In the final days of the late, great, outrageous American Basketball Association, the Spirits of St. Louis had a starting frontline of Marvin Barnes, Caldwell Jones and Moses Malone.
The guards were Freddie Lewis and Don Chaney. And M.L. Carr and Ron Boone were ready to pop up from the bench.
This dysfunctional unit, so illustrious on paper, somehow went 35-49 and failed to make the 1975-76 playoffs.
Then the ABA folded, making the Spirits disappear like the league's red, white and blue ball. What a franchise. So many players passed through St. Louis, so few passed the ball. What characters. . . . Fly Williams, Maurice Lucas, Steve Jones, Gus Gerard, Don Adams, Mike Barr, Joe Caldwell, Goo Kennedy.
Young Bobby Costas called the play-by-play on KMOX. These free spirits made three coaches surrender: Bob MacKinnon, Rod Thorn and Joe Mullaney.
"Nobody passed the ball, no one helped out on defense," Steve Jones recalled in the book `Loose Balls,' Terry Pluto's delightful ABA retrospective. "Everyone wanted the rock and went one-on-one. They had no idea what it meant to play pro basketball."
The Spirits of St. Louis had an eccentric, often bizarre, two-season run (1974-76) at a near-empty Arena, going 67-101. The top moment came when Lewis hit a dramatic buzzer shot to eliminate Julius Erving and the defending-champion New York Nets in the first round of the 1975 playoffs.
Most of the highlights originated off the court. The Spirits were defined by Barnes, who drove around town in a Rolls-Royce, wore a $10,000 full-length mink coat, had 13 telephones in a six-room condo and sometimes bothered to make team flights.
We make this trip down the Oakland Avenue memory lane as an opening salute to the lone survivor, Moses Malone. With another National Basketball Association season opening this week, Malone is the only remaining ABA player astill active.
Malone, 38 and recovered from back surgery, is about to begin his 20th season of pro basketball. He was signed to a one-year deal during the offseason by the Philadelphia 76ers, who coveted some veteran brawn to support antenna-like rookie center Shawn Bradley.
Bradley was a toddler, barely 2, when Malone cleared a pro rebound for the first time. Malone, who has led the NBA in rebounding six times, has 15,940 career boards, No. 5 in NBA history.
His advice for Bradley?
"I told him to get an attitude. Get a mean attitude," Malone said.
Malone has returned to finish his career in Philly, where he spent four seasons and led the Sixers to the 1982-1983 NBA championship. Malone spent the last two seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, trying to regain his strength. Back problems limited him to 11 games last season.
"He's still, amazingly, every bit the rebounder that he ever was," 76ers general manager Jim Lynam said.
Malone, at 18, leaped from Petersburg (Va.) High School to the ABA in 1974, signing a four-year, $565,000 deal with the Utah Stars. He has played for eight teams, two in the ABA, six in the NBA.
Malone will retire as one of the great, and unappreciated, centers in NBA history. He's a three-time league MVP (1979, 1982, 1983) and the NBA's No. 4 career scorer, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes.
St. Louis was a brief, nondescript stop for Malone. He and three other players - Boone, Randy Denton and Steve Green - were sold to the Spirits by bankrupt Utah on Dec. 2, 1975.
Malone, recovering from a broken foot, appeared in 43 games, alternating with Gerard at power forward. He averaged 14.3 points and 9.5 rebounds in 27 minutesg.
The comedy-club Spirits closed up, the ABA disappeared, but Old Man Moses is still rolling, still rebounding.
"As a player, you can be older, but you got to have the kid in you," Malone said. "I still have my love for the game."
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