When the players of the newly formed American Basketball League (ABL) hit the court on October 27, 1961, they could only hope for the best; that their paychecks would clear the bank.
They weren’t the first players for a league known as the ABL nor would they be the last. In fact, outside of a couple of contributions to the sport, nobody would hardly remember them.
The second incarnation of the ABL, while mostly a footnote in sports history, remains a reminder of how far entitlement will get you. Born under the motivations of a man scorned by the NBA, the league’s chances reflected the man who started it.
Abe Saperstein, the then owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, started the league. It was in response to the NBA not giving him the Los Angeles franchise they’d promised him.
The abysmal failure of his subsequent, and rival league teaches us something about us why the NBA decided against Saperstein.
Throughout the 1950s, the Harlem Globetrotters performed as an “opening act” for the NBA to drive ticket sales. They were not an NBA franchise, same as today, but they had ball skills, also same as today.
Basketball fans on the fence about buying tickets to a game would cave on the buying side if the game promised a Globetrotters appearance.
Saperstein was under the impression that if he played ball, and did what they asked, the NBA would help him get his own NBA franchise for the 1960-61 season.
When the time came, they awarded the franchise to Bob Short, owner of the Minneapolis Lakers. That’s when the Lakers became an L.A. team.
The derided Saperstein committed himself to building a rival league.
The 1961 ABL
Eight teams made up the nascent league in 1961, including Saperstein’s Chicago Majors. The other teams were the Cleveland Pipers, the Hawaii Chiefs, the Kansas City Steers, the Los Angeles Jets, the Pittsburgh Renaissance “the Rens”, the San Francisco Saints, and the Washington Tapers.
Saperstein was not only the CEO and president, he was the commissioner. It was a move made by a man with blood on his mind, a self-serving, short-sighted move. It would also prove his undoing.
From the jump, questions surrounded the credibility of the league. Despite this, Saperstein managed to lure a few legit NBA players, peppered throughout the league.
One of them, however, was another bitter man, Bill Sharman. The NBA league had overlooked him to coach a proposed Pittsburg team.
Again, Saperstein leveraged his Globetrotters to bolster attendance. They moved teams from one city to another in apparent desperation, but by December of the second season, the losses were too great (over $1-million).
The ABL closed doors for good. The league’s contributions to the sport were two: a three-point shot, and a wider free-throw lane.
All the American Basketball Leagues
Including Saperstein’s ’61 league, there have been four ABLs in the last century. The first was in 1925, started by Joseph Carr, the then-president of the NFL.
That ABL started with two divisions, east and west, and somewhere around 20 teams. At their peak, they had almost 50 teams. The first ABL lasted for 30 years as the first professional basketball league, pushed off the table by the NBA.
The 1961 version of the ABL lasted only one full season and part of the second.
Then, in 1996, a women’s league popped up with the same name but was also gone as fast as it started.
The most recent league, the 2013 American Basketball League, is the fourth, a semi-professional league. Magic Johnson’s former agent, Steven A. Hanley, is the president and CEO of the 12 team, two division league.
With three seasons under their collective belt, they’ve taken second place in this list, but there was no 2016 season so don’t hold your breath. Also, the once 12 team league is now only four.
As a rule, success is the best revenge, but the 1961 League proved that the opposite is not true. Revenge is not necessarily the best success.
The top players of the 1961 ABL dusted themselves off, taking spots in the NBL lineup, but Saperstein’s dream of revenge bounced off the rim.