Loose Balls: The Short Wild Life of the American Basketball Association by Terry Pluto (Review)

Sports nostalgia tour of the American Basketball Association whose heydays were in the late 60s and 70s. The league had some great players like Dr. J, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and others. Interesting stories about how they tried to create the league. Poor Pat Boone was one of the early investors and almost went broke. There were some smart owners and many greedy ones. George Mikan was the ABA’s first commissioner and insisted that the league’s headquarters be situated in Minnesota where he lived.

So many characters Marvin Barnes, Johnny Neumann, John Brisker etc. played in the league. The book details many of their antics. I remember Rick Mount, one of the best shooting guards in college at Purdue. Unfortunately his college game did not translate that well into the pros.

The financial status of the teams and the league were always in peril. They did not have a national TV contract like the NBA. Many coaches and players suffered returned checks or did not get paid at all.

I did not realize or remember that ABA teams played NBA teams in exhibition games and competed fairly well. There were some excellent ABA coaches including Hubie Brown, Larry Brown, Stan Albeck and Doug Moe. (Even Wilt Chamberlain was an ABA coach but not a very good or devoted one.)

There are a large number of amusing anecedotes and stories. This is a very entertaining sports book about a very interesting time in professional basketball.

My Basketball Books Hall of Fame

It’s March Madness time so I thought I would share a list of the top books that I have enjoyed about basketball. The first ten books represent my “top seeds” but let me offer at the outset that any basketball (or any other sport) books written by John Feinstein are Hall of Fame worthy.

  1. A Season on the Brink by John Feinstein
  2. The Miracle of St. Anthony by Adrian Wojnarowski
  3. The Last Amateurs: Playing for Glory and Honor in Division I College Basketball by John Feinstein 
  4. Basketball: A Love Story by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, Dan Klores
  5. Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby
  6. The Hoops Whisperer by Idan Ravin
  7. Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty by Jeff Pearlman
  8. To the Hoop: Seasons of a Basketball Life by Ira Berkow
  9. A Sense Of Where You Are by John McPhee
  10. Dream Team by Jack McCallum
  11. A March to Madness: A View from the Floor in the Atlantic Coast Conference by John Feinstein 
  12. Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich by Mark Kriegel
  13. The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam
  14. The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith
  15. Showtime by Jeff Pearlman
  16. Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson
  17. The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy by Bill Simmons 
  18. Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four by John Feinstein 
  19. Unfinished Business: On and Off the Court With the 1990-91 Boston Celtics by Jack McCallum 
  20. The Back Roads to March: The Unsung, Unheralded, and Unknown Heroes of a College Basketball Season by John Feinstein

“Keep Shooting”: A Feel Good story for a Not So Feel Good Time

This is a story that took place more than 45 years ago. In a 30 minute span, I may have inadvertently offered the best advice that I ever offered anyone not only about basketball but also life and in return, I received a lasting life lesson and one of the nicest things ever said to me, all from a young boy who just wanted to shoot baskets.

When people need to clear their head, some may pray, some may meditate and others may go for a long walk or run. In my 20’s and 30’s, I would pick up my basketball and head for the courts to shoot some hoops. Shooting baskets was a very centering practice and often served as my moment of Zen. Bounce, Balance, Aim, Release, Follow Through, Retrieve the basketball and Repeat. So on a sunny summer afternoon, I found the basketball court at Memorial Park in Cinnaminson empty. There was no one to disturb me and I was left alone to empty my mind and forget my worries.

Photo by Stephanie Young Mertzel

Routinely when I practiced alone, I would start with bank shots off the backboard and then move further back until I felt warmed up. I would then shoot set shots trying to find a rhythm and pace.   I would then practice lay-ups and jump shots before I finished with shooting foul shots. I would be so focused on this ritual that I would often lose track of time and not notice people or activities around me.

But not this day…

After shooting for about ten minutes, in the corner of my eye, I caught a young boy maybe nine or ten sitting silently on the side. He watched me for a while and every now and then I heard a low “Wow” or see a shake of his head in approval when I hit a basket. I really was in “flow” and I did not want to be disturbed and have to share my time on the court with anyone. Every now and then the ball would roll over to where he was sitting and he would slowly get up and roll the ball back to me.

I was able to largely avoid the youngster until I noticed that he now stood and was mimicking how I was shooting as if to copy the shooting motion. The boy was mostly silent to me as if he knew that I was in my own world and he was trying not to disturb it.  But I could tell he wanted to shoot baskets.

In my mind, the young boy sparked a memory of my youth. It was of another young boy, about his age, fatherless, who also stood silently at a park or ball field hoping that someone would let him play catch or toss a football around. That shy young boy was also silent not wishing to intrude but also hoping that he would be invited to play.

I motioned the young boy to come over and asked him if he wanted to shoot. I noticed that as he walked over, his balance seemed unsteady. One of his legs appeared to drag. I softly tossed him the basketball and noticed he had some difficulty in catching it. When he dribbled the ball, he did it slowly with two hands as if he never touched a basketball before. When he spoke, I detected a slight lisp or speech impediment.

His first few shoots did not touch the rim. His shooting motion seemed forced and I wondered if he suffered some type of physical disability. I could tell he was becoming discouraged as he kept missing. I kept handing him the ball silently after he missed shot after shot. I sensed his frustration. He stopped after one bad miss and handed me the ball and said, “Thank you” and turned to sadly walk away.

“Don’t leave,” I urged the retreating youngster. “Keep shooting! Everybody misses at first. Don’t give up.” I then showed him how to bend his knees and use his arms to aim the ball to propel the shot. He struggled for a few more shots where he hit nothing. Then one of his shots bounced around the rim. He wanted to stop and I told him “Keep shooting.” Finally with one big heave he made a basket. He seemed very relieved as I smiled at his success. “All huge journeys begin with one small step,” I told him.

To compensate for his poor arm strength, I showed him the Rick Barry style of shooting foul shots underhanded where he could use both arms to power the shot to reach the rim. He was better able to reach the rim and he made a few baskets bringing a slow smile to his face. What was an exercise in futility for him now became a challenge he gladly accepted.

I had to leave but I urged him to keep practicing. I could sense a bit of sadness in his eyes as I said it. I asked him if he had a basketball at home and he said he did not. I wondered what kind of home life he had and if kids his age would play sports with him. He did not appear to have the athletic and mobility skills that kids his age would have. I sensed that he may not have been invited to play any sports.  

I handed him my basketball. I told him the basketball was his but he needed to keep shooting to get better. It was as if I was giving him a new bicycle for Christmas. His face lit up with a smile. I did not realize at the time that I was providing him a lesson not just for basketball, but for life. You will face frustrations especially when you attempt new things. You will have bad streaks where you will get discouraged. His struggles may have been more challenging given his physical limitations.

As I grabbed my towel to leave, I asked him if he watched basketball on television. He shook his head yes. I then asked him if there was a player he wanted to be like. He paused, looked down at the basketball in his hands, raised his head slowly and answered, “You.”

The boy’s answer stunned me. I was going to try to say something witty and self deprecating but I could not. I could not speak. I know the youngster appreciated my time and attention that I provided. I nodded my head and smiled my thanks and headed for my car. The boy may have thought as I walked away that I was using the towel to wipe sweat from my brow. I was wiping my eyes.

Never been a coach, never was fortunate to be a father but fortunate to have that opportunity to make a small impression on that boy’s life. I envy all of you who have or had greater opportunities to make positive impressions on a young boy or young girl’s life. I just shared mine…

RIP The “Process” 2013-2020

Some thoughts on the 76ers and what’s next:

The 76ers are a high priced street pick up team. There were so many mistakes on personnel decisions. Not sure why they did not move heaven and earth at the end of last season to keep Jimmy Butler. This season, there was no “go to guy” when you needed a critical basket at the end of a game.

This year’s NBA draft offers little relief. Even with high draft picks, the 76ers have really mucked it up. Remember Michael Carter Williams, Nerlins Noel, Jahil Okafor, Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot, Landry Shamet and Markelle Fultz (instead of Jayson Tatum)???

The NBA East has four of the best coaches in basketball. Brad Stevens (Celtics), Nick Nurse (Toronto), Erik Spoelstra (Heat) and Mike Budenholzer (Bucks) are far superior coaches than Brett Brown. Good coaching usually manifests itself after halftime and particularly in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. Sounds like the 76ers never bought in to Brown’s substitutions patterns or to his strategies when games were on the line.

Did anyone watch the Clippers-Mavs game that followed the 76ers-Celtics today? Is there anyone who would rather have either Embid or Simmons than Luke Doncic?

I am not interested in any “retreads” to coach the 76ers if they release Brett Brown. So I’m not interested in Jason Kidd, Tyronn Lue, Mark Jackson or Luke Walton. I might be interested in a certain local college coach who has demonstrated the ability to win the big game (twice) and might be looking for a new challenge. It also helps that his players do well in the NBA draft and in competition.

The right of first refusal to the 76ers job if Brett Brown is released is Jay Wright.