Column: Remember ABA and WHA during one of the greatest times of the sports year

By Paul Newberry

AP Sports Columnist

As we relish one of the greatest couple of weeks on the sporting calendar — the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final, going back and forth on alternating nights — a pair of long-forgotten leagues deserve a shoutout.

Take a bow, ABA.

You too, WHA.

The American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association have been gone for decades, but their brash challenges to the set-in-their-ways NBA and NHL left a mark that is still recognizable today.

The 3-point shot in hoops and Europeans playing key roles at the rink are two of the most prominent changes sparked by the rebel leagues, but their bigger contribution was opening the door to cities that had long been ignored by their established counterparts.

The Miami Heat weren’t the first pro basketball team to claim big league status in South Florida.

That distinction belongs to the Miami Floridians, who arrived two decades before the Heat when the Minnesota Muskies relocated to the sunshine state before the ABA’s second season in 1968.

The Floridians lasted only four years, and were mainly known for their desperate promotions (which included bikini-wearing ball girls) and dilapidated home arenas (most notoriously, a former airline hanger with no air conditioning).

But they at least laid the groundwork for the NBA to come calling with an expansion team in 1988, as the ABA did in so many other cities.

“We fertilized the ground for the future of professional basketball in Miami,” said Mack Calvin, who played two seasons for the Floridians. “The same in Charlotte. The same in Memphis. The same in New Orleans. The same in Dallas. The same in Houston. All of those cities were ABA cities that the NBA did not dare touch until we went in.”

The Heat’s remarkable run from the eighth seed to the finals has pitted them, fittingly enough, against the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets were one of four ABA teams that joined the older league in a 1976 merger. They’re now trying to become the second survivor of that circuit to claim an NBA crown after the San Antonio Spurs, who have won five championships.

Calvin played for the Nuggets, too — one season while Denver was still in the ABA, another after the team joined the NBA.

When he watches today’s fast-paced, high-scoring game, he’s reminded of his ABA days.

“No question,” said the 75-year-old Calvin, who remains a vocal advocate for the National Basketball Retired Players Association. “They do more pick-and-rolls these days, but this is our style of play.”

The ABA developed some true giants of the game, including Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, George Gervin and the five-time all-star Calvin — not to mention that dazzling red, white and blue ball. But it couldn’t overcome paltry crowds, shaky finances and a fly-by-night reputation.

Calvin chuckles as he remembers the ill-fated promotions, such as the wrestler who grappled with a bear at a Floridians game. He also recalls a famous boxer holding sparring sessions to help sell tickets.

“Muhammad Ali used to train in Miami,” he said. “I remember a couple of games where they set up a ring on the floor before our games … and Muhammad Ali would have a sparring match. The place was packed, but by the time he finished boxing and it was time to play basketball, 99% of the people had left.”

Miami is also represented in this year’s Stanley Cup Final, with the Florida Panthers taking on the Vegas Golden Knights — only the second time a pair of Sun Belt cities have met for the greatest trophy on ice.

Which seems a good time to throw out kudos to the WHA, which forced the NHL to look southward with its 1972 launch and recently marked the 50th anniversary of the New England Whalers claiming the first championship.

In an effort to thwart the WHA from putting a team in Atlanta’s new arena, the established league hastily awarded its first Deep South expansion franchise for the 1972-73 season.

The Flames didn’t survive in the A-T-L, of course, but the NHL now has thriving teams in all sorts of supposedly non-traditional markets, including Raleigh, Nashville, Tampa and Dallas.

Not to mention Las Vegas and suburban Sunrise, Florida, home of the Panthers.

For those who remember the WHA, this must look vaguely familiar. After all, that league had teams in Phoenix, San Diego, Houston and even Birmingham, Alabama.

None were among the four teams that joined the NHL in 1979, but they planted a tantalizing seed.

The WHA also tried — not once, but twice — to put a team in South Florida, long before the Panthers joined the NHL.

Neither of the proposed franchises played a game, but they at least sparked the idea of bringing hockey to an area known for its sun-splashed beaches and decadent nightlife.

The Miami Screaming Eagles were supposed to be a charter member of the WHA, and they even signed the first major player to defect from the NHL, goaltender Bernie Parent.

“My first reaction to signing with Miami was, ‘I have to buy a swimsuit,'” the 78-year-old Parent says now with a chuckle.

Miami didn’t have an arena suitable for hockey, but the Screaming Eagles hatched an audacious proposal to build a new venue within the walls of four downtown office buildings.

The plan doesn’t sound all that ludicrous in today’s world, where new stadiums and arenas are often pitched as the centerpieces of mammoth, mixed-use complexes. But in the early 1970s, it was laughed off as the delusional ramblings of an upstart league.

Executive Square Arena was never built. The Screaming Eagles never took the ice, though one can still find their merchandise.

“I flew to Miami and signed the contract, and when I flew back they had moved to the franchise to Philly,” said Parent, who played one season with the ill-fated Philadelphia Blazers before jumping back to the NHL and winning a pair of Stanley Cups with the city’s more famous team, the Flyers, on his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Parent has no regrets about signing with the WHA, but never got used to playing in front of the sparse crowds that turned out at Philadelphia’s ramshackle convention center and most other cities during his lone season.

“We had a lot of good players in that league,” said Parent, who — get this — now lives much of the year in Fort Lauderdale. “But I was used to playing in the National Hockey League with 18,000, 20,000 people in the stands. It really pumps you up. When you’ve got 500 or 1,000 people at the game, it’s just not good.”

The WHA took another shot at the Miami area in 1976.

The Cleveland Crusaders were set to become the Florida Breakers, with plans to play at a concrete monstrosity known as the Hollywood Sportatorium. The new team went so far as to design an orange and blue uniform with a sweeping “B” logo.

But that deal fell through, as well, and a team didn’t actually take the ice in Miami until the Panthers entered the NHL in 1993.

Now, they’ve reached the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in franchise history.

Which makes this a fitting time to recognize the legacy left by WHA.

And, on nights when the NBA Finals take the court, we’ll ponder the influence of the ABA.

Two leagues that deserve to be remembered.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today