(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
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
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
"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.