Before there was the American Basketball Association, a lesser-known professional basketball league called the American Basketball League was formed in 1961 to challenge the NBA and send a jolt through the professional basketball establishment. Robert Lieb, a professor of supply chain management in Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, recently published a book, Shooting Threes and Shaking the Basketball Establishment: The Short, Chaotic Run of the American Basketball League, detailing the ABL’s history. Here are five interesting details from the book you might not know about basketball history.
1. Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, started the ABL to compete with the NBA. During the 1950s, many NBA teams had serious financial problems. Saperstein worked with the league to schedule games with the Globetrotters, which became a major source of revenue for the NBA. As a result, Saperstein believed he would get the NBA’s future Los Angeles franchise. Instead it went to Bob Short, who moved his Minneapolis Lakers there in 1960. Saperstein felt betrayed and started the ABL as a rival league. The ABL started operations in 1961 with eight teams, including one in Hawaii.
2. The ABL was the first professional basketball league to use the three-point line, not the American Basketball Association. It was very popular in the ABL and was later adopted by the ABA, which began operations during the 1967-1968 season. The NBA did not start using the three-point line until the 1979-80 season.
3. When the eight-team ABL was formed, 19 players jumped from the NBA to the new league. That led to a clash between the two leagues in the legal system, which ultimately played a role in eliminating the NBA’s reserve clause that tied players to their NBA teams, later fostering the concept of free agency.
4. The president of the ABL’s Cleveland Pipers was George Steinbrenner, future owner of the New York Yankees. His team won the league championship in its only full season. He shocked the basketball world by signing Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas, who was the collegiate player of the year during the 1961-62 college season. The NBA had coveted Lucas, and Steinbrenner had hoped to parlay the signing into a new NBA franchise for Cleveland. His strategy worked when in July 1962 the NBA offered him a franchise for Cleveland, but plans fell through due to a lack of money.
5. When the ABL ended operations on Dec. 31, 1962, it was estimated Saperstein had personally lost nearly $2 million in his attempt to compete with the NBA. While the ABL featured many former and future NBA stars, its most notable player was Hall of Famer Connie Hawkins, who played for the Pittsburgh Rens.