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'76 ABA Slam Dunk Contest Throwback Tee

Take off from the fashion foul line.

1976. McNichols Arena. The ABA's last All-Star Game. The world's first Slam Dunk competition.
Gilmore, Gervin, Thompson, Kenon, oh, and a kid called Erving.

Commemorate this unforgettable night in basketball history with our exclsuive, high-altitude throwback.
Over-sized, old school design, screen printed on a soft, heavyweight, 100% cotton tee.

"The Slam Dunk Contest went right to the heart of the old ABA. The dunk was a bigger play in the ABA than it is in today’s NBA; it was a statement of your manhood and your talent."
-ABA and NBA great Dan "The Horse" Issel

"The best halftime innovation since the bathroom."
-Sports Illustrated

"Then he... took off. His afro was big then, and it was blowing. He went up and threw that baby down and the crowd went crazy."
-ABA All-Star Ron Boone


The ABA Way: For Pure Entertainment, American Basketball Association
Was a Slam Dunk


by Michael Murphy, Houston Chronicle
via Remember the ABA

It was supposed to be the All-Star game to end all All-Star games. And in many ways, it was.

When the American Basketball Association threw its last All-Star bash in 1976, the league was determined to make it a showcase that would be remembered and talked about for years to come, and perhaps hasten a merger with the established NBA.

The idea was not only to provide a real All-Star game, but to make an entire weekend of it, including a concert by Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich. But it was one innovation, the fruit of a long brainstorming session, that would prove to be the most memorable addition to the 1976 ABA All-Star game.

A halftime slam-dunk contest.

"We were sitting around the office one day, discussing things that would draw more people, and it just came to us -- let's have a dunk contest," said Jim Bukata, former director or marketing and public relations for the ABA. "That's really where it came from -- three guys (Bukata, Denver general manager Carl Scheer and ABA finance director Jim Keeler) talking about what we could do to sell a few more tickets."

It was one of those serendipitous decisions that was typical of the ABA, a maverick league that seldom planned anything too far in advance. The league that "just decided" to have a red, white and blue basketball and "just decided" to have a 3-point line had just come up with an idea that Sports Illustrated would call "the best halftime invention since the rest room."

It was an act born of desperation, but desperate times demand desperate measures. And the ABA was in decidedly desperate times.

The league, which started with 10 teams that season, was in its death throes, having been whittled down to seven by the time the All-Star game rolled around. With the All-Star game already slated for Denver's new McNichols Arena, it was decided that the team in first place by the All-Star break would be the home team for the game, playing against a collection of All-Stars from the other six teams in the league.

And everyone in the league prayed the Denver Nuggets would be that first-place team. As luck would have it, that's exactly how things worked out. Now, how to make the NBA stand up and take notice?

"We had to come up with a concept that would get everyone's attention," Scheer said. "We were in serious trouble. We knew that it was our last year and we had to make a big impression. We felt the All-Star game was our big showcase -- our swan song, so to speak. We needed to have something dramatic to show the world, and the NBA, that our product was worthwhile for their league. We had to show that we had great players, great ideas, and great contests."

But a dunk contest?

"We actually got the idea from Julius (Erving) in a roundabout way," Bukata said. "We had a guy named Jim Keeler, who was African-American, who handled the business affairs for the league. Julius used to kid him all the time, saying, 'I'll bet you're the only black guy involved in the ABA who can't dunk.' And it kind of came in some way off that.

"It was Julius really giving us the idea that we're the league of the dunkers. So we said, 'Well, if that's the case, let's have a contest.' It really was as simple as that."

The contest matched Artis Gilmore, the 7-2 center for the Kentucky Colonels; George Gervin, a 6-7 guard for the San Antonio Spurs; Larry Kenon, a 6-9 forward who was a teammate of Gervin's with the Spurs; David Thompson, a 6-4 guard for the Nuggets; and Erving a 6-7 forward for the New York Nets -- "five of the most talented, colorful players in basketball, all with a flair for that sensational slam dunk," as announcer Al Albert told the crowd of 17,798 in attendance, with dunks judged on "artistic ability, imagination, body flow as well as fan response."

While Gilmore, Gervin and Kenon put on a good show for the fans, everyone in attendance that night knew it was going to be a showdown between Erving and Thompson.

"People were excited about the prospects of seeing myself, Dr. J, Gervin and some of the other guys who were involved in it," Thompson (#33, at left) said. "but, yeah, I guess we pretty much felt the same way going in -- it was going to come down to Doc against me."

And even though Thompson wowed the decidedly partisan crowd with his array of gravity-defying dunks -- a windmill cuff slam, a two-handed jackknife reverse and the first recorded 360 dunk -- it was Erving who stole the show.

For his first dunk, Erving stood underneath the basket and dunked two balls at once. But his second was the one that will always be remembered. One of the contest rules said that a dunk had to be made from a hash mark three feet inside the free throw line. Erving decided to take it an extra step.

Three extra steps, to be exact.

When Erving jogged to the free-throw line and then began to measure his steps back in long, loping strides, the crowd went into a frenzy, as did the players sitting on the sidelines.

"It was unreal," said St. Louis All-Star Ron Boone, now a television commentator for the Utah Jazz. "First of all, it (the contest) was the first of its kind, which made it so exciting to watch. I was one of those guys who could jump pretty well -- I had a pretty good set of legs on me. But these guys, they took dunking to another level, man.

"Everyone was bringing the house down. Everyone was, 'Oooh, ahhhh.' Then when it came to Julius' time and he walked up to the free-throw line and started marking these steps off, going back to the other end of the court. Well, you knew what was coming -- 'Oooh, he's going to take off from the free-throw line.' Everybody was on the edge of their seats watching. The anticipation was great.

"Then he went and took off. His (Erving's) afro was big then, and it was blowing. He went up and threw that baby down and the crowd went crazy."

While Erving had some reservations about taking off from the foul line, particularly since it was at halftime of a game when players are winded and the legs are a bit tired, it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"Here was my philosophy -- dare to be great," Erving said. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I always like to take chances every now and then, and this was taking a chance because back then you didn't have the spring-back (breakaway) rims. You had a rim that if you didn't get above it, and dunk the ball through the right way, the rim would throw you to the ground. Not only that, but it would throw your shot back to halfcourt or throw it out of bounds.

"With that rigid rim with no spring-back connection, you had to bring the truth in. That made a difference. There were a lot of guys who didn't even attempt to dunk because they had been thrown, like getting thrown off a wild stallion.

"I just wanted to make a nice, soaring play that would get the fans out of their seats. I really started going at halfcourt and got a good running start and made sure that I made the shot authoritatively."

It was a moment that is forever frozen in time. Indeed, when he took one last long stride and thrust himself into the mile-high air in Denver that night, little did Erving realize that he was leaping not into basketball history, but into basketball lore.