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American Dream

Fast and Loose ABA Is Back, Armed With Affordable Ticket Prices, the Four-Point Shot and a Hunch That the Time Is Right for an Alternative to NBA.


Remember the ABA? That redheaded stepchild professional basketball league that for eight years played with a red, white and blue ball while making high-scoring, run-jump-and-jam hoops its signature style?

The league that invented the three-point line, entered bidding wars with the NBA for talent and (gasp!) signed players out of high school? The league that folded in 1976 then had four teams--San Antonio, Indiana, New Jersey and Denver--merge into the NBA?

Not many people do, unless they've been watching some grainy film clips on a classic sports show. But, starting today, the ABA is coming back in a sleeker, more fan-friendly package.

The ball is still red, white and blue. The league's unofficial motto--to see how many points can be scored in a 48-minute game and make it as entertaining as possible--also hasn't changed.

But that's all that remains the same.

This American Basketball Assn., founded by Richard Tinkham--who founded the original Indiana Pacers--and Joseph Newman, president and chief executive of the Alliance Broadcasting Group, consists of eight teams: Chicago, Detroit, Indiana, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Memphis, San Diego and Tampa Bay, playing a 56-game schedule.

This ABA has a salary cap of $900,000 a team, spread among 12 players.

This ABA has three African American majority owners, Greg Davis in Chicago and Arthur Blackwell and Gregory Terrell in Detroit. Another African American, Danny Bakewell Sr., who is president and CEO of the Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles and chairman and co-founder of the National Black United Fund, is part owner of Indiana.

This ABA will start off not only in major cities but also in major arenas. The Los Angeles Stars will play in the Forum. The Detroit Dogs are in Cobo Arena. Kansas City will call Kemper Arena home.

This ABA will cater to Internet-savvy fans and feature on-line team statistics, interactive games, audio and video highlights, newsletters and chat rooms.

This ABA will again alter the rules. For example, teams will have eight seconds instead of 10 seconds to bring the ball from the backcourt to the frontcourt. And if a team causes a turnover in the opponent's backcourt and scores, a two-point shot will be worth three points. A long-distance shot that is a three-pointer in the NBA will be worth four points in the ABA.

For its main selling point, however, this ABA will start out as an inexpensive alternative, not a direct competitor, to the NBA.

With some financial prognosticators forecasting an economic recession next year, not to mention the current prevailing opinion that professional sports is not the good investment it once was, the timing of starting a new basketball league seems more than risky.

The NBA is struggling with declining TV ratings and stagnant games. Other, smaller leagues--the Continental Basketball Assn. and the International Basketball League (which sought to merge with the ABA before a deal fell through)--are fighting to survive.

But Blackwell argues the timing to launch the ABA is right.

"Even in a recession, one medium that goes up is entertainment," said Blackwell, owner of the Greek Town Casino in Detroit, which will not take bets on ABA games.

"We want to bring pro sports back to the inner city. Many arenas and stadiums are on the outskirts and suburbs. Transportation is an issue, the cost of going to games is prohibitive. The suburbs are saturated, so developments are coming to back to cities. A kid who may not have a chance to go to a Pistons' or Knicks' game, but loves to watch basketball, can come to our game."

In Los Angeles, those who want to be like Jack Nicholson and sit in the front row will pay $100 a game. But the bulk of the ticket prices are between $6 and $25. And the seating capacity at the Forum will be reduced to 7,500, so fans won't need the Hubble telescope to watch from the cheap seats.

" It's nice to bring affordable basketball back to the fans," said Joubin Torkan, owner and chief executive of the Los Angeles Stars. "I'm a big basketball fan myself, and with the NBA, not many people can go to the games.

"I don't think we can ever compete with the NBA, with the salaries they pay. But I believe we will be a thorn in their side. We're going to bring excitement back to fans and make it fun for them to come to the games."

Torkan wants to make an immediate splash in Los Angeles. "We will be a winning franchise from the word go. I guarantee it," he said. "If you don't win in L.A., you might as well wrap it up and walk away."

He also wants a strong Southern California link to his team.

Among the players on the Star roster are former UCLA standouts Ed O'Bannon and Toby Bailey, who played on the Bruins' 1995 national championship team, and JaRon Rush, who was obtained in a trade with Kansas City. Player and assistant coach Scott Brooks played his college basketball at UC Irvine.

Former UCLA and Laker star Jamaal Wilkes is the director of basketball operations. And former Laker and Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead is the coach.

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