Van Vance Interview

Conducted by Brett Ballantini, Basketball News

As everybody who comes in contact with Van Vance seems to say, he’s a terrific guy with a ton of great stories about the ABA. Although this is an edited transcript of our conversation, it should be easy to see that conducting an interview with Van is like trying to control a train that’s trying to jump the tracks—the smartest thing to do is to sit back and enjoy the ride!

Van Vance, Kentucky Colonels radio/TV broadcaster (1970-76).
An edited transcript of our conversation, April 20, 1999

Van: …the ABA, it’s back in a way, it’s real strong. There was a time when I was doing the University of Louisville college basketball in the late 1980's, it was about 10 or 11 years after the merger, and the 3-point play came into college basketball. Around 1987, they put it in the college game, and in a year or two I started to see guys pulling up on the fast break and taking 3-point shots and I said, “Déjà vu, I’m living my life all over again.”

Brett: Yes, you were.

Van: I could not believe it. They made fun of the ABA, they made fun of the basketball, the 3-point play, the clock, everything. Then to see it come back again.

Brett: What did you think of the ABA at the time? When you took the job, when you decided to take this on, what were your first impressions? Or what had your impressions been even before you did get the opportunity with the Colonels?

Van: I was aware of it, because WHAS covered sports, and I did a lot of sports news at WHAS, but when I went full-time sports in ‘70-’71, we landed the contract for the Colonels, so I more or less started full-time sports at WHAS with the ABA.

Before that, there was a lot of identity with Louie Dampier coming out of UK with Rupp’s Runts and the Final Four. The Colonels had a lot of UK players and kind of a connection with that, but when they signed Issel and Pratt in ‘70-71, that’s when I started. They brought the General Manager, Mike Storen, in from Indiana, where they had won the ABA Finals in 1970. Then they signed WHAS, which was a voice of the UK Wildcats. So we had both the Colonels and the Wildcats on 84 WHAS. That was a big step up.

By a year or two later, the ABA had signed Gilmore and Dr. J, George Gervin, Charlie Scott. The ABA had some pretty good guys going. They had a heck of a league coming. You could start to see the difference in the exhibition games when we would go play against the Knicks. Now, I’m not putting the Knicks down and the NBA down, because they had more good players and they still had the dominant big men. But they had the big guards who would turn their back, use their derriere, back you in, almost with their back to the basket. They would post you up, almost, then turn around and go up, shoot, and put it in. Now that was boring.

Brett: Now that sounds like déjà vu because I turn on a game today and I see the same thing!

Van: (Laughs) Well, the thing is, the ABA would come down on a fast break, wide open, the defenses couldn’t sag back in as much because you had guys stopping who could burn that three.

We were doing a game in North Carolina one night and the Colonels were down seven points. Wendell Ladner hit two straight three pointers, we were down by one point, and then we won the game, playing against Billy Cunningham and Joe Caldwell and players like that. They had a great team down there in Carolina. Larry Brown and Doug Moe were the two coaches and Carl Scheer was the general manager. They eventually went on to Denver.

But I didn’t consider the ABA to be a serious professional league in the sense of the NBA until Denver had a great franchise out there. They bring in a guy like Thompson out of North Carolina State—Denver had a hell of a team, Kentucky had a hell of a team, so did the Nets, so did Indiana. San Antonio also became a very strong franchise.

Now early on in the ABA, Virginia had a heck of a team. They had great talent and a good franchise with Al Bianchi, plus Julius Erving and George Gervin. At one time they had Gervin and Erving at the same time. It was funny, they also had a player named George Irvine, a guy who now works for the Indiana Pacers. So we called them Erving, Gervin and Irvine. George Irvine became George Ervin. Doing play-by-play, how in the heck else are you going to keep them straight? But there were some great players down in Virginia.

But anyhow, I’m not trying to put the NBA down. But the style of basketball of the ABA survived a little bit more than the style of the NBA at the time.

Brett: Specifically, what do you think the most significant contribution is that the ABA made to pro basketball?

Van: The 3-point play, and players who were less -- and a lot of this comes through Dr. J -- players who broke out of the system and were able to ad-lib or, like a jazz musician, OK?

The ABA had individualism that they allowed to prosper, and especially with people like Gervin and Erving and others, and yet they still had some structure and had some patterned offense. They allowed the individual, like a jazz musician, Lawrence Welk music as compared to Herbie Hancock or Dave Brubeck, somebody who takes off and plays it. They played it freestyle.

Have you ever heard Stevie Wonder when he went back to Motown and he just sat down and he played for the hometown folks? This wasn’t a recording session, it wasn’t timed...

The downside was that the ABA had a lot of weak spots, it had weak franchises. It broke my heart when San Diego folded, that was my favorite city to go to. You might never go back there. You’d go there, and you’d say, well, they’re finally going to get it together here. And then they’d be gone. You simply never went back.

Brett: Say good bye to the hotel room because you’re never going to be back there.

Van: That’s right. No more San Diego.

Brett: For me, I hear it described a little bit more and more as the “hidden” league. Not to disrespect the efforts you and other people made to popularize it and to broadcast it, but it is—when I look at the web site that Arthur’s put together, it’s exciting because the league wasn’t in your face. I was talking to Bob Costas and he made a comparison to somebody telling a story of seeing Joe DiMaggio play, where there’s only still photos and some tape, as opposed to what Mark McGwire did last year, the 70 home runs. With McGwire, there’s almost no interpretation because we saw it all, we saw every detail as it happened.

In a sense, some of the Colonels’ loss was my benefit, because I grew up in Chicago. My first basketball hero was Artis Gilmore. If there was still an ABA, he never would have come to Chicago. It’s funny that the guy that I first latched on to watching basketball and becoming a fan, now I look back and say, “Man, this ABA.”

Van: Of course, Big A, I covered him. The first time I ever saw Artis Gilmore, the ABA was trying to make it, so they had a doubleheader in Madison Square Garden. They had the Colonels playing somebody, and what had happened is that at the same time, they announced the signing of Artis Gilmore. So I flew into New York with the Colonels to do the game. Because of the Artis signing, they got a big limousine. They had a big luncheon, and they introduced Artis. I interviewed him in a limousine on the way over to the luncheon from the airport. And Artis, about that time, he had come out of Jacksonville. Do you remember Isaac Hayes, who was real popular in music at that time? “Shaft” or something was coming along about that time. Artis would say, “What is it, man.” You would not believe how much he grew up in the ABA in four years.

But Big A was on my team, and I covered him and I still say that even though Dr. J represents the ABA to most people, when Gilmore really was on and came to play, or when the game went in a certain direction, he still had more impact on a particular game or playoff series than anybody in the league.

Brett: Well, it’s worthy of pointing out that in the year in which McGinnis and Erving and Gilmore all were rookies, Gilmore was the rookie of the year.

Van: That’s right. And when they voted the All-Time Player of the ABA at the ABA reunion, I voted for Gilmore, not just because he was on my team, but he had the most impact. Go back and look at the Championship Series in 1975, when he’s scoring 30-something points and getting 20-something rebounds each game. Like Wilt Chamberlain. He blocked a hell of a lot of shots, you know. Also, I think he still has the NBA record for field goal percentage, 72%, doesn’t he?

Brett: I don’t think it’s that high, but I think he does still have the record.

Van: He didn’t miss many shots. He had that left hook. In 1975 the Colonels brought Hubie Brown in from Milwaukee to run the big man offense that Larry Costello had installed in Milwaukee. When Hubie came to Kentucky, Artis really became a heck of a force, especially in on the low post. He just didn’t miss that left-handed jump hook. That shot went in almost every time.

Brett: I remember the shot in a Bulls’ uniform -- I don’t remember it in a Colonels uniform.

Van: That was one of the reasons the Bulls were trying to keep Kentucky out of the NBA. Because Chicago had the NBA rights to Gilmore and they wanted him.

I got a good story about Artis. They had a lot of people jumping leagues back then, Daniels jumped to Seattle, of course Haywood jumped to Seattle after we signed him up in the ABA. We were playing a game one night and Artis didn’t show up, and we thought he jumped the league. We came to find out that he changed rooms in the hotel and he didn’t get a wakeup call. We were pretty upset, man. We thought he jumped leagues! A little bit later, here’s a sleepy-eyed Artis.

By the way, another thing about the ABA is I think there were some promotional values in the way the ABA ran their franchises. It was not always the best way to do business, but they had a lot more flair. They were saying, “Look at us, here we are.” They were not quite as staid.

Brett: Let’s cut to that. In the current era of Beanie Baby Nights and no-brainer promotions, the days of Bill Veeck and the ABA are long gone. What’s the main lasting impact you see the ABA having on today’s NBA? And is it for better or worse?

Van: The promotions maybe were a little more off-the-wall. And they had a little more entertainment value Wherever we went, being Kentucky, they had Kentucky Fried Chicken Night. Because there were KFC franchises all over the country, it was a nationwide franchise.

I’ll never forget, we were playing the Dallas Chaparrals in Moody Coliseum, and they were promoting a Kentucky Fried Chicken Night. I’m broadcasting the game on the radio -- I’m by myself -- and before the game they said, “Here, here’s a couple of boxes of fried chicken if you want to eat some after the game, or take some to the guys,” and I said fine. About halftime they came back and said, “We’re not going to have the crowd show up for this game that we thought. Do you want some more boxes of fried chicken?” By the end of the game, I had fried chicken boxes stacked around me about six feet tall (laughing). Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I looked and there were fried chicken boxes everywhere. They said, “You want some more?” and I said yeah, bring me some more.

So wherever I went, I got tired of eating fried chicken, because they always had fried chicken night wherever we went with the Colonels.

There were some crazy promotions. Those Floridians ballgirls, they were really something. They would come and sit by the broadcasters, and it was hard to watch the game and not try to look at them once in awhile. You’d hear a body move, and there’d be a different one -- at least you wanted to check to see if this one looked better than the last (laughing). And you’re trying not to be overt, you know? What’d they say on the HBO Special, the married players never would sit on the end of the bench because they were afraid their wives would see the Floridians ballgirls sitting next to them?

Unfortunately, some of the ABA franchises that did those off-the-wall promotions, they were fly-by-night operations. An ABA owner would be an admitted multi-millionaire in carpet or something. After losing a lot of ballgames, spending a lot of money, and nobody showing up, it wouldn’t take long, he’d just go on to something else.

Brett: Again, I’m a guy who never got the opportunity to see the ABA live, never even got to read coverage of it at the time. But it might be worthy of interjecting that the publication I’m writing for here, Basketball News, just bought Basketball Weekly. In looking back into the archives, I realize that among the many media outlets that scoffed at the ABA, Basketball Weekly gave some pretty fair coverage, almost evenhanded coverage between the ABA and the NBA. So it’s sort of interesting that I’m talking to you here and now.

Van: Yes. Larry Donald used to be very present. He was there a lot, and I interviewed him a lot on programs, in fact I think maybe I still have them. They did cover the ABA. But no, the league didn’t get much publicity in many cities. The best example of that is, you would go to New York, and they would give the sports scores. They’d say, “Well, the Knicks in the Garden last night, crowd, packed house, this and that, and so and so, and also in the NBA…oh, by the way, the Nets lost, or the Nets played.” They just kind of gave it quickly, if they gave it at all. You didn’t hear much in New York about the ABA.

Brett: For somebody like me, though, what do you think the appeal the ABA has for today’s fan? Is it just an issue of nostalgia, or is there something to it, that the ABA has a hold on some people?

Van: I think it’s left a legacy. A combination of nostalgia and impact upon the game. If you watch some ABA footage, I think most colorful player to ever play the game was Dr. J. Especially from the time he left his feet till he completed whatever play he was in the process of making, he was spectacular. I still think he was the most exciting, spectacular player to play the game.

I recently heard Larry Brown say that Jordan is the best player to ever play the game. At that point I said, “If anybody knows, he does.” But, you know, people want to promote the game in this day and time. I respect Larry’s opinion as a basketball expert. But I think that the Gervins and the Moses Malones and Dr. J's, because of their scoring and their mobility, they have to be up there. Of course, you have Kareem and you have Wilt to discuss also. I think Wilt’s the most dominant player to ever play the game. I think he’s being slighted now in the Jordan era and all of that. But he wasn’t as exciting to watch. Bill Russell wasn’t exciting either.

Jordan is a personification in the 90’s of what Erving and Gervin were in the 1970's. Also, to a certain degree, George McGinnis and Billy Knight -- there’s a guy you probably never saw play, you talk about a player! These guys were mobile, they were guys who could play big, who could play forward or guard, or could play against big guys. Speaking of which, I can’t forget to mention Rick Barry. He had a lot of promotional effect upon the ABA even though he went back to the NBA. These guys might not have been low post men, but they could totally win the games.

The thing that amazes me about Jordan was, look at the center position for the Bulls. They didn’t have a great center. In general, the ABA was the same. At first, the ABA was a league that had great guards, great running, shooting, wide-open basketball. They did not have the high priced, big time centers. Later, they got some of those players, like Artis, but the league showed you could win without having Wilt Chamberlain or the dominant big center. Eventually I realized that Jordan and the Bulls were winning the NBA without Hakeem or Shaq, or a dominant big man. And that’s ABA-style basketball. I think the Bulls were a continuation of the ABA game.

Brett: You know, I like to hear that. To see the Bulls strike a blow against the Shaqs and the Hakeems and say, “You can do this without just dumping the ball in the low post,” that’s refreshing. I’m afraid we’re maybe going to return back to big man dominance for a stretch of time. Talking about today’s ball, in your mind, what is the state of professional basketball today?

Van: With the Bulls, it was in great condition. But with the strike and everything else, and the free agency, I don’t know where it is. It’s like parachutists jumping out of the sky, the players are all still floating down to earth, and you don’t know where they’re going to land, what team they’re going to be on. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good basketball and a lot of good players, but the game is in an unsettled situation because of the constant change of personnel, and because of losing a high-profile player like Jordan and the Bulls empire.

So we’re going through a readjustment period in pro basketball, and I’m not sure where it is. I watched it and studied it closely up until about a month ago, when I retired, so now I’m beginning to lose touch, but I really tried to stay on top of it pretty much.

It’s amazing to me how well they run and shoot the ball. In the ABA, we had good 3-point shooters, Louie Dampier, Darrel Carrier, Biller Keller. But these modern youngsters amaze me now. They've grown up shooting the three from the time they’re in grade school, and through high school. They are so adept they are at hitting that shot. It’s almost like hitting a free throw.

It’s not necessarily just a specialty skill anymore.

With the Colonels, we had a siren, they blew a big siren when they made a three, and they gave away a tank of gasoline, Marathon gasoline, to the player. Then the player could use it, or assign it to anybody.

Brett: How about that!

Van: Yeah, they had a siren go off. And in the ABA, if you took a three, the referee held up one hand, and if you made it, he put up both hands in the air. That was the referee’s signal that it was a legitimate 3-point play, and the NBA and NCAA adopted that.

Brett: What innovations would you like to see applied in the NBA, and does it take a second league, like the ABA, to more easily provide the innovations?

Van: I don’t see the need for a lot of innovation. I generally like the basketball in the NBA. But, I do like the more agile-type players like Gervin and Erving, and the more agile game, rather than the muscle. I hate to see so much muscle getting into basketball.

This interview Copyright © Brett Ballantini and used with permission

Brett Ballantini may be reached at

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