(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about noted

writer Jim O'Brien who covered the old American Basketball Association,

including the Kentucky Colonels, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s for

The Sporting News magazine and the New York Post. Popularly known as the

"Mr. ABA," the 67-year-old O'Brien, the author of 22 books on sports in

Pittsburgh, shares his ABA thoughts and memories with this columnist.)

    Over 40 years ago‹February 28, 1970, to be exact‹I saw my very first pro

basketball game in person.

    Wow! I felt like I was in heaven. My eighth-grade classmate and I even

stayed around long enough after the game to obtain cherished autographs from

the players like Wayne Chapman (Rex's dad), Louie Dampier, Jim "Goose"

Ligon, among others, while my somewhat frustrated parents waited in the car

for nearly one hour in the parking lot.

    That was in Louisville, not in some NBA city.

    We saw the Kentucky Colonels defeat the Don Freeman-led Miami Floridians

115-111 before a small Convention Center crowd of about 3,500 during the

pre-Dan Issel years in the now-defunct American Basketball Association.

Future hall of famer Earl Strom was one of the two referees who officiated

the very physical contest.

    The ABA was a growing league which eventually stole stars and coaches

from the rival NBA, and signed college standouts like UK's Dan Issel, North

Carolina's Charlie Scott and Jacksonsville's Artis Gilmore to fat contracts.

    Earlier, in 1967, when the league first began playing, it featured

former Wildcats like Dampier (Colonels), Cliff Hagan (a former NBA star who

became the player-coach for the Dallas Chaparrals) and Cotton Nash

(Colonels). Even UK's John Calipari's former boss at Kansas, Larry Brown,

was a 5-9 playmaker for the New Orleans Buccaneers, leading the ABA in

assists during the 1967-68 campaign.

    And I religiously read a weekly ABA column written by Jim O'Brien in The

Sporting News. His entertaining column sometimes took up the entire page.

The weekly magazine also published ABA box scores and statistics along with

occasional cover stories on the top stars from the "radical" league, which

utilized the colorful red, white and blue basketball along with the

three-point field goals and the bikini-clad ball girls from the Miami

franchise.

    That was during the pre-ESPN and pre-Internet days, and it wasn't easy

to find ABA stories. The league wasn't seen on national television very

often, either.

    O'Brien's column in The Sporting News was my only ABA source in addition

to reading the Louisville Courier-Journal, which provided excellent coverage

of the Colonels. O'Brien, who now lives in suburban Pittsburgh, is often

referred to as "Mr. ABA" because he wrote countless articles in many

national publications about the league.

    "It was a good association for me," O'Brien said in a recent e-mail

interview. "Writers were welcomed with open arms by most ABAers. They were

like boxing people in that regard. They needed the ink. There were so many

characters in the league, so many Œhead cases.' I liked Art Heyman, Chico

Vaughn, Johnny Neumann, John Brisker and Wendell Ladner. I made so many

friends in that league.

    "I actually helped the Pittsburgh Pipers put their original team

together and became a life-long friend of (ABA and NBA star Connie Hawkins).

I was responsible for nominating him and preparing the nomination package to

promote his candidacy (for the Hall of Fame in the early 1990s) when I was

serving on the nomination board of the Basketball Hall of Fame. Connie once

told my daughter Sarah that I was Œthe best little white dude he ever knew.'

I take that as a compliment."

    While writing columns for The Sporting News for many years, O'Brien

worked for the Miami News and then the New York Post. He was also the

founding editor of Street & Smith's Basketball Yearbook in 1970 and

continued to write for the yearbook for 33 years until 2003.

    O'Brien was asked who was ABA's most colorful character that he has ever

met.

    "Wendell Ladner (of the Kentucky Colonels) ranked right up there," he

said. "His coach, Babe McCarthy, once said, ŒWendell doesn't know the

meaning of the word Œfear,' and a lot of other words, too.'

    "I thought (Indiana Pacers' coach) Slick Leonard was a great guy and an

easy interview. He dressed like no other coach."

    Remember Ladner? He was the good-looking guy who crashed into a glass

water cooler near the bench during a playoff game between the Colonels and

the Larry Brown-coached Carolina Cougars at Freedom Hall.

    Luckily, I was there (with my parents) as a fan sitting about seven rows

from the playing floor to witness the memorable crash and Ladner ended up

with many cuts and stitches. With my cheap camera, I even took pictures of

the floor where broken glass and paper cups were scattered among water.

    And Sports Illustrated ran a story about that 1973 game and Ladner's

incident in the following week. A fan favorite, Ladner later was killed in

an airplane crash in 1975.

    In the next column, O'Brien talks about several other ABA legends,

including ex-Wildcats Adolph Rupp and Dan Issel.

   

    Jamie H. Vaught, whose syndicated sports column currently appears in

Kentucky newspapers, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is

currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College

in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at CatsUpClose2008@yahoo.com.

   

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