When the ball was red, white and blue

The lackluster NBA Slam Dunk Contest had me mourning what once had been a fine art involving the best masters of the form.

While many present-day fans were chiding the sorry state of dunkology in the context of Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday, I was thinking about my forever champ — Dr. J — and David Thompson.

During the final season of the American Basketball Association, they dueled in the first-ever showcase dunking tournament in either pro circuit.

Before the weekend began, University of Michigan literature professor Yago Colas, who teaches a “Cultures of Basketball” course, dusted off an old post about the ABA, lamenting its seemingly forgotten legacy.

But for any of us who dribbled a red, white and blue basketball, listened at night to Kentucky Colonels games on WHAS or wondered how big Darnell Hillman’s Afro could possibly get, these are memories that remain resplendent with the pure love for a thing that was never bound to last. As Colas observes:

The best thing about the old ABA, for me is its resistance to narrative.

Loose BallsThisĀ  had me digging out my old copy of “Loose Balls,” Terry Pluto’s rollicking oral history of the ABA, which Colas describes as:

. . . just a garbage can full of awesome quotations from participants, arranged in chronological order, and prefaced with a dizzying table that chronicles the emergence and disappearance of franchises like so many bubbles on the surface of a pot of boiling water.

What a romp this was to thumb through, randomly, as Terrence Ross finally was crowned the latest dunking champion. The first sentences of Pluto’s prologue are about what began as a novelty act in 1976:

The first Slam Dunk Contest was like most things in the ABA — an act of desperation designed to get a few more fans to walk through the doors. Sports Illustrated called it “the best halftime invention since the rest room.” There were five contestants — Julius Erving, Larry Kenon, Artis Gilmore, David Thompson and George Gervin. Erving asked coach Kevin Loughery if it might not be a bad idea for a white player to be in the dunking contest; Loughery agreed, but neither Loughery nor Erving could come up with a white guy whose dunking was worthy of display. There was a sellout of 15,021 on hand at McNichols Arena to see a pregame show of Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich, the dunkers, and, oh yes, the league’s All-Star Game.

Four hundred and thirty-seven pages later, you don’t want this to end. But the ABA did, not many months after the spectacle in Denver, the league’s aim all along being a merger with the NBA.

The ABA didn’t quite get that, as the NBA accepted only four franchises — the Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets.

Compared to our present-day corporatized world of big-time sports entertainment, the ABA seems even more archaic now, a far greater lost cause of the sheer joy of basketball exuberance and slung-from-the-hip promotions than it probably ever was.

Colas is a faithful keeper of the old ABA flame, and his passion for basketball and culture earned him a panelist’s gig at the South by Southwest festival last year. On The Classical, he is the subject of this Q & A with Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko fame.

Colas also keeps the ABA love flowing here, and directed my attention to a 1997 HBO documentary about the league, “Long Shots,” that’s available in six segments on You Tube. Don’t blink your eyes during the Rick Barry segment in Part 1 of the film, and especially his choice of neckwear. Part 4 starts with the arrival of Dr. J, and after all these years he’s still the best who ever dunked.

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