it more exciting than that of the NBA. The three point shot became a favorite and slam dunks, most notably executed by Julius “Doctor J” Irving, became almost routine. The players also adjusted to the red, white and blue basketball by utilizing the spin whenever they took a shot. The newfound flash also extended to the players themselves. A lot of them became known for their colorful personalities, including Spirits of St. Louis bad boy Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. Quite a few, most notably the aforementioned Doctor J and Darnell Hillman of the Indiana Pacers sported huge afros, which were said by some (including Darnell Hillman himself) to resemble the mushroom cloud at Bikini Atoll in 1946. The ABA also saw the rise of an up and coming announcer from Syracuse University by the name of…..Bob Costas! 

The Denver Nuggets entered the ABA as  a charter member in 1967. They were originally supposed to play in Kansas City, Missouri, however, they couldn’t find a suitable arena in which to play, so, Commissioner Mikan suggested that they move to Denver where they became the Denver Lark. However, they would not take the court under that name. They instead became the Denver Rockets and one of their first stars was pro basketball’s first-ever hardship case Spencer Heywood (later of the Seattle Super Sonics and New York Knicks). The Rockets name would become problematic as the Houston Rockets of the NBA were also using the name. A fan contest was held to pick a new name and the name Nuggets emerged as the winner.

The Nuggets became noted for their high scoring offense and many of their more notable players were products of the Atlantic Coast Conference including David Thompson and 5’7″ point guard Monte Towe who were teammates with the 1974 NCAA Champion North Carolina State Wolfpack, Bobby Jones who played at North Carolina and Larry Brown, also from North Carolina, who was a player for the Denver Rockets before becoming head coach of the newly renamed Nuggets in 1974. Though not a player for the Nuggets, one of Brown’s assistants was his North Carolina teammate Doug Moe who, himself, became head coach of the Nuggets in 1980. Both Brown and Moe were products of the legendary Dean Smith Coaching Tree. The Nuggets actually played in the very last game in ABA History on May 13, 1976, losing to Doctor J and the New York Nets in Game Six of the 1976 ABA Finals 112-106.

It took 47 years, but every former ABA team has now reached The Finals. The Nuggets join the San Antonio Spurs who have won the title five times, the Brooklyn Nets who reached the Finals twice and the Indiana Pacers who reached The Finals once. The 2022-23 Nuggets won the the NBA Northwest Division by 11 games over the Minnesota Timberwolves and earned the top seed in the Western Conference with a 53-29 record. They made short work of the Timberwolves, the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers. As they await the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, the Nuggets are being led by MVP candidate Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Mid-Missouri’s own Michael Porter, Jr., a product of Father Tolton High School in Columbia, Missouri and the University of Missouri Tigers. Should they win, the Nuggets will become the second former ABA team to win it all, again, joining the Spurs.

My prediction:  Nuggets in five.

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