Long Shots – The Life and Times of the American Basketball Association (1997)
Directed by Steven Stern & George Roy

Any documentary that demonstrates the unlikely connection between Bob Costas, Dr. J, and Pat Boone (?) has got my vote, and in case you're not aware, the connection is the ABA (American Basketball Association)—a renegade basketball league that not only had the best Afros, but changed the way pro basketball was played forever.

With its trademark red-white-and-blue basketball, reliance on 50s movie-house gimmickry to draw audiences, and flamboyant stars (25 years pre-Rodman), the ABA was the sort of professional sports organization that even non-sports fans could appreciate. I know I do, after seeing Long Shots.

Being a nearly total sports neophyte, I need some sort of hook to get me to see sports with the eye of a seasoned fan. Most often, all I really need is large Afros, dated fashions, and some type of celebrity connection and I'll watch it like it's "Growing Pains."

The great thing about Long Shots, for me, was that it put everything in context, really presenting a clear argument for the ABA's colorful place in basketball history. The video is a 55-minute history lesson featuring interviews from lots of the ABA's key figures, as well as some doomsayers (like NBA bigwig Red Auerbach, who seems to still hold a grudge against the ABA), alongside loads of great footage from ABA games and period news coverage.

As with most HBO sports documentaries, this one is right on the mark, tightly focussed, and highly entertaining, covering its subject thoroughly without going over the viewer's head. Sports fans who already know the ABA story probably won't find too much in the way of enlightenment, but should still enjoy the ride immensely.

The ABA was founded in 1967 as an alternative to the NBA, with the intention of providing greater entertainment value to the fans than its more strictly structured competitor. Teams like the Kentucky Colonels, Virginia Squires, Dallas Chaparrals (!), and Oakland Oaks offered a much looser game replete with "gimmicks" like the 3-point shot (apparently considered something of a joke before the ABA), which was essentially developed to compensate for the lack of quality front-line players. The league struggled for a few seasons before hitting its stride with the superstar appeal of players like ABA legend Julius Irving (Dr. J).

What really struck me was the independent spirit of the ABA, something I definitely can relate to even though my withered legs would never allow me to run, much less slam-dunk a basketball. In its early days, these teams would be playing to crowds of 12, losing money at every turn but playing on nonetheless. (Sound familiar, my musician friends?)

Given enough time to "catch on," people will always turn out for a good thing—the ABA proved that. So that's why I'm sinking my next paycheck into recording an album of showtune parodies—because I'm gonna be FAMOUS. That the league went from rag-tag to (shaky) riches within a few years is inspirational in ways that my doctors can never be! Like most of my pipe dreams, the ABA went from riches back to rag-tag in almost as little time, folding up in 1976, with its great teams (the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, Denver Nuggets) being subsumed into the NBA. But during its tenure, it shook up the basketball world enough that by the time it ended, the ABA had literally changed the way basketball was played, and viewed.

Fair-weather Bulls fans like myself can now understand why it's exciting to see those last minute three-pointers, or some crazy-ass dunk; why people still get off on it even though it's so common nowadays.

Before Dr. J and the ABA, these things really weren't in pro basketball, so in many ways basketball in the 90s offered a crystallization of the potentials of both the ABA and the original NBA. Now that I can dig (although I probably won't really watch 90s basketball until around 2029).

The video doesn't get too deep into the history of the ABA, but it doesn't appear to be one-dimensional. Interviews with ABA greats like Connie Hawkins, Rick Barry, George "The Iceman" Gervin, and Moses Malone show that there was more to the ABA's rosters than Dr. J. These guys all seem genuinely proud to have been a part of what was certainly a risky career proposition at the time, but which now is regarded as a legitimately important phase of pro hoops history.

Nearly everyone interviewed for the film takes on the same bemused glow when talking about the ABA, almost as though thinking about the ABA instantly brings on feelings of pride and sarcasm at the same time.

I wish there were more sports videos like this out there … I keep hearing about ESPN's Classic Sports cable channel, but we don't get that in the hospital, and I'd like to get into sports so I can live vicariously and not have to dream about the day when the angels will grant me a bone marrow transplant.

I'm not entirely certain why I can only enjoy sports when they're in "syndication"—I suppose I need some sort of ironic distance to appreciate anything. Oh well, it won't be long before He calls me home, I shouldn't worry about it.

Review by Dr. B.J.