“The ABA certainly was jazz compared to the NBA’s symphony,” says historian Terry Pluto. “It probably was early rap music, we just didn’t know what it was.” And with that, the documentary Free Spirits cuts to a demonstration of the American Basketball Association’s peculiarity via montage.
What you see does not nearly resemble any known music style or even a known sport. Seconds-long clips show girls dancing in bikinis and in shiny-fringy outfits, a long tall afro-ed fellow shimmying in bright red bellbottoms and vest, girls wheeling a keg onto the court, and a guy dressed like a British redcoat. “The league was in the entertainment business,” says former ABA Commissioner Mike Storen, “and the question became, if you were a franchise owner, ‘What is it we can do to make our game more exciting?’”
Ah yes, the game. In between these gimmicks, men played basketball, and Daniel Forer’s documentary shows that too, a whole range of players in short shorts racing up the court and making sensational moves and dunks. And if you’ve been to an NBA game lately, you now that these sorts of gimmicks have only expanded, so that even during games, the corners of the court might be crowded with cheerleaders and musicians, and each moment of downtime is packed with noisy activity, featuring trampolines and mascots, child acrobats and t-shirt guns, hawks and dogs in tutus. Basketball is a tremendous game, thrilling and nuanced and full of its own drama. But still, someone somewhere is thinking up some way to make it “more exciting.”
Free Spirits, this week’s 30 for 30 film on ESPN, shows how this excitement was also part of the game and off-court business too, taking as its prime example the very short-lived Spirits of St. Louis (1974-1976). As Bob Costas, the team’s announcer when he was just 22 years old, puts it, “If you want to see everything that was crazy about the ABA, look no further than the Spirits” (the vintage photo of young Costas, his glasses huge and his jacket corduroy, is reason enough to see this film). The players were fractious and uneven, mostly young and—sometimes—determined to make their names in a league that was founded, in 1967, to compete with the more stable, more serious NBA (founded way back in 1946). The new league owners hoped to make room for new players and new fans, in particular, in cities that hadn’t yet embraced professional basketball, as the NBA until then was located primarily on the East Coast. “Guys with a lot of ego, a lot of ambition, and just some money could get into it,” reports Pluto. The Spirits’ owners Ozzie and Daniel Silna made their money in the clothing industry; they were, as their lawyer puts it, “two sharp guys from New Jersey” less interested in the game than in the business. Still, they hired a terrific general manager, Harry Weltman, who had, says player Snapper Jones, the most important attribute a GM could have, “an eye for talent.”
Of Weltman’s many notable finds, Marvin “Bad News” Barnes may have been the most spectacular. A star at Providence College, where he led the country in rebounds, the charismatic Barnes came to the Spirits full of expectations. “When Marvin wanted to play, he could play,” says his biographer Mike Carey. He also earned his nickname: “He was thrown out for cursing the refs, kicking the ball, and sucker-punching opponents.” (He was also accused, the film notes with a headline, of attacking a teammate with a tire iron.) For the Spirits, concocted at the end of the ABA’s short life, Barnes was invaluable, as a player and as a celebrity. Talented, volatile, angry and brilliant, he was as complicated and difficult as any sports star has ever been. Looking back, he calls himself “the first Negro with an attitude.” He fought with management, with opponents, with his teammates. He played hard and beautifully. And he had a special affection for the ABA. Compared to the NBA, he says, his league was “fabulous.”
This had to do with the many efforts to conjure excitement, the creativity not only of stuntmen and advertisers, but also of players and coaches. In this, they mirrored a world around them, a time when “people were expressing themselves more.” Free Spirits reminds you of the changes taking place, with news footage of protest marches and Nixon’s resignation, discos and platform shoes. As former Spirit Gus Gerard remembers, a “revolution was going on”, which he identifies as the “hippie era” and also “the marijuana era.” The Spirits’ young players were headstrong, hard to coach and hard partiers. Several of them—Gerard, James “Fly” Williams, and Barnes too—made the most of their fame and the freedoms that came with it, at least at first. When, after just a year, the team let go of Fly—who was a legendary street basketball player before he signed with the Spirits—he remembers that he came along on the road anyway. “I was the drug guy,” he says, who knew all the dealers in different cities and hooked up his teammates: “I couldn’t leave.”
With all the turmoil around him, Barnes still stole the show more often than not. Soon after he signed with the Spirits, he disappeared. He says he was seeking a better contract (and the contracts were notoriously terrible, with no injury clauses or other sorts of protection for players), at which point the team called his mother, who convinced him to come back. To prepare for his return, the team brought in the veteran Freddie Lewis, in hopes that he’d serve as a stabilizing influence. The gambit worked as well as it might have; Barnes committed to the game, if not the team, and he remained disruptive, As Pluto puts it, “Marvin Barnes was a bad guy he only cared about one person, Marvin Barnes.” For his part, Barnes says he was only taking up the role he was cast to play: “My feeling is, a big part of being a star is acting like a star.”
And so he did. The film shows his glory on the court, when the Spirits took on the ABA’s powerhouse, the New York Nets, with Dr. J. This game footage is as exciting as any of the circus show, as the league was well known for its street ball traditions, its embrace of aggressive, smart, even balletic play. While the Silnas did their best to hold the raucous franchise together, in the end the leagues’ mergers overtook everyone. The game was and is about money, and for all the efforts to maintain a distinct identity, the Spirits, like the rest of the ABA, were folded in to the larger business. And to this day, that symphony is tinged with jazz and hiphop.