Review of Looking Up: From the ABA to the NBA, The WNBA to the NCAA

O’Brien, Jim. Looking Up: From the ABA to the NBA, The WNBA to the NCAA – A Basketball Memoir. Pittsburgh, Pa.: James P. O’Brien – Publishing, 2017. Pp. 480. Photos and illustrations, color and black & white. $29.95 paperback.

Reviewed by: Richard A. Macales  

The American Basketball Association (ABA), of 1967-76, once drew an announced attendance of 89 for a single game in Houston’s old arena with a seating capacity of 8,925. Players there claimed that figure was inflated by at least 50 percent! The game featured the pre-Julius Erving New York Nets (antecedents of those now playing in the NBA in Brooklyn to packed crowds). But even when the Nets played their home games on Long Island 50 years ago, their crowds were not much larger.

Remembered for its exciting over-the-rim style of play; three-point shots (before they were allowed in the NBA); red, white and blue basketballs; outrageous promotions; and the wild lives and antics of many players, coaches and club executives — on and off the court — the ABA existed in almost total obscurity during its actual existence.

Looking Up The ABA was born, raised, and had to compete not only against the NBA, but also with major changes in American society. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s public interest in the ABA (and some other sports) was overshadowed by such contentious issues as Vietnam, Watergate, racial tension, the emerging feminist movement, the counterculture, and the beginning of the post-WWII U.S. industrial decline. ABA franchises were located in some of the hardest hit areas of America, in both the urban north and rural south, during its nine-year existence.

Among the handful of newspaper writers covering the league from its inception until its demise was an up-and-coming sportswriter from Pittsburgh, Jim O’Brien. He gave the ABA the much needed and deserved national media attention it required to survive. Largely due to O’Brien, the ABA has, in death, evolved into an iconic part of American pop culture. That fascination continues to grow to this day in the collective memories or “urban legends” of newfound legions of followers of the rebellious ABA. The author of 29 books, O’Brien has also taught sports history at his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, as well as at Carnegie Mellon University.

O’Brien’s latest book, Looking Up, is his self-described “basketball memoir,” focusing mainly on the cast of characters that he covered, particularly those with an ABA and/or Western Pennsylvania NBA or NCAA basketball connection.

It is not intended to be a comprehensive history of pro basketball.  Looking Up is a “love” story about O’Brien’s experiences of covering the basketball greats, the near-greats, and even the ingrates; what they meant to him and why they are interesting for us to know up close and personal.

He uses examples of players and coaches who have mirrored the challenges encountered by broader segments of society: sexual abuse, unabated anger, violence, substance abuse, criminal activity, illiteracy, squandered fortunes, promiscuity, and complex relations with the media.

Today, the NBA has fabulously successful teams in Houston, Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, Charlotte, Memphis, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., and Oakland.  All were formerly ABA towns.

The pro basketball scene 50 years ago was a less booming business. In April 1968 the ABA hosted its first championship final featuring controversial superstar Connie Hawkins and his Pittsburgh Pipers vs. the New Orleans Buccaneers, co-owned and operated by an early TV “shock talk” show host, Morton Downey Jr.

Pittsburgh’s 1968 championship run began two weeks after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The tense situation placed a damper on public interest in sporting events all across the country. Public attention for a new league was almost nil.

The ABA produced a promotional film of that first championship (now available on YouTube). Game One, played on Pittsburgh’s old home court, “The Igloo,” nicknamed for its unique ice-house design, was played in front of probably no more than 1,500 fans. O’Brien covered the Pipers that first season for a Pittsburgh newspaper, but curiously does not detail the championship series in Looking Up.

The Pipers’ owner, a local theatrical magnate, knew the real box office receipts…and it wasn’t a pretty show.  When it was over, the Pipers left town, relocating to Minnesota for a year before returning to Pittsburgh for another three futile seasons – minus Connie Hawkins, who “jumped” to the NBA. Sadly, pro basketball would never return to Pittsburgh.

To compound the problem, radio/TV coverage of ABA teams was so sparse some didn’t have local stations. Landing a “great” TV deal meant airing between five to 20 games per season on local independent stations with little or no revenue generated.

The Los Angeles Stars, who played the Indiana Pacers in the 1970 ABA finals, had a “local” radio station in Tijuana, Mexico, some 130 miles away from their home court, the Los Angeles Sports Arena. The radio station reception could not be picked up in most parts of L.A.! Like Pittsburgh, the Stars moved out of town immediately after the finals. They landed in Utah.

In 1969 the ABA champion Oakland Oaks starred Rick Barry, who could not play in the finals due to a knee injury. Oakland’s final game vs. the Indiana Pacers drew little more than 4,000 to Oracle Arena (now home to the powerhouse Golden State Warriors). Brief highlights can be seen on a league-produced highlight film. It too can be found on YouTube. In keeping with the pattern of ABA teams moving right after winning the championship, the Oaks too moved — first to Washington, D.C., and a year later to Virginia, where Dr. J began his career as a “Squire.”

The only access to inform the “outside world” of the ABA for the last seven seasons of its existence was through one ambitious young sportswriter who was the league’s greatest advocate, Jim O’Brien. Pittsburgh’s No. 1 sports booster, who still lives in the area, had provided the ABA with much-needed press exposure through his weekly column in The Sporting News (accompanied by box scores at a time when most daily newspapers, even in ABA cities, didn’t run them).

In his chapter titled, “Sports Agents,” O’Brien discusses his longtime friendship with his lawyer, Steve Arnold, who represented many ABA and NBA players. O’Brien credits Arnold with negotiating a lucrative contract for him to serve as editor of Street and Smith’s Basketball Yearbook (an association that lasted 37 years and with sales of about 200,000 copies annually). O’Brien insisted that ABA coverage equal that of the established NBA. Similarly, Arnold helped O’Brien become editor of the first two volumes of The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball, long a fan favorite. Likewise gave the ABA space on a par with that of the NBA.

To understand the global success of basketball, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, one must use the NBA as the ultimate business model. But the NBA did not act out of a vacuum. It can thank the rival ABA for many of the innovations we see on both the playing court and in its marketing and publicity strategies. And the ABA, in turn, could thank O’Brien for chronicling and spotlighting its history-in-the-making.

His efforts forced the NBA to take the ABA seriously (all the way up to the Halls of Congress to permit a merger). In 1976, the basketball wars ended, enabling four ABA teams to join the NBA — the San Antonio Spurs, Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers. And O’Brien, through his close friend, Hall of Fame player and coach Bill Sharman, advocated for the NBA to eventually adopt the three-point basket and a wider shooting lane.

In O’Brien’s book, he shares the credit with those who helped him reach the top — particularly his mother, Mary, and wife, Kathleen, both of whom have been instrumental in assisting him in his journalistic endeavors for the various major-league sports he covered over the years.

On the topic of death – and there is no shortage of persons in the book who had an untimely passing, all-too-often due to overindulgence in whatever vice possessed them – O’Brien includes a moving tribute to one of his all-time favorites, Wilt Chamberlain. O’Brien’s chapter, “A Little Boy Who Loved a Giant,” struck a personal chord with him because Wilt, like O’Brien’s father, died at age 63.

O’Brien personally knew all the players and club officials included in Looking Up, and the list is long and impressive. His strong-suit has always been to quote multiple sources for his stories, never relying solely on league- and team-generated press releases. A people-person, O’Brien has a unique ability and gift to intimately communicate with people…in person, face-to-face, and then effectively share it with his readers.

He has met some characters that most of us would find intimidating and “worthy” of avoidance; finding them fascinating and a challenging interview. Many names in his book are long forgotten by all but a few trivia buffs, but each has a life story that we can relate to today. If an athlete has personal “demons,” O’Brien is not afraid to expose them – albeit in a humane and forgiving way.

O’Brien also shares his greatest fear – missing a deadline. In a chapter titled “Bad Night in Louisville,” it almost happened. A then-unknown locker-room predator, upset over a column he had written mentioning a coach’s bad perm or sport coat, plunked him with a custard cream pie. O’Brien recalled sage advice given him by legendary New York sports columnist Dick Young.

Young told O’Brien: “The readers don’t care about your problems. They just want you to write so they can read it in the next day’s newspaper. That’s why you’re there!” In his 60-year writing career, O’Brien has never missed a deadline. As a result, we have a great vignette of O’Brien’s masterful storytelling in Looking Up.

Rich Macales was a former longtime senior writer and public information officer at UCLA. He is a contributor to American Sports: A History of Icons, Idols and Ideas, edited by Prof. Murry R. Nelson, ABC-Clio. He wrote the basketball entries on the Los Angeles Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant.

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