Review of Terry Pluto’s “Loose Balls”

Loose Balls by Terry Pluto is not a book so much as an ongoing dialogue between the major figures of the American Basketball Association (ABA).  Pluto lets the characters that made the ABA so compelling tell their own stories.  The culture of the ABA made it unique and transformed the NBA into a similar product.

After the ABA folded in 1976, four ABA teams moved to the NBA: the Indiana Pacers, New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.  But the most significant import was the ABA’s culture.  The ABA was a league of stars.  Starting with the hiring of George Mikan as ABA commissioner, the ABA became a league of personalities more than teams.

The pre-merger NBA was defined by team basketball.  The Boston Celtics of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell consistently dominated the outstanding individual performances of Wilt Chamberlain.  Yet, since 1980, you can trace every championship save three through eight star players: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.  Julius Erving, George Gervin, Rick Barry and their contemporaries created the modern, star-oriented basketball environment, for better or worse.  The ABA era merged the Russell days with the Bird, and helped change the culture of basketball forever.

The ABA was a unique league, which allowed Pluto to write a unique book.  Pluto compiles a great number of interviews to weave together a story spanning nine years.  I thought Pluto walked the tightrope between truth and fiction masterfully by making sure everyone knew the source for every story—because the source was telling the reader the story.  The story was not told linearly; instead, Pluto put names in front of each paragraph to signify who was talking, rarely narrating on his own.

Pluto immediately captured this reader’s attention by telling a story about one of the ABA’s most engaging figures: Marvin Barnes.  Barnes was a basket case; a crazy, uncoachable guy who played for the Spirits of St. Louis. Pluto tells a story about a flight Barnes was supposed to catch.  The flight departed at 8:00 p.m., and arrived at 7:59 p.m., due to a time zone shift.  ABA teams flew commercial and did not hold planes to wait for players.  At the game the next day, Barnes was nowhere to be found because he missed his flight.  When his coach called to ask where he was, he said he wasn’t “getting on no damn time machine.”

From there, Pluto went back to the modest beginnings of the league, when Dennis Murphy came up with the idea for a football league and, when that failed, decided to make a basketball league because, well, why not?  He then took the reader chronologically through the history of the league.  From Larry Brown through Coach Wilt to Dr. J and George Gervin.  Along the way, teams folded, players fought and owners quit.  But the league remained resilient and lasted long enough to force a deal that worked for four of the ABA’s teams, revolutionizing basketball along the way.

There was no better way to arrange the book and Pluto took a ton of information and successfully allowed it to flow in a way that was logical for the reader.  The main character of the book is the ABA itself.  There is no summary, as the story of the league involves varied stories carried about by varied players.  Each season had its own storyline, its own highs and lows shared by fans and players.  Yet, in the end, the book was defined by what each season had in common: committed, albeit often overmatched, ABA leaders trying to force a merger; self-marketing players that had personalities big enough to fill the league by themselves; and a bouncing red, white and blue ball that has become as legendary as the league itself.

Although the book was entertaining, it was longer than it had to be.  The chapters that focused on the owners and creators of the league were often dry.  Once Pluto returned to the players and coaches who made the league what it was, the story regained its pace.

Readers of “Loose Balls,” will find their views on the NBA change quickly.  Following personalities instead of players, getting fired up by an explosive dunk or watching your favorite team hit a three-point dagger late in the game are all elements of basketball that began in the ABA.  Readers will begin to recognize parts of the modern game that stem from the ABA.  No basketball fan should neglect a league with such an enormous impact on basketball’s present.  Every NBA fan, player, coach or staffer should read this book.

The American Basketball Association was, naturally, quintessentially American.  Entrepreneurial in spirit and unique in practice, the ABA brought out the best in American innovation and creativity, even if only by accidents of fate.  “Loose Balls,” strings this happy series of accidents together into a logical timeline, telling the story of a league that never should have been, by legendary players who otherwise might have been exiled to all but the deepest annals of history.



3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Andrew Olsen on February 23, 2011 at 12:39 pm



  2. […] oral history of the ABA written by Terry Pluto. Reviews I’d seen or heard of the book ranged from very positive to “this book is f–king awesome”, so even though I don’t normally read oral histories […]


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