A former NBA champion, a wide-receiver-turned-gubernatorial-candidate and about 1,800 people walked into the Mellon Arena last Friday and -- wait for it -- a professional basketball game broke out.
Professional basketball? In Pittsburgh? Yeah, no joke.
No sports fan could laugh at the résumé of head coach Tom Thacker, at least. He won an NCAA national championship back in college, when he was a key element in the University of Cincinnati Bearcats' tourney victory in 1962. After graduating, he played around the NBA, spending one year with the Boston Celtics, where he won a championship playing alongside the great Bill Russell.
Pittsburgh's pro franchise is no joke either. In its first season with the American Basketball Association, the Xplosion has posted a record of 18-11 and is playoff-bound. And there are some leaders on the court, including Coleco Buie, DeVaughn Halsel and Janerio Spurlock.
Pittsburgh has seen basketball franchises come and go, of course. (Anyone remember the Condors, or the Rens? Anyone?) But owner Freddie Lewis, a former ABA legend himself, is determined to make professional basketball work in Pittsburgh. The Xplosion isn't the fish that saved Pittsburgh, but Lewis hopes it can hang on long enough to build a solid following. The team has already announced it's sticking around for at least another year.
If you're still scratching your head, a little history. The American Basketball Association was formed in 1967 as an alternative to the NBA. The ABA was new-school, with red-white-and-blue game balls, while the NBA had the traditional burnt umber. The ABA was always considered second best, but when the ABA's Virginia Squires signed Julius "Dr. J" Erving out of UMass, it was something to be reckoned with.
Dr. J. spent five years in the league, with the Squires and then with the New Jersey Nets. Later, of course, he went on to a legendary career with the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
The ABA was always a little flashier, a little more entertainment, frankly, than sport. Near the league's end, the owners came up with an idea to draw attention and entertain the fans, one that has since become a staple of the NBA All-Star game -- the slam-dunk contest. The NBA now devotes an entire night to the slam-dunk contest, but it was the ABA, through mega-star Dr. J, that invented it in 1976, as a halftime show involving players who were already named to the All-Star game. Suddenly, the NBA seemed staid and boring. Try to imagine that.
The ABA disbanded shortly afterward, leaving the NBA to absorb some of its teams and tactics. But the alternative league reformed in 2000. It now comprises 30 teams and is the most diversified sports league ever, with 60 percent of the ownership comprised of African-Americans, Asians and women. Pretty impressive.
ABA basketball is a step below the NBA, admittedly, and a different animal than the Big East. Like the ABA of old, it's fun and freewheeling. The score of the Xplosion's Feb. 20 contest with the Toledo Ice, for example, was 144 to 121, so 'nuff said. There's more coast-to-coast action, less commitment to pass and to defense than you see from Pitt. Or Georgetown, for that matter. But the bodies fly. This is, to borrow Bill Cowher's favorite phrase, smashmouth basketball. With a heaping helping of offense.
"It's a physical league," Thacker says. "That's the problem I'm having with these guys -- they're not physical enough."
On Feb. 17, the night of Lynn Swann's well-promoted appearance, the Xplosion had its biggest crowd ever -- just over 1,800 people. With figures like that, can the ABA make a go of it in Pittsburgh? With a season that overlaps both the Steelers and March Madness, the Xplosion has its work cut out. Playing in Mellon Arena -- a mausoleum that seats well over 17,000 -- doesn't help build excitement, either. But the ownership seems committed, and so do the players -- as is evident from the way they linger about the arena, signing autographs until the last fan is gone.
Are there enough basketball fans to build a following here? Pittsburgh's never been known as a "basketball town," but the success of the Pitt program has shown that to be a myth. And as Thacker says, whether it's pro, semi-pro, college or high school, "You box out. You play defense, pass. Basketball doesn't change."