Commentary

The Book of Basketball

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from Bill Simmons' new book, "The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy," copyright 2009 by Bill Simmons. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books and Ballantine Books.

This excerpt is from a chapter called "The What Ifs?", in which I rank the 33 biggest NBA "What Ifs" of all time. This was the No. 3 "What If?"

What If the ABA had Landed Kareem?

When Lew Alcindor finished his UCLA career in the spring of 1969, his family assembled a team of agents and advisers and spent the next few months debating between the ABA and NBA. Both leagues needed him desperately: the NBA because he was the biggest star to enter the league since Oscar Robertson, the ABA because Big Lew would have legitimized their league, gotten them a TV contract, and forced a merger down the road. If anything, the ABA should have overpaid for Alcindor and hoped to recoup the money with ticket sales and TV money.

Now here's where it gets crazy. Without ever tipping his hand publicly, Alcindor decided privately that he wanted to play in the ABA. Milwaukee held his NBA rights, but Big Lew was more interested in the Nets; he grew up in New York, loved the idea of playing near family, found the city's Muslim population appealing and understood the value of a big market. Milwaukee did nothing for him. How do we know this? He confessed as much in his 1983 autobiography Giant Steps70 -- everything I just told you -- and fled Milwaukee as soon as a window opened after the '75 season. He wanted to play for the Nets. But he wasn't interested in spending the summer playing the leagues against each another, so Big Lew's team told the ABA and NBA the same thing: We will meet you once, we will listen to one offer, and that's that. Do not lowball us. Give us your best possible offer first. The jackasses running the ABA somehow came up with one of their only shrewd ideas: When we meet Alcindor, we'll give him a certified check for $1 million up front as part of whatever offer we make. Not only will that check prove that we're serious and we don't have financial troubles, but it will burn a hole in his pocket and he'll eventually say yes.

You have to admit, that's a great plan. Desperate, but great.

Okay, so the NBA goes first and makes an offer that Kareem would later call "extremely good" in Giant Steps. ABA commissioner George Mikan met Alcindor's people next. They talk numbers. They talk about sticking Lew in New York and maybe even flanking him with a few of his old UCLA teammates. Money gets discussed. Some figures are thrown around. For whatever reason, Mikan never gives Alcindor that check. It stays in his pocket! Either he freezes or he forgets. There's no in- between.71 On top of that, they lowball him with a s----- offer. So Alcindor's team leaves the meeting wondering why the ABA didn't totally step to the plate. Alcindor feels insulted and vows never to play in the ABA. The ABA owners flip out when they realize that Mikan never gave him the check. Milwaukee swoops in and signs Alcindor for a record $1.4 million. And Mikan gets canned within a year. As Kareem wrote later, "The Nets had the inside track and had blown it."

Let's say Mikan didn't mess up and Big Lew signed with the Nets. Maybe he steals New York thunder from the '70 Knicks. Maybe the Nets trade for Rick Barry one year later and become a superpower. Maybe the merger happens sooner than later, maybe the Nets become the team of the seventies, and maybe Lew/Kareem never ends up playing with Magic and the Lakers. Three things definitely don't happen: the Bucks don't win the '71 title, Oscar never ends up in Milwaukee, and we have NBA MVPs in '71, '72 and '74 not named Alcindor or Abdul-Jabbar. I mean, George Mikan could have gone on the Tonight Show, thrown on his goggles and sodomized Johnny Carson on live TV and not done more damage to the ABA than he did by not giving Alcindor that check. My head is spinning.


FOOTNOTES

70. I bought this book for $6 online; the highlight was reading it, gleaning all the information I needed, then starting a bonfire with it in my backyard. In the words of Marv Albert, "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is on fire!"

71. Looking back, it's the biggest NBA turnover ever other than Isiah's pass that the Legend picked off (1987) and Mail Fraud getting stripped right before Jordan's last shot (1998). It's too bad the ABA didn't have George McGinnis hold the check; he would have turned it right over.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.