Basketball Short Stories - 3
ABA Tryout Stories
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association as Told by the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakes Who Made It Happen, Terry Pluto (1990)


Steve Jones


Bob Bass


Tommy Bowens


Larry Brown


Lefty Thomas


A.W. Holt


Maurice McHartley

Steve Jones: I remember walking into a tryout for the Oakland Oaks at St. Mary's College and there were 100 guys there. I had some friends who had recommended me to the Oakland owners and Bruce Hale, so I had an advantage in that Bruce knew who I was. You could tell that there was a division at the camp between guys who were supposed to be able to play and guys basically off the street. I had played at Oregon and been drafted by the Warriors and had been to two of their training camps, so I was one of the guys who could play. But I still couldn't believe that mass of humanity in the gym. The coaches seemed overwhelmed. They started having 3-on-3 games for 15 minutes. If you didn't show much in that 15 minutes, you were outta there, so you can imagine that there was a lot of passing going on, right? They cut 60 guys the first day. I think back on that as the "Hundred Rifles" camp, because you had 100 guys doing nothing but shooting. Most of the guys who eventually made the team had played either in AAU ball or the Eastern League and had at least been to an NBA camp. ...
Bob Bass: Obviously, you had to be a bit of a gambler to get involved with the ABA. I had coached great NAIA teams at Oklahoma Baptist. We were national champs in 1966, runners up in 1965 and 1967. I could have stayed there comfortably forever or gone on to another major-college coaching job. I had a good player in Al Tucker, and Bruce Hale came down to talk to me about Tucker. Bruce had just been hired by Oakland, and he asked me if I was interested in getting into the ABA. I told him that I had no idea, I really hadn't thought about it. We pretty much let it drop at that.
Two days later, I got a call from Dennis Murphy, who was then the general manager in Denver. Murphy offered me $20,000 to coach the team, which was pretty good, since most of the players were making $8,000. I took it. ...
I had no players. We put together a tryout camp at Pacific University. We had about 100 guys in the gym and it got real hot, so we opened the doors. But it was so smoggy outside that the smog rolled in and it got so bad that we had to call off practice, because we couldn't see. Besides, an open tryout like that wasn't going to do us much good, anyway. ...
I took the NBA rosters from 1965 to '67 and looked for the names of guys no longer in the league. Then I tried to track them down, figuring if they were good enough at one time to play in the NBA, then they should be good enough for our league. Actually, none of us really knew what would be good enough, since there was nothing to compare it to. ...
One of the guys we did find was Tommy Bowens, who was 6-foot-8 from Grambling. He was one of the mroe amazing leapers I had ever seen. He could dunk from two feet behind the foul line. I know no one believes me when I tell them Bowens did that, but I saw it in practice. He could dunk from much further out than Julius Erving. He could break the high-jump and long-jump records all at the same time. He was just a raw talent who really couldn't do much with the basketball, but how he could jump.
Larry Brown: The guy I still kid Bob Bass about is Lefty Thomas. We (New Orleans Buccaneers) played Denver early in the season and they had this guy, Lefty Thomas. He went for 20 points against us, but he shot it every time he touched it. That wasn't that unusual, but Lefty was the first player I had ever seen who wore a ring on every finger. I still ask Bob if he has signed any more guys who wear 10 rings.
Bob Bass: Thomas had 39 points for us in our opener, but he was totally out of control. I couldn't handle the guy. Every time he got the ball, he went left and then he shot it. He had played for the Harlem Clowns and some of those other teams that played against the Globetrotters. After a few weeks, I let him go and Anaheim picked him up, maybe because he had the 39 points against them. But he didn't last there.
Max Williams: Our biggest job was to find players. I got a lot of letters and calls. One guy wrote me from the state penitentiary in Oklahoma. He said if he could produce a contract, they'd let him out to play ball for Dallas. I passed on that one. We had an open tryout and drew about 100 guys. That was just a zoo, people killing each other, but we didn't find anyone of significance.
Terry Stembridge: I don't remember seeing any real playes at those tryouts; it was just a bunch of guys running around. The players we ended up with were guys that Max found. One of my favorites was Maurice "Toothpick" McHartley. He was a 6-foot-3 guard who came from the Wilmington Blue Bombers of the Eastern League. Maurice had to have a toothpick in the corner of his mouth or he wouldn't play. He was ahead of everybody when it came to fashion, because he was the first guy on the team wearing bell-bottoms and stuff like that. He worked hard at being Mr. Cool. I remember him shooting the ball a lot, but I don't remember it going in that often.
Another one of my favorite guys was A.W. Holt, a kid from Jackson State, a left-handed shooter. He went into Max's office to sign a contract and they talked for a while. When they came out, Max asked me to take Holt to the airport because he was going home. In the car, I said, "A.W., did you sign?"
He said, "No, man, I didn't sign that contract."
I said, "Why not?"
He said, "I made up my mind before I came here that unless I got a $1,000 bonus, I wasn't going to sign. But all they offered me was fifteen hundred dollars."
I started to laugh, but I realized that A.W. was serious. He didn't get it and that was sad. Anyway, he eventually did sign, but he didn't make the team.
Larry Staverman: I was the first coach of the Indiana Pacers, and in the summer before that first season, we announced that we would have our first practice, which was really a tryout. We held it at the Jewish Community Center, which had room for about 400 people, but 1,500 showed up. We turned fans away to see a glorified tryout! ... Our big tryout was held at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. We had a couple of hundred guys trying out and about 7,000 fans there to watch. I stepped out on the court to start the tryout and guess what - no basketballs. My GM had forgotten to get us some balls. I had to figure out what to do with all these people. I had the guys run sprints, then I had them run a passing drill, a Figure-8, pretending they had a ball. I cut some guys before they even touched a ball because it was obvious they couldn't run and had no idea what the most basic Figure-8 drill was all about.
Sideshow in Miami
Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association as Told by the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen, Terry Pluto (1990)

The Floridians began life as the Minnesota Muskies, a franchise so well financed that after achieving a 50-28 record in the ABA's first season, it packed up and moved to Miami, where it put in four unremarkable years before mercifully folding at the end of the 1971-72 season. The Floridians never did much on the court, but the weather was nice and the ballgirls were nicer.
Rudy Martzke (Public Relations Man for the Floridians: Florida was a franchise with its own special lore. I don't know if it was the warm weather and people feeling like they could do anything they wanted, but there were a lot of crazy stories coming out of there, even by ABA standards. At one time, Florida had eight owners and one of the owners would go around saying, "Has Sidney dumped his 25 grand in yet? We going to make the payroll this week?" There really were stories in the newspaper saying, "The Floridians met the payroll so they'll play tonight."
One of the owners decided to trade for Art Heyman from Pittsburgh without telling anyone else. Heyman showed up in Miami without half the people in the front office knowing he was coming. Bob Halloran from TV-4 in Miami spotted Heyman and interviewed him.
Heyman asked Bob, "Does this go out to Miami Beach?"
Bob said it did.
Heyman said, "Hello, Jews out there! Your boy is here!"
On and on it goes.

L-R: Art Heyman, Levern Tart, Steve Jones
Levern Tart was from West Palm Beach, so they were going to have a Levern Tart Night, but the day before the game he got traded and it was to a team that didn't play in Florida again for the rest of the year.
They even played some games at a place in Coconut Grove where there were so many cockroaches in the dressing rooms that the visiting teams just changed at the hotel. I found out that being Miami's PR man was no bargain, especially since pro football owned the town. One Sunday afternoon, he had a home game scheduled against Utah while the Dolphins were playing Baltimore in the AFC playoffs at the Orange Bowl. By the time we realized that our game would go off at the same time as the Dolphins game, it was too late to change it. Not one press guy showed up for the game ... There were 500 people in the stands - maybe.
(Marketing Director) Kenny Small and I were talking and we decided to announce an attendance of 2,000. Who would know the difference? We settled on 1,650 which was still one of the bigger crowds of the season, and that was what ran under the box score. The next day we had press guys calling and saying, "Hey, that was a helluva crowd with the Dolphins playing and all." And I said, "Yeah, you should have been here."
Steve Jones: The walls in the dressing room were so thin and the two teams' rooms were next to each other, so everybody could hear everything. I was in there with New Orleans and we were up by about 20 points at the half. (Buccaneers coach) Babe McCarthy said, "Shush up, fellas. I want y'all to lissen ta what's going on next door." (Miami coach) Hal Blitman was going nuts, screaming and cussing everyone out. Babe was biting his lip to keep from laughing and we were doing the same thing - we didn't want them to hear us. As we walked out on the floor, all Babe said was, "That's what I'm gonna sound like after the game if we blow this one." Florida was the only place in the league where you could hear the other team's halftime talk.

Floridians' ball girl
Gene Littles (long-time ABA G): No matter what you say about the Floridians, they had the greatest cheerleaders in the world. They were big league all the way, in their looks, their dance routines, and their outfits. They got more attention than the team and that was how it should have been considering the kind of teams they had down there. ...
Martzke: The big event for the girls came when we took them to New York for a Madison Square Garden all-ABA doubleheader. It was right before Christmas. We had a press conference with the girls, got a big turnout and naturally pictures of the girls in the papers. ... Rick Barry was with the Nets and we had a promotion in Grand Central Station with Barry playing Al Albert in this gimmicky basketball game while the girls in their bikinis tried to lure people over to watch. It was pure schlock. The doubleheader drew about 8,500 at the Garden and about 8,000 of the fans showed up to see the girls, because I bet they couldn't name three guys who played that night.
Memories of Wilt
West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, Jerry West (2011)
During my last year with the Lakers, the death of Wilt Chamberlain in October of 1999 hit me particularly hard. Wilt was only two years older than I was, and when I got word that he was dead, I didn’t believe it. In fact, it took nearly fifteen phone calls of my asking people "Is it true?" before I grudgingly accepted that it was. How could someone that strong and that athletic and that imposing be dead at the age of sixty-three? For as long as he played, Wilt was generally considered the greatest athlete in the world. He was also the most sensitive and insecure person I had ever been around. I thought I was sensitive and touchy, but Wilt took sensitivity to another level, constantly feeling unappreciated. As he always loved to say, "Nobody loves Goliath."

Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West
I have been around a lot of big men in my life in professional basketball, but Wilt stood out as always being primed for an insult or a slight. He constantly complained that he would give parties at his hilltop home on Mulholland Drive and invite everyone—actually, he would have two parties in an evening: one for married couples and a much later party for singles—but that he often would go uninvited in return. In his book Wilt, he singled me out on more than one occasion as being one of the culprits, but I can promise you that Wilt ducked his head in the front door of my home in Brentwood, just off Sunset, on a number of occasions in the early seventies. He often expressed the opinion (as Oscar did) that the media loved me, that in their eyes I could do no wrong, but that he was seen as a villain.
I have so many memories of Wilt, and nearly all of them are funny ones. I remember during his beach volleyball period that he would arrive in his Rolls-Royce convertible at the Forum right before a game or practice with his light blue nylon shorts on and his flip-flops and sand in his hair. I never understood how he thought he would have enough energy to go out and play, but that was Wilt and he never felt he had to explain or justify anything (he could easily go for days without a real shower, blithely ignoring the deodorant and soap we would put in front of his locker, settling for a sponge bath instead). He of course insisted he was the greatest beach volleyball player of all time, but our teammate Keith Erickson, who actually played volleyball in the 1964 Olympics, said that while Wilt might have been the biggest and brightest star on the beaches of Santa Monica, he wasn’t a great player.
He was, however, a great eater. Perhaps the most vivid memory I have of Wilt is from Kansas City, when we were playing the Kings. I got a call from Wilt asking me to come up to his room, but he did not say why. Once I got there, I found him sitting like some sort of Buddha in those blue shorts, wearing nothing but a towel around his neck, and literally surrounded by food from Gates Bar-B-Q—slabs of ribs, pulled pork, one-pound brisket sandwiches, French fries, onion rings, collard greens, hush puppies, sauce, bread to soak it all up with—and two liters of 7-Up, his favorite drink. He wanted me to join him, and I was flattered, but since I knew that I couldn’t even get through half of one of those sandwiches, I politely said no. (But if I had joined him, my competitive spirit would have driven me to out-eat him, just as I "raced" Bill Russell to sleep—and won—when we flew back from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.) That image of Wilt, alone in that hotel room, has never left me, and it is one of the reasons I think of him as perhaps the loneliest person I have ever known.
As for all Wilt's claims of having slept with twenty thousand women? That is such a joke, because he was with me a lot of the time. When his sister Barbara would stop in unannounced to see him, she would go searching for any sign that a female had been there, but she could never find anything, not an article of clothing, not a photograph, nothing. She even asked him about it. "Dippy," she said, “you say in your book that you slept with all these women, but you could have fooled me. I can’t find a thing."
When Bill Sharman became coach of the Lakers in 1971, he wanted to institute what he called the morning shootaround—he had the radical notion that he could persuade the team to actually practice on the day of a game. When Bill played for the Celtics, he found himself so restless on game day that he would go to a neighborhood school and shoot baskets in order to relax and stay sharp. He felt the key to getting the team to agree to this was Wilt, who often didn’t get out of bed until the afternoon. If Wilt could be convinced that it was a great idea, then it would happen. Bill was right, although Wilt made it clear that if the team started losing, he might have second thoughts. That was the year we won thirty-three games in a row, and the morning shootaround, much as the players dreaded it, became standard practice for all teams. Bill also felt it was important to ask Wilt if he wanted to be co-captain of the team, along with Elgin—that it would have great meaning for him—and asked my opinion. I told Bill that I thought it was a good idea, and it was, but I have often wondered why I was never captain of the Lakers before I retired.
Turning It Around
Tiger in a Lion's Den: Adventures in LSU Basketball, Dale Brown with Don Yaeger (1994)
Though there was an abundance of seats available at the assembly center when we took over, that changed as we started turning things around. And while it felt then like it took forever to get things moving upwards, the truth is we started creating excitement in the first five years.
My good friend Jim Talbot has told me that he and several of his friends really thought about coming out to see us after a game we played in Kentucky in 1976. It was a game we lost, but the stories that grew out of it drew a lot of attention.
When we played against Kentucky we never got a break. This particular game is a perfect example of what it was like. LSU had never beaten Kentucky at Rupp Arena, but we were leading and it looked like we had a real good chance of breaking that string. One of our best players, Kenny Higgs, was from Kentucky. He was runner up for Mister Basketball in Kentucky. Anyway, Kenny was headed for a breakaway layup and a Kentucky player tackled him. It was clearly an intentional foul. I mean a fight almost broke out. The referees were trying to figure what to call. Is it intentional? Who gets kicked out? How many free throws does Higgs get? Does the basket count?

Kenny Higgs guarded by Larry Johnson in 1976 game in Baton Rouge
One referee had the ball in his hand and an assistant coach from Kentucky walked right over and punched the ball out of his hand. I can still see Joe Hall as he took his game program in one hand and slapped it hard against his other hand. He shouted, "That's bull what you're gonna do." So I walked over to where the referees were standing with Joe. Remember, I'm still a rookie, but I walked over and said, "What's going on?" The referee just looked at me and said, "Go sit down."
As I walked back toward our bench, I could not believe just because Joe has a big name and I have no name, the referee was afraid of him but not me. Boy, I was not going to let this happen. So I headed back there again and he told me to sit down again. I told the referee, "I'm not gonna sit down." To make a long story short, I got the technical and then they fouled practically our whole team out by the end of the game. I had no one left to put in the game. There was two and a half minutes to go. I had my last man in there and by that time it was obvious we were going to lose. Joe still had his first team in.
I said to myself, "You know what's happening here? It's the same thing that happened to my mother. She was in a bad spot, yet she shouldn't speak up. She had to take that welfare worker's stuff, she had to take that hard time from the landlady. I am not taking this." So I called timeout and walked over to the referee as calmly as I could. I took my coat off and I tapped him on the shoulder. I wasn't trying to get a technical, but I said, "Hey, I just want you to look over on my bench. We had a 12-point lead when this whole thing fell apart. I want you to look at my guys over there heartbroken." He just rolled his eyes and said, "What about it, Coach?" He was trying to be kind of smart. I told my assistant to take the huddle and I went back to the referee and said, "What about it? It's very simple. You've broken their hearts because this game has totally gotten out of hand. You and I both know that's not fair." I took off my coat and I said, "You've taken everything away from us. I've had all my starters foul out. I've got no one left to put in the game, so you might as well have a part of my wardrobe too. Here, take my sports coat." He looked at me like I was crazy and he said, "Oh no, I am not taking." I said, "No, please take it. You've got everything else."
He turned his back on me so I thought I should make an impression on this guy. He's going to remember this, and maybe the next time he'll give us a break. "Well, if you won't take my coat, I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm taking it and I'm throwing it out right in the middle of that court." He waved his hand at me and said just go sit down. When he said "go sit down" like I was a junior high coach, I took off toward center court where Kentucky had a great big blue letter K painted right in the middle. I took off my sports coat and spun in around on my finger like a propeller and let it fly. It twirled around in the air and then floated down just perfectly on top of that K, completely covering it up. The Kentucky fans went nuts. Back home, people like Jim Talbot heard about it and decided they had better come out and get a look at this team.
I really felt it was what I had to do at the time. Pretend you are a referee. Dale Brown comes in the league. Who is Dale Brown? He is just a guy from North Dakota. The weak referees were not ever going to give me a break, and there were some very very very weak officials in this league at one time.

Dale Brown tosses his sport coat at Kentucky.
Nervous Reporter Meets Legend
The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano,
and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry
, John Feinstein (2016)
From the Introduction
In a very real sense, this book was born on February 28, 1976—Dean Smith’s forty-fifth birthday. It was on that afternoon that a very nervous reporter from Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, timidly introduced himself to the great man in a corner of the North Carolina locker room in Carmichael Auditorium. North Carolina had just finished beating Duke, 91–71, dropping Duke’s record to 13–13. The outcome wasn’t a surprise. Carolina was ranked fourth in the country and had run away with the ACC regular season title, finishing 11–1. The Tar Heels were 24–2 and had four players on their roster who would be on the U.S. Olympic team—coached by Dean Smith —that summer: Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis, Tommy LaGarde, and the great Phil Ford. Duke had Tate Armstrong. Who was my excuse to talk to Dean Smith. Armstrong had been lighting up ACC gyms all winter, a one-man show on a struggling team. Duke coach Bill Foster was in his second season, trying to rebuild the fallen Duke program. Armstrong had just finished his freshman season when Foster arrived and was now a junior. Armstrong did have some help from a superb freshman named Jim Spanarkel, but the Blue Devils were overmatched in the ACC—as their 3–9 conference record proved. For the season, Armstrong was averaging 24.2 points per game—making an astounding 52 percent of his shots. That was with no three-point shot and no shot clock, and with other teams gearing their defenses to stop him. He was a slender six foot two and spent as much time on the floor after being knocked down as he did in his shooting motion. He had scored 29 points that day against Carolina. I was going to write a column making the case that if ever a player from a team that finished seventh in a seven-team conference deserved consideration for player of the year, it was Armstrong. I might have been just a tad biased.

L-R: Dean Smith, John Feinstein, Tate Armstrong
Smith was talking to another writer when I walked up. When he finished the conversation he’d been having, he looked at me as if to say, “And?” Finding my voice somewhere, I said, “Coach Smith, my name is John Feinstein and I work for The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper…” I had my hand out as I spoke and Smith shook it, stopping me before I could go further by saying, “I know who you are. I read the column you wrote last month saying that Bill [Foster] should copy some of what we do here to rebuild over at Duke. I thought you were very fair to us…for someone from Duke.” I had been more than fair. I had been gushy. But that wasn’t the point. I was standing in front of Dean Smith and he was telling me he had read something I had written. I was, to put it mildly, stunned. As I’ve written often in the past, it was later that I learned that the North Carolina basketball office subscribed to every newspaper in North Carolina—the major national papers and all the student newspapers in the ACC. An assistant coach was assigned to comb through the papers and clip anything relevant to Carolina for Smith to read. He would put the clips in his briefcase and read them on airplanes. Still stunned, I somehow got my question out about Armstrong. I’m not sure he ever answered it. Instead, he talked about how proud he was of Ford and Davis, but especially John Kuester, for the defensive job they’d done that day on Armstrong—even if he had scored almost half of Duke’s points. Somewhere in the middle of the answer he asked me where I’d grown up. I said New York. “City?” he asked. I nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess that explains why you understand basketball.” Do you think he completely owned me at that moment? I asked one more question. Early in the game, when it was still close, a couple of calls had gone against Carolina. Some of the students had started a profane chant. It didn’t last very long, because Smith walked straight to the scorer’s table, took the PA microphone, pointed in the direction of the students, and said, “Stop. Now. We don’t do that here. We win with class at Carolina.” They stopped. Instantly. When I asked about the incident, he smiled again. “I was disappointed that happened,” he said. “It won’t happen here again.” Then he added, “We’re not Duke.” And, at that moment, Duke was miles and miles from being North Carolina.