Growing up in L.A., Dan Forer says he was a huge basketball fan. Not just for the Lakers, but also keeping his eye on that red, white and blue ABA ball.
You gotta remember when the Anaheim Amigos became the L.A. Stars, right?
(Personal aside: I had one of those ABA balls as a kid in the ’70s. They were far more fun to shoot baskets with in the back yard as you could see the rotation much better than that bland brown NBA thing. Especially when you were learning to spin the ball on your finger).
Forer, an Encino native who would go onto graduate from Grant High (in ’75) and then Northwestern University (’79), was approached by ESPN to direct a “30 for 30” project on the ABA’s Spirits of St. Louis.
The nine-time Sports Emmy Award winning producer who started his career as a sports producer at KCBS-Channel 2 had already done the “Second Chance Season” for ESPN’s documentary series, focusing on the high school career (at Cleveland and Taft High Schools) of current Laker and former USC star Nick Young.
The finished product airs today at 5 p.m. Set your DVRs.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Forer said. “I loved the story because working in sports I usually tell heartwarming, inspiration stories that create character or cover heart-stopping, dramatic competitions that reveal character, but rarely do I get a chance to explore the antics of athletes who are characters.”
Meaning, who was Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, and what made him bad news?
Why did James “Fly” Williams love to party as much as he loved to play? Steve “Snapper” Jones and Freddie Lewis were in charge of keeping the young players in line. And even Maurice Lucas and Moses Malone, future NBA stars, played what Forer calls “significant, but under-appreciated supporting roles on the team.”
“It didn’t take me long to realize that the Spirits story played out just like an over the top 1970s action film,” Forer said. “There were good guys and bad guys, shocking twists and surprising turns and in the end a high priced business deal went bad. In my documentaries I prefer to let the characters, not narrators, tell the story.”
That became the easy part. Since a young broadcaster from St. Louis named Bob Costas was there for the team’s two-year existence, he was on call for Forer’s story teller, including providing, what Forer says, is Costas’ “over the top call of the greatest upset in ABA history.”
The second part of this story is one involving team owners Dan and Ozzie Silna. When four ABA teams merged with the NBA in 1976 — the Nets, Nuggets, Pacers and Spurs — St. Louis wasn’t included. The Silnas negotiated a deal to guarantee them a small percentage of each team’s TV revenue. In perpetuity.
To date, that’s about a quarter of a billion dollars. Dan, by the way, lives in Malibu.
“I was looking forward to interviewing them,” said Ferer, “about the deal and the team, but just before production began, they filed suit against the NBA and their attorneys forbid them to go on camera. As disappointed as I was by their absence, they were even more disheartened not to participate.”
If you’re looking for the unreal story of the ABA, find Will Ferrell’s “Semi-Pro” about the Flint Tropics — even if there’s some truth in there about the craziness involved and how the teams negotiated a merger with the NBA. If you want a definitive history on the subject, find Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls.”
There’s also a new version of the retro-ABA league, but maybe not as cool a mix of quirky and quality as you’d like.
If you’re looking for a real ABA story that may seem unreal, watch Ferer’s documentation of how the Spirts of St. Louis. They may not have taken off historically like Lucky Lindbergh, but they shouldn’t be forgotten in sports lore as a team once full of high flyers.