Bob Netolicky Interview

Conducted by Brett Ballantini, Basketball News

Lemme tell you about Bob Netolicky. The guy’s a trip. He was sort of a last-minute call for my story, and he ended up not only giving me some great stuff from the old days, but hooking me up with Dick Tinkham, one of the original owners of the Indiana Pacers. The significance of that? Well, he insisted I call Tinkham because the story on ABA 2000 was about to break, and somehow Neto determined I was fit for the inside scoop. Of course, I called Dick, got a lot of inside stuff on the new league, broke the story, and a year later, for a brief moment or two, I was the Director of Communications for ABA 2000. But that’s a lot longer, and much more convoluted, story.

Bob Netolicky, Indiana Pacers player (1967-1976), with a brief stopover in Dallas and San Antonio (1972-74). ABA All-Time Top 30 player. An edited transcript of our conversation, April 27, 1999

Brett: As somebody whose career sort of overlapped the entirety of the ABA, what did you think of the ABA at the time, when you first started up with the Pacers?

Neto: Um…as compared to what?

Brett: Just your initial impressions of it, I guess it was your only professional experience, so…

Neto: Yeah, you get out of college, I didn’t know any difference between NBA and ABA, but as I found out pretty fast in the summers, playing with guys who were NBA players, there was very little difference. Our game was a little more wide open. I’d been to a lot of NBA games, and the one thing I noticed about the ABA was it moved a little faster, they gave us more…it was a different type of game back then. The NBA was just a post-up [league], a bunch of big, clumsy guys with a good center. Basically, that’s what it was. The teams that won the NBA were the ones that had the fast, quick forwards. [Teams] didn’t win until they had some fast players, until they started some guys who could move.

Brett: So over time, and as the ABA won more and more exhibitions against the NBA…

Neto: Yeah, after a couple years, there were a couple good teams in the ABA, but after about three or four years, the parity started to set in, and some players were jumping leagues. At the end, we had all the good players. Which is the truth.

Brett: But what you’re saying is that really, even within your first year or two you pretty much recognized there wasn’t much difference—the ABA could compete pretty much right off the bat.

Neto: I would say that maybe the top three or four teams could. The whole league—’course you’ve got to remember back then, there were only 10 teams in the ABA and 11 teams in the NBA. In 1966, there was what, eight teams in the NBA, or nine?

Brett: Yeah, eight or nine.

Neto: I mean, there were no teams. So the top four—there were some pretty weak teams in the NBA. You remember that Philadelphia team, back in the early ’70s, they had all those guys who got cut from the ABA and went over to the NBA to play for Philly. They were terrible. So there were some bad teams in the NBA, too, but your dominant NBA teams, like with Wilt and your Laker teams, were awful good. The New York Knicks, they were great.

Brett: When you look at the significant contributions the ABA made to pro basketball, what are the kinds of things that leap to mind?

Neto: I think the game was dying. There was no television. There were no TV ratings at all; it was terrible back then. Bowling was more popular than the NBA was. It was! The ABA opened the game up, made it more exciting, made it more of a spectator sport vs. just watching a bunch of guys just run around on the floor.

I’m a big auto racing fan, and the way I associate the ABA with the NBA when the ABA came in was like when the rear-engine car came in to Indy racing. It changed the sport. The sport was due to change, and the only way it could go forward was to change it and make it faster, and better, and quicker. And that’s what the rear-engine cars did for the speedway. They took the big, old roadsters, which were fun to watch, but they were slow, and they weren’t very maneuverable, and they weren’t quick, and they changed—they literally adapted and changed the sport, and that’s what the ABA did.

Brett: You look at the NBA today—of course, the NBA today, it’s kind of suffering a little bit.

Neto: Yeah, it’s going a little bit backwards… but when it was in its heyday with Bird and Magic and everything, it was the ABA with a brown ball. And everybody said it.

Brett: So this anticipates my next question, the main lasting impact the ABA has, even on today’s NBA? Van Vance is the one who told me, he was calling the Bulls an ABA team, because they didn’t play with a dominant center, and they were quick, defensive.

Neto: Right. They just played wide-open street ball. You know what street basketball is: it’s wide open, but what you do is you put some officials in there, put a few rules, you get supertalented players, and they take street ball to another level, which makes it entertaining. That’s the whole deal. You take the ABA, a lot of people don’t know this, but the merger would have happened if not for [New York Knicks owner] Ned Irish. It would have happened in ’71 or ’72. Right before the merger happened, there were a couple of teams, Seattle was one of them, where the owner [Sam Schulman] said basically if the merger wasn’t going to happen, they were going to jump to the ABA. They literally wanted to go to the ABA.

Had we had a television contract, it could have been a very good chance it could have gone the other way. That’s how goofy basketball was back then.

Brett: I bet. Jumping to today, then, if today’s basketball is getting away from the Bird-Magic influence and the ABA, with the brown ball…

Neto: Of course, Julius brought it before Bird and Magic, you know. Julius and David Thompson. Had Thompson not got hurt, I think he was probably as good as Michael. I don’t know if you ever saw him play, but Thompson scored 80 one night. I mean the guy was unbelievable. He was pretty close to Michael.

Brett: What kind of innovations would you like to see in today’s basketball?

Neto: They need to go back to the more purist form, to not let so much contact. They need to eliminate a lot of that mauling people, and get back to the pure part of the game, which is shooting and passing. Everybody kind of wants that. It’s a shame, because nobody shoots anymore. You’ve got guys who are playing on teams that can’t shoot free throws, who can’t pass, who can’t dribble—basically, they’re just big guys who grab balls, and in the old days, that wouldn’t cut it. You had to have—the teams that win in have the guys who can do everything, like Karl Malone or somebody like that. He’s big and strong, but Christ, he’s talented…

Brett: He’s got a touch…

Neto: He’s got a touch. You get guys out here who can’t shoot free throws; they can’t shoot jump shots. If they weren’t seven-foot monsters, they probably couldn’t play.

Brett: I think you’re exactly right. For a fan like me, you know, I really didn’t start to appreciate basketball until right about the time of the merger, I missed out on ever seeing any live ABA. I’m sure you’ve been talking to a few people. What’s the appeal of the ABA? Is it just nostalgia? What is the appeal of the ABA to fans today, whether they saw the ABA or knew of the ABA, or, like myself, sort of came in right after?

Neto: Anybody that’s ever there, you’ve got ‘em for life. And I’ll tell you another thing that the NBA should have done—the red, white and blue ball. It was the greatest thing. I mean, you could see it, you could shoot better. People loved it, especially in this country—the red, white and blue.

Brett: Well I’m definitely in your corner because I’m looking right up here in the office up at my worn out, red, white and blue, Artis Gilmore red, white and blue model ball.

Neto: Oh, is that right?

Brett: And I just recently found—I guess somebody finally got the idea to put ’em out again, ’cause I just finally got a new one. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been playing with another one. I had that one since I was about ten, and I’ve been looking my entire life to find another one, so I was just happy to get my hands on anything. (Netolicky laughs.) I’m sure you can identify with that.

Neto: Yeah. Have you looked at Arthur’s web page at all?

Brett: That’s how I first got the idea to…

Neto: You know, Al Hunter’s got those, you know, from when Roger Brown got sick. What happened is that the Pacers flew—we had about 19 people from the old championship teams come in and sign these balls. Hunter’s the guy selling them—matter fact, Arthur’s got information on them on the web page. But they’re really cool, signed by Donnie Freeman, guys like that, and he’s only selling them for, like, $70. They’re pretty neat.

Brett: I must have missed that. I will check that out.

Neto: Check it out on there.

Brett: Is there an address I could maybe send a copy of this article when it comes out to you, Bob?

Neto: Sure. Who do you write for?

Brett: It’s Basketball News. We operate out of Chicago; we cover college and pro hoops.

Neto: Oh, I’ve heard of that.

Brett: In fact, to be honest, in a sense the mother publication of our paper is Basketball Weekly, which obviously gave pretty fair-handed coverage to the ABA at the time.

Neto: Cool.

Brett: So it’s nice to talking to you from here now, and bringing it all back again.

Neto: It’s just a shame. The TV they have today is just unreal. It’s so great for everybody. Had they had that back then, a guy like Roger Brown would be as well-known a name as a guy like Julius Erving, because Roger was that good. He was so good it was beyond description. People will never know how good he really was.

Brett: That’s the interesting aspect of this, one of the things that fascinates me is that it is, in a sense, this lost league, where there’s only these hundreds of “sage” guys who can talk about it.

Neto: It’s like folklore, almost.

Brett: You’re exactly right, because I can listen to your stories and think, “Wow, Roger Brown,” but I haven’t seen tape. All I can say is I’ve read this and I’ve heard that about him.

Neto: And even tape doesn’t do him justice. Nobody could guard him. I mean, Michael Jordan, if Michael would have tried to guard him, he probably would have broken both his ankles. That’s what he would do. He was that good. He would trick you, just incredible. But anyway, yeah, let me give you an address. You can send it to [address].

Well, talk good about the ABA.

Brett: We’re going to have some fun with it.

Neto: You ought to call—I’ll tell you what you ought to do—you ought to call [original ABAer] Dick Tinkham. ’Cause if you want some real inside stuff… This guy’s a character. But he’s the one—he could tell you stories that nobody knows. And he’ll tell you, too.

This interview Copyright © Brett Ballantini and used with permission

Brett Ballantini may be reached at

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