September 22, 1971. Louisville, Kentucky. Freedom Hall.
Just over 40 years ago the Baltimore Bullets made the 600-mile trip west from Northern Virginia, where they had battled the N.B.A.’s New York Knickerbockers in their preseason opener the night before, to square off against the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association in the biggest game few today have ever heard about. The contest would be the second act in an Inter-League Exhibition Game (ILEG) series, a sporting event invented by the owners who were looking for something to make “airing out the big arenas, sweeping the floor and printing up tickets worthwhile,” amid rumors of a merger between the two roundball associations. Though early on, these exhibitions were not well publicized, they weren’t without meaning.
The 1971 ILEG series was headlined by two N.B.A. titans, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Baltimore Bullets, both gearing up for another shot at an N.B.A. championship. They were scheduled to play five A.B.A. squads in five A.B.A. cities; the games were held in A.B.A. cities like Louisville and Winston-Salem for the simple reason that the N.B.A. didn’t want to legitimize the upstart league.
Baltimore Coach Gene Shue, two years removed from an N.B.A. Coach of the Year Award, journeyed westward without star guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (sent home with knee bursitis) and forward Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson (still working his way back into shape after off-season surgery in both knees), but still had a championship-caliber roster at his disposal. It was a homecoming affair for Bullets guard and Louisville native Westley “Wes” Unseld. Unseld was the star center for a Seneca High School team that won two state championships, and a three-year letter winner at the University of Louisville; the Cardinals played their home games at Freedom Hall, just six miles down the road from Seneca. In the 1968 A.B.A. draft, the Kentucky Colonels drafted Unseld, but lost a bidding war for their hometown prodigy, who inked a four-year $400,000 contract with the Bullets as the second overall selection in the 1968 N.B.A. draft
The Colonels had firepower of their own. The team was led by talented second-year scorer, the 6’9” Dan “The Horse” Issel, and rookie defensive pillar, Artis “The A-Train” Gilmore, under instruction from head coach Joseph “Joe” Mullaney. Mullaney was a college teammate of “hot-shit guard”¹ Bob Cousy at Holy Cross during the mid-1940s, winning a championship in 1947, before playing out brief careers with the Boston Celtics of the N.B.A.—a one-year adventure—and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Providence College hired Mullaney as their head basketball man in 1955, where he coached the Friars to 319 wins in 18 seasons. In 1969, the Los Angeles Lakers employed Mullaney to fill the void left by former head coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who had quit in frustration after a 108-106 N.B.A. Finals defeat to the rival Celtics. Two deep playoff runs, including a Finals appearance of his own, somehow weren’t enough to satisfy then Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, who fired his new coach after just two seasons.
In June of 1971, Mullaney became the fifth coach of the Kentucky Colonels, replacing former Celtics guard Frank Ramsey, and was in search of early victories with his young roster. ”The Colonels are a young team with great potential—in a sense still in the formative stages,” Mullaney told the press at a news conference after the official announcement. “And it looks like a very exciting opportunity.” At Freedom Hall on that autumn night in September, Mullaney would need to get his tactics right. His Colonels were to face a Baltimore Bullets team that still had a bitter taste in its mouth. The Bullets had been swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the N.B.A. Finals just a few months earlier, making them just the second N.B.A. team to go winless in Finals history. The 1959 Lakers were the first team to do so, and the first victims of the smoke-breathing basketball monster driven by Red Auerbach—a Boston Celtics superdyansty that won eight consecutive championships.
While the N.B.A. Finals are typically billed as heavyweight bouts, Milwaukee tenderized Baltimore as if they were nothing more than a stepping-stone on the path to something bigger. Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson and the rest of the Bucks battered the Bullets, just as The Milwaukee Journal’s Terry Bledsoe had predicted they would:
“It is as though Muhammad Ali had stumbled somewhere earlier in his comeback attempt and Joe Frazier had been forced to conduct his fight of the century against Oscar Bonavena.”
To be fair to the bullnecked Argentine, Bonavena gave Frazier a fight, twice sending Smokin’ Joe to the canvas, though he ultimately fell out favor with the scorecards.
On the night before the Colonels-Bullets game, the Milwaukee Bucks headlined the first-ever N.B.A. vs. A.B.A. contest against the Dallas Chaparrals. The reigning N.B.A. champs, without “The Big O,” Oscar Robertson, who was testifying against the imminent N.B.A.-A.B.A. merger in Washington, D.C., barely squeaked past Dallas and their top forward John Beasley. (The Bullets had actually drafted Beasley in the fifth round of the 1966 N.B.A. Draft, though he never joined the team, instead choosing to spend his career in the A.B.A.)
On paper, the game “looked like one of the monster mismatches of all time,” wrote Sports Illustrated mythmaker Peter Carry. “The Milwaukee Bucks, champions of the Universe and beyond, came to play the Dallas Chaparrals, who are out of this world in quite another way. It was to be a big night for the Bucks, who lost only 18 of 106 exhibition, regular-season and playoff games last year. For one thing, they were introducing an old center with a new title. Kareem Abdul Jabbar started in the post, replacing Lew Alcindor. Otherwise, he was the same old No. 33, crashing for rebounds and scoring 32 points.” Milwaukee trailed in the closing moments of the fourth quarter, but were saved by a McCoy McLemore jumper with 11 seconds left. The Bucks’ 106-103 win was sealed with a pair of free throws from Lucius Allen.
The East Coast contenders from Baltimore felt some pressure to win—not only to properly represent the N.B.A., but also to keep up with the Bucks—but figured the A.B.A.’s Colonels could be controlled. The Bullets were cocksure before the game—superiority by Association, perhaps?—despite being without the services of Monroe and Johnson. At the time, the three-point line (like the 30-second shot clock) was an innovation exclusive to the high-flying A.B.A., but one that didn’t necessarily impress. As Bullets guard Jack Marin took the floor during warmups, he took a long look at the three-point arc taped to the hardwood and boasted, “I’m not just a star in this league, I’m a superstar.” He then missed four of five practice three-pointers. Meanwhile, Fred “Mad Dog” Carter tried, unsuccessfully, to take some hot air out of the contest. “What’s this thing for,” he joked, poking fun at the A.B.A.’s red, white and blue ball. “Trained seals?”
“This is something we’ve been looking forward to for four years,” said Kentucky guard Louie Dampier, burning. Dampier was one-half of a sharpshooting tandem with Darel Carrier, which combined to score an average of more than 50 points in its first three seasons together. “They (the N.B.A.) say we’re weaker and I’d like to prove we aren’t. I won’t say I’ll play harder because I always play as hard as I can. But when they leave here tonight I want to make sure they won’t be looking down on us anymore.”
Winning wouldn’t be easy for Baltimore, not in front of an A.B.A. exhibition game record crowd of 13,821. Colonel forward Dan Issel, who moved from center to make room for the 7’2” Gilmore, would make it particularly difficult. Issel was playing with something to prove. He had been second-guessed by both the media and the public during his rookie season for performing in the sporting extravaganza better known as the A.B.A. rather than with the Detroit Pistons, who selected him in the eighth round of the 1970 N.B.A. Draft. Issel, fueled by doubters, managed to quiet his critics by posting a league-best 29.9 points per game as a rookie, the product of sharp head fakes and a hellstorm of “Issel Missiles” launched from deep.
The game itself was a fast-paced affair. The Bullets fired off to an early 6-0 lead, before Gilmore, the Colonel’s “$2 million baby,” used his defensive talents to jam the Baltimore attack. Issel and Dampier, known for making a mockery of the N.B.A. game by pulling up from distance in transition, quickly found their offensive rhythm to carry the Colonels to a 25-19 first quarter lead. The Colonels extended that lead by as much as 14 points, and found themselves winning 52-41 at the end of the first half. The second half was more of the same; Kentucky took command of the action and cruised to an easy 26-point victory. History had been made that night. Kentucky’s victory over Baltimore was the first time an A.B.A. team had ever beaten an N.B.A. team.
The result made headlines around the nation the next morning:
- “Colonels Maul Bullets 111-85,” read the Daily News in Bowling Green.
- “Issel blasts Bullets,” announced the Preston, Arizona’s Courier.
- “13,821 See Colonels Rap Bullets, 111-85,” added the Milwaukee Sentinel.
- “Issel sparks Colonels to 111-85 win over Bullets,” claimed the Cape Girardeau Southest Missourian.
- “Colonels Deal Bullets Loss,” chimed the Sarasota Journal.
While the game made headlines, the significance of an exhibition played for pride was debatable. However, the Bucks’ narrow escape over the Chaps and the Bullets’ loss to the Colonels kept people talking for another reason. The A.B.A.’s impressive showings in early interleague play helped to dispel a familiar (and increasingly incorrect) dictum about the state of professional basketball in the United States that summer. As elucidated by SI‘s Peter Carry: “a reasonably good team from the older league could crunch any ABA club, and of course a weak one like the Chaps, even when its starters were off testifying in Washington against the merger. [...] Last week’s action proved they (exhibition games between teams like the Bullets and the Colonels) are too good for that sort of status—no matter what color the basketball.”
Wes Unseld, the lone star in the Bullets’ lineup that night, finished with an insignificant seven points and eight rebounds. Colonels sharpshooter Louie Dampier put up 14 points. Artis Gilmore, in his professional debut, posted a double-double—16 points and 16 rebounds—to go along with six blocks. And Dan Issel, the former University of Kentucky All-American, led all scorers with 24 points.
“They asked why I went to the American Basketball Association, and now I’ve got the answer,” said Issel after the game—he led all scorers with 24 points in the rout. “They—the Bullets—represent the N.B.A., and that’s been pushed down my throat for a year now. Now maybe that’s over.”
Bullets rookie Stan Love, father of Kevin Love, currently of the Minnesota Timberwolves, made plenty of plays on his way to 19 points. Love’s most memorable moment, however, would come at his own expense—courtesy of Issel.
From the Sports Illustrated Vault:
“On Kentucky’s most spectacular offensive thrust of the game, Gilmore crashed high between two beefier Bullets for a defensive rebound and hurled to the speeding Issel a full-court pass reminiscent of Bill Russell. The resulting collision under the Kentucky basket indicated something of Issel’s power and the toughness of Baltimore’s 6’9″ rookie Forward Stan Love, a first-round draft choice from Oregon who led his team with 19 points. Issel caught Gilmore’s pass on the run, drove to the basket and scored, plowing over Love on the way. Issel’s knee slammed the Baltimore player on the chest, knocked him cold and left him gagging. After the trainers from both teams had their fingers bitten reaching into Love’s mouth to make sure he had not swallowed his tongue, the rookie, who had come within seconds of suffocating, took a one-minute rest and returned to the game.”
The very next night in Miami, Florida, the Bullets lost 96-88 to one of the A.B.A.’s poorest teams, the Floridians. That same weekend, the Bullets humped through a two-game series with the Carolina Cougars. They inched by the Cougars in the first game, 106-104, but gave up more than 100 points in the second contest and lost by ten. The following week in Hampton, Virginia, the Bullets would fall to the Squires, 112-107. Despite a 30-point contribution from Kevin Loughery, Charlie Scott and undrafted free agent Julius Erving were too much for the Bullets, combining for 57 of the Squires’ 112 points that night. After trumping the Pacers in Indianapolis, the Bullets were outgunned 121-107 by the Nets and a 40-point assault from Rick Barry, despite a 26 points from Monroe who had caught up with the team.
The Bullets-Nets game would be one of Monroe’s last in a Bullets uniform. About a dozen games games into the N.B.A. regular season, the Bullets traded the disgruntled Earl Monroe to the New York Knickerbockers for Dave Stallworth, Mike Riordan and cash. Though they finished with a losing record of 38-44, the Bullets still made playoffs, only to fall to Monroe and the Knicks in six games. The Bullets would play just one more season in Baltimore—capturing a third-straight Central Division championship, but losing to the Knicks, again, in five games—before moving to Landover, Maryland (the current home of the shambolic Washington Redskins) in 1973 as the Capital Bullets.
The A.B.A. would finally best the N.B.A. in interleague competition in 1973, with a record of 15-10 after getting squeezed 16-41 over previous two years. The A.B.A. would improve upon that mark and continue to play its way to parity, stabilizing its interleague record to 16-7 in 1974 and 31-17 in 1975. The Milwaukee Bucks would lose to the Utah Stars in Salt Lake City in what would be the last ILEG game in history, 106-101. Utah’s victory gave the A.B.A. a 79-76 overall record against the N.B.A.
The two leagues would merge in 1976.
Looking into the Future of Seasons Past
The 6’7” Wes Unseld—described by Issel as a “concrete block” and “as strong as a bull” after their meeting at Freedom Hall—spent his thirteen-year career with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets. Unseld averaged 10.8 points, 14 rebounds and 3.9 assists, willing his team to four N.B.A.Finals. The Bullets knocked off the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1978 N.B.A.Finals, Unseld was named Finals MVP. His No. 41 jersey was retired shortly after his exit from professional basketball in 1981.
Dan Issel scored 2,538 points in the 1971-72 season, an A.B.A. record. The Horse scored more than 27,000 points in his Hall of Fame-career in the A.B.A. and N.B.A. When Issel retired after the 1985 season, only Kareem Adbul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving had scored more points. He is the ABA’s second all-time scorer behind Louie Dampier.
Louie Dampier became the A.B.A.’s all-time leader in points scored, three-pointers attempted and made, assists, games played, and minutes played. Dampier also holds the A.B.A. playoff game record of 18 assists in one game. And in 1971, he sank 57 free throws straight, a professional record at the time.
Darel Carier became the A.B.A.’s all-time leader for career three-point field goal percentage at 37.7 percent.
Artis Gilmore became the A.B.A.’s all-time career leader in field goal percentage (55.7 percent), blocked shots in a career (750), season (287), and game (40). Gilmore remains the N.B.A.’s career leader in field goal percentage (59.9 percent) and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2011.
After the 1972 season, Gus Johnson spent a split season between the Phoenix Suns and the Indiana Pacers of the A.B.A., where he won the 1973 A.B.A. championship. His No. 25 jersey was retired by the Bullets and he joined the Hall of Fame in 2010. Honeycomb shattered three backboards in his career.
Earl Monroe led the Knicks to consecutive Finals in 1972 and 1973—the year they beat the Los Angeles Lakers for the N.B.A. title. Serious knee injuries forced his retirement after the 1980 season. In 926 N.B.A. games, Monroe scored 17,454 points and dished out 3,594 assists. The Knicks retired Monroe’s No. 15 jersey in 1986 and he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1990. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Wizards pinned The Pearl’s No. 10 jersey in the rafters.
Joe Mullaney coached nine teams between 1955 and 1985, even leading the Utah Stars to the 1973-74 Finals against the New York Nets. The Stars lost in five games. Mullaney was named Co-A.B.A.Coach of the Year, an award he shared with the man who replaced him in Kentucky, Babe McCarthy. McCarthy lost to the Nets in the Eastern Division Finals and, oddly enough, was fired at year’s end.
Editor’s note: This post has been updated to correct an error; the original version listed Kevin Loughery as a member of the Virginia Squires.
¹Shoals, Bethlehem. FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010. Print.
Carry, Peter. “Red, White and Who?“ Sports Illustrated 4 Oct. 1971: 20-23.
Pluto, Terry. Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1990.
Associated Press. “Colonels Hire Ex-Laker Coach.” Palm Beach Post 22 Jun. 1971: B4.
Bledsoe, Terry. “Knicks Will Be Missed in Final Playoff.” Milwaukee Journal 21 Apr. 1971: 22.