COMMENTARY: Greatest Basketball Players From South America

Here’s the latest column in an ongoing series spanning the globe that I’m writing about basketball standouts:


FLASHBACK: Magazine cover story on Horacio Llamas

This feature on center Horacio Llamas, the first Mexican player in the NBA, appeared in the Phoenix Suns’ Fastbreak Magazine in the October/November 1997 issue.

In Remembrance of The Hawk


Hall of Fame forward Connie Hawkins competes for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers in 1968. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 11, 2017) — Basketball royalty passed away a few days ago. And maybe now, finally, Connie Hawkins will get his proper respect. Maybe.

Hawkins’ death at age 75 brought back a flood of memories throughout the basketball world about The Hawk’s before-his-time game, his aerial antics, his difficult life story, his greatness as a player long before he reached the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.

Peter Vecsey penned an epic 4,000-word remembrance of the hoop legend,  diligently chronicling Hawkins’ life and times. ( Other columns about Hawkins circulated widely on the internet and have received heavy traffic on social media. (Vecsey also appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with Robert Siegel for a thoughtful interview about The Hawk. Check it out here:

Those that have followed the game for decades and understand the evolution of the sport know that the legendary exploits of Elgin Baylor and The Hawk paved the way for the gravity-defying moves of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and many more.

“The Hawk flew before anyone else had wings,” the poet and former NBA forward Tom Meschery declared.

But that was only one aspect of a life that began in 1942, the same year Muhammad Ali was born.

David Wolf’s landmark 1972 book, “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” is a remarkable project, explaining the New York City native’s life and the obstacles (and grave injustice) he overcome that prevented him from rising to NBA stardom at a much younger age.

The tome was summed up this way on “This book is about a professional basketball player, Connie Hawkins, but it is also about American athletics. The hope and despair of the ghetto schoolyard, the cutthroat college recruiting, the camaraderie and dissension in the locker room, the gambling scandals, the blacklists, the legal battles – Hawkins has been through them all. For eight years, the graceful, 6’8″ Hawkins was an outcast, playing in tainted obscurity, blacklisted by the NBA. As a frightened teenager, he had made false confessions – under police pressure – and was wrongfully implicated in a fixing scandal. David Wolf’s magazine article dramatically cleared Hawkins in 1969. Foul! is Connie Hawkins’ story, a meticulously documented, remarkably candid biography of one of our greatest athletes. A compelling portrait of a unique and perceptive black man, it is also a behind-the-scenes look at basketball.”

The unheralded Remember The ABA website captures the essence of Hawkins in a few key passages from Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball.

From Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball:
His move to the basket is unstoppable, his hands are so big and he has such control of the ball . . . Connie isn’t consistent, but when he’s hot, he’s hot, he’s hot . . . ‘He handles the ball like a guard,’ says Billy Cunningham of the 76ers, once a schoolboy opponent in Brooklyn . . . ‘He has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,’ said Dave DeBusschere.  ‘He handles a basketball as though it was a baseball.  He doesn’t run, he floats.   Inside, he’s one of the best scorers in the game.”

“…Hawkins was a man caught in a dilemma not of his own making when the last college scandal broke during his freshman year at Iowa . . . It ended his college career and sent him to the ABL, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the ABA before he brought suit successfully against the NBA and played for the Phoenix Suns. . . Subject of engrossing book by David Wolf called ‘Foul!’ … Read it.  May be best book on basketball ever written, and there’s too much to Hawkins’ history to capsulize here . . . When Bill Russell picked all-time all-pro team, The Hawk was on his second-five selection.  ‘If he hadn’t got such a bad deal,’ Russell remarked, ‘you would mention Hawkins with Baylor and (Bob) Pettit.’ ”


Before he ever stepped onto the court as an NBA player, The Hawk was a streetball legend, a Harlem Globetrotter and a brilliant all-around player in both the American Basketball League and American Basketball Association in the 1960s (he was the first MVP in both circuits).

In interviews over the past week, former ABA players reflected on Hawkins’ legacy and his career.

“I did not have much personal time with The Hawk like so many others did unfortunately,” Willie Wise told me. “However, I did have to guard him a few times and what I remember most was he was a quiet gentleman on the court.

“It was, if you can believe this next statement, a privilege and honor to guard him.

“If you did not bother him, in other words, challenge him, he would not do much; however, the minute you tried to show him up, or excite him, he would go to ‘work’ and you were in trouble.

“Then, before you knew it, he had a bunch of points and had embarrassed you.”

Original Indiana Pacer Bob Netolicky, whose forthcoming book, “We Changed The Game,” was written with ABC Sports reporter Robin Miller and Pacers founder Richard Tinkham and is scheduled to be released this winter, marveled at The Hawk’s amazing ability to play the game.

“I grew up in Iowa and first saw Connie play in a preseason freshman-varsity scrimmage. I was amazed at his talent and skill level at that age,” Netolicky said. “In the ABA we played against each other many times. I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.”

The previous sentence is a remarkable statement, and it’s worth repeating.

“I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.” 
-Bob Netolicky on Connie Hawkins

Netolicky went on: “He and (the late Pacers legend) Roger Brown were two of the best to ever play the game. It’s just a shame they were robbed of their prime playing years for something (point shaving) they did not do.”

La Salle legend and ex-ABA player Larry Cannon said, “Unfortunately I never got to meet Connie Hawkins. We had a couple of mutual acquaintances and certainly I admired his game and the fact that he was able to overcome so many obstacles. Despite the hardships he dealt with those first couple of years in the league, he always spoke fondly of the ABA.”

Steve Bitker, a longtime San Francisco Bay area sports broadcaster, also weighed in on The Hawk’s legendary career, expressing genuine admiration for him.

“I will never forget seeing Connie play for the first time, in the old ABA, on TV, for the Pittsburgh/Minnesota Pipers,” Bitker recalled. “So athletic, so graceful, as though he were playing on a different plane than everyone else.  I subsequently read his biography, ‘Foul,’ which detailed the game-fixing scandal he unknowingly got caught up in, in college at Iowa, which barred him from the NBA, until many years later.  Sad and yet inspiring story. Sweet, gentle man.”

Larry Cannon: Former ABA players seeking legitimacy, respect from NBA

Larry Cannon starred for the ABA’s Denver Rockets in the 1970-71 season, averaging 26.6 points per game. PUBLIC DOMAIN

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 11, 2017)
Part six in a series

Nobody needs to remind Larry Cannon that his 1973 induction into the Big 5 Hall of Fame and his 1977 induction into the La Salle Hall of Athletes are bold reminders of his splendid college basketball career.

He lived through it. He remembers it.

For Cannon, this includes helping the Explorers go 23-1 in his third and final season on the varsity squad, 1968-69. In that brilliant season, Cannon, a 6-foot-5 star guard, was the squad’s top assist man and No. 2 in rebounds. Over three seasons with the Philly college, he poured in 19.9 points per game.

La Salle was ranked No. 2 in the nation, trailing only mighty UCLA at the outset of the ’68-69 campaign. That La Salle outfit had been penalized for the team’s past recruiting violations. As a result, the Explorers didn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament that spring.

That, of course, didn’t diminish Cannon’s college feats. His superb all-around skills were well known to the top talent evaluators.

He was a highly prized talent, with the Chicago Bulls making him the No. 5 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

The Philly native chose another path. He signed with the ABA’s Miami Floridians, beginning his pro career with the South Florida team for one season, and went on to play for the fledgling circuit’s Denver Rockets (1970-71), Memphis Pros (1971) and Indiana Pacers (1971-73) before a brief stint with the Philadelphia 76ers (1973-74). A leg injury cut short Cannon’s pro career. For the 1975-76 Eastern Basketball Association campaign, Cannon earned Coach of the Year accolades, guiding the Lancaster (Pa.) Red Roses to a 19-5 regular-season mark and a championship runner-up finish to the Allentown Jets.

Cannon’s No. 20 was retired by La Salle in December 2016. Weeks before, he issued a statement.

“”The retirement of my La Salle uniform number is particularly meaningful,” Cannon said at the time. “I’m a born and raised Philadelphian and Big 5 basketball has always been a major influence on the way I played the game. I can’t find the words to express how proud I feel to be joining the elite company of Tom Gola, Ken Durrett, Lionel Simmons and Michael Brooks.”

Contrast that joy with Cannon’s absolute disgust for the way the NBA has handled the issue of former ABA players seeking a modest increase in their pension. (see related stories below).

The NBA league office received the 24-page letter from the Retired ABA Players in early April. It’s response in a May 12 was a mere five paragraphs. (The letter is posted in Part 1.)

Not surprising, though, considering the general policies enacted by the NBA in its handling of ABA-related issues over the years.

As in, thank you, go away. I don’t want to speak to you.

“I saw that,” Cannon said, referring to the NBA’s response, “and it was very brief.”

Among the general public, Cannon, now 70, believes the former ABA players haven’t been forgotten.

“It would be my contention, though, that the ABA is still scarred in people’s minds,” Cannon said by phone from Florida in a recent interview. “They may need their memories jarred just a bit but certainly I think most basketball people do have some recollection of the ABA, either having experienced it themselves or having heard about it, and I think that in general that the feeling is very good about the ABA. … I think that they’ve heard good things.”

He went on: “I think that the NBA has promoted the idea that the NBA has basically embraced the ABA as if the relationship was very cordial. The fact is that there are difficulties in the relationship, and I think that those difficulties should be examined and people should have a chance to understand exactly what’s going on.”

Cannon can’t see any good coming out of the NBA’s terse, direct rejection of the Retired ABA Player’s request to come to the negotiating table to discuss retired players’ pensions.

“I find it very hard to understand the NBA’s reluctance to sit down and talk,” he said. “I just don’t understand for those reasons that I just went over, that the relationship appears to be a good one and certainly I don’t like the idea that a lot of players seem to be taking more of a hostile attitude toward the NBA. I don’t think that that should be the case.

“I think what all the players want really is two things. I think first they want to be legitimized, and the pension is really the only way in my opinion to legitimize the league and its players. …. They are looking for legitimacy and the respect from the NBA.”

Cannon is disgusted and perplexed by the NBA’s refusal to grant the ABA players a forum to discuss their requests.

“Their reluctance to sit down and even discuss the matter is very disturbing,” Cannon said, “and it’s just hard to understand. It’s also very hard to understand because (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver has positioned himself from what I’ve seen as a player’s commissioner, I would say. He’s a guy who expresses his concern for the integrity of the game, he expresses his concern for the welfare of the players, and he expresses great concern for the people who helped grow the game, as he refers to the pioneers, and how he feels it’s very important for the pioneers to be recognized.”

Based on how the played, revolutionizing the game in the 1960s and ’70s, and their impact on the way the NBA changed afterward, Cannon and his former ABA teammates and foes maintain great pride in their historical significance.

“And we feel that we are without a doubt pioneers of the modern game,” Cannon said. “We not only are pioneers of the modern game, we are more pioneers of the game than the NBA players were, in our opinion, because we were playing today’s NBA game — space the floor, emphasis on the 3 (-point shot), and a lot of excitement in the game.”

He added: “(For the players), these issues touch a chord with them because it’s hard. Like myself, I was the fifth player taken in the NBA Draft, and I for whatever reason decided I’m going to play in the American Basketball Association, and now I look back and say players that were, let’s say my peers, equal-type players if they played in the NBA their pension is paying them 30 times, at least, 30 times more than the pension I’m being paid, and that’s an insult.”

And a very valid point.

“It delegitimizes and it makes my game a second-rate game,” Cannon continued, “and it makes me a second-rate citizen in professional basketball … and it’s very disturbing. I had great pride in my game and feel like I had great success, and unfortunately went through an injury and I don’t need any more insults.

“This is more or less an insulting situation with regard to the pension and the inequality of the pension.”

The NBA has failed to grasp the value of fully celebrating its rich history, including its ABA roots, even players who came from now-defunct ABA clubs.

Or as Cannon put it: “It should be a celebration. The NBA should be embracing this idea. Of course we want to celebrate the ABA, of course we want to extend respect to those players, of course we want to recognize what those players did.”

Cannon continued his critique of the matter, raising the question of why this common-sense approach — helping former ABA players’ lives by raising their pensions — has gone nowhere.

“From the very first I’ve heard of it, I’ve said, ‘If this is presented to Adam Silver clearly and (responsibly) … there’s no way he says no.’ How can he say no? How can he possibly say no?” Cannon said. “Because it can’t be a question of money.

“This is change for them (the owners),” he added. “I mean, my god, the way they said thanks that the $37 million, which I’m told is an exaggeration of what it would actually cost them in their letter. … They fine an owner $15 million for luxury tax. It doesn’t make sense, man.”

But money is not the issue. Instead, it boils down to this: confronting the human side of the equation. Real people with real-life issues.

“The NBA would be embarrassed to extend to us what we have asked,” Cannon said. “It is so paltry. … They would have to legitimize their offering and make it more respectable, and even there it’s still what would it be — instead of $300 a month, would it be $500? Big (expletive) deal. It’s chump change, man. Chump change.”


“We’re all getting old and this is a disgrace,” Cannon said. “It’s a disgrace.”

He continued: “They certainly should be willing to sit down and talk. That’s all that was really requested was an opportunity to discuss the possibility of showing a little consideration to these surviving players, these handful of surviving players.”

Looking back at the end of his playing career, Cannon said he was stunned that his pension didn’t measure up to what was doled out to his NBA counterparts.

“I walked away from the game as a young man, thinking that when I was of age that I would be receiving the same, equal pension as the NBA player,” he said. “And I was shocked, I mean shocked, in disbelief when I saw that wasn’t the case, because certainly that’s the way everybody left when the merger took place and the league dispersed…”

Mistakes were made, and rewriting history can’t be done.

“I think the players just accepted it back those years ago,” Cannon said, “and it is obvious, I guess, that we weren’t as well represented legally as we should’ve been, and that was something that we had to accept and nobody said anything.”

Fast forward to 2017, when the 50th anniversary of the ABA’s inaugural season took place.

“That has players talking,” noted Cannon, “and then you have the NBA signing this new TV contract for $24 billion (which began with the 2016-17 season) and you hear of mediocre players receiving $10 million a year, and then you look at our little situation and understand that we have not been legitimized.”

What’s more, he said, the NBA has gone out of its way to adopt the ABA’s style of play.

“The NBA has embraced all of the positive things of the ABA,” Cannon observed. “They’ve just sort of left the players out.”

To galvanize public interest and passion for the plight of ex-ABA players, Cannon speaks with conviction that he and his peers need a public face for their cause.

“I told (former Pacers teammate) Bob Netolicky that you need a spokesman and you need a campaign,” he said.

Is there an obvious candidate?

Cannon thinks Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving could make a major impact.

“If Doc would call ESPN and say, ‘Look, I want you to be aware of this issue, I think it’s something that should get some attention,’ there’s no doubt in my mind that they would give him the opportunity to talk about it,” Cannon said.

2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee George McGinnis (30) of the Indiana Pacers during a 1972-73 ABA game against the Kentucky Colonels. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Cannon recalled a May 2016 interview Erving did with Fox Sports, which highlighted the Doc’s affection for the ABA and the special place it has had in his life.

“Doc talked about how the ABA is still relevant in the NBA 40 years later,” Cannon said. “He was talking 40 years after the merger. He talked about the ABA still has this magneticness about it, how much he appreciates what the league did and how much he enjoys talking about it and seeing the old players, so if the Doc were to step up and make a call, and he could put together a little committee, which would really (help). If you were to get The Iceman (George Gervin) and get George McGinnis and Spencer Haywood and get the boys together, there’s no question in my mind that they could do it.

“But of course it’s the issue of the NBA, they’re a powerful organization … and it’s not about being hostile to the NBA. We love the NBA. … We just want to be a part of it. We just want to be a legitimate part of the NBA.”

San Antonio Spurs star George “The Iceman” Gervin. PUBLIC DOMAIN

In his own career, Cannon always accepted legitimate challenges, including the decision to begin his pro career in the ABA.

“I could’ve been,” he said of being an NBA player from the get-go. “I was the fifth player taken in the draft … but I knew, I grew up in Philly and I’d seen the game evolve from the modern game from its infancy. When I was 10 years old, I was watching in the mid-50s the game transition from walking the ball up the court shooting set shots, two-handed set shots, to in the summer where they would pick up the pace and it just so happened that I was a kid and I would run across the street to the recreation center and see the best, polished players in Philadelphia making five great dollars … and they are getting down, man. They were running up and down and bring an up-tempo (offense) to the game, a flow to the game.

“So I saw the game from the time it got modern, man. And I really feel this game. It’s been in my blood my entire life, so for somebody to tell me that I’m somehow not a legitimate professional player in any fashion is enough to disturb me. I was all-pro my second year. I averaged 26 points a game (26.4 with the Denver Rockets in 1970-71).”

Switching back to the ABA pension issue, first and foremost, Cannon insists that the Retired ABA Players need a public relations consultant.

In his view, here’s the key question for the PR person: “How do we go about making this issue public?”

Which brings us back to the issue that former ABA players seek to educate the public about.

“The ABA was a legitimate professional basketball league, and the fact is that the league was mistreated during the merger, there were misperceptions about the ABA, and again in this situation, again we feel like we are being mistreated, disrespected,” Cannon concluded. “And that’s what needs to be addressed and the pension would be a way, in my opinion, (to address it). What else are you going to do? You can lip service all you want, but the pension is a way to legitimize the league and the player. It’s as simple as that in my mind.”

Related stories
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:


Willie Wise: a defender of the ABA’s legacy, a staunch supporter of the players’ pension fight

New York Nets star Julius Erving and Willie Wise of the Utah Stars compete in an ABA game in the early 1970s. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Aug. 1, 2017)
Fifth in a series

A few weeks before the NBA’s hectic signing period made headlines to kick off summer, former ABA star Willie Wise reflected on the economic changes within pro basketball across the decades, but also provided a detailed analysis of how influential the ABA was in shaping the way the game is played today.

But first a few numbers from contracts finalized in recent weeks: J.J. Redick (one year, $23 million, Philadelphia 76ers), Gordon Hayward (four years, $128M, Boston Celtics), Kevin Durant (two years, $53M, Golden State Warriors), Paul Millsap (three years, $90M, Denver Nuggets), Kyle Lowry (three years, $100M, Toronto Raptors).

Those, of course, are just a few of the blockbuster contracts being signed by dozens of players, many of whom never enter the discussion as being superstars. In a July 2016 article, The New York Times’ Marc Tracy noted, “An infusion of billions of dollars into the league’s coffers from a television contracted agreed upon two years ago has led to this: That random guy on the bench is getting upward of $15 million a year.”

In other words, as Tracy cited, guys like Timofey Mozgov. The veteran big man, who scored 6.3 points per game in the 2015-16 campaign, got a four-year deal, which began in 2016, for a cool $64 million from the Los Angeles Lakers.

There’s also Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley’s $153 million deal for five years, starting in 2016.

Indeed, there’s big money being thrown around — more money than ever, in fact. reported in October 2016 that the NBA’s expected revenue for this past season was $8 billion.

Wise, who starred for the Los Angeles/Utah Stars and Virginia Squires in the ABA before wrapping up his playing career with the Denver Nuggets (1976-77) and Seattle SuperSonics (1977), is passionate about the issue of former ABA players’ pensions, especially at a time when the NBA is thriving financially.

And Wise was one of the elite players in ABA history (see below for a detailed analysis by ABA and NBA expert Peter Vecsey). In 1971, he was described by Sports Illustrated as “the best two-way performer in pro basketball.” This lavish praise came after the Utah Stars, with Bill Sharman at the helm, captured the 1971 ABA championship, winning that crown in seven games over the Kentucky Colonels.

As Julius “Dr. J” Erving declared in an article penned by the late Dan Pattison that is featured on the essential website, “Willie Wise was one of the toughest competitors I ever played against. He came to play every night. I really respected him. Willie was one of those players that the NBA fans never had a chance to see the best he had. That’s because Willie was injured a lot when he played in the NBA. That was a shame. Willie Wise had game. A great game.”

In the same feature, Wise , a 6-foot-5 forward out of Drake University (his No. 42 jersey was retired by the Missouri Valley Conference school in 2009; he helped lead the Bulldogs to the 1969 NCAA Final Four), summed up his approach to the pro game this way: “My first and only goal coming into the ABA was to be a great defensive player. I loved playing defense. It was always a challenge to see if I could stop guys like Rick Barry, John Brisker, and Roger Brown. But I didn’t like to think of myself as the best defensive player in the league. That’s because when I started to think about that I might have let down.”

The Nets’ Julius Erving drives on the Stars’ Willie Wise during the 1974 ABA playoffs. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guided by lawyer Steven Hart, the Retired ABA Players submitted a signed petition to the NBA and to the National Basketball Players Association in April.

Wise said that Hart was “launching this petition to see if the NBA would want to move forward and do something to avert any kind of negative publicity, because the (league’s) popularity is pretty good.”

The signs are not encouraging. The NBA has not committed to earnest dialogue or any changes to the status quo.

At the heart of the petition is this: “Very simply, the promises made to the ABA players to finalize the ‘merger’ have been broken time and again,” it stated. “ABA players were told they would be treated the same as NBA players; they weren’t. ABA players were told that their pension fund would be equal to the NBA pension fund; it wasn’t.”

However, it’s an important initiative at a crucial time in the lives of former ABA players.

“I don’t know how effective it’s going to be,” Wise, now 70, said in a phone interview, “because the NBA can stall forever.”

And the number of former ABA players keeps decreasing; time is not on their side in this battle.

Throughout our conversation, Wise rattled off names of ex-ABA players who had passed away, including Zelmo Beatty, Moses Malone, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown, George Stone, Warren Jabali, Caldwell Jones and Mervin Jackson and, in recent months, two more: Skeeter Swift and George Irvine.

What’s more, three-time ABA All-Star guard Steve “Snapper” Jones, a longtime NBA TV analyst, is “dealing with a fairly serious medical condition,” Wise said.

“So those of us who are alive and remain upright are dwindling quite rapidly .. and if the NBA says out of the goodness of their heart we will in fact go ahead and take care of those players who did in fact play in the NBA, but didn’t play the number of required years to qualify for the NBA pension, we will make their years retroactive to take care of them, I think if they wait another 10 years, then they won’t have that many players to deal with. (But) they could take care of them.”

Reflecting on Swift, who passed away in April, and noting his financial challenges over the years, Wise also had this to say: “I know others that were hurting and still are hurting..

“There are a lot of players that are in that category like Skeeter was — Goo Kennedy (age 67), Cincinnatus Powell (age 75), and they are still alive in the Texas area somewhere … John Beasley (age 73), ones like that.”

Wise, a fifth-round pick (64th overall) of the San Francisco Warriors in the 1969 NBA Draft, is hopeful that the petition’s message can trigger changes.

He said, “I hope that we can apply through this media pressure, media influence, some pressure on the NBA to look at this whole situation, revisit it and say, ‘We’re not obligated, but at the very least we can take care of the players who went from the ABA to the NBA during the absorption. It wasn’t a merger; it was an absorption. At the very least, those players and, hopefully, all the former ABA players who were current at the time of the absorption. That’s my hope.”

The petition elaborates on this objective in clear terms.

“The former ABA players do not ask for much —they merely want to be heard in a meaningful way, to fashion a remedy that justly compensates them consistent with the way the NBA has gratuitously compensated similar ‘pioneers’ in the past. What they seek is a modest monetary acknowledgement compared to the money running through the modern game,” the petition stated.

This modest request includes a request for ABA players with more than three years of service in the league to receive an increase in monthly compensation to $300/month for each  year of service from $60/month. (Players from the pre-1965 era receive $300/month for each year of service, while the current collective bargaining agreement provides $2,000 per month for year of service to retired players.)

An important point addressed in the aforementioned petition is the fact that NBA teams and the NBA online store via the omnipresent power of the internet sell throwback jerseys and other ABA-themed memorabilia of the Pacers, Nets, Spurs and Nuggets.

“What have the former ABA players realized monetarily from the advertisement of their legacy and playing days? Nothing, not a dime!” the petition stated.

It’s really disgusting,” Wise said. “If there’s profiteering going on, of the ABA, the old throwback (jerseys) and memorabilia of anything like that, for sure they should take care of, again, those players who went into the NBA…”

Wise issued a direct challenge to the NBA commissioner.

“So Adam Silver at the very least could (decide), ‘OK, instead of just shutting us out, let’s at least come to the table. They’re making money off of us as it is,” he said.

“I think it’s just morally right, morally correct, for them to add us to the full pension, especially since it’s not going to hurt them that much.”

If the former ABA players are able to change the NBA’s mind on this issue, it will take a dedicated campaign to elevate the public’s awareness of the issue. Having a high-profile spokesman to raise the bar is a key.

So who could help elevate the issue?

The Doctor.

Wise explained it this way: “A very important component of the history of the NBA, especially the way the game is played currently is the NBA, and I think a face of the ABA that is really pro-ABA and would celebrate their ABA roots is Dr. J.”

Wise also recommended that longtime announcer Bob Costas, who got his big break as a young announcer as the play-by-play voice of the Spirits of St. Louis, have an active role in being a key figure in this fight.

“Whether he would agree to be the face of this issue, I have no idea,” Wise said of Costas. “But I know he would say something very positive about the ABA, and there should be something in the form of financial consideration for those players who shaped the current NBA … the current playing style of the NBA today.”


“There are retired NBA players who are very sympathetic to our cause, there are a number of them,” Wise said, suggesting Oscar Robertson, Bob Dandridge, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins and Spencer Haywood, the last three of whom also starred in the ABA early in their careers.

Wise is pleased that the ABA petition is making the rounds on the internet, giving it greater visibility and helping educate the public on the matter.

“The power of the terms cannot be overlooked or discounted,” Wise said, “so I think that it’s a good thing and I’d like to see more of it … and hopefully it could gain momentum that would force the NBA (to say), ‘OK, we better do something about this.'”


Wise’s highlights from the 1972 NBA-ABA All-Star Game in two packages:

Wise was a prime-time player. During his pro career he saw action in 552 regular-season games and averaged 17.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.16 steals. He increased those numbers to 19.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.39 in 74 postseason contests. He was a two-time All-ABA Second Team selection and a two-time All-ABA Defensive First Team choice.

The SuperSonics waived Wise in November 1977, signaling the end of his playing career.

He began driving a concrete mixer in the Seattle are and retired in June 2015 after three decades on the job.

“I had to work,” he said. “I had a family. I was trying to make ends meet.”

Before starting his job as a driver, Wise had tried to pursue a career as an airline pilot, but said that it was too expensive to gain the necessary training and experience.

Raising a family and switching careers more than once created financial burdens for Wise. He cashed in on his pension in one lump sum at age 45. He received $83,000.

“I was in dire financial straits,” he said. “Basically homeless. I needed a down payment for a house.” (This included originally deferred money that “was redistributed back into the contract.”)

“I didn’t have anything afterwards, no. I didn’t have anything monthly coming in because I took it all because I needed it,” he said.

He said the IRS “disallowed” some investments and limited partnerships he was involved in four or five years later, demanding “all our money now.”

As a result, he was forced to sell his previous house.

“We weren’t living extravagantly,” he said.

To get the pension, he hired an attorney (legal fees amounted to 33 percent of what he received).

The Spurs administered the dispersal of pension funds, but in order to get paid players had to fight for their cause in a local court in Texas.

As Wise remembered it, one former ABA player who had the same number of years of service in the league was awarded a $150,000 lump-sum payment.

Another player, Wise said, “got substantially less than me and he played more years in the ABA than I did. I don’t understand it.”


Wise maintains pride in the way ABA teams played the game and influenced the way the NBA has evolved into a more free-flowing style that resembles the ABA.

“We practically pioneered the Golden State Warriors,” Wise said. “The way they play is the way we played in the ’60s and ’70s, and the NBA’s adoption of the 3-point line after much wrangling back and forth — because there were a lot that did not want it because they thought it was just an ABA gimmick to get people into the stands; let’s give them three points for a shot from a certain distance rather than just two, and the old guard in the NBA didn’t want it and fought against it, Red Auerbach being one, Dick Motta from the Bulls being another, and I want to say, but I’m not certain about this one, Jerry Colangelo. There were a number of coaches that fought it and finally the NBA adopted it (for the 1979-80 season), and it just grew and grew…”

He went on: “As the years passed, more and more teams saw the value of opening it up, having a wide-open game, because now you have to defend further away from the basket, which means that you are a lot more vulnerable to someone who can penetrate like Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

“And now, guys like Isaiah Thomas 20 years ago wouldn’t have made it in the NBA without the 3-point line. So those guys should be forever grateful to us.”

Wise, of course, is right. He is, well, wise about this matter without sounding pompous.

“And now because of the fan appeal, everybody’s looking for the 3-point shot,” Wise said. “Look at Golden State today. They just go bananas over that 3-point shot, and we were the ones that brought that in and introduced that.

“And so there should be some readjustments, some reconsideration from this standpoint as well for the players who have X amount of years in the ABA.”

There’s a generational gap among those who know the historical impact of the ABA and those who don’t, particularly those in their teens, 20s and 30s.

Case in point: The belief that the 3-point shot and Slam Dunk Contest were NBA innovations.

Actually, the ABA popularized both, doing so first.

Or as Wise put it: “We of the old guard are constantly telling them, ‘No, they got that from us.’ ”

Willie Wise and his wife pose for a portrait with their grandchildren in Ohio in June 2017. 


In Peter Vecsey’s words, here’s a one-of-a-kind analysis of Wise’s career, persona and hoop legacy:

“Willie’s game wasn’t attention-grabbing, and his personality wasn’t attention-seeking. Despite being acknowledged by his peers, coaches and the media as among the ABA’s three toughest defensive forwards in ABA history (Joe Caldwell and Bobby Jones), and the best two-way player in pro ball one season by Sports Illustrated,  I can’t remember him ever talking about himself, immodestly or otherwise. He always gave credit where credit was due, and not so much, to others,” Vecsey wrote in an email. “Opponents weren’t quite as reserved. Rick Barry, to this day, says Willie made it harder for him to score than anyone else the two years he dominated the red, white and blue scoreboard for the Nets. Think about who Willie  had cover on a nightly basis — Barry, Roger Brown, Julius Erving, John Brisker, and sometimes Spencer Haywood during his brief tour with Denver. Occasionally David Thompson and George Gervin, as well.

“I put Willie on the same plateau as Dave DeBusschere. His offense (19.2 in seven ABA seasons, almost 9 rebounds, as I recall) was more diversified, a lot trickier than DD, faking, leaning, finishing off  the backboard, or he’d pull up on the fast break and drill a midrange jumper. DeBusschere’s offense was nothing fancy, long jumpers and putbacks in congestion.

“Regrettably, like James Jones and Jimmy Silas (crippled by injuries and was still a standout), and Mack Calvin and Ron Boone, Willie’s best days were seen by far too few fans and HOF voters. Hence, his historic lack of recognition.”

Vecsey, the legendary former New York Post columnist who has returned to the basketball beat with a new subscriber-based website,, revealed that Wise was stiffed by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“When Jerry Colangelo condescendingly formed an ABA HOF Committee — Barry, Costas, DT, Ice, Hubie (Brown), Mike Monroe and myself —Willie was near the top of our list when it was disbanded, because JC (once an ABA snob, always an NBA snob) told me he felt Louie Dampier didn’t deserve our (unanimous) selection, and that no one else deserved it.” 

Added Vecsey: “Willie and Jones and Calvin definitely would’ve been voted in by our 7-person committee within 3-4 years.”

But there’s more to the story, a while lot more, that reveals who Wise is, and was, as a person.

“Regarding Willie’s humility: Several years ago, I found a picture of him alongside Wilt in the 1972 ABA-NBA All-Star Game at Nassau Coliseum,” Vecsey recalled. “I sent it to him without telling him what to expect. He thanked me profusely. And proceeded to show to his friends. ‘People had no idea I played pro ball. But there am I fighting for a rebound with Dipper.’ Willie scored 12 points in that game.”

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